Pentecostals and speaking in tongues

When I was in high school, I worked at Kroger as a bagger and cashier. I befriended a fellow believer who was a Pentecostal. I had never met a Pentecostal before. In general, Pentecostals believe that Christians receive (or are baptized by) the Holy Spirit separately from justification, rebirth, and (of course) water baptism. The sign of this baptism by the Spirit is speaking in tongues.

I volunteered to my friend that I had never spoken in tongues. He was surprised and disappointed. The next day at work, he handed me a booklet he wanted me to read. It was called The Bible Way to Receive the Holy Spirit—which I needed, obviously, because I had never spoken in tongues! It was written by the late Kenneth Hagin, who represented (I think) a cultic fringe of the Pentecostal movement.

The booklet gave step-by-step directions on how to (I guess) motivate God to baptize you in the Holy Spirit. It was very troubling. As I recall, it recommended getting on your knees, opening your mouth, and sort of loosening your larynx to prepare for the gift of tongues. Even at the time, I thought that if the Book of Acts were your template, why would you need to work so hard at it? Speaking in tongues seemed effortless there.

I imagined all these poor, confused Pentecostal Christians, feeling very anxious because they didn’t speak in tongues—and feeling as if they weren’t fully Christian until they did so.

If I could offer them any pastoral guidance today, I would point them to the scripture I preached on yesterday: 1 Corinthians 12:1-20. The very problem Paul deals with in chapters 12-14 is Corinthian believers who thought that they were more “spiritual” than their brothers and sisters in the church who didn’t have the gift of tongues.

I’m not judging the entire Pentecostal movement based on this one experience. I have enjoyed fellowship with other Pentecostals who didn’t have this extreme view of the gift of tongues—or even if they did, they weren’t all in-your-face about it.

The truth is, I need the witness of my Pentecostal brothers and sisters. I need to be reminded that God is a living, breathing reality in my life; that I ought to pray with the expectation that God will actually do something; that miracles still happen.

I don’t want to be part of the “frozen chosen.” Pentecostals can help thaw us out.

20 thoughts on “Pentecostals and speaking in tongues”

  1. Brent, I have attended services at several charismatic churches, and been to several “healing services,” and attended a couple of “Full Gospel Businessmen” luncheons. My conclusion was that it was “not real.” I don’t mean to say there were no Christians there–just that the “peculiarly charismatic” aspects of the services/meetings were not “genuine.” As in (I say with some trembling), not directed by the true “Spirit.” At my Baptist Church presently, it seems that some aspects of our worship and some of the pastor’s sermons are tending slightly in a charismatic direction. This worries me.

    Frankly, I think the reference to the “frozen chosen” (similar to some of my pastor’s characterizations) is unfortunate. I don’t see any indication in the New Testament that worship services were supposed to be “exciting” in some type of emotional ecstasy sense. I think the “rejoicing” we feel with a truly great hymn or choir special, or the increase in understanding from an erudite sermon, is more the measure of a “moving” worship service. Having attended other denominational and non-denominational worship services as well (including “union” services from different denominational missionaries when my parents were missionaries in South Korea), I did not find anything “lacking” in them, as compared with the charismatics, as far as spiritual “enthusiasm” in the “good” sense of the term is concerned. After all, the true mark of the Christian life is obedience, not “wild worship.”

    So, I submit we don’t need any of what I would characterize as charismatic “excesses” to “spice up” our worship of the Creator and Savior of the Beloved.

    1. Like you, I am uncomfortable with the excesses that I’ve experienced (but mostly read about) regarding Pentecostals. But I don’t share your concerns about worship “tending slightly in a charismatic direction.” I don’t see why that’s a bad thing.

      “Tending slightly” hardly sounds like chaos is reigning, right? Are you just saying that there’s more spontaneity in worship? So long as worship remains orderly, I don’t see a problem. Besides, what would you make of worship in the Corinthian church? Paul expected that glossolalia would be a normal part of worship (provided that there’s interpretation in a public setting). That would freak me out a little today, but isn’t that my problem? It’s certainly biblical.

