Speaking in Tongues
The Experience and the Doctrine
I won't say I was an uneasy Pentecostal but, thinking back, I always did have certain questions about my experience of speaking in tongues.
The Pentecostal church of which I had become a member told me that we know tongues are the initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit because that is what the historical record in Acts proves. They told me that Paul's question in 1 Corinthians 12, “Do all speak in tongues,” with its implied answer of “no,” applied only to the gift of speaking in tongues for prayer in the assembly. To understand that tongues are the evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit, they said, we must study the pattern revealed in Acts by the instances where we actually see the Holy Spirit being poured out.
I accepted this argument, began seeking the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, and eventually, after six or seven months, was “filled,” that is, one evening praying alone in my room I found I could easily and naturally pray in tongues for as long as I liked. No particular emotion accompanied this discovery, and I didn't immediately feel any more “filled” than I had before I was able to speak in tongues, although later I frequently found that after speaking in tongues for long periods, I did feel deeply contented.
Frequently before this “baptism” or “filling,” I had been prayed for by others that I might receive the Holy Spirit, with tongues of course the expected sign. I was coached in all the usual ways: told to make nonsense sounds in order to loosen my tongue, told to not think about it but just to “speak forth” and the tongues would come out, had hands laid upon me and had my arms raised by the others standing around me and told to cry out to God to fill me. None of them worked, and frankly I always felt a little embarassed by these methods.
I think this was because in the back of my mind, I realized that these things did not follow the pattern revealed in Acts if, in lieu of specific teaching on the subject in the rest of the Bible, this book was to be our guide. In fact, in my study of Acts I had realized that no specific pattern is revealed, much less explicitly pointed to as an example anywhere for our instruction on tongues. Out of the four instances (in chapters 2, 8, 10, and 19) that are supposed to show us that tongues are the exclusive, necessary evidence of Holy Spirit baptism, one of them (Acts 8 – the Samaritans) does not even mention tongues, and one (Acts 19 – the Ephesians) mentions both tongues and prophecy as the “sign” or “evidence” (which are, by the way, terms never actually used by the Bible in this context) of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. It's not clear in that instance whether some of the group spoke in tongues and some of them prophesied, or whether every individual in the group did both. Additionally the people here seem to have been believers not in Jesus’ gospel but in John’s message of repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah.
If a clear pattern for baptism in the Holy Spirit is needed, two of the four passages used for this purpose by Pentecostal theology do not provide it.
Of the remaining two instances, one (Acts 2 – the initial outpouring on the disciples) is the very first time that anybody ever received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. So we are left with one instance (Acts 10 – the centurion and his family) that might be said to provide an example that corresponds to a present day context and that also lays down the precise pattern of speaking in tongues as the exclusive and necessary sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit. And this instance is even questionable as applicable to our situation since it is used in Acts not primarily as an example of the baptism in the Holy Spirit but as the first time the Gospel was extended to the Gentiles. Among the apostles it was still an open question whether Gentiles could be received into the faith on the same footing as the Jews. They needed an unmistakable example of the Gospel being extended to the Gentiles, and of their acceptance into the body of Christ after receiving the Gospel. Here there is no “seeking” of or asking for the Holy Spirit – it comes simultaneously with salvation.
But all of this was not at the forefront of my thoughts at that time. Mainly I was just glad to be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and I commenced to take part in the life of the Pentecostal church of which I now felt like a full member. It was only after that church had run itself into the ground and after I had spent another ten years in Pentecostalism church that I began to admit to myself that all was not well in my Pentecostal experience, and that the reason might possibly be Pentecostal doctrine. When I first left the Pentecostal/charismatic world for a mainline “non-Spirit-filled” church, I still believed that speaking in tongues was the evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The reason I left was because I was deathly tired of the strangeness, superficiality, and instability of the Pentecostal churches.
The thing that is in my opinion the most unscriptural and, not by coincidence, most responsible for the damaging looniness of Pentecostalism is the notion that tongues usher one into the spiritual realm, the realm one cannot enter until one bypasses the mind and speaks in tongues. This is what I refer to as “gnostic spirituality” and I think it is foolish as well as unscriptural. (The Gnostic “knowledge,” by the way, was never intellectual knowledge. It was a special spiritual knowledge obtained only through spiritual teachers who could impart hidden doctrines to you if you went through the instruction and ceremonial initiation they offered.)
Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14 that “he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself” is often used to support the idea that one purpose of speaking in tongues is to edify oneself, usually with the implication that this edification is deeper than that of ordinary prayer. But in context this statement is meant to stand in contrast to the main purpose for spiritual gifts: they are meant by God to edify others. Paul is not primarily discussing the nature and benefits of tongues but explaining why they should not be used in the church unless interpreted. It now seems obvious to me that the statement is meant to carry the implicit emphasis that one is edifying only oneself and neglecting to edify others.
Since he does not elaborate on it, we do not know why Paul mentions the edification of oneself here. He does not say that this edification is any different or any better than that obtained through prayer in one’s native langage. He does not even say that we should seek this kind of edification. For all we know, he could be turning some previous argument of the Corinthians against them: “You say that tongues edify oneself – very well, but you forget that their purpose is to edify the church!” To turn this verse into an entire doctrine of self-edification would require more explanation and a clearer indication of intent. I do not find that here. (In fact there is no explicit, positive admonition anywhere in the Bible that one should speak in tongues for any reason.)
In other words, the assertion that “Paul teaches us that tongues edify oneself” is misleading because in this passage the edification gained from tongues is not the subject of this passage. The confusion caused by their improper use is the subject, and Paul places it in the larger context of how the Spirit manifests himself in the assembly as well as in individuals.
The belief that the tongues-speaker is edifying himself in a way that the non-tongues speaker cannot has created a sort of two-tier, gnostic Christianity in the minds of Pentecostal devotees: the lower, non-Spirit filled Christian and the higher, Spirit-filled Christian who alone “moves in the Spirit” and by the practice of tongues is more edified and able to be “more intimate with God.” The Bible totally fails to support such a picture, in my opinion, and in fact Paul works hard to head off the development of such a state in the church. The things the Holy Spirit gives are meant to edify (build up) the body of Christ, not to create divisions in it.