Study Commission on Doctrine Report to the 1989 General Conference
1 Corinthians 12-14: An Analysis of the Tongues Issue
The Study Commission on Doctrine has studied carefully the biblical texts on tongues. These studies have informed its recommendation on tongues in the Free Methodist Church.
1 Corinthians 12-14 is particularly significant. It contains the most extended discourse on tongues in the New Testament. The issues addressed are similar to those we confront today. It is instructive to note how Paul handled them.
Paul pleads with his readers at the outset of the passage (12:1), “Now concerning pneumatika … I do not wish you to be ignorant.” The italicized Greek term defines the topic under consideration.
In 1 Corinthians Paul treats a series of topics, introduced by the comment in 7:1, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote … .” The subject of marriage (i.e., relationships within marriage) is discussed in 7:1-24. A corollary treatment begins at 7:25, “Now concerning the unmarried … .” A new topic is introduced in 8:1, using a similar formula: “Now concerning food offered to idols… .”
Another major consideration is brought forward at 12:1, using the same introductory formula: “Now concerning pneumatika … .” Chapter 15 discusses the question of resurrection: this is a discrete treatment, distinct from the surrounding context both in form and content. The final topic (briefly treated) is introduced in 16:1, again using the formula: “Now concerning the collection for the saints … .”
Paul is addressing this letter to a number of different issues that have been raised in his correspondence with (7:1) and communications from (1:11) the Corinthian church. Each treatment is coherent within itself, and discrete; the surrounding context serves as background. The treatment of pneumatika encompasses c. 12-14: these three chapters (including c.13) function as a unit, developing a common topic.
The Greek term used to identify that topic is usually translated “spiritual gifts.” Pneumatika, however, is more inclusive than charismata, which is the chosen term when referring specifically to “gifts” (see 12:4, 31). While pneumatika may (and does here) include spiritual gifts by reason of context, it is not generally used in Greek literature (including the New Testament) in that exclusive, specific sense.
The root component of the term is pneuma, meaning wind or spirit. The rest of the Greek word is an ending, equivalent to the “–ic” ending in English (e.g., angel/angelic); the meaning is also similar. The Greek term pneumatika is neuter plural, referring to things/matters that are characteristic of or pertain to the Spirit.
“Now concerning the things which pertain to the Spirit … .” The discussion includes gifts, but as part of a larger agenda. Love is central, as a matter of vital significance in any consideration of “things which pertain to the Spirit.” Also vital are the edification of the church, and order in worship and ministry. These are not spiritual gifts per se, but they are crucial to the work of the Spirit in the church.
“I do not want you to be ignorant” concerning these matters, Paul declares. Spiritual ignorance, whatever its source (disinterest, lack of study, confusion or fear), must be eliminated from the church. Its consequences, including spiritual anemia and ministerial ineffectiveness, are terribly debilitating. Worse yet, ignorance breeds (spiritual) ignorance, from which springs diverse doctrines. We need to give diligent study to the “things which pertain to the Spirit.” Our own spiritual wellbeing and the building of our church are dependent upon it.
Paul’s conception of “gifts” appears to be more dynamic than our modern use. We have available essentially only one way of referring to them (i.e., “gifts” – which we sometimes qualify as “spiritual gifts” or “gifts of the Spirit”). Paul uses several different descriptions, which no only illumine the biblical concept, but help define “gifts” for us.
A key term, used with specific reference to spiritual gifts, is charismata (12:4, 31; Romans 12:6). This is a plural form; the singular is charisma. The root of this term – charis – is the New Testament word for “grace.” The connection with grace is vital to a proper understanding of spiritual gifts, as shown by Ephesians 4:7: “To each one grace (charis) has been given…” and Romans 12:6, which similarly introduces a “list” of gifts by connecting them with grace:
“Having then charismata differing according to the charis given us….” The ending has a nuance of a thing bestowed. Thus, gifts are described as diverse bestowments of grace (“grace gifts”), endowments given to each believer by God.
Paul also uses other terms to describe the gifts. They are called “ministries” or “services” in the church (12:5, 10, 11). Several times (12:6, 11; Ephesians 4:16), the Greek root from which we derive “energy” is used. This is a compound word (en-ergy), meaning “in-working.” It depicts the spiritual gifts as the operations of God in and through individual persons, God at work in his church.
Finally, we note the descriptive phrase used in 12:7, where Paul declares: “To each is being given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (i.e., for edifying the church).” The verb “being given” is in the present tense, depicting ongoing action, not a singular event; similarly, “manifestation” has a noun ending that denotes process. Thus, the gifts are defined as the ongoing means through which God reveals his Person and work in the church (see 14:24-25).
The biblical conception of “gifts” is more richly and broadly defined than our own: ours seems quite limited and sterile by comparison (as reflected in the range of vocabulary used). Moreover, the biblical conception is more dynamic. We speak of 9, 12 or 21 gifts (the number varies), and assign them to specific categories (these also differ), according to kind or function or some other schema (these also vary). In our speaking of them, gifts become thing-like. We approach them as we do the acquisition of material goods, and assign or acknowledge individual ownership.
Biblically, the gifts are simply one way of depicting the work of God in and through his people.
Tongues (glossai) has been one of the many, many ways God has chosen to reveal himself. It is not the most important way, and so does not deserve special treatment on that account. But because of its revival in the twentieth century church, the rapid spread of the “pentecostal” movement, the inroads of “charismatics” within mainline denominations, the practice of “glossolalia” among some Free Methodists, the “problems” caused by all of the above — for these reasons, we need to take a fresh look at the biblical teaching on tongues and align ourselves with it, as “Bible Christians.”
