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A Lutheran Pastor Looks at "Tongues"
Luthern PreacherA Sermon by William H. Albach  

Editorial Note: William H. Albach is pastor of the Hope Lutheran Church in Greenacres, Washington. Scriptural quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.

"Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed." I Cor. 12:1.

The practice of so-called "unknown tongues" is not only on the increase in Christendom, but it has been moving up from the circles of the one-time unsophisticated Pentecostals into Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic and other circles. The twentieth-century movement is infiltrating everywhere and bringing with it confusion, doubt, strife and discord. Much of Christendom sits by, at a loss as to what to do about the movement, hoping with Gamaliel (Acts 5:38, 39) that it is not of God and that it will therefore fail. That, in my estimation, is not the solution. What is needed is a diligent effort to inform Christians on the matter so that they will be able to meet it with knowledge and understanding.

More than thirty years ago, while I was still a student in the seminary, I was spending a holiday in Chicago. Finding myself bored one evening, I went for a walk, looking for excitement. I found it less than two blocks from where I was staying—in a former Jewish synagogue being used by a group of Pentecostals. A service was in progress, and curiosity drew me in. The fairly large auditorium held a scattering of people. On the stage sat the clergyman. I took my position as an observer in the balcony. There was no order to the service. The preacher would preach or pray in a monotonous, high-pitched tone of voice. Someone would start singing a catchy gospel hymn and be joined by the rest of the congregation. There were clapping of hands and stamping of feet. Noisy periods were interspersed with long moments of absolute silence. I had sat through perhaps thirty minutes of this when, out of a period of silence, a woman rose and began to speak with unintelligible sounds. That was my introduction to the gift of tongues. Though I was only a very young man at the time, it was apparent to me that the entire service had been geared to overwhelm the emotions and that what I had witnessed was not a gift of the Spirit of God but emotional intoxication or hysteria.

John L. Sherrill, in his book, They Speak With Other Tongues, reports his investigation of the tongues movement. As a newspaper writer, he conducted a very thorough and seemingly unbiased investigation of the movement. He describes his first experience with a Pentecostal service, and, except for the fact that his experience took place in New York, I could have been persuaded that he had attended the same service that I had. Later experience with Pentecostals and other revivalistic groups, however, has satisfied me that they all use the same techniques, playing on the emotions until the emotionally weak or responsive give way to manifestations of emotional intoxication or hysteria. I do not mean to be disrespectful of Christian womanhood or of womanhood in general when I say that evidence of this is to be found also in the fact that women take a leading role in this movement and are more readily responsive to the technique than men. Women are simply more inclined to be emotional than are men.

The twentieth-century tongues movement had its start at the very beginning of the century when, in the year 1900, a young Methodist minister, Charles F. Parham, felt that there was something wrong with his spiritual life and set out to find a solution to his spiritual problem. He gathered together a commune of some forty "Bible students" — men, women and children — in an abandoned mansion in Topeka, Kansas. He knew the direction that their studies would have to take, and eventually the group came to the conclusion that they needed the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" manifested in the gift of tongues. On New Year's Eve, 1900, the group met together and prayed from dawn to dark for the gift of tongues, but in vain. Finally a young woman recalled that in the book of Acts, in two instances (Sherrill says "often"), the gift of tongues followed the laying on of hands. According to Sherrill, she asked Parham to lay his hands on her while praying for the gift, and while he did so she immediately began to speak in an unknown tongue.

In every instance that Sherrill reports in detail of people receiving the gift, there are details that are common to them all: (1) the person is dissatisfied with his spiritual life; (2) his quest for spiritual satisfaction leads him to the book of Acts; (3) he becomes convinced that the solution to his problem is the baptism of the Spirit manifested in the gift of tongues; (4) he prays for hours on end for the gift; (5) he speaks in ecstatic utterances unintelligible even to himself. Much more can be said about this, but let us simply note the common denominators in other terms: the gift seems more readily available to those who are spiritually disturbed, emotionally troubled, physically and emotionally exhausted, especially responsive to suggestion, auto-suggestion or self-hypnosis. Let us note also that invariably they themselves diagnose their own spiritual illness, prescribe what is needed for their cure, and storm the throne of God with prayer until He gives in and gives them what they insist they must have.

