Saturday, 2 February 2019

What about speaking in tongues?

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,  to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

Did you pick up on the interview Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave last week? Among other things, he spoke about his practice of “speaking in different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:10) during his daily prayer time.

There was a time (and I’m old enough to remember it) when such a thing would have been unheard of. “Speaking in tongues” was the preserve of those strange “Pentecostals” - who were decidedly suspect! You didn’t get it in the “mainline” churches, certainly not in the Anglican church, and certainly not with Archbishops of Canterbury! Goodness me, whatever next!

If nothing else, this shows how massively the church as a whole has changed over the last fifty or so years - along with musical idioms, Bible translations, dress codes, styles of worship, and all sorts of other things.

I was just beginning my ministry, aged twenty-four, when what became known as “the charismatic movement” burst upon us. And we had to do some rapid thinking. What were we to make of this strange new phenomenon? Dismiss it out of hand as a shallow fad? Or swallow it whole, hook, line and sinker?

Well, as the dust settled over the next few years, many of us found ourselves - surprise, surprise - adopting a middle course. And here we are today, half a century on, looking at a church landscape which, as I said, is completely transformed.

There is no way I can possibly cover every aspect of this in just a short blog. But a fifty-year time-span does lend a certain perspective that was impossible at the start. So I thought - for what it’s worth - that I might share a few conclusions I have come to.

First, there are no biblical grounds for believing that tongues and the other charismatic gifts ceased at the end of the New Testament period.

True, some people take 1 Corinthians 13:10 as foreseeing the completed Bible, and say that this renders tongues and the other gifts redundant. But this seems a very forced and unnatural interpretation. So tongues-speaking shouldn’t be automatically ruled out.

Second, it is not, of itself, a sign of “the baptism of the Holy Spirit”.

“Baptism of the Holy Spirit” is a very loaded expression, of course, and whole books have been written about it. My own understanding is that it refers to the events of the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and, by extension, to other similar dramatic events that occur from time to time throughout Christian history, and which may or may not be accompanied by tongues. (Such events have sometimes been called “revivals”.)

“Baptism of (or with, or in) the Holy Spirit” has, sadly, become something of a battle-ground. But we shouldn’t be afraid of it: no, it is right there in the Bible, and so claims the right to be studied thoughtfully and prayerfully. (Is this something you have ever done?)

Third, speaking in tongues is not, so to speak, a badge of superiority - a sign that somebody is numbered among some kind of spiritual elite. Absolutely not! Over the years I have known many fine Christians who have never exercised this gift - and other fine Christians who have. And I have known other Christians in both camps who turned out to be (oh dear, what word shall I use? - I really don’t want to be judgmental!) somewhat, er, flaky.

Fourth, the charismatic movement has brought with it much that is good - not least a new focus on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, new vibrancy in worship, new urgency in prayer, new initiatives in evangelism, new radical forms of social action - and I could go on. But it has also brought with it much that is damaging, misleading, divisive and even downright absurd. It has grown what might be called a “lunatic fringe”. And that’s not good.

Throughout it all, one very positive conviction has grown on me over the years: the church needs revival, not least in our materialistic western world. And how is revival to come except through the Holy Spirit, the powerful breath of God?

So, tongues or no tongues, I for one have no qualms at all about praying “Lord, baptise us afresh with your Holy Spirit!”, “Lord, send us a mini-Pentecost!” Why not? Seriously now, why not!

I don’t usually use this blog to tackle issues that divide Christians. (I blame it on this occasion on the Archbishop and the prod that interview gave!) I can only encourage us all to think and pray about it for ourselves. My only plea would be that when we look for guidance in the Bible, we do so with humble and teachable minds.

Is it time to throw open the windows and let some fresh biblical air blow through?

Meanwhile, please join me if you can in prayer...

Lord God, baptise your church afresh with your Holy Spirit! Give us a little Pentecost for our day and our time! Amen.

Come, Holy Spirit, to cleanse and renew us:/ Purge us of evil and fill us with power:/ So shall the waters of healing flow through us;/ So may revival be born in this hour. Amen.   RD Browne

Come, Lord Jesus, come, Lord Jesus,/ Pour out your Spirit we pray./ Come, Lord Jesus, come, Lord Jesus,/ Pour out your Spirit on us today. Amen!   Gerald Coates and Noel Richards

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