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"Tongues":For Apostles Only?

(c) 2000 by Charlie Read

recently read a short article by Curtis Dickinson,which appeared in the May 1999 issue of The Witness. Entitled "Should We Speak in Tongues?" the article brings forth a few valid points, but in my opinion distorts the clear teaching of several Scriptures. As I comment on Mr. Dickinson's views, let me emphasize that this rebuttal is in no way personal, but only a vehicle for addressing concerns that have also been voiced by many others.

The writer makes the point that he would not use "tongues" as an issue of fellowship, which is at least a softer stand than taken by some. While there are those who feel that glossolalia is "demonic," Mr. Dickinson merely believes it is an error needing correction.


He writes that one purpose of tongues is that "the apostles received special gifts for the purpose of 'confirming' the word that they preached." While this is no doubt true, he neglects the fact that all 120 disciples (not just the apostles) apparently spoke in tongues on the Day of Pentecost. "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4).

ow, I don't feel that every believer automatically possesses all of the apostles' gifts. For example, we read that "they (the people of Jerusalem) brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them" (Acts 5:15). This verse, in my judgment, doesn't intrinsically confer such power on all believers. For that matter, this verse doesn't really say that Peter's shadow actually healed anybody; perhaps it did, perhaps it didn't (nevertheless, all of those coming to the apostles were surely healed - see verse 16).

We also read, "And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them" (Acts 19:11, 12). I see many today praying over or anointing handkerchiefs that are then  sent out to the  sick. But the Bible says that God did "special" (NRSV: "extraordinary") miracles through Paul. All believers  are  not  given  a  blanket  promise  of the same ability. However, if God did choose to give an individual this special power today, He certainly could - and perhaps at times, has!

But since all 120 experienced tongues, this phenomenon shouldn't be classed together with the special gifts of the apostles. Mr. Dickinson, of course, may hold to the minority view that all 120 disciples were not present at the Pentecostal outpouring - that somewhere between chapters one and two, all but the apostles themselves went elsewhere.

Even if this position was correct, it still leaves unanswered the logical question: "What about those of Cornelius' household, or the Ephesian believers?" When the Spirit fell on the Gentiles ("all them which heard the word" according to Acts 10:44), we read that the astonished Jews "heard them speak with tongues" (v. 46), after which they were commanded by Peter to be baptized. Likewise the Ephesian believers were baptized, "And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues" (Acts 19:6).


Many who claim that tongues were a special gift for the apostles conveniently ignore the fact that "regular" men and women of the early church routinely spoke in tongues, without an apostolic calling to preach.

This writer quotes Paul's question to the Corinthians: "Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?"  (1 Cor. 12:29, 30). Mr. Dickinson correctly states that "the implied answer to all these questions is 'no.'"

However, when we consider that ALL of the 120 spoke in tongues, as did the Samaritans (ch. 8)*, Cornelius and the Gentile converts (Acts 10), and the Ephesians (Acts 19) - isn't it safe to assume that this passage was referring NOT to an individual's gift of tongues as a "prayer language," but to a distinctive gift for use in the public assembly?

It cannot be denied that "tongues" were the expected norm in the early church. In Acts chapter 10 the Jews were shocked - not just by the manifestation of tongues - but that the Gentiles could be fellow heirs of the Kingdom! On the other hand, the gift of tongues that required interpretation was obviously not given to all. There is nothing to indicate that interpretation followed the Gentiles' glossolalia, nor was it expected.**

Paul wrote, "Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret."  This would apply primarily (though not exclusively) to the public assembly of believers ("in church," as we would commonly phrase it). The apostle is saying that if a person gives a message in tongues without an interpretation following, it is certainly of no benefit to anyone. The correct order during the assembly is, "If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret" (1 Cor. 14:27).

here's no need for interpretation during individual prayer and worship. In fact, Paul very clearly states, "For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful" (1 Cor. 14:14). This is why the individual use of tongues is often called a "prayer language." The apostle is not diminishing the value of this type of tongues that requires no interpretation, for he goes on to say, "What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also" (v. 15). He could have easily said, "Since the unknown tongue makes no sense to my understanding, it's worthless and should be discarded." Instead he plainly values both types of prayer: "I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also."


