Today I begin a long term series called “Evangelical Culture Myths.” I invite you to submit various sorts of cultural myths that we evangelicals tell. Aside from the one I’m covering today, another obvious one (if you read this blog regularly) could be: “The earth will be destroyed eventually so who cares about being ‘green.'” I’d love to cover some myths that you are interested in: either theological or practical in nature. Send them to me via email, FB, or Twitter (to tweet ideas, use this #EvangelicalMyths and “@kurtwillems”)!
Tongues. The greatest of all gifts to be known for – especially if you’re a junior high boy. Like tying a knot in a cherry stem, this gift means you must be good at, well, ummm…
Sorry, wrong topic. Well, sort of.
A guy known for smooth kissing skills walks around campus proud. Chest out. Shirt one-size-too-small to give the appearance of bulging biceps. And of course, the cute girl that every 13 year old boy dreams of, on his arm as they walk together from the lockers to Geometry class. This guy’s rep as a good kisser is the envy of the other less-developed 12 to 14 year olds. The gift of tongues, in this case, is the greatest of gifts. It’s the thing that makes you too cool for school.
The same sort of thing went down in Corinth during the days of Paul. Tongues meant that you had a rep. Just like an early pubescent boy in the eighth grade, to possess the gift of tongues determined you were the “big (wo)man on campus.” Perhaps the word “popular” might even fit. The elite. The spiritual guru. The better than. The angelical language poet.
Paul apparently was the best at this speaking in tongues thing. He wrote: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Cor. 14.18). So anyone claiming to be a tongue-slingin’-pro better recognize that big Paul can spit him some angel language better than the rest.
But Paul’s concern differed from the Corinthians. They thought that speaking in tongues is the best measure of transcendent connection… but then Paul one-ups them. Apparently prophecy is best. Both gifts must not lead to adolescent-like pride, but rather, to build up others around them. Pride was the core issue at stake and the call of Christ is to forsake our pride for the good of others.
So tongues – What is it?
#1 For many of us evangelicals who grew up in the church, but not one that emphasized the so-called “charismatic” gifts, have a cloud of mystery surrounding this topic. We non-Pentecostal evangelicals have a common problem – we don’t really know what “speaking in tongues” actually is or if it ever actually happens. Consider the following definition:
‘Tongues’ refers to the gift of speech which, through making sounds, and using apparent or even actual languages, somehow bypasses the speaker’s conscious mind. Such speech is experienced as a stream of praise in which, though the speaker may not be able to articulate what precisely is being said, a sense of love for God, of adoration and gratitude, wells up and overflows. It is like a private language of love.
#2 We also have a common assumption – “speaking in tongues” is only valid if it is interpreted (and yes, a few would add that all tongues come from the devil, as the title suggests). I wish that I could count the number of times I’ve heard this evangelical culture myth – even believing it as a teenager. This is based on the following verses found in 1 Corinthians 14:
5,b The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified…. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church…
The problem with this assumption is that it takes a couple of the statements that Paul makes in a much broader argument and creates a rule. No such rule actually exists. Think about it. Paul has been talking about unity in the church and hospitality in the gathered worshiping community. The whole point of why “tongues” must be interpreted is because, as Richard Hays says, “…love (chapter 13) requires the gifts be used to build up the community (14.12, 26)… intelligible speech is necessary in the assembly for the common good; unintelligible tongues must be either interpreted or reserved for private prayer.”
So, it’s not that “speaking in tongues” is only valid if the interpretation is given, but that “tongues” is only useful in the context of community if interpreted. If a tongue doesn’t build up others, it’s better kept for the primary function of private worship. To speak in “tongues” (in the context of worship) and then give an interpretation, becomes at that point, the functional equivalent to prophecy.
At this point, we can adequately say that this myth has been exposed. But my hope is to move beyond the culture myth and into building an understanding of this mysterious charismatic gift. To do this, I’ll list some key points.
The gift of tongues…
- Is an unintelligible love language mysteriously given to some Christians by the Spirit (v. 2)
- Functions as form of prayer that opens the individual up to experience intimacy with God (v. 4)
- Is something Paul would be glad to have every Christ-follower experience (v. 5)
- Can play a role in corporate worship with certain guidelines (vv. 26-28)
- Can point unbelievers to God (v. 22)
- Must not be prohibited (v. 39)
- Will cease only when “the perfect” Christ returns to consummate the reign of God on the earth (13.8-12)
Finally, I want to come back to where we started. Two people: the junior high boy with a rep or the person who gets nearly elevated as the fourth person of the Triune Godhead – both whose gifts for tongues relinquishes pride. Such people would do well to heed Michael Green’s advice: “…the gift of tongues, like other gifts, is not seen by Paul as a badge of spiritual maturity…Millions of spiritually mature Christians have never spoken in tongues, and millions who have are not spiritually mature.”
Tongues is real. Tongues is available to those for whom the Spirit decides. Tongues builds a person up. Tongues is not the greatest – for as Paul reminds us a chapter earlier – “the greatest of these is love.”
 I realize that all of the gifts of the Spirit listed are in fact “charismata” but I use the language of “charismatic” in the popular sense, as a designation of the oft called “power gifts” (i.e tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles, words of knowledge, etc.).
 I do not see in this passage a “timeless” law for how tongues must be used in church, but rather Paul contextualizes the gift for the situation of the Corinthians. This sort of contextualization gives us a paradigm for reflecting on how gifts could function in local churches in our own setting.