Does the Holy Spirit really give these people the ability to speak in unknown tongues? We cannot deny that the Spirit gave that gift to the disciples on the first Christian Pentecost, causing them to speak in tongues unknown to themselves but intelligible to the foreigners gathered in the city of Jerusalem. We cannot deny that it is possible for the Spirit to give that same gift today. But I have neither read nor heard of any convincing proof that the Spirit does today give the gift of tongues. Oh yes, I have heard and read many strange stories of people relating their own experiences, or of people relating second hand the experiences that others claimed to have had. John Sherri II, for example, relates the case of a man who received the gift, rushed out into the street and spoke in an unknown tongue to a stranger. The stranger responded in an unknown tongue—unknown to the man with the gift—and eventually asked the tongues-speaker how he could speak such perfect Polish if he himself could not understand it. And another story is told of a man who receives the gift, speaks to a girl in a park in the unknown tongue, and is informed that he is speaking archaic Arabic. But invariably the two or three witnesses, by whose testimony the truth of the stories might be established, are not available; the identity of the Polish man or the girl in the park are not made known. Sherrill's efforts to have taped tongues-speaking played back to language scholars revealed no known language on many hours of tape.

The Original Pentecost

The one incident of tongues-speaking in the Scriptures which is documented in detail is that of the disciples on the first Christian Pentecost. They testified of Jesus Christ our Savior in known languages so that foreign-language people in the city might know the wonderful works of God in Jesus for the world's salvation. Today the gift of tongues is not spoken of as a means of communicating the gospel to those who cannot understand our own language, but as a special gift of God to give the speaker spiritual and emotional assurance that he has received the gift of the Spirit—a purely subjective, emotional experience. The Pentecostals, at least in their early history, insisted that the gift of tongues, when used publicly, be matched with the gift of interpretation—that someone receive the special gift of being able to interpret that which was said in the unknown tongue. Sherrill notes that this happens in his investigations, but at the same time he notes that there is no relation between the amount of speaking that is done by the speaker and the amount of speaking done by the interpreter in the interpretation. He also notes, incidentally, that the interpretation is invariably couched in the words and phraseology of the King James Version of the Bible.

The tongues-speakers point out that the gift of tongues is often, frequently spoken of in the Bible, especially in the book of Acts. As far as the book of Acts is concerned, it is not mentioned often. In addition to the story of the first Christian Pentecost, it is specifically mentioned twice: (1) In the story of the conversion of Cornelius and his family at Caesarea, we are told that the gift of the Spirit had been poured out upon the household of Cornelius; and those who had come with Peter were amazed, for, according to Acts 10:46, " . . . they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God." (2) When Paul came to Ephesus, he found disciples who knew nothing of the Holy Spirit, having been baptized only in John's baptism. Paul told them of Jesus, and then we are told in Acts 19:5, 6: "On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied." We note in both of these passages the implication that the tongues spoken were not ecstatic utterances but, as on the first Christian Pentecost, were known languages; for we are told that those who spoke in the one instance glorified God, and in the other instance "prophesied."

The Corinthian Problem

For light on the tongues movement, we must turn to the most detailed statement in the Bible on the subject: 1 Corinthians 12, 13 and 14. This section is much quoted by the Pentecostals in support of the movement; yet, oddly enough, it was not written in support of the gift of tongues but, rather, to put the gift of tongues, as then employed, in the proper place and perspective. Paul was writing to a troubled congregation, answering a letter in which questions had been asked about some of their problems, among which was this on the gift of tongues. Quite apparently, then as today, the gift of tongues had become a very divisive element in the Corinthian church. Those who had it not only felt, but also gave indication that they thought themselves superior to those who did not have the gift. Then, as today, there was strife, dissension and apparent lovelessness in dealing with the problem—lovelessness on both sides, but especially disturbing as it was revealed by those who supposedly had received the Holy Spirit into their hearts and lives. It is in introducing this answer to a specific question on the subject that Paul writes, "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed." And now let us just touch the highlights of the section.