The first and most significant question to consider is this: When Paul lists “tongues” among the gifts of the Spirit, is he referring to foreign but intelligible, human languages or ecstatic (i.e., unintelligible, non-rational) utterances? As might be expected, scholars differ in their answer, usually reflecting their theological or ecclesiastical affiliation. To an increasing number from varying traditions, however, the following conclusion seems assured: Whereas the tongues of Acts 2 were intelligible foreign languages, the glossai described in 1 Corinthians 12-14 consist of humanly unintelligible utterances. This conclusion is based on specific data.
Pentecost, as reported in Acts 2, was a miraculous event. On this day when God’s Spirit was outpoured, the disciples spoke in languages (glossai) they did not understand. On the other hand, the hearers, a mixed audience of visitors from many different countries, did understand what was said. They marveled, however, that the disciples — all “Galileans” — were speaking to them, “each of us in our own language in which we were born” (2:8). The Greek word used for language here (and in 2:6) is “dialect,” describing particular language (sub)groups native to the hearers. The list of place names identifies (some of the) specific geographical regions represented. All the languages of these far-flung regions clearly were not known to the “uneducated” Galilean disciples (see Acts 4:13). Nonetheless, the glossai spoken were intelligible to the hearers; no interpretation was needed.
The situation Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is quite different. The message spoken in tongues was not only unintelligible to the speaker (see 14:14), but to the hearers as well: “For the one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God … no one (i.e., no human) understands him; he speaks mysteries in the Spirit (or, in his spirit)” (14:2). Because such utterances are unintelligible, Paul argues, without interpretation they are meaningless and unedifying to the gathered church.
The Corinthian glossai were clearly unintelligible. But were they in fact non-rational? Or did they consist of “foreign languages”? That is, did they represent sounds that, though unknown to those present, nonetheless replicated language spoken elsewhere in the world?
Paul seems to allow for this latter possibility, given the multiplicity of languages in the world (14:10). But he points out that a message delivered in a linguistically intelligible but unknown tongue is, as far as the listener is concerned, still quite unintelligible and unedifying (14:6-11).
The peculiar nuance of the Greek (which uses the optative mood) in 14:10 suggests that Paul concedes the matter of ultimate human intelligibility as a possibility. But he is not categorically declaring it is (always and necessarily) so.
A second kind of glossai may be suggested in 1 Corinthians 13:1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels… .” Here Paul moves beyond the boundaries of human language, to encompass another realm of communication. In context, his point is that, even though a person could communicate in many human languages and also with angel spirit…without love, such speaking would amount to only so much (i.e., a lot of ) noise.
In the listing of the “gifts,” it should be noted, glossai is always plural and accompanied by “kinds of… .” The Greek underlying this qualifier provides us with the scientific term genus. As used in biology, a genus is the main subdivision of family and includes one or more species. This is the sense this qualifier adds to “tongues.” In sum, Paul seems to recognize several species of glossai, including human languages but perhaps “heavenly” as well. All are from God, given as he chooses, for the benefit of the church.
Central to Paul’s whole treatment of “things that pertain to the Spirit” is love. Without love, “spiritual gifts” offer little benefit to the church and “tongues” become dysfunctional. Agape is the key to harmony, order and growth in the church.
Love is more important than any of the gifts including tongues; indeed, it is more important than any combination of gifts, or all the gifts combined. If we have to choose between “tongues” and “love,” agape is the more excellent way.
Ultimately, to those who are “eager for spiritual things,” Paul’s most important counsel is this: “Make love your great pursuit …” (14:1, Berkley Version).
There are many things, including tongues, which threaten to divide us or make us — despite our many gifts and resources — dysfunctional as a church. Only love can keep us together, promote our common wellbeing, and enable us to fulfill our mission. What we most desperately need as a church is not merely more money, or workers, or freedom (the Lord knows we have need of these) — what we need most is an outpouring of God’s (agape) love, shed abroad in all our hearts through the working of his Spirit among us (Romans 5:4).
What is God’s love like? How does it act? How would it evidence itself among us? The answers to these vital questions are to be found in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul is detailed and specific. His purpose is to point us on “the more excellent way” (12:31). Succinctly, he says we exercise love by being kind and considerate to one another, by practicing patience (to the point of longsuffering), by minding our mouths and tempers, by humbling ourselves to one another.
This is pertinent counsel: let us give heed and, following the Apostle’s example, give agape special prominence — indeed, central place — in our consideration of tongues.
Closely intertwined with Paul’s consideration of “gifts” such as tongues is the reality of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12, he takes the (human) body as a metaphor and elaborates on its applicability to the church. He makes the point that the spiritual gifts, like the several members of the body, are diverse in kind and function — but each has an important and needed contribution to make to the whole. Thus, the gifts are individuated, but always connected to the church.
Their role and relation to the church is described in c. 14 in less figurative, real life terms. The church consists of not one person, but many. When gathered as a congregation, not all can talk at once. What is said and done should be for the benefit of the whole (i.e., the greatest number). Order must be maintained, and decency. People ought to control their behavior and speech. The worship should be conducted in intelligible language, or at least interpreted so all can understand. These are simple but straightforward guidelines.
