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  • Writer's picturejaredrrolston

Tongues: The Text Marries Our Experience

My good friend and brother-in-law, Philip Brown, the pastor of Redeemer Church in Tauranga, has responded to my latest two blogs on tongues (Bringing Baby Babble into Battle, and Demystifying the Gift of Tongues) giving some continuationist critiques with his own blog

I am very grateful for the massive effort Phil has put in. He represents my arguments well and deals with them charitably. His objections are clear and well-defended. When you respond this way in any debate, you cannot help but advance the discussion. 

I intend to respond in kind. To keep it short, I hope to cover a lot of ground with a few big principles at the start.

The Natural Impossibility of the Charismatic Interpretation

I want to begin by addressing the certainty that Phil sensed popping off my page. There is an overarching reason for this certainty that goes beyond 1 Corinthians 14, and I think this is a good place to begin addressing his position.

Phil has a sharp mind that he loves to use. I believe he doesn’t speak in tongues (as he would define them) because he intuitively knows he can’t turn off his thinking faculties. Everyone who speaks in tongues, if they honestly assess what they’re doing, is not praying with their spirit only. Their mind won't allow it. It is an ontological impossibility, meaning that by nature, we cannot separate the working of our minds from our spirits.

With this being true, those who try to pray mindlessly are rebelling against the created order. In fact, it is specifically in godless pagan religions that people are taught to empty their minds. Their demonic false gods set them against the designs of their maker.

Consider those who are the most committed to this impossibility. A guru, when he meditates, stops everything all at once—body, mind, and spirit. Still, quiet, and eyes closed. He knows what he's doing is unnatural, so he feels the impulse to flip his legs inside out like a pretzel, pointing the soles of his feet to the sky and pinching the air with his fingers. But after all this effort, God frustrates his plans. He cannot stop the breeze from hitting his face. The floor will not stop telling him his cheeks are being flattened. He has to use his mind to suppress his feelings of hunger, and whatever he does, the need for a bathroom break will overtake him. Consciousness oppresses him from every direction. His silly "spiritual" game is like playing whack-a-mole with his God-given frame.

Westerners try to reach mindless states in other ways. Meditation is hard. But binging TV is easy. Yet, again, this “mindless” activity only points the mind in another direction. The only true refuge from thought is sleep—but then, all our faculties shut down at once. 

Our minds and our spirits are always working together as a composite.

Because of our ontological makeup, the babbler has to have things going on upstairs during his prayers. His spirit prays, and his mind forms babble from the many sounds he knows. This was the point of my first blog. Modern tongues are ontologically the same as baby babble. Both the tongue speaker and the baby draw from what they know. There has been extensive research done to show this is the case. No tongue-speaker in New Zealand will draw from a Zulu click language. Liberal tongue speakers use their minds to avoid any guttural German sounds lest they be mistaken for a Christo-fascist. All New Zealand tongues sound like a scrambling of familiar sounds—unless they are trying really hard to stand out.

Applying this to Phil, I believe his mind is (quite rightly) getting in the way of "speaking in tongues." The fear of the Lord is keeping him from rebelling against the created order. He knows his brain will be engaged in the babble if he babbles, and his mind will not escape the thoughts of embarrassment that flood in.

To be clear, I'm not saying that all those who babble do it without the fear of the Lord. That fear can lead us to live by errant conclusions drawn from scripture. I'm speaking of Phil specifically because I know his frame. I'm agreeing with him, that he is an unlikely contender to embrace the practice of tongues. Not because of his conservative upbringing, but because he’s a thinker.

So, squaring everything that I've said so far with my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14—when Paul gives his conclusion, that we ought to pray with the spirit and the mind also, the problem is not that his mind was disengaged entirely. His mind was disengaged from the prayer. It was elsewhere. The one who doesn't know the prayer language is thinking, "How can I say "amen" to this?" (v 16).

If you don’t know the language of a prayer, you cannot pray it.

Most of us have experienced that awkward space when someone is praying in Maori, and we don't know what to do with our minds. We open our eyes to check if everyone else is struggling as we are. It feels weird to close them again because we're not praying. Why do we close our eyes in prayer? To help us give attention to God and the prayer. But when we're in the dark, listening to something we don't understand, we cannot fasten our attention to it. The one praying utters secrets—a message locked away in another language. We want to know the secrets, but there is no way of knowing them without the key—translation. 

For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks secrets. (1 Corinthians 14:2)

This is where the certainty Phil senses comes from. It isn’t just in the textual evidence—it is in the impossibility of Phil’s interpretation in the real world.  Mindless prayer is actually impossible. We can intuit this, and it marries with our experience.

The Big Picture

Phil has genuine textual hurdles to work through, and I believe I can help him with those. Because I know him, I am confident he would love to marry his understanding of the text with his experience. 

