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A Response to Jimmy Draper on The Bible and Tongues

In a recent issue of the Baptist Press website (http://www.bpnews.net/) there is an article titled “The Bible and Tongues” by former LifeWay Christian Resources President Jimmy Draper. Given the fact that next week I’m speaking at a conference in Arlington, Texas, on the subject of the Holy Spirit in Baptist life, I perked up when I saw it.

Jimmy Draper is one of the true treasures of the Southern Baptist Convention. Having grown up in Oklahoma, where Dr. Draper pastored for many years, I have benefited greatly from his preaching and evangelistic zeal. However, I fear that this article tends to perpetuate a number of misconceptions about the nature and exercise of the spiritual gift of tongues.

Regardless of whether or not you believe that tongues is a valid gift for the church today, it is important that we all understand what the NT says about this spiritual gift. So, even if you are a cessationist (or, maybe especially if you are a cessationist!), I invite you to join me in this exploration.

(1) I’ll begin with Draper’s belief that tongues is evangelistic in Acts 2 (by the way, since “tongues” is here envisioned as a single gift of the Spirit, I use the singular verb “is” rather than “are” throughout this study). He argues that the exercise of tongues in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, “resulted in thousands being saved.”

Actually, Acts 2 says no such thing. People did indeed hear “the mighty works of God” from those who spoke in tongues, but their conversion did not come until Peter openly proclaimed the gospel in vv. 14-36 (especially vv. 22-36). Acts 2:37 explicitly says that when the people “heard this,” i.e., Peter’s proclamation of the person and work of Jesus Christ, that they made inquiry about how to be saved. My point is simply that Draper, like so many others, makes the mistake of thinking that the gift of tongues was designed for use in evangelistic contexts. The fact is that tongues is never used evangelistically anywhere in the NT. This isn’t to say it could never be used in this way, only that the NT does not conceive evangelism as one of its functions.

Draper then says that tongues in 1 Corinthians resulted “in confusion and problems in the church.” This is only partially true and therefore somewhat misleading. The problem in Corinth wasn’t tongues but the immature, prideful and ambitious abuse of tongues on the part of the Corinthians. Let’s never forget that tongues is a good gift that God conceived and bestowed on his church for its edification. The problem is never one of any spiritual gift per se, but rather of those who misunderstand and misuse what God has graciously provided.

(2) Draper contends that when Cornelius (Acts 10) and the “disciples” in Ephesus (Acts 19) spoke in tongues it was “in a known language they had not learned.” But nowhere does the text say any such thing. Draper simply assumes that since tongues speech in Acts 2 was known languages that all other instances must also be. But the apostle Paul indicates that there are “various kinds” (or “species”) of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10,28) and a close study of 1 Corinthians 14 indicates that they are not always human languages previously unlearned by the speaker. So it is unwarranted to simply assume that such was the “kind” or “variety” of tongues spoken in Acts 10 and 19.

Furthermore, the reason why tongues speech in Acts 2 was human languages is due to the presence there of unbelievers of differing dialects. But the only people present in Acts 10 and 19 to hear the tongues speech were Christians. Clearly, then, tongues had no evangelistic purpose in these two instances.

(3) Draper concludes from the instances of tongues speech in Acts 10 and Acts 19 that “no evidence is found that anyone sought or prayed for the gift of speaking in other languages.” Instead, so he suggests, “every occurrence was the spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit.” But this leaves the impression that it would always be wrong for someone to seek after or pray for the gift of tongues. Yet Paul clearly exhorts the Christians at Corinth to pray for the gift of interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:13). Indeed, he exhorts the Corinthians to “earnestly desire [or seek after] the spiritual gifts” (1 Cor. 14:1), one of which is speaking in tongues.

And there is no inconsistency between spiritual gifts being distributed according to the sovereign will of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:11) and the responsibility of believers to seek after and pray for such gifts. God accomplishes all things according to his sovereign will (see Eph. 1:11), but that does not eliminate the need for humans to pray and pursue in accordance with biblical commands. This is a problem only for someone who believes that divine sovereignty eliminates or is inconsistent with human responsibility.