While Paul does not go so far as to outlaw tongues altogether, he argues strongly against their use in public worship: “In the ecclesia (gathered congregation), I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (14:19, NIV). The ration is strikingly disproportional. An address of 10,000 words would require a written manuscript of 40 pages (double-spaced, typewritten) that would take the average speaker 1 hour and 20 minutes to deliver. By comparison, a five-word sentence generally takes the form of an ejaculation (e.g., “That is a splendid idea!”), and takes only 2-3 seconds to utter.
The point is clear: Tongues have very, very little value (if any) in public worship … because such unintelligible speech does not edify the congregation at large; only the speaker is edified. That’s why Paul insists that if tongues are used — he puts severe limits on this: not more than two to three speakers are allowed — they must be interpreted.
The measuring stick Paul uses in making these value judgments is clearly identified: What edifies the ecclesia? An extended comparison is drawn between prophecy and tongues, in communicating this principle: “Everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (14:3-4). We must always keep this in view, in judging the appropriate exercise of the gifts within the ecclesia: “Let everything be done for edification (i.e., the strengthening of the church)” (14:26).
A corollary concern is for order in the church. Not only does Paul clearly set this down as a guiding principle — it is the word with which he concludes his extended treatment of this subject (14:40) — he underscores it heavily in the final paragraphs. Already, in c.12, he has characterized the church as a corporate entity, composed by God “so that there might be no discord (or, division)” (12:25). Now, in 14:26-39, he speaks in particular ways about the application of this principle to public worship.
Note, first of all, that Paul believes in and advocates self-control: “The spirit of the prophets is subject to the control of the prophets” (14:32; see also vv. 28, 30, 34). This is to be expected, for “the fruit of the Spirit is…self-control” (Galatians 5:22). Second, he states that if worship is to be edifying and orderly, there is a need (while someone else is speaking) for listening (vv. 29-31, 34-35). Third, there is an appeal to the wider church in evaluating congregational behavior. An individual congregation is not simply free “to do its own thing.” Paul shows his exasperation with the Corinthian congregation when he asks, “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (14:36). These questions serve as a strong reminder of the interconnectedness of the church. Finally, Paul “pulls out the stops,” and exercises the full authority of his apostolic office: “What I am writing you is the Lord’s command” (14:37). This word is addressed to the one who thinks of himself as “spiritual”: he is brought strongly under the authority of church leadership, as ordered by God.
The gifts have been divinely bestowed, not primarily for blessing in the life of the individual recipient, but for the benefit of the ecclesia. If the church is to be edified through the exercise of the diverse ministries of all its members, then everything must be done in “a fitting and orderly way” (14:40, NIV). “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (14:33, NIV).
Paul’s concern is not with the so-called private use of gifts. The entire discussion focuses on what happens “in ecclesia” (see 14:19, 28, 35). The value of glossai in the gathered congregation is strenuously downplayed, not ultimately disallowed (see 14:39) but repeatedly discouraged. Intelligible discourse is extolled as far more helpful and appropriate in public worship because the manifestation of the Spirit is much more immediately evident, not only to the congregation of believers but to unbelievers as well (14:24-25).
In the final part of c. 13, Paul reminds us that our present knowledge of spiritual things is fragmentary and incomplete. We do not now have all the answers. Nor is anyone of us so wise as to decide the issue rightly. So we have little basis for dogmatism. “Now I know in part….” Some day “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (13:12). Meanwhile, I am thrust back on faith, hope and love, the greatest of which is love.
When we talk of love, we are on solid turf; when we practice it, the church is built up and moves forward. So let us make love, “agape love,” our great pursuit. And may our unity in love be seen as a testimony of God’s presence among us, in fulfillment of the mission God has given the Free Methodist Church (see John 16:22-23).
Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council:
A Case Study in Theological Decision-Making
Within the first generation of the New Testament Church, an issue involving both doctrine and practice surfaced that could easily have left the Church a divided body. Acts 15 reports on the resolution of this conflict. The issue? Could Gentiles be saved without being circumcised and keeping all the laws of Moses (see Acts 15:1, 5)? Some devout Christians said yes, and others said no. Both sides could present substantial arguments to buttress their viewpoints.
How was the issue to be resolved? A general council was held in Jerusalem. After the matter had been thoroughly discussed, a decision was reached in favor of the non-circumcision viewpoint.
At first glance, this incident may not seem relevant to our question about the tongues issue because the struggle in Jerusalem had nothing to do with the place of tongues in the life of the church. But other considerations argue for its pertinence. The issue was analogous in several respects. It was (1) controversial and causing a division in the Church, (2) related to differing biblical evidences, and (3) required careful and thoughtful sifting through data to reach a solution. Thus, while Luke may not have reported elsewhere a definitive statement about tongues, he does describe here how the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, worked its way through a controversial issue. What we are looking for in this biblical story, then, is a model or an example of the correct method for the church, as a whole, to resolve a question when the evidence seems to be ambiguous.
The Different Viewpoints
The first step in understanding how difficult the issue was to solve is to appreciate that both sides, the “circumcision party” and the “non-circumcision party,” could appeal to evidence from the Old Testament, the Scriptures which the early church used. As sweeping as the claim might seem, the evidence from the Scriptures was complex and did not provide a singular answer.
