The Holy Spirit: The Use and Misuse of Spiritual Gifts

We have come to a greater awareness of the spiritual gifts God gives his people. We under­stand from Scripture some basic points:

  • Every member has at least one Spirit-given gift, usually two or three.
  • Every member should be using his or her gifts to serve others in the church.
  • No member has all the gifts, so we need each other.
  • No gift is given to all members.
  • God decides who receives which gift.

Every member ought to be involved in some ministry, some area of service (“ministry” refers to all types of service, not just pastoral work). Every Christian should be using his or her gifts to serve others “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7; 1 Peter 4:10).

This awareness of spiritual gifts has been a great blessing for members and congregations. However, even good things can be misused, and a few problems have developed in connection with spiritual gifts. These problems are not unique to us, and it is sometimes helpful to see how other Christian leaders have dealt with them.

For example, some people use the concept of spiritual gifts as an excuse to refuse to serve. For example, they say that their gift is administration and they refuse to do anything except try to meddle in how the church is administered. Or they may claim to be a teacher and refuse to serve in any other way. I believe that this is the opposite of what Paul intended – he explained that God gifts people for service, not for refusal.

Sometimes work needs to be done whether anybody is especially gifted for it or not. Activities need to be set up and cleaned up. Compassion needs to be given when tragedies strike, whether or not you happen to have the gift of compassion. All members need to be able to teach (Colossians 3:16) whether or not they have the gift of teaching. All members need to be able to explain the gospel (1 Peter 3:15) whether or not they have the gift of evangelism.

It is unrealistic to think that every member will do only those forms of service for which he or she is specially gifted. Not only do other forms of service need to be done, each member needs to experience other forms of service. Service often requires that we get out of our comfort zones, out of the area in which we feel gifted. God may want to develop in us a gift we did not know we had!

Each person has one to three major gifts, and it is best if the person’s primary area of service uses one or more of those gifts. But each person should also be willing to serve in other ways, as the church has needs. One large church uses the principle that, “you choose your primary ministry based on your own gifts, and be willing to serve in a secondary ministry based on the needs of others.” Such a policy helps members grow – and the secondary ministries are assigned only for limited periods of time. Those less-desired service roles are then rotated to other members. Some experienced pastors estimate that members can expect only about 60 percent of their service to be within their primary spiritual gifts.

The most important thing is that each member serve in some way. Service is a responsibility, not a matter of “I will accept it only if I like it.”

Finding your gifts

Now a few thoughts about how we determine what spiritual gifts we have. There are several approaches to this: 1) written tests, surveys and inventories, 2) self-analysis based on interests and experiences, and 3) confirmation from people who know you well. All three approaches can be helpful, and it is especially helpful if all three lead to the same answer. But none of the three is infallible.

Some of the written inventories are simply a method of analyzing yourself and others’ opinions about you. The questions might go like this: What do you like to do? What have you done well? What do other people say that you do well? What kinds of needs do you see in the church? (This last question is based on the observation that people are usually most aware of the needs that they are able to help with. For example, a person with the gift of compassion will think that the church needs more compassion.)

Often, we do not know our gifts until we have put them to use and seen whether we do well in that type of activity. Not only do gifts grow through experience, they can also be discovered through experience. That is why it is helpful for members to occasionally try different areas of service. They may learn something about themselves, as well as helping others.

Those are a few comments about gifts in general. But for the rest of this article, I want to focus on a particular gift that raises the most questions.

The gift of tongues

Historically, the most controversial gift has been tongues. It was controversial on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem; it was controversial a few years later in Caesarea; it was controversial later on in Corinth. Throughout the centuries, small groups of Christians have occasionally spoken in tongues, almost always generating controversy.

Today, millions of Christians speak in tongues. Some are found in Roman Catholic churches, some in liberal mainstream groups, some in conservative evangelical churches, and many in Pentecostal denominations. Even though tongues-speaking has such diverse participants, it is still controversial. So I hope to give some perspective on this, both to help people who are afraid of it, and those who think too highly of this gift.