(4) Again, Draper says that in both Acts 10 and Acts 19 the tongues speech “was understood by those who heard them.” However, there isn’t anything to this effect in Acts 19. Nothing suggests that Paul or others who witnessed this event understood what was being said in tongues. They certainly understood what these “disciples” said when they prophesied, but that’s to be expected given the fact that prophecy is always something delivered in one’s native language.

As for Acts 10, we are told that those present “were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (v. 46). There’s no indication that they understood what was said in tongues, unless one insists that “extolling God” defines the content of what they spoke. More likely is that “extolling God” refers to a second, albeit related, proclamation that was delivered in their native language. The verb translated “extol” is used three times in Acts, only two of which refer to humans praising God. Aside from its use in Acts 10:46, it is used in Acts 19:17 where it has nothing to do with tongues but simply describes people extolling or praising Jesus in their normal language.

(5) Draper says that since tongues is not explicitly mentioned in other instances of conversion in Acts that “its lack of importance as an ongoing ministry” is indicated. This sort of argument from silence proves little, if anything at all. How many times is it necessary for a gift to be mentioned for it to be a valid expression of spiritual life? Outside of 1 Corinthians the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper is never mentioned in Paul’s epistles. Would Draper want us to conclude from this that Communion is therefore unimportant? I suspect that any number of other examples could also be cited. The simple fact is that tongues is mentioned three times in Acts and numerous times in 1 Corinthians 12-14. That it is not the most important gift or ministry is obvious. Who would suggest it is? But that doesn’t give us grounds for ignoring, marginalizing, or neglecting it altogether.

(6) Again, Draper says that since, aside from Acts, only 1 Corinthians mentions tongues “it certainly means that speaking in tongues was not a major factor in the spread of the Gospel or in the practice of the apostolic church.” But as noted above, if I may use Draper’s own words, “in the 22 books of the New Testament that follow Acts, only 1 Corinthians mentions” the Lord’s Supper. What are we to conclude from that? Nothing, aside from the fact that since Paul’s instruction on the Lord’s Table was so clear and decisive in 1 Corinthians there was no need to mention it repeatedly in his other letters. Are we not warranted in concluding from the lack of reference to tongues in his other epistles that this gift was not a problem in those churches and that Paul’s guidelines for its exercise as given in 1 Corinthians were sufficient for the life and ministry of believers in other congregations? I think so.

Furthermore, there is not the slightest indication anywhere in the NT that tongues was designed by God to be “a major factor in the spread of the Gospel.” Tongues were not evangelistic!

(7) Draper thinks it is highly significant that Paul did not mention tongues in his list of spiritual gifts in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4. He argues from this that “we must conclude that the gift of tongues was either not a matter of importance, or that it was not practiced by the Christians in Rome, Ephesus and elsewhere.”

In the first place, virtually all NT scholars acknowledge that no NT epistle contains an exhaustive list of all spiritual gifts. Whether 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, or 1 Peter 4, what we have are representative lists, not comprehensive ones.

In Romans 12 Paul only mentions seven spiritual gifts, yet all acknowledge that there are a minimum of nineteen gifts listed in the NT. So, would Draper have us believe that these twelve gifts that Paul doesn’t mention were unimportant or, worse still, non-existent in the church at Rome? In Ephesians 4 only five gifts are mentioned (some scholars believe it is only four). So, I suppose on Draper’s logic that fifteen spiritual gifts were absent for the church in Ephesus or were deemed unimportant by the apostle.

(8) I applaud Draper’s statement that spiritual gifts are not rewards for spiritual maturity or achievement and that the gifts were distributed for the good of the entire body of believers. But let’s not forget that among those gifts distributed for “the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7) of the body were “tongues” and “interpretation of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:7-10; see especially 1 Cor. 14:26 where the purpose of tongues and their interpretation is explicitly said to be the “building up” of the body of Christ).

(9) Concerning 1 Corinthians 12-14, Draper rightly notes that Paul’s concern was with the “abuse of tongues.” He says that “care was given to regulate and restrict the use of tongues in the church and not to encourage their use.” This is only partly correct. Paul certainly regulated the use of tongues in the corporate gathering of the church. His instruction is unmistakable: in the absence of an interpreter, there is to be no speaking in tongues in the corporate assembly. But this isn’t to say he didn’t “encourage their use.” If there is an interpreter, Paul is happy for tongues to be expressed in the corporate assembly (see 1 Cor. 14:5). That is why he encourages the one with the gift of tongues to pray that God would also impart the gift of interpretation, that is, so that tongues could be used properly in the assembly for the edification of all present.