1. The Case for Circumcision:
Those who believed that the Gentiles should be circumcised could appeal to the Scriptures for support. Genesis 17:10 states that all males had to be circumcised; Leviticus 18:5 states that one could live only as he kept (all) the commandments of the law. Originally, of course, these passages applied to Hebrews. Thus, for example, an uncircumcised male, even if born of Hebrew parents, would be
cut off from the people because he had broken the Lord’s covenant (Genesis 17:4).
How did this rule apply in the case of the Gentiles? Genesis 17 does not specifically deal with the question raised by proselytism as practiced in the centuries around the time of Christ. But it is not hard to see how Jews concluded that circumcision was required of Gentile converts also. Genesis 17:12 says that the rule of circumcision applies not only to those who are “born in your household” but also to anyone who is “bought with money from a foreigner — those who are not your offspring.”
2. The Proceedings of the Council:
Luke, in his account, does not report that the members of the “circumcision party” argued their case. But, as noted above, he does tell us that the two necessary items upon which this party insisted were circumcision and the keeping of the laws of Moses, and this would presuppose their appeal to the Old Testament passages already noted.
Acts 15 traces a sequence of presentations at the Jerusalem Council that approached the circumcision question from an entirely different angle, virtually ignoring Genesis 17 and Leviticus 18. The steps were as follows: (1) The church gathered to consider the matter (15:6). (2) Peter recounted the story of Cornelius’ conversion (see 10:1 – 11:18) and drew a conclusion based upon this experience (15:7-11). (3) Barnabas and Paul described the successes of their work in the first missionary journey (15:12). (4) James recommended a solution, basing it on Peter’s experience and an overarching scriptural principle (15:12-21). (5) The Council as a whole concurred with James’ recommendation and drafted a letter which reported the results and gave directions to Gentile Christians (15:22-29).
a. The Council’s Use of Scripture:
Two points in the procedure need to be examined closely. First, how were the experiences of the church brought to bear upon the interpretation of Scripture? Peter (see Acts 15:7-11), as well as Barnabas and Paul in a more implied sense (see Acts 15:12), claimed that the rather obvious evidence of God’s work in the lives of uncircumcised Gentiles, identical to the work He had done in the lives of believing Jews, argued for a relaxation of the circumcision rule. James, alluding to Peter’s experience, then introduced several Old Testament passages, especially Amos 9:11-12, which describes how God would build the house of David by drawing in Gentiles (presumably as Gentiles, that is, not circumcised) who would call on His name. Thus, the experience of the church in its Gentile mission had awakened it to Old Testament passages that suggested an understanding of God’s will different from the one Israel generally had.
As stated above, Luke does not report any dialogue at the Council itself between the “circumcision party” and the “non-circumcision party” about this matter. It appears the leaders of the Church did not feel that resolving the exegetical question to the satisfaction of everyone was primary. That is, they did not take up the question of the meaning of Genesis 17. Rather they set it aside, or perhaps better, reinterpreted it in the light of Amos 9, and got on with the task at hand.
Would the reasoning of the Council have convinced the “circumcision party”? Would the adherents have been satisfied that Genesis 17 was not being mishandled? Probably not all of them. It should not be forgotten that “the circumcision party” had one thing in its favor. Genesis 17 gave the explicit commandment that the circumcision rule was to be observed permanently: “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant” (see 17:12). There was no such Old Testament passage which explicitly said that in the case of Gentile converts the circumcision rule was to be set aside. The Jerusalem Council drew that conclusion by interpreting the implication of some Old Testament passages in the light of their experience in the Gentile mission. No doubt as far as the “circumcision party” was concerned, they were the ones who were “scriptural.”
As a matter of fact, questions about Genesis 17 did not go away simply because of the Council’s decision. About a decade after the Jerusalem Council, Paul takes up the question of Genesis 17 in Romans 4. This suggests that the “circumcision party” continued to insist that Genesis 17 be taken seriously. Those who carefully study Romans 4 will note how meticulously and thoroughly Paul seeks to answer the questions raised by Genesis 17. The heart of Paul’s argument is found in 4:11-12. Here he explains the purpose of the commandment in Genesis 17:11 (“You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you”) in the light of Genesis 15:6 (“Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness”).
Thus, explained Paul, Abram “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised…and he is also the father of the circumcised…who walk in the footsteps of the faith.”
b. The Apostolic Edict:
Before we conclude, however, that the Council completely rejected the concerns of the “circumcision party,” we must note its other action. The Council not only relaxed the circumcision rule; it also enforced four prohibitions (15:20, 29). These four prohibitions can be broken into two categories: (1) Gentiles were to abstain from food offered to idols and sexual immorality, and (2) from blood and things strangled.
The first category has a rather obvious meaning. Gentile believers were to make a decisive break with paganism, especially in connection with idolatrous practices. Thus, there was a strong moral note in the Council’s decision.
The second category seems a little more remote and touches on deeply felt Jewish reactions to Gentile culture. The prohibitions against eating things strangled and blood were largely urged because of kosher laws that Jews had observed for centuries. There is reason to believe that what we are here dealing with are not explicit moral laws (what is God’s universal will applied to particular cases) but the law of love (what is God’s will in the way we respect others’ values, in this case those of the Jews). Simply because Gentile Christians were free of the circumcision rule did not mean they could ignore how their actions might offend a Jewish-Christian brother or sister.
Implications for Decision-Making
The Council did what it had to do: Deliberate carefully on a complex issue that had mixed evidence and make a choice. History has proven their decision to be the correct one. However, at the time the Council did not have the benefit of historical insight to confirm their decision. They had to rely on reason and recent experience in the Gentile mission to assist them in the interpretation of Scripture. There are several factors to which we can point that are involved in their decision.
