Speaking in Tongues and the Southern Baptist Convention - Part 2
In the previous study we looked at the first argument employed by the IMB of the Southern Baptist Convention that led to their recent policy of prohibiting those who pray in tongues from serving on the mission field.
The other argument noted in the article I cited is “that the Apostle Paul's ‘clear teaching is that prayer should be made with understanding.’” I assume this means they believe that all prayer, including prayer in tongues, must be something that the speaker consciously and cognitively understands. He or she would be able to explain precisely what was being said in his/her prayer. Whereas this is certainly true with respect to most forms of prayer, it is profoundly wrong and misguided when it comes to praying in tongues and reflects a failure to carefully examine what the Apostle Paul actually said about tongues and his own personal experience with the gift.
In describing his own gift of speaking in tongues, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:14, “my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” I don’t think it’s necessary to determine whether this refers exclusively to the Holy Spirit or to Paul’s own human spirit. It’s more likely he has in view a simultaneous and cooperative manifestation of both, which in effect constitutes the essence of a spiritual gift: the Holy Spirit energizing and enabling my spirit to do what otherwise I couldn’t do.
The important point, however, is that when Paul prays in tongues his mind is “unfruitful”. By this he means either, “I don’t understand what I am saying,” or “other people don’t understand what I’m saying,” or perhaps both (with the primary emphasis on the former).
The IMB, however, is evidently uncomfortable with reading Paul this way. They insist that if one’s mind is unfruitful, that is to say, if one’s mind is not engaged in such a way that the believer can rationally and cognitively grasp what is occurring, the experience, whatever its nature may be, is useless, perhaps even dangerous. After all, if our minds are not engaged what safeguards do we have against the encroachment of heresy? Subjectivism of this sort will serve only to diminish the centrality of Scripture in the life of the believing community.
I strongly disagree. If Paul were fearful of trans-rational experience (which, by the way, is far and away different from being irrational), would not his next step be to repudiate the use of tongues altogether, or at minimum to warn us of its dangers? After all, what possible benefit can there be in a spiritual experience that one’s mind can’t comprehend? At the very least the IMB should expect Paul to say something to minimize its importance so as to render it trite, at least in comparison with other gifts. But he does no such thing.
Look closely at Paul’s conclusion. He even introduces it by asking the question, in view of what has just been said in v. 14, “What is the outcome then?” (NASB; v. 15a), or “What am I to do?” (ESV). His answer may come as a shock to you.
According to v. 15, he is determined to do both! “I WILL pray with my spirit,” i.e., I will pray in tongues, and “I WILL pray with the mind also,” i.e., I will pray in Greek so that others who speak and understand Greek can profit from what I say.” Clearly, Paul believed that a spiritual experience beyond the grasp of his mind, which is what I mean by “transrational”, was yet profoundly profitable. He believed that it wasn’t absolutely necessary for an experience to be rationally cognitive for it to be spiritually beneficial and glorifying to God.
This isn’t in any way to denigrate or impugn the crucial importance of one’s intellect in the Christian life. Paul insists that we submit to the renewal of our minds, not their repression (Romans 12:1ff.). All I’m saying, what I believe Paul is saying, is that praying in tongues is eminently beneficial and glorifying to God even though it exceeds or transcends the capacity of our minds to decipher.
Furthermore, if Paul is determined to pray with the spirit, i.e., pray in uninterpreted tongues, where and when will he do it? Since he has ruled out doing it in the public meeting he must be referring to his private, devotional prayer life. Paul’s private prayer experience was also characterized by “singing in” or “with the spirit”, an obvious reference to singing in tongues, what must have constituted a free and more melodious and musical form of tongues-speech.
What Paul proceeds to say in vv. 18-19 becomes ammunition for both sides in this debate. The charismatic appeals to v. 18 while the cessationist points a finger at v. 19:
“I thank God I speak in tongues more than all of you” (v. 18).
“Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (v. 19).
In v. 18 it’s as if Paul pulls back the veil and allows us a brief peek into his private devotional life with God. His “quiet times” with the Lord were anything but, as they featured praying and singing and praising in tongues, an experience for which he is profoundly grateful to God.
“But wait a minute,” responds the cessationist. “The crucial issue with Paul isn’t whether he speaks in tongues, but what is appropriate in the public assembly of the church. Paul is determined only to do what is cognitively rational and thus edifying to others in the meeting of the church.”
So, how do we resolve this problem? It’s really not that difficult. Paul has said that tongues-speech in the public gathering of the church is prohibited, unless there is an interpretation. Since the purpose of such meetings is the edification of other believers, Paul prefers to speak in a language all can understand. Consequently, he rarely speaks in tongues in a public setting.
However, if Paul speaks in tongues more frequently and fervently than anyone else, yet in church almost never does (preferring there to speak in a way all can understand), where does he speak in tongues? In what context would the affirmation of v. 18 take shape? The only possible answer is that Paul exercised his remarkable gift in private, in the context of his personal, devotional intimacy with God. Again, the only grounds I can see for objecting to this scenario is the reluctance that many cessationists (such as the majority on the IMB board) have for spiritual experiences that bypass or transcend the mind.
Let’s remember, this is the man who wrote Romans. This is the man whose incomparable mind and power of logical argumentation rendered helpless his theological opponents. This is the man who is known to history as the greatest theologian outside of Jesus himself. This is the man who took on and took out the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17)! Yes, logical, reasonable, highly-educated Paul prayed in tongues more than anyone! Therefore, I agree with Gordon Fee who said,
“contrary to the opinion of many, spiritual edification can take place in ways other than through the cortex of the brain. Paul believed in an immediate communing with God by means of the S/spirit that sometimes bypassed the mind; and in verses 14-15 he argues that for his own edification he will have both” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 657).
O. Palmer Robertson, an avid and articulate cessationist, refuses to concede that someone can be edified apart from rational understanding (see his book, The Final Word). He therefore insists that God not only enables a person to speak in a language not previously learned, but also enables him to understand what he is speaking (contrary to 1 Corinthians 14:14).
But why, then, would there be a need for the distinct gift of interpretation? Each person speaking in tongues would already know what he is saying and, in turn, could communicate such to the congregation. Why forbid a person to speak in tongues in the absence of an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:27-28) if every tongues-speaker is his own interpreter? And if the tongues-speaker can understand what he is saying, why encourage him to pray that he might interpret (v. 13)?
My conclusion is that, notwithstanding the critical importance of loving God with our minds and pursuing the edification of others in the church, the charismatic exegesis of this passage in Paul is on the mark.
I seriously doubt if my comments in these two lessons will ever reach the IMB or be given consideration by them, but I can always hope. I appeal to them, on what appears to me to be the clear teaching of the NT, to rescind this unbiblical and unwise policy before it is implemented to the detriment of God’s global missional endeavor.