If Paul didn’t want to encourage the use of interpreted tongues in the corporate assembly, then why did he give the Corinthians this explicit word of instruction: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26)?

(10) It is also misleading for Draper to say that according to 1 Cor. 14:4 “tongues edifies only the person speaking.” Paul is talking about uninterpreted tongues (cf. v. 2). This is clear upon reading v. 5 where he says that if the tongues speech is interpreted the church is edified. So, it is true that only the tongues speaker is edified if he speaks in private or if his public speech remains uninterpreted. But with interpretation, the tongues speech becomes a means for the edification and building up of the entire body of Christ.

(11) Draper also says that the gift of prophecy entails expounding “the Word of God” and “proclaiming the Gospel.” But prophecy is not preaching. Prophecy is speaking forth in human words a spontaneous revelation that comes from God. This is clear from what Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:24-25 and especially in 14:30,32.

(12) He also argues that “women are not to speak in tongues at any time in the church.” But this would be strange indeed, given that women clearly prophesied in church (1 Cor. 11:4ff.). A closer examination reveals that the sort of speaking that Paul prohibits is the passing of judgment on prophetic utterances (most likely because this would be an exercise of authority by women inconsistent with Paul’s instruction concerning male headship in the church and home). I encourage the reader to consult my more in-depth analysis of this passage (1 Cor. 14:34-35) at my website, http://www.samstorms.org/ (it is in the Biblical Studies section under Deciphering Difficult Texts).

(13) Draper believes the reason Paul prohibited women from speaking in tongues was because it would be “too similar to the temple prostitutes’ ecstatic frenzies as they practiced their pagan, immoral rituals.” But there isn’t so much as a word in 1 Corinthians to indicate this was in Paul’s thinking. Tongues is nowhere portrayed as being “ecstatic” or entailing any degree of “frenzy”. Be it noted that contrary to what some believe, the word “ecstatic” is never used of tongues in the NT. You may find it in some English translations but it is utterly absent from the Greek text. Paul portrays those who speak in tongues as capable of starting and stopping at will (1 Cor. 14:15-19, 27-28, 40), hardly the sort of thing one associates with uncontrolled ecstasy or frenzy.

(14) Draper believes “one thing is clear: pre-occupation with tongues-speaking is childish (14:20).” Again, this is misleading. Tongues-speaking per se isn’t childish. It’s a good and glorious gift of God. Nor is a desire to possess this gift a sign of immaturity. What Paul characterizes as childish and immature is (a) the belief that tongues (above and beyond other gifts) was a sign of heightened spirituality and (b) the determination on the part of some in Corinth to dominate the meeting with uninterpreted tongues speech.

(15) Finally, Draper says (and I agree) that “spiritual gifts are divinely bestowed by our sovereign God. He can give the gifts as He pleases and to whom He pleases.” But I’m concerned when he goes on to say that “no one can ‘develop’ a gift or be ‘taught’ how to exercise a gift.”

If what Draper means by this is that no one can do anything to induce or persuade God to grant a gift contrary to his sovereign will, of course I agree. But I want to make sure that he does not mean to suggest that once a gift is bestowed that we cannot develop, grow, improve and be instructed on how to use it more effectively. This would apply to virtually all gifts, such as the gift of evangelism, or the gift of leadership, or the gift of giving, or any and every spiritual gift. If Christians can’t be “taught” how to exercise a gift, what are we doing offering courses in homiletics (preaching) in our colleges and seminaries? What are we doing offering seminars on how to more effectively share our faith with non-Christians? And the list could go on.

As you can see, I have some profound concerns with the way Dr. Draper has portrayed the gift of tongues in the NT. I hope my response has been helpful and above all else respectful in the way I have expressed my disagreement with him. Would that we all might live and serve the body of Christ as faithfully as Jimmy Draper has these many years!