1. The Role of Scripture
The role of scriptural evidence, as already shown, may be complex. The complexity of biblical evidence can be of two kinds: (1) there may be opposing opinions about how a single passage should be interpreted; (2) there may be two or more passages which suggest different conclusions. The ultimate goal in the second type is to find which of the two or more scriptural passages provides the standard and is to be judged as normative and controlling.
The debate settled at the Jerusalem Council on whether or not Gentile converts should be circumcised was clearly of the second kind. Both sides could point to individual Scriptural passages which supported their views. In this case, in fact, the more explicit passages were on the side that was finally rejected. Thus, the usual rule that obscure passages are to be understood in the light of clear and explicit passages is not always correct.
2. The Appeal to Experience:
At the time that the Council met, the church already had some significant experience in the Gentile mission. Thus the church could draws upon substantial, verifiable, real-life cases to inform its thinking.
Peter also appealed to thoughtful reflection by the Jews upon their own experiences. “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (15:10).
3. The Role of Reason:
Involved in the process of weighing the various components, the scriptural evidences and those from experiences, the leaders of the church had to appeal to careful thinking. The rhetorical question of 15:10 clearly implies that they are reasoning through the data to reach the correct conclusion that is then given in the next verse.
4. The Role of Leadership:
The leader of the meeting was James. Luke tells us that he spoke last. James had listened with care to what was said and was influenced by it. He then offered is recommendation on what should be done. A respectful response to duly recognized leaders was an integral part of the wholesome functioning of the New Testament Church.
5. The Decision of the Whole Body:
The debate came to closure. Of course, not everyone accepted the decision. Years later there are still some whom Paul patiently and systematically tries to guide into a new understanding of Genesis 17. But the church cannot wait for all to come around before it goes on with it work.
6. Sensitivity to All Viewpoints:
Although the Council made a clear decision — it would be incorrect to call this a compromise — the edict suggests that the Council worked at representing the concerns of all sides.
7. The Guidance of the Holy Spirit:
There is, interestingly, no mention of the Council going to prayer before it made its final decision. Nor is there evidence that God provided some supernatural act to let the church know what His will was. Rather, Luke reports about the different speeches, the decision, and the writing of a letter. God employed human beings who used scripture, reason, and their experience as Christian leaders to work through complex data and come to a corporate decision. The context would suggest the will of the Holy Spirit was discovered through the deliberative process, not apart from it or even above it. In the letter, we finally hear the Council saying to the readers: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …” (15:28).
It is instructive to know that the early church, just as we, had to work through difficult questions. They were hardly exempt from perplexing theological controversies in which sincere people, with strong convictions and armed with contrary evidences, had to reach a decision. Their deliberative method provides a model and example we can safely follow in our present task of theological decision-making.
Tongues in the Free Methodist Church
The Free Methodist Church, throughout its history, has been essentially united in matters having to do with Christian experience. However, in recent times, the emergence of tongue speaking in western Christianity has produced some tension among us. All Free Methodists affirm the work of the Spirit in the life of the church; we differ somewhat in our response to tongues. Because of the kind of people we are, however, we are willing to examine such an issue dispassionately in the light of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
I. Underlying Concerns
Some feel we should “outlaw” tongues in the Free Methodist Church. Where tongue speaking has occurred in our churches, they point out, it has often proven problematic and disruptive. Therefore, we should expel the charismatics from among us, and set a guard against further incursion. To moderate our position at this time, they contend, would open the door to rampant abuse and disruption.
Others fear the “charisphobia” latent in the foregoing position more than tongues. They fear reaction and increased rigidity. They are concerned lest the Free Methodist Church adopt an inflexible position that dismisses honest differences of biblical interpretation, and arbitrarily limits the ways God may choose to work among us. To take a hard line against tongues at this time, just as the Free Methodist Church is entering its New Day under God, they believe, would close the door on the fresh breezes that are beginning to blow.
Two other concerns are often voiced. First, many are concerned that the Free Methodist Church be biblical in its position on tongues speaking. “We want to be Bible Christians,” one group of Free Methodists has declared, speaking for many of us. “It is necessary to try the spirits and see whether they be of God — but let scriptural tests be applied.”
Another widespread concern arises from the possibility of division in the church over this issue. This concern is based on real peril. Persons from both sides may threaten that if the Free Methodist Church goes one way or the other, they will leave. This is an unfortunate attitude that needs to be challenged, because not only does it exacerbate the situation, it violates Bible doctrine concerning the church.
Exchanging ultimatums is not God’s way of resolving differences. God has brought us together into one body, with a unique heritage. We are not all the same, but reflect a diversity of God’s choosing, for the benefit of the Free Methodist Church. As members, He calls upon us to love one another, and to use our God-given energies for building — not dividing — His church.
II. A Wesleyan Perspective
Wesley, the father of Methodism, was a practical and creative theologian who found solid solutions for thorny issues. His model offers significant help in working through the question before us.
A. Religious Emotionalism
Early in his career as a successful evangelist, Wesley noted that on occasions there were powerful, emotional responses to the proclaimed word. People would shake, cry out, and sometimes fall to the ground. He even coined a phrase for these reactions — “the fits,” which we find noted here and there in his Journal. The commonly used term in Wesley’s day for such emotionalism was “enthusiasm,” which we might label fanaticism.
