“Do All Speak in Tongues?” Part II

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Last month I added a couple of articles to my website, and the subject of both was the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. The first of the two articles was entitled “Do All Speak in Tongues?” Obviously, this article is a follow up to the first one on that subject.

In the same month, a local church had advertised a Sunday evening seminar on the subject. After my first article appeared, some wondered if my article was written to express views contrary to those presented on that night. Those wondering this did not contact me about it; they spoke to the clergyman that taught the seminar instead. He let them know that I did not attend that seminar (apparently, those wondering hadn’t attended it either), so it couldn’t have been in direct response to what was taught that night.

I was aware of that seminar, and it prompted me to revisit my own study of the subject. I have studied many Biblical topics over the decades, and I generally write articles on those things which I study. But even when such personal studies don’t turn into articles, I do preserve my research in Word documents on my computer. So, around the same time as that seminar, I did begin to re-study this topic of tongues-speaking.

Quite coincidentally, around the same time frame a friend who lives in another city had Facebook messaged me asking me a number of questions. She had visited a Pentecostal church that her grandfather had helped to build, and between her experiences there and her discussions with some of those church members, she had several questions about speaking in tongues.

I have been aware for some decades now what Pentecostals and Charismatics say in response to the wording of 1 Corinthians 12:30. I did not include this in my first article on this (Part I, if you will), but I believe this follow up is necessary.

So let’s look again at the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:30. As I translated it, “Not all speak in tongues? No.” The New American Standard Bible renders it “All do not speak with tongues, do they?” The typical Pentecostal/Charismatic response to this is that Paul must have been referring to the “use of speaking in tongues that is for the public assembly of the church.”

Their position is that he could not have been saying that not all believers speak in tongues because that would be contradictory to their perception of what Paul would go on to say in ch. 14:5, to say nothing of contradicting their cardinal doctrine of the so-called “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” They also maintain that the context of this troublesome question in verse 30 is that of the church service, and they quote verse 28 to prove it. Let me address each one of these objections in turn.

All of 1 Corinthians 14:5 is significant, of course, and instructs us concerning the use of this gift. But when Pentecostals or Charismatics cite this verse in response to what Paul said in ch. 12:30, they are referring to just the first clause: “Now I wish all of you to speak in tongues…” Now this has been understood and can be explained in various ways.

Some take this as Paul speaking in hyperbole, exaggerating for the sake of emphasis. Such an assumption is plausible, but there is no way to prove that was Paul’s intention, so this view isn’t verifiable. It is conjecture, and is therefore a weak argument, at best.

Some understand this as a conditional statement. In fact, it is sometimes rendered in English with the conditional “I would” (KJV, ASV, NIV, NRSV). However, the Greek wording is not in the subjunctive mood, nor is there a conditional particle. Paul did not write “I could wish that you all spoke in tongues…”  or, “If only you all spoke in tongues…”

On the contrary, the verb in this clause is Θέλω (thelō), the first person singular, present active indicative form of the verb, and is quite accurately translated “I wish.” The indicative mood here makes a statement of fact. So, taking this clause as Paul expressing a wish that all the Corinthians spoke in tongues is the simplest way of understanding this statement.

But that said, it is too much of a stretch to read the simple expression of a wish in this verse as a declaration of doctrine that all Christians have the ability to speak in tongues. Paul is not saying here that every believer receives the gift of tongues. The apostle expressed a personal wish here, nothing more. It must therefore be admitted that a literal understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:5 does not contradict a literal understanding of 1 Corinthians 12:30.

As previously mentioned, a second objection raised by Pentecostals and Charismatics to the literal understanding of 1 Corinthians 12:30 is that it contradicts their cardinal doctrine of the so-called “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” By this they are referring to an experience distinct from and subsequent to the experience of salvation. In this subsequent experience, doctrine dictates that the one so “baptized” speaks in tongues. This concept is fundamental to Pentecostal theology, and so, when confronted with a passage that contradicts that essential tenet of their belief, they object to that understanding.

I’ve researched this many times over the decades. More than a dozen years ago, I wrote a detailed article on the subject entitled “What the Bible Really Says About Being Immersed in the Holy Spirit.” Instead of condensing down that article into a single point in this article, I refer the reader to that document. (I will be posting it to my website soon.)

The third Pentecostal/Charismatic objection that I alluded to earlier is their claim that the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 12 (specifically verse 28) indicates that the reference to tongues in verse 30 applies to the use of tongues in a church service. They claim that the use of tongues with an interpretation is what Paul addressed here, that the apostle was saying that not all speak in tongues as a word of edification for the body in a church service. Making this distinction allows Pentecostals to retain their theology of everyone receiving the gift of tongues as a “prayer language,” without contradicting Paul’s words in 12:30.

There are three problems with this interpretive understanding. One, the view of “church” in 12:28 is assumed to be a local “church service.” Two, it requires reading into the verse in question what is not explicitly stated there. Three, this interpretive approach doesn’t work when applied to the other six questions in the immediate context. Allow me to elaborate.

One, in verse 28, most every English version renders the Greek words ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ (en tē ekklēsia) as “in the church.” From there, Pentecostals and Charismatics take that to refer to the “church” as a local service, and not as a reference to the “church” at large. From strictly a lexical point of view, the former meaning of a local assembly (or, in ecclesiastical parlance, a “church service”) is possible. But then from strictly a lexical point of view, the latter meaning of “church at large” is also possible, and contextually more probable (as we will see).

Two, the Pentecostal/Charismatic reader of the question in 1 Corinthians 12:30b would do well to notice how much information must be read into or assumed from his or her point of view. The passage does not read,

“Not all speak in tongues as a word of edification for the body in a church service when the tongue spoken is accompanied with an interpretation, do they?”

All of the elements that I have placed in italics in the above wording are indispensable to the Pentecostal/Charismatic interpretation of the question. But the question in the Greek is just four words, Μὴ πάντες γλώσσαις λαλοῦσιν; (Mē pantes glōssais laluosin?), translated into five English words: “Not all speak in tongues?”

It is logical to read those five words as a simple and straightforward question that is asked, and by grammatical implication (see Part I again), unequivocally answered. The additional concepts so essential to the Pentecostal understanding of the question must be read into those five words.

Three, the Pentecostal/Charismatic approach to the question doesn’t work when applied to the other six questions in the immediate context. Such an interpretation, if fairly applied across the board to all the other questions asked by Paul in verses 29-30, would result in an untenable theological view. It would mean that not all are apostles, prophets and teachers in the local gathering, but all believers are gifted with these leadership abilities for their own personal edification in their respective Christian walks. Not all work miracles, have gifts of healings and interpret tongues in the local church service, but outside of the assembly, they do.

Again, this is an indefensible position. Experience and common sense tell us that such a position is not true. Therefore, reading into the question a host of qualifiers to modify the meaning that are simply not present in the original cannot be right. It is self-serving to the Pentecostal/Charismatic interpretation to read modifiers into the question about tongues, but not apply them to the other six questions.

So, objections notwithstanding, my assessment stated in the previous article in this two part series stands. Paul asked a simple and straightforward question in 1 Corinthians 12:30b, one stated without contextual qualifiers, without limits or modification. And the meaning of those four Greek words, especially the negative particle mē that lexically and grammatically expects a negative response to the question, tell us that the answer to Paul’s question was “No.” Or, as I translated it,

“Not all speak in tongues? No.”