      1. Well, what I had in mind specifically was, for example, the Pastor asking for a show of hands for people speaking in tongues, and leaving open the prospect that someone could speak in tongues if there was an interpreter (even though previously he had indicated he did not think that would be appropriate in our church). Also, our music director “dances around” as he leads the music.

        I do recognize 1 Corinthians 12 & 14 and I am not confident that I fully know how to deal with them. But, first, I note that the people who “brought back” tongues into worship are the very ones who have a false theology with respect to tongues. (Second blessing; being “baptized” with the Spirit; everyone should do it whereas Paul says only some people have that capacity as a “gift”; doing tongues without any interpreters.) So, why exactly am I supposed to give these same people credence when it comes to whether speaking in tongues is still a valid and extant gift?

        My own view corresponds somewhat to the teaching of “cessationism.” I get this from the opening verses of Hebrews 1 & 2, and particularly that the Spirit gave the Apostles signs and wonders to confirm that they did, indeed, speak on Jesus’ behalf in giving us the scriptures. Similarly, when Jesus sent out the 70 and also the 12 to preach on his behalf, he gave them corroborating miraculous “powers.” Whereas now we have the scriptures, so the need for such corroborative gifts has “ceased.” “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.” 1 Corinthians 14:22. Just previously in chapter 13, Paul says that tongues will “cease.” v.8 (KJV). Not all gifts have to be “valid” at all times for them to have, or have had, their purpose in building up the church. So, Paul is giving directions as to how to use the various gifts while they were still “in effect,” and meanwhile giving us the general principles for worship. Just as the OT gave us many pictures which were “fulfilled” in Christ, so we don’t do those things anymore. See Hebrews, and also Paul’s discussion as to circumcision, for example. “What God has cleansed, call thou not unclean,” Peter was told.

        This view is corroborated, in my view, by the history of the Church up until the Pentecostal movement arose. Why would there be some 1,800-year “lapse” of such a gift, only to be “reawakened,” if Paul’s teaching as to the Corinthian order of worship was normative for all of Church history? And, again, the way the Pentecostals “exercise” their “gift” and teach why it should be exercised is unbiblical. Therefore, any “drift” into the “continuing validity” of tongues, and Pentecostal “wild worship,” and “miracles” does, indeed, “trouble” me.

  2. A few thoughts… I can’t say whether or not the gift of tongues disappeared for 1,800 years. I simply don’t know. By all means, there are problems with Pentecostal theology. But it isn’t the case (anymore, if ever) that only Pentecostals speak in tongues. There are charismatic movements throughout the universal Church, both high and low. There are Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, etc., who claim to speak in tongues. They could all be wrong or deluded, but you must admit that the biblical evidence you cite is thin and speculative.

    Moreover, I think you miss the point of the admittedly hard-to-understand 1 Corinthians 14:22. It must be read in the context of Paul’s quote from Isaiah in v. 21. Uninterpreted tongues are a sign to unbelievers in the same way that the foreign languages spoken by Israel’s conquerors were a sign to unfaithful Israel: they are a warning, a sign of judgment, a sign of God’s displeasure. This kind of sign is not intended for the church, which isn’t under judgment. Believers don’t need or benefit from uninterpreted tongues.

    But tongues are hardly corroborative evidence to unbelievers for the truth of the gospel. On the contrary, an unbeliever stumbling into a church meeting would simply think that Christians were crazy, as Paul says in v. 23. The only way glossolalia benefits the church (as opposed to believers in private prayer) is if they are interpreted. Otherwise, Paul says, don’t do it. It’s harmful to Christians and non-Christians.

    1. Brent, I don’t want to go on too long on this, although I happen to consider it a pretty important issue. First, with respect to the “sign” aspect of tongues versus having the unbeliever think everyone was crazy. I don’t believe tongues refer to the “gibberish” which commonly is spoken by modern day tongues speakers (I spoke some such myself when I was in the charismatic realm). Rather, it is the ability to speak in languages one does not know, as shown at Pentecost. There, everyone was amazed that they were able to hear the gospel being preached in their own languages. Peter said that the prophecy of Joel was thereby being fulfilled. The reason a nonbeliever might think the worshipers were crazy is because he might not know the language the “tongues-speaker” was speaking in, which would therefore be just so much gibberish to him. The “interpreter” would be someone who understood the language being spoken, which is why he could interpret it. He would not be “unscrambling” gibberish.