The modern resurgence of tongue-speaking is generally traced to the turn of the century. In 1900, Charles Parham and a small group in Kansas began to speak in tongues after studying about this gift in the Bible. In 1906, Parham went to Los Angeles and spoke at the Azusa Street Mission Revival (no connection with Azusa Pacific University), and the movement quickly spread from there.

In the early years, most denominations rejected tongues-speaking as lunacy or demonic, and as one might expect, tongues-speakers left such hostile churches and formed churches in which they were allowed and encouraged to speak in tongues. Thus Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God were formed.

Many of these newly formed churches had theological errors. They made many mistakes in their zeal to follow God. As time went on, they learned more and corrected many of their errors. We should be able to understand this dynamic.

In the 1960s, another wave of tongues-speaking occurred in more traditional churches. This time, many churches did not ridicule or drive these people away; they were accepted as charismatic sub-groups within the churches. Nevertheless, tongues-speaking is still controversial. Some Christians teach that God simply does not give miraculous gifts to anyone in the church today; yet others claim that all Christians ought to seek and practice the gift of tongues.

As recounted in his Autobiography, Herbert Armstrong encountered some Pentecostal Christians in his early ministry, and he found them to be divisive. After such experiences, he was strongly opposed to tongues-speaking, even though he was strongly in favor of other miraculous gifts, such as healing. As a denomination, we remained opposed to tongues for decades, and if anyone spoke in tongues, they kept quiet about it.

But more recently, we have recognized that some Christians do indeed speak in tongues. We have been slower to criticize and more willing to consider the possibility that tongues-speaking may be an authentic gift of the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, our members have visited tongues-speaking churches, and some of our members and ministers have begun to speak in tongues, usually in private.

Knowing how controversial tongues have been in other churches, and knowing our previous dogmatic rejection of tongues, it is no surprise that questions arise when some of our members and ministers begin to speak in tongues, even privately. Due to our lack of experience in this area, it is also no surprise that some excesses have occurred. New-found zeal sometimes carries people further than it should.

Information about tongues

Since Scripture is our ultimate authority for doctrine and Christian living, it is essential that we understand what the Bible says about tongues. You can find a good analysis of the subject on our website.

For those who want further study on this subject, the website has a bibliography of helpful resources, written from several perspectives. I also refer you to the book Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? Four Views, edited by Wayne Grudem (Zondervan, 1996). I will not enter the detailed arguments addressed in the book, but I will affirm that God still performs miracles today. I see no biblical reason to think that he no longer gives anyone the ability to speak in tongues.

However, simply because someone “speaks in tongues” does not mean that he or she has this spiritual gift. Various non-Christians, from ancient pagans to modern Buddhists, have spoken in tongues. Tongues-speaking, in itself, is not proof of anything. (Similarly, non-Christians may also have leadership, service, compassion, teaching and other abilities that are similar to spiritual gifts.)

Some tongues-speaking is also called ecstatic speech, which is a psychomotor function of the brain. In normal speech, two parts of the brain work together. In ecstatic speech, one part of the brain tells the mouth and tongue to speak, but the conscious portion of the brain does not supply any particular guidance for what words to speak, so unintelligible syllables come out. This can happen if a person is startled, for example, or if consciousness is altered in some way.

Also, some tongues-speaking may be done in imitation (perhaps subconsciously) of a respected leader. People who are seeking a particular experience are (like hypnotized people) psychologically susceptible to suggestions like that.

However, I do not think that all tongues-speaking can be explained in these ways, and I believe that some tongues-speaking is genuinely a gift of God. I also recognize that God sometimes works through observable phenomena, and just because some tongues-speaking has a psycho­motor explanation does not mean it isn’t a gift.

The psychological state in which tongues-speaking occurs is usually pleasant. It is liberating to get rid of some inhibitions. It is encouraging to put oneself in a responsive state, ready to respond to God working in our lives. Tongues-speaking is not the only way to do this, but it is one way, and it encourages people in their walk with the Lord.

One pastor observed the irony that most Christians can talk about almost any spiritual gift with nothing but praise, but as soon as tongues is mentioned, it has to be accompanied by all sorts of cautionary statements. I agree that this is an irony. All sorts of spiritual gifts can be misused, and cautions can be given for them all. But historically, and in our own experience, tongues causes the most problems and needs the most caution. But still, I affirm that it is one of God’s spiritual gifts, and it is therefore good.

