By Deborah-Ruth Ferber.
While I am not from a Charismatic background, over the past 3-4 years I have become increasingly more charismatic in my beliefs and Christian practices. When I was a student at Tyndale was affectionately called a “Pennonite” (a mixture of Pentecostal and Mennonite). There are still a variety of charismatic gifts that I simply do not know enough about at this time to offer any real insight via blog. Therefore, at this present time topics of prophesy and being slain in the Spirit are a bit out of my reach, though I recently read a very interesting book by Dr. James Beverly (a professor at Tyndale) “Holy Laughter and the Toronto Blessing” that deals with a few of the more “wild” types of charismatic movements.
One topic that I would like to address, though, is that of speaking in tongues – a gift that I seldom see practiced in Mennonite churches but which I feel could have value for us. This blog will be written from the perspective of someone who does not have much charismatic theological training and with the (perhaps incorrect) assumption that readers of this blog may not be very familiar with this gift and perhaps may never even have experienced it in their faith lives.
What Does It Mean to Speak in Tongues? Speaking in tongues is a very moving experience which can take place through prayer or worship in public or in private (I’ll share more about this later). Someone can speak in tongues for a short time or a long period of time (perhaps even for hours). When someone speaks in tongues they may speak in a “Heavenly Language” – one which is not recognizable to the human ear or they may also speak in Ancient languages such as Latin, Hebrew, or Greek. I have also heard experiences where someone from a different country who did not speak a word of English heard the Gospel message in their native tongue from a speaker who did not know their language.
Does The Person Realize When They Are Speaking in Tongues? In my case and in the many experiences I have had talking with Charismatic and Pentecostals people do realize when they are speaking in tongues. Some of them have had experiences of knowing what was being said, others of them do not know what they are saying but are engaged in deep prayer.
Do Other People Know What is Being Said? Sometimes someone in a group or church may be able to interpret the tongues (more on this later). Other times people do not know what is being said but if they have studied the Ancient Biblical Languages in Bible College or Seminary might be able to pick out a few words thus knowing that the person is speaking in Greek or Hebrew.
What Does the Bible Say About Speaking in Tongues? Often I come across skeptical people who ask me what the point of speaking in tongues is if one doesn’t even know what they are saying. However, speaking in tongues is a Biblical concept. You can check out several of the times it is mentioned in the Bible here.
My Experience of Speaking in Tongues
I have spoken in tongues – not often, but a few times. The first time I began to believe in the power of speaking in tongues was when I attended a Charismatic Church in Richmond Hill with my roomate in my first year of Tyndale and during the service the pastor gave an invitation for everyone who wished to come to the front and to receive an anointing with oil. This particular Sunday the sermon had really impacted me and allowed me to make a decision that I was struggling with at the time.
When I got up to the front, the pastor’s wife placed her hand on my shoulder and began to speak in tongues. Up until this time I had heard people at Tyndale talk about speaking in tongues but had never experienced it or heard anyone do it so I was pretty sceptical. The church I attended did not necessarily think it was wrong to speak in tongues but we also didn’t place an emphasis on it or even really discuss it. After the woman was done speaking the pastor began to translate what she had said and everything she had said made such perfect sense to me and was exactly what I needed to hear.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking, “she probably said the exact same thing to everyone else”, but I don’t think that’s the case. What she said was very specific to me and my situation. I have since been to churches where I have seen the gift of prophesy or special wisdom used in the same way as going to see a fortune teller and I’ve experienced those generic things that they say which can apply to anyone at any life stage, but this woman was saying very specific things to me. The other question one could ask is why she just didn’t say all of this in English and I don’t know the answer for that, but I believe I truly did receive a Word from the Lord.
At the very end of my first year at Tyndale I spoke in tongues for the first time. This was completely unexpected, but the worship leader during chapel prayed out loud for gifts of prophesy and speaking in tongues and it happened almost instantaneously. It was like my mouth kept running and I was not able to stop. Every time I speak in tongues I do so very quietly and so no one around me actually knew what was happening. My roomate began to rub my back and someone else came up to me and asked me if I was okay. I was not able to talk to them any only said “I just need to be alone”.
I ran to my dorm room and continued to speak in tongues for about 5-10 minutes and then it stopped completely. When I came back down my friends said that my face was glowing. My one friend suggested that I should tell my pastor what had happened. To her it was a great thing because in charismatic circles this is evidence of the Spirit in your life, but when I called my pastor I was disappointed because she thought that I was trying to “test her”. Thus, I was not able to share in the same excitement as my other friends did when they had their first experience.
After that experience I began to pray to speak in tongues again, but it didn’t happen again for a long time. I had to be alert to the fact that I might be seeking a “Spiritual high” whenever I was feeling down because speaking in tongues that one time gave me an instant boost. However, it did happen again a year later when my friend’s house burnt down and three of us gathered around her and we all began to speak in one tongue and with one voice. That was an incredible experience. And it has happened a few other times as well, but certainly it is not a frequent occurrence in my life.