Wesley did not seek to elicit such reactions. Today when we read his written sermons, we are amazed at how logical and content-loaded they are. It is obvious that Wesley did not compromise content to win an emotional reaction. Nevertheless, there were, as noted above, tremendous emotional reactions to his preaching.
Simply noting how Wesley handled this matter is instructive. When the emotional expressions occurred, he did not stop them — as long as they seemed genuine and under control. But he was not prepared to approve everything that was attributed to God.
B. Emphasis on Holiness and Love
According to Wesley, no experience is to be considered authentically from God unless it is supported by inward and outward holiness and love for God and neighbor. No single personal experience can validate the quality of God’s inner work. Rather, it must itself be brought under critical judgment.
Wesley, in his controversies, was struggling against more than unrestrained emotional fervor. Actually, he was engaged in a two-front war. On the one side, were those who claimed that the bottom-line criterion was right belief. The degree to which one’s life was transformed was secondary to whether or not one believed the correct doctrines. Against this view, Wesley insisted that assertions of possessing correct belief are hollow when they are not coupled with a holy life. On the other side, there were those who claimed that a particular kind of experience proved they were God’s special children. Such a claim also was hollow, Wesley asserted, apart from holiness and love.
This does not mean that Wesley thought either doctrine or experience unimportant. But he did not regard them as the proof of genuine, Christian faith. In this conviction, Wesley stood in the mainstream of the church, with such ancient Fathers as St. John of Chrysostom and St. Augustine, as well as many great Christians of more recent times. Those who emphasize correct doctrine or a particular experience as being more important than holiness and love are out of step with historic Christianity.
C. The Wesleyan Quadrilaterial
In developing his theology and reaching practical solutions, John Wesley drew from several sources. This feature has been identified as “the Wesleyan quadrilateral,” because the sources number four: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In Wesleyanism, there is dialogical process in which experience, tradition, and reason interpret Scripture and in which Scripture interprets experience, tradition, and reason. Evidence from each arena should be noted, but each does not make the same contribution. Verification should come from each category, but each does not carry the same weight. Ultimately, experience, tradition, and reason must come before the judgment bar of Scripture.
Wesley used these four sources in a complex way. Scripture provided the formal and authoritative source for his theological thinking. All convictions had to derive from it and be confirmed by it. Experience was important, but not primary. No one could point to the experience people claimed, and argue Christian truth thereby established. No doubt they did experience something, but what that something was needed to be judged carefully in the light of Scripture.
On the other hand, if his interpretation of Scripture proved unworkable in experience, then Wesley re-examined his interpretation. In this sense he was a practical man, a kind of experimental theologian. Wesley shaped what he taught so that it would help ordinary people grow. Holding to a few great principles and goals, he was flexible in searching new ways to express them.
In a similar way, Wesley adapted the historic teachings and guidance of the Christian Church. He had read deeply in the classical authors of the spiritual life: Macarius the Egyptian, Thomas a Kempis, Luther, and Calvin, as well as listening closely to his contemporaries: William Law, Peter Boehler, and Count von Zinzendorf. Wesley heeded those considered learned and wise in the things of God, although he was “a man of one book.”
D. Historical Relation of Wesleyanism to Pentecostalism
The argument that modern Pentecostalism is a child of the Wesleyan movement has merit. However, it is too much to argue that it is uniquely Wesleyan, a genuine extension of its emphases, or unrelated to other historical influences.
After the apostolic period we have no evidence of any speaking in tongues until the Montanist movement of the late-second century. Although the Montanists possessed some noble features, their teaching was so freighted with the claim that they were the true people of God, a veiled arrogance, they could hardly escape the sharp rebuke of the Church.
From that time until the early twentieth century there is little evidence of speaking in tongues. Here and there people claimed to have had extraordinary experience and revelations by the Holy Spirit, but few of these seem to have included the gift of tongues.
Early in the twentieth century, however, Pentecostalism emerged in North America as a movement. Although there is a lively debate about the actual causes, there is good reason to believe that Wesleyanism in a significant way contributed, even if unintentionally, to its birth. Elements in Wesleyan thought provided the theological framework: the emphasis on personal assurance, the work of the Holy Spirit, and a second experience of grace. Moreover, the holiness movement, with its camp-meeting revivalism, created the ethos in which the Pentecostal experience surfaced.
The social atmosphere outside the Church also encouraged the Pentecostal emphasis. In a day such as the present, when domestic pressures and world unrest can foster anxiety, it is not hard to understand why people long for God to be present in a tangible way.
E. Changes and Developments in Pentecostalism
Pentecostalism has been changing since it began earlier in this century. There have been at least three observable stages in its development.
The first is represented by the historic Pentecostal churches, which emphasized healing and speaking in tongues as the unique signs of the Holy Spirit’s work. There was a kind of militancy in the way in which this was taught — claiming that those who differed from them did not enjoy the full blessing of the Spirit. Among the other churches, an aversive reaction caused a shift away from the Pentecostal “style.” We know holiness churches, for example, once generally open to a free worship style, in which a kind of cooling took place so that worship became more formal and predictable.
The second stage occurred when, in the middle of the century, the Pentecostal emphasis went outside of its traditional denominations to other churches. These included congregations among mainline denominations that, historically, were entirely closed to such an emphasis (Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Lutheran, for example).
