Speaking in Tongues by Ryan Keating
I speak in tongues. There are many contexts where I have been reluctant to admit that. At times I didn’t have a very clear way of incorporating it into my broader understanding of theology. I have also not wanted to be associated with some of what I consider to be silliness that is associated with speaking in tongues or that seems to go along with some of the other teachings of people in my theological camp on this issue. And the people I otherwise associate with on theological issues typically aren’t the kind who speak in tongues. So it has been easier just to be quiet about it most of the time. But that inner rift has needed to be closed as I find ways to evaluate my worship practices and express what I believe about issues like this one. And speaking in tongues deserves robust theological reflection. I don’t intend in this short article to develop a comprehensive theology, but I do want to offer an outline of a view of speaking in tongues, particularly drawing on the way my own theological development has contributed to a way of thinking about it. So, this will be a personal description of my own view that has emerged over the years, and which I hope will be helpful to others.
I was raised in a church that had a traditional pentecostal theology about baptism in the Spirit. That tradition taught that the baptism in the Spirit was a “second blessing,” an event after salvation during which a believer is supernaturally equipped with the power of the Spirit for more effective Christian living and ministry. I had been taught that the “initial evidence” of the baptism in the Spirit is speaking in tongues. And I started speaking in tongues as a child at a time when someone was praying for me to receive that gift in that context. This was my theological world for most of my childhood.
After high school I was headed toward full time ministry. I applied to a Christian college to study the Bible. During an awkward conversation with an admissions counselor, I discovered that the college had a policy forbidding speaking in tongues on campus. I hadn’t been aware that there were places like that, and I was only vaguely aware that there were theological systems that came to those kinds of conclusions. It was a shocking, but helpful revelation for me. With a somewhat refined criteria for what I was looking for, I decided to attend Biola University, which was more open on these questions, although I was still exposed to the conservative, non-charismatic evangelical world during my time there. My theological world was widening, and it was in this context that I learned to read and interpret the Bible in greater depth.
After several years of full time church ministry and two years of cross cultural ministry, I went to seminary at Yale Divinity School. There I was exposed to the diverse, and often generally more liberal, mainline Christian world. I benefitted from the perspectives of professors from Pentecostal, Mennonite, Anglican, Baptist, Roman Catholic and other backgrounds. I was growing in my ability to learn from the practices of others. I was growing from the experience of having to express my views, evaluate them, scrutinize them, defend them, and regularly adjust them.
For the past 12 years I have served in ministry in a Muslim majority country. Most of my time is spent training local believers for ministry, helping to lead a local church, and developing ministries with teams of other cross-cultural workers from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. My theology has developed and matured over these years and I think that my theology of speaking in tongues has also benefitted from these experiences. Serving among people from different cultural and theological backgrounds can melt away the kind of boundaries that might serve to divide. Secondary issues that seem so important in our own little denominational or church circles take their place as merely secondary issues as men and women seek to serve fruitfully together in a difficult context.
Along the way, I have had some seasons of awkwardly trying to fit my charismatic experience into my deepening view of theology. And there were seasons when I mostly avoided the question, preferring to focus on other issues. But it was always there, at least in the background. Throughout this time I kept the practice of speaking in tongues, and slowly began understanding it differently. I no longer hold the theological view that I had in my youth, and my understanding of the theology has also impacted my practice of speaking in tongues.
I’ll begin by setting some parameters for the kind of theology that I think we should pursue in this area based on conclusions I have arrived at along the way. I realize that any of these questions could be developed in more detail and they all deserve serious scrutiny.
1. First, we need a theology that takes seriously the divine and human dimensions of Bible, without compromising on its authority. If we don’t acknowledge the cultural and historical context of the authors and the original audiences of the New Testament, we are likely to miss the nuances of the arguments in the text and we will be tempted to make all of the experiences of the authors and original audience normative for us today. That kind of approach results in some strange interpretive acrobatics and systems of theology which are arbitrarily rigid on some points and dismissive on other points without having to wrestle with the intention being expressed in the text. I think this happens, for example, with a traditional pentecostal reading of Acts chapter 8, which is used to justify the teaching that the Baptism in the Spirit is a separate event from salvation. And it also happens in a conservative cessationist reading of 1 Corinthians 13 that tries to apply that passage in defense of the view that Paul was predicting the imminent end of the legitimacy of speaking in tongues as a gift of the Spirit.
