Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Gift of Tongues: Deceased or Alive?

In recent weeks I’ve been approached by two people asking me about the gift of tongues. One was from a Charismatic background, the other from a Baptist perspective. Both were asking, in effect, why Baptists do not believe that the gift of tongues is a viable gift for the church today.

The short answer is that most Baptists (not all) are cessationists. Cessationism is the belief that the “miraculous” sign-gifts mentioned in the New Testament (healings, miracles, and tongues) ceased to exist after the apostolic age. In other words, these gifts ceased to exist by the end of the first century.

Both friends asked for evidence to support cessationism. What follows is my response. However, since most churches that believe these gifts remain valid emphasize tongues (more so than miracles and healings), my response largely focuses on the cessation of tongues.

To be clear, the issue here is whether these gifts are normative in the life of the church. The issue is not whether God can work miracles, heal the sick, and induce people to speak in tongues. He can clearly do so. The issue is whether God bestows these gifts to individuals to be practiced in the life of the church in the same way that he gives the gifts of teaching, prophecy, and so on.

Spiritual Gifts
Speaking of spiritual gifts, we should begin by noting that there are three lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament: Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11; and 1 Cor. 12:8-10; 28-30. The miraculous gifts of healing, miracles, and tongues are only found in 1 Cor. 12. We should also point out that in 1 Corinthians these gifts were the source of division and Paul urged the Christians in Corinth to pursue the other gifts above and beyond tongue-speaking. In fact, he urged them to pursue gifts that would edify and buildup the church (1 Cor. 14). With that in mind, and since these gifts do not appear in the other two lists, it may well be that such gifts were never intended to be a normal part of church life.

Biblical Evidence
Overall, the biblical support for the cessation of tongues is limited. But the same can be said concerning the biblical evidence in favor of tongue-speaking, at least in regards to how tongues are practiced in many churches today. Evidence for the continuation of tongues as it is practiced today can only be found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. All other references to tongues in the New Testament (Acts 2; 11; 19) refer to intelligible languages and or did not occur within a church worship service or a person’s private prayer life. The references in Acts occurred as either validation of the Gospel message or that the message had been received.

With regards to cessation of these gifts, the biblical evidence is based primarily on Hebrews 2:3-4, which teaches that the miraculous gifts were given during the age of the apostles as a means of confirming the authority and authenticity of the Gospel to unbelievers. Paul appears to support this view in 1 Cor. 14:22. There Paul says that tongues were meant as a sign for unbelievers.

Some cessationists, not all, also appeal to 1 Cor. 13:8-9 as demonstrating that the gifts of tongues ceased when the “perfect came”—which they take to mean the completion of the New Testament. The reasoning here, at least in part, is that the Word of God is perfect and does not need to be authenticated by miraculous signs. 

Evidence from Reason
Perhaps the strongest evidence for cessationism is the fact that there is no record of these gifts being practiced in the life of the church between the end of the apostolic age and the beginning of the 20th century. From the writing of 1 Corinthians to the Azusa Street revival of 1906, these gifts—so far as we can tell—in fact ceased to exist.

But since 1906 Charismatics and Pentecostals have claimed that such gifts—especially tongues—are normative for Christians. If this is true, we must ask why they were absent from the church for so long and during a time in which the Gospel spread virtually throughout the entire world. The long absence of these gifts coinciding with the remarkable spread of Christianity demonstrates that these gifts are not vital for the health and growth of the church.

Cessationists also note, correctly, that tongue-speaking is an emotional experience, that it is present in religions other than Christianity, and that it can therefore be the product of human emotions. In addition, the gift most emphasized among those who uphold the validity of the miraculous gifts is tongue-speaking, the gift which is most easily counterfeited or produced by human emotion. Healing and miracles are much easier to validate objectively—yet these gifts are not pursued to the same degree as tongue-speaking.

If these gifts have not ceased, why do most churches only emphasize tongue-speaking, the gift that is most easily counterfeited? Why are they not also routinely healing the sick and performing miracles? These are fair and important questions that, to my knowledge, have not been answered satisfactorily.

I consider myself a cessationist, but I affirm that God can heal, perform miracles, and use people to speak in tongues. However, I believe the evidence suggests that the miraculous gifts are not specific gifts (as are the gifts of service/teaching/prophecy and others) bestowed by God to individuals to use on a regular basis and are therefore not normative for the Christian experience today.

My theology professor (at a very Southern Baptist seminary) takes a mediating position. His position is “seek not…forbid not” based on 1 Cor. 14:12; 39. This position states that Christians should not seek the miraculous gifts, but instead should seek those gifts that edify the church. But nor should we forbid tongues if, in fact, the Spirit is moving.

I mostly agree with my professor, but I still maintain that the miraculous gifts are not valid every-day-gifts for believers today. In short, the biblical evidence combined with the conspicuous absence of these gifts from church history and the fact that they are easily counterfeited tip the scale in favor of the cessationist position.

That does not mean that I look with contempt upon my Charismatic/Pentecostal brothers and sisters. They are, for the most part, orthodox in their understanding of the Gospel and, as far as I can tell, emphasize the importance of exalting Christ as Savior, opposing Satan and sin, the study of God's Word, the eternal destiny of lost souls, and a love for Christ and others. We agree on the matters that matter the most, and for that I am thankful for the contributions made to God’s kingdom by Charismatics and Pentecostals during the last century.

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