The third stage, now with us, has seen even more changes. While many Pentecostals still affirm the unique importance of glossolalia, others among them do not. Some of their scholars, for example, have denied that the gift of tongues is the true and necessary sign of the full presence of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, in non-Pentecostal churches many have opened themselves to worship patterns characteristic of Pentecostals, including the extensive use of Scripture choruses, clapping and the raising of hands.
Geographical or regional differences may contribute to how open or closed a people are to the influence of the Pentecostal movement. For example, Pentecostalism has swept through many South American countries. It would be incorrect, however, to assert that Pentecostalism is predictably confined to specific geographical areas and absent from others. This simply is not so. People in regions that seem to be very traditional and from social groups noted for emotional restraint have adapted (if not, on occasion, adopted) features of Pentecostalism. The result is a strange and wondrous mosaic of old and new.
F. Examining Pentecostalism in a Wesleyan Way
Generally, Wesley understood the relevant passages in the New Testament on tongues to refer to a known, human language. In his comments on 1 Corinthians 14, he does allow for a devotional use of tongues. On the other hand, nothing suggests that he even considered the question which modern Wesleyans face: Is this “prayer language” which Pentecostals advocate the same thing as taught in the biblical texts?
It might be possible to project Wesley’s answer to such a question, but it is somewhat precarious to do so. We have no way of knowing for sure what he would have said. He simply was not faced with the questions in the way that we are.
However, if we follow Wesley’s theological method (the “quadrilateral”), we will weigh the relative importance of the different components in this debate – the primacy of Scripture, interacting with experience, reason and the tradition of the church. We do not need to take a position that claims that all the evidence is on one side. Rather, in theological controversies with mixed evidence, such as this one, Wesleyanism will follow the solution which the convergence of the various sources suggests is the most likely and agrees with her theological goal: The deep work of the Holy Spirit aims above all at fostering inward and outward holiness evidenced by love for God and neighbor.
III. Areas of Ambiguity
The Free Methodist Church seeks not to be dogmatic on matters where the Scriptures are silent or unclear, or where serious differences of biblical interpretation exist.
Widely differing views on eschatology are represented in the Free Methodist Church. That is permitted. We do not force all of our members to subscribe to the same interpretation. Many are grateful that the church has afforded us freedom and flexibility in this disputed area of theology. They value this characteristic of the Free Methodist Church, and view it as a strength, believing both the church and its members benefit by this allowance for diversity.
In the matter of the sacraments, we permit and perform both infant and adult baptism, offering a choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. We also give parents the choice of infant dedication. Granted, our ambiguity regarding this important sacrament does create tensions within the body, especially among our ministers.
These observations about the Free Methodist Church are pertinent to formulating an ecclesiastical position on tongues. Ought we to be firmly dogmatic on such a matter where there exist honest differences of interpretation, biblical and otherwise? Or can we permit some variation of interpretation and practice? At the same time, what is the responsibility of the church to regulate its own life?
A. The Meaning of Glossai in Scripture
Differing interpretations exist respecting the definition of biblical tongues. It is difficult — in fact, impossible — to decide between them. Some would settle the issue by insisting that the tongues of Corinthians were foreign languages, since that was the case in Acts 2. To others, including some of our own biblical scholars, it seems patent that the tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14 were not intelligible human languages (see preceding exegetical study on 1 Corinthians 12-14).
Arguments based on the Greek text do no resolve the issue. The term glossai (tongues; the singular is glossa) is used in both the Acts and Corinthians texts, but not necessarily with the same meaning. Greek words, like English words, do not always mean the same thing in all instances and as used by different speakers/writes. Context is essential to the proper interpretation and translation of each usage of a word, even when the underlying Greek term is the same.
It simply is incorrect to assume or assert that because glossa describes human language in Acts 2, wherever else the term is used it must mean the same. In Mark 7:33, 35, the Greek text says Jesus touched the dumb man’s glossa: the word here obviously refers to the physical tongue; it would be senseless to translate it as “language.” Similarly, in Luke 1:54,
God touched Zechariah’s “glossa: the intended meaning is probably “mouth” not “language”, as most translations tell us. Finally, in 1 John 3:18 we are exhorted, “Let us love not (merely) in word and glossa…”: here the translation “language” could be used, but the sense is better communicated by the usual rendering, “speech.”
Similarly, we must study contextually each instance of glossa in Acts and Corinthians. In some texts, the exact meaning is unclear: We cannot be certain, for example, whether the “tongues” given in Acts 10 and 19 consisted of intelligible or unintelligible speech. In such instances, dogmatism (on either side, to the exclusion of other viewpoints) seems not only unfounded by unwarranted.
B. Questions About Tongue-Speaking Today
Even more difficult to decide than such issues of biblical interpretation is the question of correspondence between biblical tongues and modern day phenomenon. Are they one and the same, or only apparently similar, or really quite different (perhaps both in content and form)? No one knows for sure.
How spiritually authentic is the contemporary use of tongues? Some claim it is the “sign” of being Spirit-filled; others regard it as demonically inspired. In many instances, it may be neither, but merely a reflection of human response and conditioning.
Do Scriptures teach or permit the use of tongues as a “prayer language,” or not? Are tongues plus interpretation the same as a word of prophecy? Do interpreted tongues have the same form and content as prophecy? Or is “glossolalia” a prayer directed to God, and prophecy a word from God directed to us? What is the definition and nature of the gift of prophecy? Is it the same as or equivalent to “preaching”? Or, is it a more particular form of address from God, given immediately rather than meditated through the written Word? What, then, is the distinction between a word of prophecy and a word of revelation? And again, how do they differ from a message given through tongues and interpretation?