2. I want to recognize the problem with taking experience as normative or authoritative. We can and should benefit from the experiences of others, and we should pay attention to our own experiences. But, just the fact that some group of people have a particular charismatic experience doesn’t vindicate their theology about that practice or absolve it of the burden to rationally explain it in the light of a broader Christian understanding. We might be misinterpreting our experience or we might be creating false expectations which encourage us to manufacture experiences based on our wrong theological conclusions. Of course all of us are rightly on a journey of growing in understanding and no Christian can expect to have, or claim to have, a perfect theology. Thankfully, I think we have good reason to believe that God is gracious to us in our immaturity. So, while I would no longer defend exactly the same theology that I did as a child, I think the practice of speaking in tongues is still legitimate, although for somewhat different reasons than I once thought.
3. I am convinced that no christian theology of spiritual gifts can include a practice which is outside of the person’s control. I don’t think that the New Testament’s collective teaching about the work of the Spirit allows us to legitimize experiences of getting caught up “in the Spirit” in a way which impairs our consciousness or overrides our will. The Spirit is at work shaping us toward Christlikeness, refining our characters, including our desires and capacities. He isn’t controlling us like puppets. So, we can’t blame God for our behavior in worship.
4. I accept the work of an ever growing group of New Testament scholars like Gordon Fee who defend the legitimacy of all of the gifts of the Spirit, and who reject the view that the “baptism in the Spirit” is a second event after salvation. In his thoroughly researched book, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, Fee examines the concept of spirit in Paul’s writing. He concludes that Paul is defending the importance of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, including the validity of the gifts of the Spirit, but that Paul wouldn’t affirm the traditional pentecostal view from my childhood. Rather, believers receive the Spirit upon placing faith in Christ. We have God’s presence with us in the form of the Spirit, even though we must still choose to acknowledge and participate in the work of the Spirit among us.
5. A related point here is that I don’t find any of the “cessationist” arguments successful. Cessationists argue that all of the gifts of the Spirit were valid for a time, but that some of them are no longer valid, either because their purpose was fulfilled or because God chose for some reason to make them temporary. There just is no good Biblical argument for dismissing the validity of the Spirit’s continuing work of equipping believers with gifts for the edifying of the body and the expansion of the gospel in the nations.
6. While this is related to a broader question about the nature of scripture, we should remember that there is no comprehensive list of spiritual gifts in the Bible. No two lists of the gifts of the Spirit in the New Testament are exactly alike. It is possible to discern principles from the lists, but we don’t have a comprehensive itemization of the possible expressions of the Spirit’s empowering in the church. In other words, there is no pressure to make all of the gifts mentioned in the Bible present in our churches. And there is no reason to think that there aren’t other ways not mentioned in the New Testament that God can use to accomplish his purposes in the church.
7. Paul’s description of speaking in tongues includes two applications of this gift. This is part of a traditional, pentecostal reading of Paul’s theology which I think is correct. The first application of speaking in tongues is the public expression, which is intended for everyone in the church meeting to hear. He tells the Corinthians (particularly in 1 Cor 12-14) that this kind of public speaking in tongues requires an interpreter. Paul’s instruction about this occurs in the context of a broader teaching about orderliness in worship. He wants to avoid a situation in which people are apparently using the speaking in tongues as a badge of spiritual superiority, and believers are speaking out loud without listening to each other, which makes it impossible for other gifts, like prophecy, to be exercised. And this kind of competition to appear “spiritual” violates the overarching principle of love which should govern everything we do and should be reflected in the structures of our worship. But Paul also does not deny the validity of speaking in tongues for personal prayer. He affirms that speaking in tongues is from God, even rhetorically expressing a wish that every one of the believers speak in tongues (1 Cor 14:5). And the context of the passage makes clear that he is referring to something different from speaking in a ordinary language. Paul writes that “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit” (1 Cor 14:2). Paul makes a contrast between “praying with the spirit” and “praying with the understanding,” that is between praying in tongues and praying in ordinary language. And since speaking in tongues out loud in the congregation is only edifying if there is also a way for the congregation to understand the praises of God, he writes that there are occasions when it is better for people to pray in tongues quietly, speaking only “to themselves and to God” (1 Cor 14:28). So, while the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the believers as described in Acts 2 might be understood as the foundation for the kind of praying that Paul refers to in his first letter to the Corinthians, the practice itself is something different.