I respect and honor Christians who speak in tongues; I respect and honor those who do not. I do not want to quench the Spirit; I do not want to “forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39). But I also want to follow what Paul said in the very next verse: “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (verse 40). So let me address how tongues, if used, should be done in an orderly way. Since Scripture is our ultimate guide for doctrine and Christian living, let us examine what Scripture says about how tongues should be used.

Biblical data

First, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God divides his gifts among his people (1 Corinthians 12:8-11, 29-30). It is not realistic to expect everyone to speak in tongues – and yet that is what some Pentecostals do. This is divisive today, just as it was in ancient Corinth. When a Christian says, my gift is better than your gift, it is an insult to other Christians, and an insult to God. No one should feel superior about a spiritual gift, since no one deserves any of the gifts. The gifts are given to serve others, not to feel superior to others.

We do not need to seek the gift of tongues. We need to seek God, and let him decide which gift is best for us. Paul says we should seek the “more excellent way” – love (1 Corinthians 12:31 and chapter 13) – or the gift of prophecy, which is speaking words of encouragement, comfort and edification (1 Corinthians 14:1-4).

Without love, we are spiritually worthless, no matter what tongues we speak. It reminds me of the story of one person who attended a Pentecostal church for several years and became a lay leader in one of the ministries. Eventually it was learned that this leader had never spoken in tongues, and people were shocked that the leader was “deficient” in the Christian experience! Yet the person drew a different conclusion from the situation: speaking in tongues made no discernible difference in the way a person lives. Even after years of being around a person, others simply could not know whether the person had ever spoken in tongues.

Jack Hayford says he speaks in tongues in his prayers every day. That does not impress me, nor does he expect it to. That is not its purpose. Tongues is not a show of spirituality. It is to edify the self, not to impress others (verse 4). If it edifies the self, that’s wonderful. If it is done to impress others, it’s being used in a wrong way, a carnal way. Paul said he spoke in tongues a lot (verse 18). He knew what it meant to pray in words he did not understand (verse 14). But he also knew that this was not proof of spiritual greatness.

I don’t care how often Jack speaks in tongues. What I care about is the way he lives the rest of his time. Does he live and function in love? Does he use his other gifts to edify the body of Christ? Does he walk humbly and give all glory to God? I think he sets a good example in all these areas. His tongues-speaking neither adds to nor takes away from his character as a Christian.

To use another example, I don’t care whether you eat cereal or eggs for breakfast. Neither one makes you a better person. But I do care if you exalt your particular preference into a badge of betterness. “Everybody ought to be like me because I like the way I am.” Such approaches are divisive and un-Christian. They also miss Paul’s point, that God has distributed his gifts among his people and he wants them to work together in their diversity.

The Corinthian Christians had a lot of problems, and apparently the way they spoke in tongues was a problem in the church. Paul told them to stop being proud and arrogant. He told them to stop being self-centered. He told them to grow up and be more sensible (1 Corinthians 14:20). But he did not tell them to stop speaking in tongues.

However, he did lay down some regulations, and they were quite limiting. For example: Only one person should speak at a time (verse 27). Church services should not be a competition to see who can talk the most. The Holy Spirit does not inspire more than one person to speak at a time.

Second, people should speak in tongues only if an interpreter is present (verse 28). It is interesting that many people want to speak in tongues, but not many “seek” the gift of interpretation, even though interpretation is of greater value to the church. I think this shows that tongues have been overvalued. Unfortunately, in some churches, tongues are often spoken without an interpreter present, contrary to the instructions Paul gave.

What if the speaker doesn’t know whether an interpreter is present? Then the person ought to remain silent. If the gift is genuine, the speaker should be able to control it (verse 32). God does not bypass a person’s willpower. Indeed, part of the fruit of God’s Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:23; 2 Timothy 1:7).

Balanced approach

One church that I know of has an interesting approach to tongues-speaking. People who want to practice this gift may do so – not during the regular church service, but in their own small group meetings, and there must be two or more interpreters present. The interpreters write down the interpretation, and then they see whether the interpretations match. Sometimes they do, but often they do not, which means that either one or both of the interpreters are mistaken. This cautions us not to be too quick to believe any uncorroborated interpretation – and certainly not if it contradicts Scripture!

