There are a number of common misunderstandings about the gift of speaking in tongues. These result in a certain mistrust of the gift by many church leaders. Because disagreements so easily arise they feel that it is a divisive gift. Consequently they are likely to forbid or severely restrict its use.
I know of one international Bible study organisation which outright forbids anyone in leadership to use this gift. They take the cessationist view that now we have the Bible those gifts are not needed – a thouroughly unbiblical approach. Another wiser international Bible study organisation simply says that leaders are not to promote anything which might be divisive, without specifying what that might be.
C. Peter Wagner, one of the leaders of the charismatic movement, while being afirming of the gift of tongues, still took this very cautious approach when forbidding its use in the 120 Fellowship. He outlines his reasons in this book with the very evocative title How to Have a Healing Ministry Without Making Your Church Sick . Given that it is now 18 years since this book was written, I wonder if he still holds to that position?
A more balanced approach can be seen in Jack Hayford’s very helpful book The Beauty Of Spiritual Language. Again, this book is getting quite old, but an update on Jack’s thinking is available in this Christianity Today article, which says:
“While Hayford subscribes to Pentecostal doctrine that tongues is a ‘sign gift,’ indicating the baptism of the Spirit, he doesn’t think the point can be conclusively proved one way or the other from Scripture. Instead he emphasizes that tongues is a useful gift – useful to the worshiper in prayer, and thus useful to the kingdom of God, which works through praying believers. ‘I have a passion to move every Christian to the free exercise of tongues,’ Hayford says, ‘not as a proof of spirituality but as a privilege for worship and intercession.’
“He thinks the obstacle to speaking in tongues is less theological than personal – people’s fear of the unknown. Here too pastoral leadership is needed, he says, because tongues enables God’s people to pray effectively even when they don’t know how to pray.”
Of course, less reasonable leaders have reacted in fear, sometimes quite irrationaly. I have heard leaders say things which amount to something like: “There are no such things as demons!”, or less drastically, “Christians can’t get demons!”, and then in the next breath they might say, “Tongues are of the devil!” or “If you speak in tongues you will be get a demon!”
My wife Diana and I had to confront this type of thinking in our own church experience before we were married, and God graciously provided us with opportunities to encounter the reality of both demonic and godly tongues, and assure us through this experience that we would always know the difference. This is a story I will tell another time.
Yes, tongues can be divisive. Anything can be divisive! Different ways of administering baptism or communion have caused enormous strife in churches throughout history. Why don’t we forbid baptism and communion. In fact one well known denomination, The Salvation Army, which, while not actually forbiding these sacraments, does not encourage their practice. I must say in their favour that unlike many mainstream churches they have retained an acceptance of baptism in the Holy Spirit. But where will we stop – when we have nothing of the blessings and gifts of God left? Who would want to be part of such a church? Not me! Instead of dealing with the root issues we instead cut people off from one of the important resources God has provided to help them live and grow. And we wonder why so many Christians are lukewarm in their relationship to Jesus! This action of the leaders is itself often based on fear, either of the gift or its giver, or the effect its use will have.
Fear is hardly a godly response from which to make a decision. We must move past our fears, our personal preferences, and our distrust of anything different, and engage fully in what Jesus is doing in the world. If you can only accept what is comfortable and understandable then being a follower of Jesus is not for you.
The gift of speaking in tongues, rightly understood and used, is a wonderful gift both for the individual believer and their church fellowship, both for their building up in the faith, their communion with God, and their effectiveness in carrying out the work of Jesus in the world.