One thing he did not address was one of my strongest arguments—that the church today looks nothing like his understanding of the Corinthian church. I know this is a common burden for sincere God-fearing Charismatics. I was one of them. 

So, let's start working through those hurdles.


I appreciate how Phil framed my position. It was fair given the data he had to draw from. I'd want to add to what he said, though. In particular, of chief importance is the context of chapter 14. The issue for the Corinthian church was lovelessness. Chapter 14 applies the big lesson taught in chapter 13. It begins with "Pursue love." Paul teaches that the pursuit of love will lead you to desire spiritual things—not meaning “supernatural” things, necessarily, but rather all those things the Spirit uses to build his church. The highest of these spiritual things is the clear communication of God's revelation: prophecy. (This is usually a natural gift empowered by the Spirit; not a supernatural or mystical gift.)

Ethnic pride is not love. But so is being thoughtless toward those who don't understand your tongue. Leaving someone with a fruitless mind is not love. Leaving the truth of God a secret is not love.

We aren't told the motivations that led the church to act lovelessly, but we see where they fell short of love. We know that translation wasn't happening, so Paul exposed this loveless practice.

Theological + Contextual Critiques

1. The Problem of Definitions

In this section, Phil wrestled with my definition of “tongues.” He has understood me to some degree, but he has missed something key. 

He rightly points out that everyone speaks in a tongue (singular). But this is not a spiritual thing. English, by itself, is not spiritual, whether it be used in New Zealand or China. 

This is right. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that what the Spirit gives is actually “various kinds of tongues.”

To someone else various kinds of tongues, and to another the translation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:10)

This distinction is important. Many times in chapter 14 we see that someone is speaking in a tongue (singular), and each time the Charismatic reads this as a supernatural gift. But it's not. It only means a language was spoken—usually a foreign language. There is nothing extraordinary about a tongue. A language is neither good nor bad by itself. 

Paul only discourages the speaking of a language when its meaning is unknown—when it is not translated for those who don’t speak it. This squares with every verse on this matter.

So, the meaning of the word “tongue” or "tongues” does not change. Paul is always referring to a knowable language. What needs to be determined from the context is whether it is spiritual. To answer this, he tells us to ask: is the one using the tongue doing so in love? Or is this tongue leaving some with an unfruitful mind? Is the tongue being used as a spiritual thing, or a worthless thing? Is the language being used to prophesy a clear word from God? 

Those given various tongues (plural) were called to use them when a tongue (singular) was not being understood. They could cause the whole church to be edified by that tongue, and this is love.

What is the outcome then, brothers? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue [singular], has a translation. Let all things be done for edification. (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Phil believes these tongues could not be natural languages because the world possesses them too. This would make them nothing spiritual at all. But if we understand what Paul says in chapter 12, it is actually the Charismatic interpretation that presents the problem. Paul’s point there is not that all spiritual things in the church are supernatural. On the contrary, he names three different categories of spiritual things:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of workings, but the same God who works everything in everyone. But to each one the manifestation of the Spirit for what is profitable. (1 Corinthians 12:5-7)

He isn’t saying that manifestations of the Spirit are always supernatural. He is saying that the Spirit is manifest whenever he distributes and superintends any ability for the building up (edification) of the body. What makes them spiritual is that the Spirit works through them to produce spiritually profitable things—not that they are necessarily supernatural. I don’t think we need to try to distinguish gifts and ministries and workings, and say one kind is supernatural and one kind is natural. Maybe there is a mix in all of these. The point is that all are called “spiritual things” (1 Cor 12:1; 14:1). Many Bibles confuse this issue by translating 12:1 and 14:1 to say “spiritual gifts.” But the word gifts is not in the Greek, and Paul goes on to list gifts as just one kind of spiritual thing, alongside ministries and workings. As I pointed out in my previous blog, there are “spiritual things” of administration. So some of these spiritual things are natural. Some are supernatural. And while the natural things can be found in the world as well, natural does not mean worldly. The Charismatic reads “spiritual” as “supernatural,” and infers that “natural” must then mean “non-spiritual.” But Paul never sets spiritual things in contrast to natural ones. He sets spiritual things against worthless ones. The world does not produce spiritually profitable things with their languages, because the Spirit is not working in them. There is a different spirit at work in the world, and it produces spiritually worthless things.

So we do not need to see tongues as supernatural, and Paul never says they are. Rather, various languages were a part of the makeup of the Corinthian church body. God superintended that makeup, and gave abilities to individuals that could lovingly bring edification to everyone through them.

2. Is Translation Spiritual?

To better make this point, let’s go back to the issue of translation.