      With respect to the widespread nature of tongues-speaking today, I would nonetheless note that this “phenomenon” is not mentioned in church history for 1800 years (to the extent we know of it—I took church history when I attended seminary for a short while) until the Pentecostal movement. I agree that there is now a widespread reach of “charismatica.” That does not necessarily make it legitimate. I think there are a variety of positions which have been taken in Church history by a large number of people which we now discount. Luther, for example, exposed the practice of indulgences, along with many other such practices, and may other such instances. It is actually pretty easy for people to get into false doctrines when they move beyond the confines of scripture. Again, those who subscribe to tongues-speaking IN FACT have bad theology supporting the practice and generally do not practice it biblically (as well as, just as you noted, a highly suspect “methodology” for how you come to practice such).

      Tongues speaking and other miraculous occurrences are certainly “exciting,” which is a major reason people are drawn into such things. I remember particularly a couple that I think I assisted in bringing into the Kingdom who thereafter attended the primary charismatic church I had gone to who told me, “Tom, it’s so exciting!” Excitement is not the measure of the Christian faith. Righteous living is.

      One last thought with respect to the “widespread” point. As you have frequently noted, homosexual marriages and ordinations are becoming increasingly common in our day, and across many denominational lines. You and I both agree that is totally unbiblical. So, increasing error is still error, no matter how many people may subscribe to it.

      1. Tom, unlike me, you’ve had some painful personal experience with the world of Pentecostalism. I haven’t. The nearest I’ve come is the experience I describe in my blog entry. I don’t feel like I have a dog in this hunt. I wonder if your experience isn’t coloring your judgment at least a little?

        I’m thinking of a Christian author I admire and respect who says in one of his books (on prayer) that he has prayed in tongues—not to boast, just matter-of-factly. I was surprised when I read that. He is very credible to me—not a wild-eyed Pentecostal, well aware of Paul’s admonitions about doing it in public worship, and not a crackpot at all. He couldn’t be more down-to-earth. And I know that there are plenty others just like him. I’m simply not willing to say in each and every case that they don’t have the gift of tongues.

        Why would I? Among other things—unlike gay marriage and selling indulgences—the gift of tongues is clearly in the Bible. Paul speaks of it as if it were a taken-for-granted fact. You’re the one who often holds my feet to the fire of plainly interpreting scripture. Here’s a case in which you seem to be going out of your way to avoid interpreting it plainly—by bringing in extra-biblical concepts like “cessationism.” Many of my fellow Methodists do this on the gay issue, arguing experience, reason, and tradition while mostly arguing around what scripture plainly says.

        My point is that your arguments against tongues are ad hominem (“We can’t trust these crazy Pentecostals!”) and ad hoc (here’s an argument crafted specifically to circumvent the plainest meaning of scripture).

        If you were reading the Bible for the first time, as some sort of neutral observer, would you discern any difference in Paul’s language about the gift of tongues versus the gift of teaching? Of course not. You would rightly conclude that some Corinthian believers were taking it too far, and Paul needed to reign them in, but you wouldn’t imagine that glossolalia—unlike the other gifts—was simply a gift for the first generation of believers.

        You say that tongues is only the speaking of actual foreign languages that the speaker does not himself know, citing Acts 2. I hear you. But in my experience of reading Bible scholars, I perceive that most of them believe that Paul is speaking of something else in 1 Corinthians: a private prayer language. Maybe it’s the “tongues of angels” from chapter 13 (seems likely to me) or unknown (by the speaker) foreign languages, or, yes, possibly unmediated, ecstatic utterances that make no sense except between the pray-er and God. But its intention is not, unlike Acts 2, primarily to bear witness to the outside world. It’s something we do in our prayer closets. If we do it outside of that—as in 1 Corinthians—we do it with interpretation or not at all.