It would be a lot easier if people sought the gift of prophecy – speaking edifying and intelligible words – rather than tongues, which might not help anyone else (verse 5). Tongues and inter­pretations are often misunderstood. Even prophesy can be misunderstood, which is why Paul advises us, “the others should weigh carefully what is said” (verse 29).

However, even if an interpreter is present, it is best not to speak in tongues in the church service. The gift of tongues is for self-edification, not for edifying others (verse 4). It doesn’t make sense for one member to interrupt everyone else and say, “Wait a few minutes please while I edify myself. Watch me and listen to me, even though it won’t do you any good.” Tongues, since they help only the speaker, are appropriate for private prayers, but not for public assemblies.

Tongues are also a distraction. Public tongues-speaking almost always focuses attention on the speaker, not on God. Non-Christians are usually put off by tongues-speaking. Some find it fas­cinating, and some even consider it to be proof of divine blessing, but most do not. It is confusing, and if the observer realizes that various non-Christians also speak in tongues, it is also inconclusive. People need to be impressed by the gospel, not by unusual phenomena. If the person is convinced by impressions rather than truth, the person has an unstable foundation for belief. Impressions are important, but they should be a response to the gospel, not a substitute for it.

Our practice

Paul warned the Corinthians not to allow tongues to get out of control in their worship services, since it could confuse unbelievers: “If the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (verse 23). It is not surprising, then, that some Christians also consider it inappropriate.

However, Paul had nothing against tongues-speaking. After all, he spoke in tongues himself (verse 18). But he did have a lot to say against tongues-speaking in church assemblies. “In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (verse 19).

That is what we prefer. We want intelligible words; we do not want unintelligible words in our meetings. That is why I say that we are not a tongues-speaking fellowship. Some people in our fellowship speak in tongues, and I defend their privilege to do so in private or in small groups where everyone accepts it. Even then, it needs to be controlled according to scriptural guidelines.

As a fellowship, when we are gathered as a congregation, we do not want tongues-speaking. This is based not on some irrational fear of things we don’t understand – it is based on the guidance Paul has given us, guidance we accept as authoritative, as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

If somebody wants to speak in tongues in a worship service, there are other denominations that allow that. If they find it to be self-edifying, that’s good, but I encourage them to seek and use some other spiritual gift that will help others.

I might also add that even some Pentecostal churches do not allow tongues-speaking in church services. Many of them also recognize that it is unscriptural to allow everybody to speak at once, to speak without an interpreter present, etc. If the pastor is giving a sermon, for example, and a person in the audience begins to speak in tongues, then the pastor might tell the person, “Friend, control your gift. The spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of prophets. If you cannot control your gift, the ushers will escort you out.” Interrupting the sermon would be just as inappropriate as a person trying to sing a hymn in the middle of the sermon. It is good to sing hymns, but only at the right time and place. Similarly, we do not allow tongues-speaking in our regular worship services.

Expressing joy in Christ

I love our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. Many of you interact with them in various ways, and you have also come to love them. Many of them have warmly embraced us as fellow-members in the family of God. The Four Square denomination in particular was helpful to us in the early years of our doctrinal transformation. I praise their love for the Lord and their love for neighbor. Many of them set an excellent example.

Pentecostal churches are the fastest-growing segment of Christianity, especially in Latin America. I suspect that one reason they are growing is that they encourage people to express their emotions rather than suppress them. This can be bad, if people’s faith is built on emotions, but it is good if those emotions are a genuine response to the good news of Jesus Christ.

If people really understand the depths of their sinful state, of how utterly disgusting it is, and of the greatness of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, of how astonishing his grace toward us is, then it is natural to respond with joy and exuberance – and this emotion does not need to be suppressed, though how it is expressed may vary widely from person to person. We have something worth singing about, something to be happy about. Although we may still be in poverty, we have experienced something wonderful in the love of Jesus Christ, and we share it.

Pentecostal churches are generally freer in how they express this joy. Visitors who attend a Pentecostal church are likely to see people expressing joy and happiness because of their faith in Jesus Christ. This example is an effective aid in evangelism and church growth.