First, let me tell you what this “spiritual thing” is. I’ll call it a gift because that is simplest, but let’s remember that Paul might have called it a working or even a ministry. The gift of translation is seen in a particularly good translator. In a group of 20 bilingual people, some will be better at languages than others—and some will be particularly gifted. 

Now, you do not want the slow battler from the bottom of the pack to be given the translation duties for a 40 minute sermon. It is the talented man who will manifest the Spirit with his able translation.

To prove that this is indeed a “spiritual” understanding, let me use the example of another gift that Phil himself has: teaching.

Early on in his Christian journey, I had the privilege of discipling Phil and a bunch of other young guys. It was obvious from the beginning that he was gifted beyond his peers. Everyone in that group could articulate the truths of the gospel to some degree, but they were not gifted like Phil. They were not wired the same. That wiring was a gift: the gift of prophecy. This is how God distributes his gifts. It’s beautiful, it's supernatural in the sense that it comes from the God who is above nature—but his works manifest in often ordinary-seeming ways. Believe me, before Phil was converted as a teenager with his bowl cut, bright red jeans, and pink hat, he looked less than ordinary. Now he’s the pastor of more than 100. Wild! Supernatural and marvelous.

In the same way, some people are masters of language. They can hold all the laws, the symbols, and sounds of language in their heads better than your average man. God puts these gifted men to use in the church through the power of the Spirit.

Now, let’s consider the alternative to my interpretation. Suppose I’ve got this totally wrong. OK, then where are the supernatural gifts that Charismatics expect? I see the things I’ve defended everywhere. But there are no supernaturally-given languages in church services, with others supernaturally translating them. Only “private prayer languages,” apparently. But that is not what Paul is speaking of here. So either the spiritual things of 1 Corinthians are more natural-looking, or they’ve ceased.

3. What About Redemptive History?

Phil suggests that I should see more continuity between the events of Acts 2 and the experience of the Corinthian church. I do affirm a larger redemptive historical element links them. But that doesn’t imply that both must be talking about miraculous languages. 

Paul writes nothing to the Corinthians that would link the Pentecost phenomenon with theirs. The discontinuity between Pentecost and the Corinthians’ experience would suggest they are not linked. This is especially plain if we read all the way through to verses 21-22 of chapter 14—passages which Charismatics struggle to explain:

In the Law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord. 22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign not to unbelievers but to those who believe.

Firstly, where is this written in the law? Isaiah 28:11 says:

Indeed, He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue.

And Deuteronomy 28:49 says that, as part of the curses for disobeying the covenant,

Yahweh will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose tongue you shall not understand…

My point here is not to give a comprehensive explanation of how these signs apply, but rather to point out the much more obvious fact that both Isaiah and Deuteronomy are plainly speaking of natural foreign languages. For Paul to refer back to the curses of the law as an explanation of supernatural languages, let alone private prayer languages, makes absolutely no sense. It is not an explanation at all!

As I said, there is a redemptive historical link here, so let me very briefly outline it. The curse of Deuteronomy is actually the blessing of the reversal of Babel. It is by giving the gospel to the gentiles, and having it translated into every other language under the sun, that God simultaneously reverses his curse against the gentiles at Babel (Gen 11:1-10), and enacts his curse against Israel for their unfaithfulness. At Pentecost he does this supernaturally, as at Babel—but as at Babel, this supernatural work is a precursor to the natural proliferation of ordinary human language, only this time with the gospel in tow.

4. What About the Analogy of the “Body?”

Phil asks under this heading how multilingualism in an unbeliever can suddenly become a spiritual gift when he is converted. Do not the gifts have to be imparted either at, or after, new birth?

I think chapter 12 already refutes this idea, and again we can easily see this by asking the same question of a different gift. Consider teaching skills. If Jordan Peterson bows the knee to Christ, he will bring all his teaching gifts into the church—and they’d be empowered by the Spirit. Wouldn’t that be exciting? He’s not going to join the body as the little toe. God prepares his people for the body before conversion. If the body lacks courage in leadership, he might convert some bikers and hard men, who have a gift of courage, to stand against evil powers and say enough is enough.

To make a hard break between natural ability and spiritual giftedness is actually quite silly. It is an over-spiritualizing of the church and the world. God clearly goes with the grain of his creation after conversion. Grace restores nature. This understanding of how spiritual gifts work marries well with our experience.

5. The Cessation of Tongues

Phil argues under this heading that if tongues cease at the coming of Christ, then we will all have one language, and that is a problem. But on the contrary, we should expect this! It is the final reversal of Babel that began at Pentecost—the end of all the confusion that comes with earthly languages. These languages force us to speak and know “in part” (1 Cor 13:12). In heaven, we will not have the confusion of having to ask, for example, “Are you talking about the sun, the son, or the Chinese guy, Sun Lee Sky?” That guy had a hard time of it moving to New Zealand and entering our public school system, Phil. Would you rob him of the mercies of heaven?