      2. Brent, I appreciate that you think I am being “extra-biblical” to bring in “cessationism” as a means of interpreting what the Bible has to say about tongues. However, I still have to note that your, Jay’s, and my experiences with respect to tongues all suggest that these are bogus. I recognize that there are “sane” people who claim to speak in them. As I noted, I, too, thought that I spoke in tongues at one point in time, as being “educated” in that direction by charismatics. It looks like Jay also had a similar situation as to “gibberish.” Consequently, what I am dealing with is a situation where the people who talk about tongues almost always do so in terms which themselves are “extra-biblical.” It is, then, almost a question of whose “extra-biblical” analysis is more likely correct.

        I don’t know that I am actually being extra-biblical. I am attempting to interpret biblical texts which might suggest that certain things which were appropriate at certain times in history are not necessarily normative for other times. It is obvious that this is the case for a vast portion of OT practices. Consequently, the question is whether anything similar can be true for some things that happened in some NT churches. Aside from tongues, I don’t believe that Heidi (Christianity Today) is raising anybody from the dead, even though Jesus and Peter did so. I don’t believe anyone walks on water, even though Jesus did so. I don’t believe anyone “teleports” from one place to another–even though Philip the evangelist did so. There are any number of things that are recounted in the NT which are not normative today. So, really, the actual question is not one of being extra-biblical, but simply deciding if tongues is in the category of things which once happened for particular reasons pertinent to those times and not others.

        The best “motive” toward answering this question is simply to review the claims and practices of those who say this is still valid. We’ve discussed those. Far and away they are invalid or obviously “extra” (that is to say, “contra”) biblical. Therefore, I come to the biblical text with this “gloss.” Consequently, when I suggest “cessationism,” I am simply CONCLUDING that the biblical text supports such a proposition–not trying to force that on passages which are plainly to the contrary. Clearly Hebrews says God bore witness to the apostles’ message by signs and wonders. Clearly (it seems to me) Paul says that tongues will “cease.” So, it appears to be simply to be logical (as well as supported by Church history and current observations) to conclude that tongues is in the category of that which has “ceased.”

  3. I too was asked to speak in tongues by a Pentecostal friend of mine when I first became a believer….I attended their church, the now defunct Roswell Church of God that met at the end of Rucker Road…I remember praying for them, I wanted them….it seemed that everyone of them was doing it and I wanted it….I sat still, opened my mouth and nothing ever came out…I started humming, hoping it would be the flame at the end of a wick, still nothing….I started speaking in gibberish, just in hopes of something coming out….I never had an experience and later studied and wrote my Theology thesis paper in college on this belief. I have come to respect those that can and respect those that can’t. It is scary and almost self righteously advertised by those who can….To me, it has always seemed to be something they want people to covet and that, in and of itself, is a sin.

    1. Sad. It sounds like some of these modern-day Pentecostals are repeating the same mistakes that the Corinthians were making: exalting tongues above all other gifts.

  4. Tom,

    You write: “So, really, the actual question is not one of being extra-biblical, but simply deciding if tongues is in the category of things which once happened for particular reasons pertinent to those times and not others.”

    I agree. I’m all for looking at the context in which Paul’s words about tongues appear. In that context, I don’t see any difference between tongues and other gifts. Paul doesn’t list “walking on water” as a gift of the Spirit. As for Paul’s words in chapter 13, isn’t he speaking eschatologically? That tongues—which some Corinthians had so highly exalted above other gifts—was not, in fact, the most important gift. Because on the other side of resurrection (when we will know fully, even as we are fully known), tongues will no longer exist. Love will. So start working on loving your brothers and sisters more and focus less on speaking in tongues.

    My point about your ad hominem argument is this: that a certain group of people (Pentecostals) have badly misused or misunderstood the gift of tongues doesn’t mean, therefore, that the gift of tongues no longer exists. You agree with me that there are plenty of other people who claim to have tongues but who don’t behave in this destructive way. Why not judge the validity of the gift on their experience, rather than these Pentecostals?