I have continued to practice what Paul describes as the quiet, personal form of speaking in tongues in my own prayer life.
I also speak other ordinary languages, and that has enriched my prayer life in different ways. But this kind of prayer is language only in the sense that it is composed of sounds, and they could potentially be transcribed using our alphabet, but they wouldn’t have any meaning in a human language.
As I have described above, my speaking in tongues is not out of my control. I don’t get “caught up” in such a way that I find myself unwittingly speaking in tongues. I am not unaware of my actions or the sounds I am making. God is not forcing my tongue and lips and vocal cords. Rather, I choose at times to bypass the regular languages that I could pray in to speak in tongues instead. I think of it as a cooperation between God’s Spirit and mine in the same way that can happen when I exercise a teaching gift or the gift of evangelism.
My worship isn’t unconscious, and my speaking in tongues isn’t about accessing a secret knowledge. It isn’t an altered state of consciousness through which I become a medium for otherwise unknowable things to be uttered. I have heard descriptions or testimonies of speaking in tongues like that, but it has always struck me as a bit contrary to the idea of the gifts of the Spirit as an equipping of us as sons and daughters and as servants, not just a robotic use of humans as one would use a microphone. So, I don’t think of tongues as a kind of divine dictation. I don’t think there are rules of grammar that I could be violating or that I could be getting the words and phrases wrong.
And I certainly don’t think of speaking in tongues as evidence of spiritual superiority. It is one example among an array of possible expressions of Christian worship. For Christians, singing hymns, fasting, praying, solitude, and the work of our hands are all forms of worship. Speaking in tongues falls into that category for me.
In practice, I exercise speaking in tongues while I am focusing on God with an intention to worship, finding a place in my spirit beyond the vocabulary that I use in ordinary speech. Speaking in tongues expresses hard to express intentions, and it gives me a way to move past the places where my words are insufficient, because my thoughts are not sophisticated or clear enough to be reduced to words, or because I feel as if there are not words are not good enough or deep enough for what I want to say. It requires choosing to use my voice to create syllables that are not ordinary language. My practice of speaking in tongues allows for a “flow” of worship from the heart to God which is not about a conscious description of His attributes or actions. It is an audible expression of a heart encounter.
And it is of course right to call tongues a gift. To be able to express what words cannot express is itself a gift. It is a Spirit enabled capacity in the way that evangelism is a gift, a Spirit enabled capacity. A person with an evangelistic gift doesn’t suddenly and inexplicably possess automatic knowledge of the the depth of the gospel message. The gift must be cultivated. It must mature. Speaking in tongues must similarly be cultivated. The worshipper must choose to exercise it and apply it properly as a means of glorifying God with the heart and the body.
As with all of the gifts, speaking in tongues must be part of my transformation toward Christlikeness that the Spirit is empowering in me, and it must ultimately be for the benefit of the body of Christ and the people that God wants to reach. I don’t find speaking in tongues to be a secret source of magical power, but it is part of a discipline of prayer that contributes to my spiritual growth. When I am speaking in tongues I am focusing on God, acknowledging God’s worship-worthiness, and expressing my dependence. While I am speaking in tongues I am not trying to conceive of good things to say to God (which is a valuable discipline in itself), rather I am literally expressing that I don’t have all the words necessary for communicating with God. In the exercise of this gift I am also holding an open-soulled posture toward God. Speaking in tongues expresses my longing to be filled, to be equipped, even to be guided in that moment by the receiving of Spirit-inspired words and ideas that I might share with others or apply in my own life. It is important to avoid thinking of spiritual gifts as accumulating power for its own sake or a privileged status in the community of God’s people in the way that we see Jesus’ disciples sometimes doing when they are angling for position or wondering who will have the best seats in the kingdom. The Spirit is at work in me to mature and change my longings, helping me to acquire good disciplines of faithfulness that can bear fruit for the glory of God and for the benefit of the people he has given me to serve. If my view of speaking in tongues doesn’t fit into that broader picture, then I need to adjust it.