Who has received the Holy Spirit? Paul says, ". . . no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (12:3). In other words, everyone who believes on Jesus as Lord and Savior can be sure that he has been baptized with the Spirit. He does not need some special manifestation of the Spirit's presence in his life. This is one of the sad things of the Pentecostal movement. It not only promotes a Christian community divided into two classes (those who have the gift and those who do not), but it also raises doubts in the minds of many of those who do not have the gift as to whether they are truly Christian.

Paul then points out that there is a variety of the gifts of the Spirit, all given by the same Spirit (12:4-11) and given for the common good (12:7). He enumerates these gifts of the Spirit as (1) the utterance of wisdom, (2) the utterance of knowledge, (3) faith, (4) gifts of healing, (5) the working of miracles, (6) prophecy, (7) the ability to distinguish between spirits, (8) tongues and (9) the interpretation of tongues. Note that of the nine gifts, tongues and related interpretation are listed last and least of all. I cannot believe that this is an accidental listing on Paul's part, for later in the chapter (12:28-30) Paul gives the list in another way: ". . . God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?" In short, I sense that Paul tactfully tries to minimize the gift of tongues among all the gifts that the Spirit gives. He condemns, as it were, by the use of faint praise.

In the next section of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses his illustration of the church as the body of Christ, in which each member, with the particular gifts given by the Spirit, contributes to the well-being of the whole body. Usually treated out of context merely as a description of the members of the church working together in Christ, in context this reveals something of the problem that the Corinthians were experiencing and the problem experienced in modern congregations when the tongues movement has entered in. In summary of the section, Paul says, in effect, that it is the purpose of the eye to see, the ear to hear, the tongue to speak, etc. If all members of the body were to have the same function, then the body itself could not function. The eye cannot therefore despise the foot because it cannot see, nor dare the tongue lord it over the nose because it cannot speak. God wisely made the body, Paul says, "that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another" (12:25). Yet we find in the tongues movement a tendency on the part of the Pentecostal element to look down upon those who do not have the gift as incomplete Christians, to think themselves superior to all others and their gift the most important gift in the body of Christ. This attitude, perhaps more than anything else in the tongues movement, accounts for the emotional opposition to, and rejection of, the movement by those who do not have the gift. Paul does not have that high regard for the gift of tongues. After enumerating the gifts of the Spirit for the second time, with the gift of tongues at the end of the list, he concludes the chapter: "But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way" (12:31).

With that, Paul embarks on his wonderful chapter on love—love so apparently lacking in the situation in Corinth—one of the three greatest of God's gifts (faith, hope and love), and the greatest of the three. Here we must comment that we cannot but pray that all Christians might be disturbed about their spiritual condition and seek improvement of the same. Here we cannot help but comment that the cure can be known—and it is not the gift of tongues, but it is love. Here we cannot help but comment: let not the spiritually disturbed prescribe to God the gift of tongues as the cure, but seek from God the increase of love for God and for fellow man by the indwelling power of the Spirit of God.

Edifying the Church

It is in 1 Corinthians 14 that Paul makes his most telling statements on the subject of the gift of tongues. "Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy" (v. 1)—not that you may have the gift of tongues but that you may prophesy—that you may have the ability to teach, exhort, admonish, comfort and build up one another in your Christian faith and love. "For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, he who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless some one interprets, so that the church may be edified" (vs. 2-5). The Pentecostals here find encouragement for speaking in tongues but ignore the fact that Paul calls the gift of prophecy greater. I here find the apostle Paul speaking, as we say, with tongue in cheek, minimizing a practice in the Corinthian congregation that is not common to the Christian church but which has been taken over in Corinth from the mystery religions of the Hellenists.