These are important questions to which we do not have clear, unequivocal answers — because the Scriptures are either silent or unclear with respect to such questions, and serious differences of interpretation exist among us.
Opinions about charismatic experience are fashioned in a variety of ways. Many have been influenced by television or literature, others by interdenominational contacts or interpersonal relationships. A few assert they have been influenced only by a direct encounter with God. The nature of these exposures affects differing impressions, interpretations and attitudes.
The experience in some cases has been negative, ranging from unpleasant to devastating. First hand contact in other instances has been positive, at least fascinating and even “lifechanging.” An increasing number of Free Methodists who have had multiple contacts report that their exposure to tongue-speaking is mixed: some good, some bad. It is necessary, therefore, to be discriminating, rather than approving or disapproving categorically.
IV. Areas of Consensus
A. Our Major Values
While there may be ambivalence and uncertainty among Free Methodists regarding the phenomenon of tongue speaking, there is an identifiable consensus regarding our major values as a church.
1. The centrality of holiness. We are convinced that holiness (defined as perfect love) is the integrating vision of the New Testament. This love expresses itself in both our relationship to God and others.
2. The unity of the church. While our church began as a reform movement, we are not schismatics. We value the unity of the body of Christ, the common good. We are pained by disunity and strife. Unity is essential to witness and mission.
3. Bible-centeredness. We are Bible Christians. We are uneasy about any doctrine or practice lacking the clear support of Scripture.
4. Our roots. We have an appreciation for our tradition. We have a natural aversion to tampering with the essentials of our identity.
5. Our mission. We believe we are here for a purpose and that purpose reflects faithfully the central thrust of the New Testament. We exist to proclaim forgiveness and holiness, to bring others into the fellowship of Christ’s body, and to equip them and send them out as productive, witnessing Christians. This conviction is at the center of our institutional system and activities.
B. The Work of the Spirit
With specific reference to the work of the Holy Spirit, the consensus among Free Methodists contains these elements:
1. Christian holiness takes precedence over any specific gift.
2. The witness of the Spirit is inward and not necessarily attended by any particular manifestation.
3. The spiritual gifts are sovereignly distributed by the Holy Spirit and are purposefully given for the ministries of the church.
4. The fruit of the Spirit, the essence of which is holy love, will appear in every life committed to God.
5. The Spirit gives power for victorious living.
6. The efficacy of the Spirit’s work is evidenced in transformed lives and effective service.
7. The Spirit purposes to upbuild the church in unity.
C. Tongues and Holiness
On the negative side, we reject the suggestion that any one of the gifts is expected of every person; we reject the claim to spiritual superiority based on the “possession” of any particular gift; we reject the position that speaking in tongues is a necessary sign of being filled with the Spirit. Moreover, we question, on the grounds of our understanding of Scripture, the prominence generally given in the charismatic movement to the practice of tongue speaking.
In our estimation, the positions outlined above put us in the center of what it means to be a New Testament Church. We do not unchristianize those who do not share our convictions on every point. Rather, we reflect the large heart of Wesley who said, “For opinions, or terms, let us not destroy the work of God” (“The Character of a Methodist”).
Free Methodists consider that the doctrine of perfect love reflects the heart of living the Christian life. Our founder, B. T. Roberts, considered this doctrine of Christian holiness as “plainly enforced in the Word of God, and constituting the real strength and power for good of the church of Christ” (Earnest Christian, I, pp. 1,5). We concur.
V. Guidelines for Worship
What elements in the earlier parts of this paper furnish us guidance for treating the issue of worship and tongue speaking in the Free Methodist Church?
The Free Methodist Church generally has been cautious in making pronouncements where Scripture is not clear. This is illustrated by our allowance for differing millennial views and our breadth of practice on baptism.
It is not necessary or possible for us to reach a position of certainty on all exegetical matters surrounding the gifts nor are we compelled to make a judgment on the various interpretations and practices found in the modern charismatic movement. Moreover, we do not need to make pronouncements on the validity or authenticity of the spiritual experiences of other believers.
However, the ambiguity of some Scriptural evidence (for example, the precise meaning of glossai in 1 Cor. 14) does not leave us without biblical guidelines. Scripture does charge the church to direct its own life in accordance with overarching principle. For example, the account of the Jerusalem Council (see preceding exegetical study on Acts 15) provides a biblical precedent for the church governing itself. When faced with the controversy that, if unresolved, could have severely limited its mission, the church sought the wise counsel of its leaders guided by the Holy Spirit.
We must be concerned about the unity, health and mission of the Free Methodist Church as a part of the body of Christ. We must be attentive to the clear proclamation of new life and holiness in Christ. We must be true to the central mandates of Scripture.
Such a conclusion is not a judgment on the charismatic movement or on any person’s experience. Rather, our position takes into consideration a concern for the common good and the peace of the church as well as our urgent mission.
1. We affirm Paragraphs 122 and 3240 of the Book of Discipline, and,
2. We continue as an administrative policy to insist that worship shall be in a language understood by the people and that we disapprove of the practice or promotion of tonguespeaking in public worship.
3. We affirm the priority of our mission to proclaim forgiveness and holiness in Jesus Christ. Let us unite to bring in the New Day under God.