    1. Okay, you are right that “walking on water” itself is not a “gift.” But “miracle working” is. Consequently, we can have the same discussion about miracle working as we do with tongues (or prophecy–in the sense of foretelling what is going to happen in the future). Once again, the very same people who most adamantly argue for tongues are the same ones who say there are still miracle workers and prophesy–i.e., primarily, charismatics (even if “cross-overs” into denominations from the Pentecostals). I don’t believe anyone is still doing any of those things in our day. I believe they all “ceased.”

      Why would anyone care? First, simply to be correct theologically–a good thing in itself. Second, because a lot of gullible people are taken in by such claims–send in money, and miracles will happen for you. Third, it gives Christianity a bad name when such outlandish assertions are made–just like when a heathen was to enter the church service and hear what to him was gibberish in the Corinthian church. It’s still gibberish to non-Christians today. Actually, it’s still gibberish to Christians today.

    2. One more thought, Brent, about your note of what an “ordinary reader” would conclude about tongues as being indicative of the right understanding on the subject. In Genesis 17:13, God says of circumcision: “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.” A Jewish reader would therefore conclude that believers still needed to be circumcised. But Paul, the same Paul who wrote the Corinthian letters, withstood such Jews to their face. Why? Because despite how the text looked “on its face,” that understanding was not correct. Why not? Because, evidently, “everlasting” only means, “as long as the OLD covenant is in effect, and now we are under a NEW covenant.” But this understanding, though obviously correct, is not one a casual reader would have upon just reading Genesis 17:13.

      Similarly with tongues, a casual reader very well might conclude that tongues were “normative” for church worship services. (Of course, almost NO churches use the “format” of worship services which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14, even charismatic churches.) But, in my estimation, the casual reader would be incorrect. Why? Because the “signs and wonders” portion of Church history has “passed away,” much as the Old Covenant has. (I could be wrong about that, of course, but I doubt that I am.)

      1. What do you consider “signs and wonders” and how do you choose? You don’t deny, I’m sure, that the Spirit still gives gifts, only that the really “spectacular” ones are no longer around? Paul’s point in Corinthians is that all gifts of the Spirit are “charismatic” gifts (if you know what I mean). By all means, some in the Corinthian church misunderstood this in the same way that many Pentecostals do.

        I’m not aware that miracles, prophecy, and healing don’t happen today. The fact that those guys on TBN are charlatans doesn’t change my belief.

      2. “Signs and wonders” in and of itself connotes something “peculiarly supernatural” as a “corroboration” of the authority of the speaker. I don’t consider that phrase, which is clearly biblical and is used in Hebrews 2 to that very effect, to be particularly vague or confusing. “This is the finger of God,” the Egyptian magicians said of Moses’ miracles.

        I agree that TBN is full of charlatans. You say you are “not aware” that any “sign gifts” are no longer in use. To take the converse of that, I might suggest you have seen nothing that proves they are, either, despite your many years in Christian ministry as a preacher. I haven’t either. Neither have my father (missionary to Korea), brother (associate pastor), another brother (missionary to Senegal), and another brother (Christian worker in Bangkok).

        Tongues is in a slightly different category from other “signs” gifts because anyone can speak gibberish, and many people believe that speaking such gibberish is from God because of what they have been taught. As I have said several times now, I fell in that category myself for many months. I’m not trying to challenge the bona fides of all tongues speakers as legitimate Christians. (I might well challenge some of the charlatans, including those who say tongues are a sign of baptism of the Spirit, should be practiced by everyone, etc.) But even true Christians can be mistaken as to various points of theology and practice, as of course you are aware as well. I think tongues is an example of this.

      3. I don’t agree that the author of Hebrews is referring to the same thing that Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians. As for miracles… If you mean by miracle, “The Holy Spirit intervenes to do something that would not be done apart from the Spirit’s work,” those miracles happen all the time. Yes, I’ve had parishioners who’ve experienced miraculous healings. Whether there is not also a “natural” explanation isn’t important to me. That’s a post-Enlightenment category that I don’t accept. The “natural” does not preclude the supernatural. I have personally experienced the healing power of intercessory prayer for me and problems I was having. Indeed, someone prayed for me once, and I sensed that they had the gift of healing.