My Theological and Biblical Viewpoint on Speaking in Tongues
I believe that speaking in tongues is a gift which the Holy Spirit has given to us and that it can be used to increase and enhance the Kingdom of God. I used to be one of these people who believed that the charismatic gifts were meant for Bible times only and they no longer have importance over our lives, but the more I study the Word of God the more I disagree with this mindset. Why would God only care about speaking in tongues when it relates to Pentecost or about healing 2000 years ago? I think that God still does care about these things and that He still pours forth these gifts on men and women around the world. After all, you would be hard pressed to find a Christian who DIDN’T believe in the gifts of preaching, teaching, administration, or leadership so why then should we have a difficult time accepting someone with gifts of healing, prophesy, and tongues? The Apostle Paul tells us that we are to use our gifts in accordance to what we have been given – if leadership to the level that we are able to lead and if prophecy than we should prophesy (Romans 12:6)!
Even so, I believe that the Bible also is clear that tongues are a lesser gift. In fact, Paul writes that it is better that someone know how to prophesy because this will impact the entire church than that someone knows how to speak in tongues. BUT there is a clause and that is – if an interpreter is available (1 Corinthians 14:5). We also know from reading 1 Corinthians 13 that the greatest gift is love and that all other Spiritual gifts pale in comparison. Paul writes that “Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.” (1 Corinthians 13:8).
I believe that tongues are definitely an asset to private devotional life and can really enhance one’s time with the Lord. I also know that tongues are important when one cannot pray in words because of trauma or a deep depression. In fact, I believe that there are times when God sees our hearts allows the Holy Spirit to intercede on our behalf. After all, Jesus sent the Spirit as an intercessor and a helper once He ascended (John 14:6). I love how to New Living Translation uses the phrase “advocate” when referring to the Spirit. (See also: Romans 8:26)
All this said, I also believe that there are some potential issues with Speaking in Tongues:
1) Many charismatic movements place TOO MUCH of an emphasis on speaking in tongues. This can lead to it being “the norm” to speak in tongues and I have even met some Pentecostals who have “made up” tongues in order to fit in. The understanding is that speaking in tongues is evidence of the Holy Spirit in your life but I don’t believe it is the only evidence we need, in fact, I believe it is of less importance than many other things.
Micah 6:8 “But He has shown you, mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
James 1:27 “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God our Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep one’s self unstained by idols.”
Isaiah 61:1-2 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to proclaim Good News to the poor, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for captives, and release for the prisoner. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance for our God, to comfort all who mourn…”
These three verses point us to what is truly evidence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13 – if we speak in tongues but we don’t have love it profits us nothing.
2) I also do not believe that everyone has the gifts of speaking in tongues. It is a wonderful thing when someone is able to do this, but it’s not realistic to think that every single person who joins a charismatic church will experience this. After all, we do not expect everyone to have the gifts of preaching, teaching, administration, or leadership, so why should we place this expectation on tongues? I believe we need to be realistic and accept the fact that no person has every single gift. If we had every single gift we would have no need of anyone else and would cease to be the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12).
3) I have witnessed experiences of people screaming and yelling in tongues and I do not believe that this edifies the Body of Christ, in fact, I believe it detracts from true worship. The Bible tells us that we should only speak in tongues out loud if there is an interpreter and if there isn’t we should privately go to our rooms and shut the door. 1 Corinthians 14:18-40 also gives us some very clear details about the order of tongues including not having many tongues given in the same meeting. In my experiences of hearing tongues I have actually only heard an interpretation twice. Now one could ask: “How would I know if an interpreter is present?” My answer would be that unless someone at your church or meeting has interpreted before to speak in tongues silently and not disrupt. I also know that some people can interpret their own tongues, but many of the people I know (including myself) are not in this category.
4) I also don’t think that tongues always need to be interpreted. For the most part, I think tongues are meant to be mysterious. For those who don’t believe in this gift they may wonder what the point is, but for me, it is my deepest time of prayer and is between God and I. For me to know what I am saying in a way ruins the mystery of it. I care less about the words coming out of my mouth and more about my heart attitude while in that deep of a prayer before God.
5) Finally, I do think that we need to be cautious about tongues and always test the Spirit (1 John 4:1). Not every tongue comes from God so we have to be on our guard and be able to discern what is truly happening around us.
Speaking in tongues for personal edification as well as for deep intercession on behalf of friends, family members, and the Body of Christ worldwide is something I would love to see happening more of in the Mennonite church. I think that there often tends to be a disconnect between deep theology and free movement of the Spirit, however, the two not only can co-exist but are essential to the other’s survival. I want to see a church where the Holy Spirit is so alive that we can feel the presence of God every time we meet to worship. As the old hymn goes, “We are standing on Holy Ground, and I know that there are angels all around. Let us praise Jesus now. We are standing in His presence on Holy Ground.”
Deborah-Ruth Ferber studied her Master’s of Divinity and her Bachelor’s of Religious Education at Tyndale University College and graduated with a Certificate of Theological Studies (concentration: Peace Studies) from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Deborah has a special interest in international development, social justice/social change, and economic justice.