What does the gift of tongues contribute to the kingdom of Christ? Those who have the gift will tell you how wonderful it makes them feel, how it has increased the dimensions of their spiritual life. It does give them evangelistic zeal—to propagate their Pentecostal form of religion. It does lead them to search the Scriptures—to filter the Scriptures through their bias to find what they can interpret to support their pursuit of the gift of tongues. Evangelistic zeal and love for Bible study, properly directed and employed, is something we could wish to see more of among all Christians. Then they would be less prone to be swept up by every passing error and religious fad such as the tongues movement.

What does speaking in tongues contribute to the church? Paul says: "Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning; but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church" (vs. 6-12). Further comment is hardly necessary except to note that Paul states that our goal in all that we do in the body of Christ, the church, should be directed toward building up the church—to win those who have not yet received the gospel, to build up the faith, knowledge, love and life of those who have been brought into the fellowship of the church through the power of the Spirit in the preaching of the gospel.

Last ThoughtsGrow Up!

The next section of 1 Corinthians 14 contains words much quoted by the Pentecostals. Paul says, "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all . . . " (v. 18). See, Paul speaks in tongues! But Paul does not say that he speaks in ecstatic utterances as do the Pentecostals. As an educated and well-traveled man, I have no doubt that Paul could say this literally, referring to known languages of the world in which he was conversant. But let us concede that he might have spoken in tongues in the Pentecostal sense. Then hear the words in the context in which they have been written: "Therefore, he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the 'Amen' to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (vs. 13-19).

The Pentecostals feel that they have attained spiritual maturity when they have gained the gift of tongues. This makes them superior to the spiritual babes who have not yet received the gift. How does Paul rate the gift with regard to spiritual maturity? He continues, "Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature" (v.20). That is a reprimand! He is telling the Corinthian tongues-speakers: You are being childish! Grow up! He had implied the same thing in 1 Corinthians 13:11:

    "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways."

Paul continues in explaining why the gift of tongues was given in the early church as on the first Christian Pentecost: "In the law it is written, 'By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to Me, says the Lord.' Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you" (14:21-25). The tongues-speakers use the prophecy of Isaiah 28:11 as a prophecy of tongues-speaking, but Paul does not quote the prophecy as a prophecy of speaking in tongues—which it is not. H is emphasis is on the thought that all the speaking in unintelligible words will convert no one: " ' . . .even then they will not listen to Me. . . ' "As originally recorded, the words are nothing but a pronouncement of judgment upon Israel. Israel would not listen to the prophets sent by God. He would bring foreign invaders and oppressors upon her. But not even these speakers of foreign languages would persuade Israel to listen to the precepts of God.

On the first Christian Pentecost, speaking in tongues unknown to the speakers did convert 3,000 to faith in the Lord Jesus. But the tongues spoken were known to the foreigners gathered in Jerusalem, and the converting power was not in the fact that the disciples spoke in tongues unknown to themselves, but in the fact that they proclaimed the wonderful work of God through the Lord Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world from sin and eternal damnation. Speaking in unintelligible gibberish can only antagonize the unbelieving and contributes nothing to the spiritual growth of the believer. Believers are benefitted by, and unbelievers are converted by, the gift of prophecy, which proclaims Jesus Christ as the world's only hope for salvation.

As practiced in Corinth, the gift of tongues was a confused and confusing mess as those who claimed the gift apparently vied with one another to show off the gift in public. Those who claimed the "lesser" gifts were also apparently involved in striving to show them off. And so Paul continues: "What then, brethren? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (vs. 26-33).

We noted earlier that women have taken a leading role in the tongues movement, that they are more easily swayed emotionally and are more readily responsive to the techniques of those who promote the gift of tongues. In every instance with which I am personally acquainted, it is the woman who has led her husband and/or household into the tongues movement and is the first to have received the gift. This was quite apparently true also in Corinth. It is in the context of the statement on tongues that Paul speaks the words that have long been used out of context to oppose woman suffrage in the church. In a less permissive society than ours, when women were little more than chattels and pawns of the male of the species, the women of Corinth apparently found in the gift of tongues an opportunity to assert themselves and to show that they could excel over the men—at least in things spiritual and religious. And Paul says in this context, "As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches" (vs. 33, 34).

