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Speaking in Tongues and the Southern Baptist Convention - Part 1

Many of you may have heard or read that the International Mission Board (known as the IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention recently voted that they no longer will appoint Southern Baptist missionaries who employ a "private prayer language," their way of referring to the practice of praying in tongues.

According to an article on the website of The Texas Baptist Newsjournal (http://www.baptiststandard.com/, posted on 12/2/05), “The Southern Baptist Convention agency already excludes people who speak in tongues in public worship from serving as missionaries. But the mission board's trustees voted Nov. 15 to amend its list of missionary qualifications to exclude those who use a ‘prayer language’ in private.”

The article goes on to say that “the restriction of ‘prayer language’ – a private version of the charismatic worship practice of tongues-speaking – was approved by a vote of 25-18. . . . Some trustees did not vote on the issue during their Huntsville, Ala., meeting, the agency reported.”

What concerned me most, as I read this report, was the apparent basis on which the decision was made. Aside from appealing to the “fact” (?) that the majority of Southern Baptists don’t believe praying in tongues is a valid exercise in the church today, the policy “interprets New Testament passages dealing with glossolalia – the Greek word for speaking in tongues – as talking about a spiritual gift enabling the bearer to speak a language that ‘generally is considered to be a legitimate language of some people group,’ and adds that a ‘prayer language as commonly expressed by those practitioners is not the same as the biblical use of glossolalia.’ It also notes that the Apostle Paul's ‘clear teaching is that prayer should be made with understanding.’”

Note well these two arguments, both of which are, in my opinion, profoundly unbiblical. First, Southern Baptists cannot permit its missionaries to pray in tongues because what the latter claim is the biblical gift is not. The biblical gift of tongues was always “a legitimate language of some people group,” so the policy declares. The alleged gift of tongues today is not a “legitimate” human language of “some people group” and thus should disqualify its practitioners from serving on the mission field.

Second, since all “prayer should be made with understanding,” missionaries who claim to pray in tongues are in violation of the biblical standard.

Note well. I am not here addressing the issue of whether or not the spiritual gift of tongues is valid for the church today. I have addressed this issue at length elsewhere (see my contribution to the book, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views [Zondervan]). What I want to address is whether the IMB has properly understood the NT portrayal of tongues. I contend that they have seriously misunderstood the gift and that the basis on which they then made their policy decision is fundamentally flawed.

I should also point out that there may well have been other grounds or arguments on which the IMB based their policy decision. If there are, I’m unaware of them. Here I will only address the two arguments cited in the above named article.

I’ll do this in two separate installments. Here I want to address the question: “Are New Testament tongues always a ‘legitimate [human] language of some people group’?” The answer, I contend, is NO. If I am wrong in this conclusion, I invite someone to point out to me the error of my interpretation of the biblical text.

Let us again understand the argument put forth by the IMB and other similar groups. Their reasoning is quite simple, yet flawed: (a) the gift of tongues in the NT was the Spirit-empowered ability to speak a human language not previously learned; (b) tongues speech today is not a human language; (c) therefore, tongues is no longer a gift bestowed upon the church by the Holy Spirit.

Many with whom I have spoken insist that they have witnessed undeniable instances, often on the mission field, in which a believer spoke in a genuine human language without any previous exposure to it or study of it. I am inclined to believe them. But the more important issue is whether the initial premise of the IMB is correct. That is to say, is it true that every instance of tongues in the NT was the speaking of a human language previously unlearned by the speaker?

Acts 2 is the only text in the NT where tongues-speech explicitly consists of foreign languages not previously known by the speaker. But there is no reason to think Acts 2, rather than, say, 1 Corinthians 14, is the standard by which all occurrences of tongues-speech must be judged. Other factors suggest that tongues could also be heavenly or angelic speech.

(1) To begin, if tongues-speech is always in a foreign language intended as a sign for unbelievers, why are the tongues in Acts 10 and Acts 19 spoken in the presence of only believers?

(2) Note also that Paul describes various "kinds” or “species” of tongues" (gene glosson) in 1 Corinthians 12:10. It is unlikely that he means a variety of different human languages, for who ever would have argued that all tongues were only one human language, such as Greek or Hebrew or German? His words suggest that there are differing categories of tongues-speech, perhaps human languages and heavenly languages.

(3) In 1 Corinthians 14:2, Paul asserts that whoever speaks in a tongue "does not speak to men, but to God." But if tongues are always human languages, Paul is mistaken, for "speaking to men" is precisely what a human language does!

(4) If tongues-speech is always a human language, how could Paul say that when one speaks “no one understands” (1 Cor. 14:2)? If tongues are human languages, many could potentially understand, as they did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11). This would especially be true in Corinth, a multi-lingual cosmopolitan port city that was frequented by people of numerous dialects.

(5) Moreover, if tongues-speech always is in a human language, then the gift of interpretation would be one for which no special work or enablement or manifestation of the Spirit would be required. Anyone who was multi-lingual, such as Paul, could interpret tongues-speech simply by virtue of his educational talent.

(6) Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul refers to "the tongues of men and of angels." While he may be using hyperbole, he just as likely may be referring to heavenly or angelic dialects for which the Holy Spirit gives utterance.

Gordon Fee cites evidence in certain ancient Jewish sources that the angels were believed to have their own heavenly languages or dialects and that by means of the Spirit one could speak them (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 630-31; see also Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, p. 223). In particular, we take note of the Testament of Job 48-50, where Job's three daughters put on heavenly sashes given to them as an inheritance from their father, by which they are transformed and enabled to praise God with hymns in angelic languages.

Some have questioned this account, however, pointing out that this section of the Testament may have been the work of a later Christian author. Yet, as Christopher Forbes points out, "what the Testament does provide . . . is clear evidence that the concept of angelic languages as a mode of praise to God was an acceptable one within certain circles. As such it is our nearest parallel to glossolalia” (Prophecy and Inspired Speech: In Early Christianity and Its Hellenistic Environment, pp. 185-86).

The fact that tongues are said to cease at the parousia (1 Cor. 13:8) leads Anthony Thiselton to conclude that it cannot be angelic speech, for why would a heavenly language terminate in the eschaton (see his First Corinthians, pp. 973, 1061-62)? But it would not be heavenly speech per se that ends, but heavenly speech on the part of “humans” designed to compensate “now” for the limitations endemic to our fallen, pre-consummate condition.

(7) Some say the reference in 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 to earthly, foreign languages proves that all tongues-speech is also human languages. But the point of the analogy is that tongues function LIKE foreign languages, NOT that tongues ARE foreign languages. Paul’s point is that the hearer cannot understand uninterpreted tongues any more than he can understand the one speaking a foreign language. If tongues were a foreign language, there would be no need for an analogy.

(8) Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14:18 that he "speaks in tongues more than you all" is evidence that tongues are not foreign languages. As Wayne Grudem notes, "If they were known foreign languages that foreigners could understand, as at Pentecost, why would Paul speak more than all the Corinthians in private, where no one would understand, rather than in church where foreign visitors could understand?” (Systematic Theology, 1072).

(9) Finally, if tongues-speech is always human language, Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14:23 (“If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?”) wouldn't necessarily hold true. Any unbeliever who knew the language being spoken would more likely conclude the person speaking was highly educated rather than "out of their mind.”

My conclusion, then, is this: Aside from the issue of whether or not this spiritual gift is still given by God to the church today, the NT itself provides no support for the idea that all expressions of it were necessarily human languages actually spoken by some people group.

To be continued . . .