Appendix One:Footnote on Tongues

Maturing in the Christian Life: A Pastor’s Guide
by Neill Q. Hamilton

Appendix One:Footnote on Tongues

With the essential components of the transition to Spirit in mind, we are in a position to evaluate speaking in tongues within the framework of the faith journey. It obviously cannot be the mark of the transition I am proposing, given the example of the Corinthian congregation. The Corinthians show that it was possible for one to speak in tongues and be concerned only with one's own spiritual experience regardless of the effect on others (I Cor. 13:1; 14:1-32). Speaking in tongues was a common mark of piety in Corinth (I Cor. 14:5). Probably some there who spoke in tongues thought themselves moved on occasion to curse Jesus (I Cor. 12:3). Among those who missed the significance of the elements of the Lord's Supper and caroused at table instead were, no doubt, some who spoke in tongues (I Cor. 11:20-34). Far from showing the signs of spiritual growth, many were ill and dying. The Corinthian congregation was riddled with factions and party spirit and was tolerant of incest, although most of congregation spoke in tongues (I Cor. 1:10-12; 3:1-9; 5:1-13; 11:19). For all these reasons, in a congregation famous for speaking in tongues, Paul had to rate Corinthian Christians as being highly immature, rank beginners, men and women "of the flesh," "babes in Christ," "children in their thinking" (I Cor. 3:1; 14:20). No doubt they considered themselves mature (II Cor.10:1-13:14, especially 11:5 and 12:11). This tendency to confuse speaking in tongues with spiritual maturity, thus blocking real maturing, may have led Paul to omit speaking in tongues from his list of gifts for Rome (Rom. 12:6ff.). The Pauline school after him dropped it altogether (Eph. 4:7ff.). For the same reason the New Testament church outside of Paul either changed tongues to foreign languages (Luke) or dropped it altogether. In effect, it came to be included under Paul's warning that "Jews demand signs" (I Cor. 1:22). Speaking in tongues did not wear well in the early church.

Nevertheless speaking in tongues may serve maturing if it stays within the kind of prayer that belongs to the transition that Chapter 3 has been describing. The warning raised by Corinthian piety is that a person can have striking manifestations of the Spirit and still be so possessed by disciplelike illusions that these manifestations do not work toward maturing. In the religiosity of Hellenistic culture there was a world-denying, gnostic kind of piety that scholars equate with the so-called "divine man" that was in its own way just as illusory and immature as the nationalist warrior piety of Palestinian Judaism.

In the context of Hellenistic religiosity I find the positive significance of speaking in tongues in its ability to answer to the feeling of estrangement from God so characteristic of Hellenistic culture. Gnosticism witnessed to the fact that many in the Hellenistic world felt that they were at a terrifying distance from God. Separated from God by many-layered barriers of heavens, the Hellenist felt caught in a situation similar to that of an abandoned, unloved, and emotionally deprived child with marvelous but remote parents. To such religious waifs, tongues represented a return of those marvelous parents to take the child back into the stream of nurturing love.

In Palestinian terms "tongues" meant special and powerful equipment to continue a prophetic ministry promised in the Old Testament and modeled by Jesus. This Spirit presence gave continuing meaning to Jesus' promise of the drawing near of the kingdom of God. The important difference of course is that in the experience of tongues there is no figure of Jesus giving form and content to the coming kingdom, so that the subjectivity of the early charismatic had little to guide it. The eccentric piety of the Corinthians was the result. Hellenistic subjectivity could simply displace any distinctive Christian content, as the cursing of Jesus showed (I Cor. 12:1-3).

For those who speak in tongues everything depends on what happens when the road of the faith journey turns toward the cross and the crucial transition it announces. The cross was as much a stumbling block to the Corinthians' ecstatic spirituality as it had been to the original Palestinian disciples' holy politics (I Cor. 1:22). Present-day charismatics are right in their insistence that there is an important transition in the Christian life connected with an experience of the Spirit. They mislead, however, when they make speaking in tongues the unmistakable mark of this transition.

A Corinthian-like experience of speaking in tongues no more guarantees a maturing life of faith than did the response of the four fishermen to Jesus' call to discipleship. Only when the gift of tongues accompanies the dispelling of illusions and misunderstanding about God's reign does it represent a transition to life in the Spirit. The gift of tongues can as easily confirm illusion and misconception as mark their passing.

This note on tongues implies two useful rules for pastoral leaders. One, parishioners who insist that speaking in tongues is necessary to spiritual maturing should be encouraged to join a Pentecostal church. They disqualify themselves for membership in the mainline denominations. A second rule emerges from Paul's guidelines for the Corinthian congregation. No meetings should be permitted in which people speak in tongues en masse. That is to misunderstand the story of Pentecost. Speaking in tongues is essentially a means of private devotion. It may occasionally appear in gatherings where two or three at most speak and then only when there is an interpreter for each (I Cor. 14:27-28). The early church survived its charismatic movements by following this advice. We are well advised to follow suit.