All our earthly languages point to a superior heavenly communication, whatever that will look like. There will be people from every tribe, tongue, and nation sharing this language.

1 Corinthians 14 Itself

Under this heading Phil raises various objections from the text. Many of them I’ve addressed in principle already.

The way I see it, if my interpretation is right, Phil thinks Paul could have stated his case in a clearer way.

For example, if the tongue speaker is “not speaking to men,” Phil finds it unnatural to read this as a generalization. He thinks it needs to mean, “never in any case speaks to a man.” But when comparing two things, biblical authors often use generalizations to cement their point. It is effective, and clarifies the issues. I know Phil knows this, but in this passage on tongues, he seems to expect Paul to depart from his usual rhetorical method and to make his case with an unbiblical precision.

To get to the guts of his objections, I’m going to address the verses where Phil thinks I’m at my weakest. He believes my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:13-15 is convoluted, and mysteriously shifts perspectives for no reason. This is the set of verses in question:

13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may translate. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:13-15)

I believe that the one speaking in verse 13 is speaking in a language that is foreign to some; the one with the unfruitful mind in verse 14 is someone praying along, needing a translation; and Paul’s conclusion is in verse 15. The one praying along should pray with their spirit and mind, which reinforces the need for the one praying to translate his prayer.

As much as I’d love to, I’m not going to address all Phil’s objections to this. I think the best way to show that this is not convoluted is, again, to make the same kind of argument but in a different situation. I’ll use an example that Phil is intimately acquainted with—a band situation.

“Let the one who plays electric guitar keep his volume down. Because, if I sing through a racket, I use my voice but I cannot hear myself. What is the outcome we want? I ought to be able to sing with my voice and my hearing at the same time.”

Maybe this example is a little too close to home.

Here we have the same perspective jump. The lesson is for the electric guitarist. He is not loving the rest of the band with his amp. The singer corrects the guitarist by showing what the amp is taking away from himhis ability to hear. Then he says what he, as a singer, ought to dosing with hearing. 

Since the guitarist knows the band, the keyboardist could even make this argument with exactly the same words, in the voice of the singer. The guitarist would understand what he’s doing. They’re talking about band realities.

If knitting the band together in love is the goal, it helps to show the perspectives of disgruntled band members. We argue this way all the time. There is nothing convoluted about this perspective shift. In fact, it is effective. 

To further support this understanding, the text also suggests that Paul is putting distance between the one praying and the one whose mind is unfruitful with his choice of pronouns. Paul addresses, “one who speaks in a tongue,” which seems to put distance between him and the one praying. Then to support the need for translation, he interjects himself. “For if I pray in a tongue.” If Paul were talking about the same speaker the whole time, you would expect him to say “let the one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may translate. For if he pray in a tongue, his spirit prays, but his mind is unfruitful.”

This is not a knock out argument, obviously, but it helps to reinforce the plausibility of my read. It only seems convoluted if you’re bringing your traditions into your interpretation. In fact, I think the shoe fits on the other foot. This is the situation continuationist are putting forward. God supernaturally gives you a tongue that you don’t understand, so you’re supposed to pray (while your mind is unfruitful) that God would give you the translation so that you can give it in your own language. But the conclusion for this very situation is, don’t use this tongue in the church, because it is better to pray with your spirit and mind. Now that is a convoluted practice! It is nothing like anything else God does. 

This chapter wraps up with, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” Fortunately this is true, so we do not experience the confusion that would come if the Charismatic interpretation were true. Not even the Charismatics practice these gifts as they define them. I bring good news to those who have been confused by the Charismatic interpretation: the correct understanding of the text marries well with your experience.

Concluding Thoughts

When Moses was about to take on Pharaoh, Yahweh said to him, “See, I set you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” 

Today, pastors are called to be prophets after the pattern of Aaron. We are called to proclaim the message once for all delivered, of a greater Moses—the resurrected King who lays claim to not only Egypt, but every tribe, tongue, and nation. They are the inheritance of his Father, and he will not squander that inheritance (Psalm 2). Every knee must bow, and every language confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

I wrote my first blog out of a concern that the Baby Babblers are putting the brakes on our prophetic mission. We need to be taken seriously, which means we cannot be dividing mind and spirit like the pretzel-legged pagans do. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:23, “will they not say that you are out of your mind?”

We need to clearly communicate the crown rights of Christ to the Egyptians. We need a sound mind that knows how to pray mindful prayers. 

I’m pleased with how this series of blogs has gone. Thank you for reading this far. I hope you have been edified. And again, thank you Phil for spicing up my blog life. It's been a pleasure interacting, and I'm sure our conversations will continue in this fashion. Two Kingdoms next?

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