        I don’t see why this is controversial. Paul worked miracles, but notice when his ship was sinking at the end of the Book of Acts, he didn’t say, “See you boys later. I’ll just walk to shore.” He swam like all the rest. We don’t summon spectacular miracles on command. Poor Eutychus (sp?) falls out the third-floor window and Paul (sort of) raises him from the dead, and it’s a miracle. Except that if some scientist were observing, he’d probably just say that the boy recovered on his own. Paul’s prayerful actions were just a coincidence.

        These coincidences happen all the time. I call them miracles.

      4. Brent, I just saw your other post about arguing. I think we both like to do that! Hopefully we succeed in being in the civil category.

        I hear what you say about miracles. I should have been more precise. When I said, “peculiarly supernatural,” I was actually meaning something that basically COULD NOT be cast off as just a natural coincidence. (Though, of course, anyone determined not to believe will disbelieve anything.” Thus, the Pharisees said that “they could not deny that a notable miracle had occurred.” Miracles to me mean overriding of natural laws. When someone is “healed,” I certainly agree that God’s hand is at work. For that matter, God’s hand is always at work. However, at times God’s hand is more “directly” at work than at other times, and frequently that is a result of prayer. I get that. I think such “interventions” have happened in my own life as well on some occasions. But I think God’s “directions” of things and even “interventions” do not qualify as “miracles” unless they are something that simply defy or overall natural laws. Such as raising someone from the dead. Or healing a man born blind. Or walking on water. John focuses on specific miracles that Jesus did as being signs to his disciples that he truly was the Messiah, the Son of God (beginning with turning the water into wine). These are the types of things that I am referencing by “signs and wonders,” and I do think this is what the author of Hebrews is referencing. I don’t think this type of “miracle” still happens today. The purpose for “signs and wonders” is no longer extant. Don’t hear me to say God does not “intervene.” Just, not the “miraculous” interventions.

        How does this relate to tongues? I agree that on the one hand tongues do not appear “miraculous.” However, I think that, if properly understood, they may well be. In my estimation, speaking in “tongues” means speaking in languages you don’t know. If that is what tongues mean, then they are certainly miraculous. The very fact that there can be an “interpreter” strongly suggests to me that this is what tongues means (as opposed to some “private prayer language”; which, if it is, it is very puzzling as to why someone would break into that in a church service in the first place).

        Supposing, however, there is some “private prayer language,” I am not sure I have a lot of angst about that; except that I believe this is still being touted, on the one hand, as a supernatural “gift,” yet simultaneously being something anyone can “get.” Paul clearly says not as to the later. “Do all speak in tongues?” My conclusion, judging from all my experience (which I frankly think is fairly normative, having been “inside,” as opposed to just “outside looking in”) is that tongues is a miraculous “sign” gift which was and is no more.

  5. Interesting blog, Brent. We’re studying 1 Corinthians 12 (last week and this coming week) in the Sunday School class I teach, and I agree with what you’ve posted here. I’ve read many books by writers, pastors, etc. who have spoken in tongues and I believe them. Their ministries are biblically based and bearing much spiritual fruit. I also know personally some very believable, faithful and humble people who have either spoken in tongues or experienced this first hand as a blessing from someone who prayed with and for them. But like you, I believe speaking in tongues is one spiritual gift of many, not given to everyone, and not to be interpreted as a sign of faithfulness or of being a legitimate Christian. The book you mentioned about how to be prepared to speak in tongues made me think of the many books that are written about how to pray, how to receive more of the Holy Spirit, etc. Some of them are great books, but others seem a little silly. I don’t believe God has discontinued any of the spiritual gifts. I think they are all still out there, for us to appreciate, embrace and enjoy, whether they are our particular gifts or not. Aren’t all the gifts a magnificent part of this great, varied, Spirit filled and surprising world that God created?

  6. Greetings Brent,

    Just found your website, so a bit late for this discussion. Yet, I wanted to express my appreciation for your level-headed responses. They were refreshing to read.

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