Concluding Remarks

The concluding words of the chapter and section include these words: "So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order" (vs. 39, 40). When I read these words of Paul, " . . . do not forbid speaking in tongues . . ." I remember also the words of Gamaliel: " 'So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men [the Christians] and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!'" Acts 5:38, 39. I do not go along with the advice of Gamaliel to ignore the Christian movement. It was his responsibility, as a scholar and as a spiritual leader of the Jews, to help the Jews to avoid error and to uncover the truth. If he had done that in this case, he would no doubt have been led to accept the Lord Jesus as the Christ and his Savior. But the caution he gave to the Jews that they might find themselves opposing God Himself, coupled with Paul's words telling the Corinthians not to forbid speaking in tongues, led me to careful second thoughts about taking up opposition to the tongues movement.

I am satisfied in my own heart and mind that I must speak out on the subject and stand in opposition to it. I can understand Paul's advice in the Corinthian setting: immovable objection to, and prohibition of, speaking in tongues under the circumstances might only have aggravated the situation and hardened the tongues-speakers in their attitudes. To some extent I would heed the advice of Paul. Anyone who thinks he has the gift of tongues and takes Paul's advice to employ it only privately, is responsible only for himself and to himself and to God. Any who would use the supposed gift publicly and endeavor to propagate the practice among others, I would oppose and forbid to practice tongues-speaking among those over whom the Lord has given me spiritual responsibility—until it could be proven that the gift was truly a gift of God bestowed spontaneously upon the recipient by the Spirit of God.

I have yet to read or hear of a single instance that convinces me the gift is from God. I was even more convinced that it was not a gift of God in reading Aglow with the Spirit, by Dr. Robert Frost, one of the shining lights of the Pentecostal movement. He tells of a minister observing a woman who had come for the so-called "infilling" of the Spirit but who repeatedly expressed herself with only one little syllable that sounded like stammering. But the minister had a vision of a little stalk-like shoot which grew upward each time she uttered the syllable. Presently she found another syllable, and a branch appeared on the shoot. With each new syllable she found, there was another branch on the shoot, until the vision portrayed a beautiful, symmetrical tree. Anyone can perform the same thing by starting with a single syllable and adding other syllables until one is able to speak fluently and at great length—unintelligibly. Further, I am reminded of the old days when the South was filled with all kinds of tiny "holiness" groups known as Holy Rollers, Holy Weepers, Holy Laughers, Holy Clappers. Whatever the particular group considered an evidence of the baptism of the Spirit or of "getting religion," that was the manifestation which would take place in their revivals. Getting religion or the Spirit would cause the Holy Rollers to roll on the floor, Holy Weepers to weep, Holy Laughers to laugh, and Holy Clappers to clap. And where speaking in tongues is considered a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, a necessary evidence that one is a full Christian, there will be speaking in tongues.

But enough of this, though I could say much more. What I have said is the fruit of independent thinking, of reading authors who are supporters of the tongues movement, and of searching the Scriptures. I pray that I have not succeeded merely in alerting you to, and setting you against, speaking in tongues. I would much rather that we would all learn from those who have gone off at a tangent in this. So many of them got started because they became concerned about their spiritual apathy, indifference and coldness—and this is a concern that we should all share, for we are certainly not aglow with the Spirit; our lives do not radiate the love, the concern, the dedication to God and our fellow man to the extent that they should. Pentecostals mistakenly seek the solution to their problem in the gift of tongues. They pray for the gift of tongues for their personal assurance of salvation. We should pray that the assurance of salvation, which we possess solely and alone through our God-given faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, will so possess us through the power of the Spirit that it will bring forth in us all the wonderful fruits of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22, 23). Their concern is to propagandize and proselytize and infiltrate for and with their Pentecostal error. Our concern should be to propagandize and proselytize for Jesus Christ our divine Savior and to infiltrate the entire world with the precious gospel of salvation through the atoning blood of our Lord. Amen.