Of course I don’t know for sure whether my speaking in tongues is exactly like Paul’s, although I am convinced that what he has in mind is more like what I have described than what sometimes happens in our churches. And I am trying to always incorporate the exercise of the gifts into a healthy theology of the spiritual life, avoiding the dangers that Paul warns us about in his letters.
I anticipate criticism about my view from pentecostal/charismatic circles as well as from conservative evangelical circles. I suspect that people in charismatic circles might think that my view isn’t “supernatural” enough, because I think of speaking in tongues as too thoroughly in the control of the worshipper, both in its content and in its execution. A few years ago another church leader was appalled that I was allowed to be a member of a particular charismatic church organization because he didn’t consider my view of the gifts to be charismatic enough. However, I don’t deny the possibility that God sometimes gives us insights that we couldn’t have had on our own, and that prophecy does sometimes mean speaking truth that we couldn’t have known withouth divine intervention. I sometimes exercise the gift of speaking in tongues in those moments when I want to express a focused openness to receiving that kind of insight from God, and it seems that for Paul, the public, prophetic exercise of speaking in tongues in a meeting was a verbal expression of that kind of insight, although it needs to be articulated in ordinary language as well in those cases.
On the other hand, anti-charismatic criticism might want to point to instances of abusing the gifts of the Spirit, or even just to the potential for that kind of abuse. I agree that the gifts of the Spirit can be abused in churches, and that seems to happen quite often. That’s exactly what was happening in the Corinthian church. The solution was not to ban the exercise of certain gifts, but to provide an orderly framework for their expression. In my experience, this kind of critique often lumps together any kind of charismatic expression as part of a “charismatic movement.” There have even been conferences organized to oppose this “movement.” However, I don’t think there is a “charismatic movement” in the way those critics envision. Being charismatic is a theological conviction about the validity of the gifts of the Spirit for the church today. There are people of this theological conviction in a wide spectrum of churches, and that conviction doesn’t commit any of us to membership in a particular “movement.” Pointing to weird things that charismatics have done isn’t a good way of arguing against the validity of the gifts of the Spirit. That same kind of logic could be applied to argue against the truth of Christianity based on the terrible things that professing Christians have done.
Another question that my view raises has to do with who should speak in tongues. I don’t think of tongues as a one-time impartation of a foreign lexicon into the brain, although I do think of it as a form of worship that the Spirit particularly enables some people to exercise more than others. In the same way that it is right for anyone to want to be empowered by the Spirit for evangelism or to have Spirit-inspired prophetic insights, it is right for anyone to want to be able to speak in tongues, just as Paul says that he does. And in the same way that evangelistic gifts or prophetic insight gifts need to be exercised and developed, a person wanting to be enabled in this way should feel the freedom to begin exercising the gift of speaking in tongues. He or she can ask for God’s help to begin praying in the way I have described, and with the right motives. As I have said, I don’t think of the baptism in the Spirit as a one-time event after salvation, so I don’t think of speaking in tongues as the initial (or even the usual) evidence of the baptism in the Spirit. Still, as a valid gift of the Spirit, any believer is welcome to ask for it and pursue it.
Thinking deeply about speaking in tongues has gone hand in hand with thinking about my own worship practices and the processes by which the Spirit is moving me toward Christlikeness. The uneasiness that I have felt about how to incorporate speaking in tongues into my spiritual life has slowly given way to more confidence about recognizing the deep and subtle work of the Spirit in me and through me. And I think that the people that God has given me to serve are benefitting from this growth as well. I pray that God will empower and enable you according to His will as you open your soul to His work within you.