These verses also show that praying in tongues is not "babble and gibberish" as Mr. Dickinson claims, nor does the phenomenon need to be a foreign language. It's true that the devout Jews at Pentecost heard the disciples' words in their own particular language. However, this could have been an isolated instance of earthly languages being supernaturally endowed, or it could have been a miraculous understanding imparted to the listeners. In any event, the commonly held view that the purpose of these tongues was to "proclaim the gospel" to foreigners, does not hold water. First, why did Peter launch into what may have been a lengthy sermon (Acts 2:14-41) if the disciples had just finished preaching the same message? Second, the record tells us plainly that the Jews heard, not the Gospel proclamation, but exuberant praises of the "wonderful works of God" (v. 11).*** Third, if the Pentecostal tongues were used to bring forth the Gospel message, why was there no conviction of sin such as at the conclusion of Peter's words that immediately followed? Indeed, the reaction toward the disciples' tongues was similar to that of modern scoffers: "And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?  Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine" (Acts 2:12, 13).


Another argument, voiced by Mr. Dickinson, concerns the transitoriness of tongues and other gifts. He quotes the familiar passage from Corinthians, "Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away"(1 Cor. 13:8-10). But the writer interprets the "'perfect' that is to come," as being the Bible. The trouble is, Paul doesn't tell us that he was referring to the completed canon of Scripture.

ow do we know that the perfect doesn't refer to a body of believers that will some day come into a mature manifestation of God's will on earth? For Paul tells us that special ministry gifts were given to the church "Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Eph. 4:11-16).

How do we know that perfect doesn't refer, even more likely, to the age beyond this mortal life when all that is imperfect and incomplete will be done away? Again, Paul writes, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12). This ties in with John's thought: "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

I agree with my preterist friends that the old Jewish order was winding to an end as AD 70 approached, but there is nothing in the epistles to indicate that the newly inaugurated era of the Spirit was to come to a climactic end as well!


Mr. Dickinson says that Paul, in First Corinthians, severely criticizes the practice of tongues. I have read the passage he mentions (chapter 14) countless times - and have it in front of me even as I write - but fail to see how he could reach such a conclusion! Paul's only concern was that tongues not be abused. It should be used sparingly in church, and spoken audibly only if one present is able to interpret. Why would the apostle "severely criticize" the practice, then turn around and say, "I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all" (v. 18)?

In his article, Mr. Dickinson writes of Paul's admonition, "...if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God." The writer states, "This rule is violated in thousands of churches every week." And here I agree with him! I have heard preachers burst into tongues while expounding the Word or praying for others, and this seems to be a clear violation of Paul's command.

Yet, one who feels the need to speak in tongues is not commanded to keep his mouth shut, but to pray softly so as not to distract or cause confusion. Paul wrote, "...let him speak to himself, and to God."

Mr. Dickinson concludes by listing some abuses, and again I share his obvious distaste for these practices. These include those who would place subjective experience over objective truth, those who try to "perfect" their prayer language through much practice, or the telling of seekers to "put your mind in neutral, and let your tongue loose." I could add others. I have seen people seeking the baptism in the Spirit, surrounded by others who are literally shouting (in tongues or other) in the face of the seeker. I have seen evangelists actually grab and shake someone's chin (trying to give him "stammering lips," I assume), wave handkerchiefs in his face, or slap him on the back.

It's no wonder, with all the nonsense out there, that Pentecostals and their beliefs have become the butt of much ridicule. Paul, if anything, commends tongues and certainly boasted that the gift was important to him. And though he needed to deal sternly with the Corinthian church in many areas, yet he was thankful that they lacked none of the spiritual gifts (1:4-7). Paul did not disparage the use of tongues - indeed he proclaimed "I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all" - but imparted much-needed instruction in an area open to abuse. I could add that today's practitioners of tongues ought to re-read the apostle's instructions, and begin to weed out the misuse and bizarre antics that invite scorn.

Likewise, those who scoff and reject tongues completely, calling it "demonic" or "delusional," come precariously close to violating Paul's command, "Forbid not to speak with tongues" (1 Cor. 14:39). Those on both sides of the issue should take heed to the following verse, "Let all things be done decently and in order."  There is a right way and a wrong way. Rejecting or denigrating any gift of God is the wrong way; using it as God teaches in His word is right.


* Although not explicitly stated in the Samaritan account, it is implied: Simon marveled, and eagerly sought to purchase the ability to confer the Spirit through the "laying on of hands." What else, considering the other examples from Scripture, could he have witnessed to convince him so mightily? Read the record in Acts 8:5-24.
** Neither did interpretation follow the Ephesians' experience in Acts 19:1-7.
*** Compare Acts 19:6, "And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied" (prophecy not being, necessarily, a foretelling of future events, but spontaneous inspired utterances. See also 1 Samuel 10:10).

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