Pentecostal churches are not the only ones who effectively express their joy in worshiping their Savior, and they are not the only churches that are growing, but as a group, they seem to do it more actively than most. Although I do not agree with all their theology, and certainly not the emphasis on the public practice of tongues-speaking, I applaud them for the things they are doing well.

Scripture is the ultimate authority for what we do. If growth alone were evidence of truth, then we might all become Mormons. Experience may be helpful, but it is not authoritative. Experience can be powerful, but that alone does not make it authoritative, although it is still impressive.

Seeking experience

Consider a not-so-unusual example, a person who attends a traditional church every week, but rarely (if ever) experiences the presence of God in his or her own church services. He has doubts as to his own walk with the Lord. He wants to have greater assurance that he is making progress. He wants tangible, observable evidence that the Lord is with him. Then he attends a church in which the preacher confidently, boldly, dogmatically says that “yes, you can have confidence if you have a certain experience. That will give you the assurance of the presence of God in your life.”

The person wants this experience. It doesn’t matter whether it is really proof – it is desirable. If it comes, it is very self-authenticating and reinforcing. The person wanted reassurance, was told in a persuasive way that the particular experience would give him that assurance, and then he had the experience, and true enough, he gained assurance! The person becomes sold on the experience and sometimes even becomes an “evangelist” for the experience.

This has happened within our fellowship, just as it has happened in other denominations. People who were spiritually yearning, and not completely grounded doctrinally, were over­whelmed by a particular experience. I do not doubt that the experience was powerful and spiritual. It may have been an enormous spiritual boost, or the highlight of one’s life. But that does not mean that everyone should have the same experience, or that Christians should be looked down on if they do not have the same experience. The shock treatment that helped one patient is not the right medicine for the next patient.

More unusual manifestations

For many years, speaking in tongues was the primary experience promoted in some Pentecostal circles. But in more recent years, more exotic experiences have been promoted – such things as being slain in the Spirit (fainting and remaining motionless for several hours), laughing in the Spirit (uncontrollable waves of laughter), weeping in the Spirit, barking like a dog, or other unusual activities. These may be called the Toronto Blessing or the Pensacola Blessing or some other blessing. Several prominent speakers have promoted some of these exciting phenomena.

These phenomena have been controversial, even in Pentecostal churches. The Toronto Blessing, for example, began in the Vineyard church. Some Vineyard churches promoted the blessing; others resisted it, and they split into two denominations. The blessing makes ripples in many other denominations, too, and has affected some members. The Pensacola Blessing circulated primarily in the Assemblies of God, but it also affected other denominations, including our own.

I do not doubt that these experiences are very powerful. They feel authentic. But they have unfortunately led some astray, away from biblical authority and into an authority that is based on personal experience. As an extreme example, a pastor who has become enamored with a particular blessing may exhort everyone in the congregation to seek this particular blessing (the blessing, it sometimes seems, gets more focus than Jesus does). He may publicly berate those who do not accept the experience. He may call out names or tell people to leave if they don’t like it.

This is, to put it bluntly, legalism. (Sometimes it is easy to call things we don’t like an insulting term, like “legalism,” but I am confident that in this case I am using the term legalism correctly. It is teaching as a requirement something that is not in Scripture.) We’ve had experience with old covenant legalism. These people are experiencing a completely nonbiblical legalism. Legalism is found in many segments of Christianity, and some of these “blessing” people have fallen into a form of legalism, in which they insist that everybody ought to be like them.

Now suppose that the whole congregation got touched and remained unconscious for three hours. Would that make them better Christians, better followers of Jesus Christ? Jesus never did anything of the sort. People who are slain in the spirit do not come out any better than they went in. The experience may encourage them, reassure them, but it does not edify the body of Christ and it should not be promoted as normal or preferable. Would these people eventually yearn for something yet more exotic? At least for some, that has been the pattern. Since the experience is not grounded in any objective truth, it does not give people the solid assurance that they seek. Some eventually seek even more unusual “signs.”

One of our pastors observed the results of the Pensacola revival at a nearby Pentecostal church. After an initial flurry of excitement, attendance gradually dropped in half. The same mani­festations week after week did not build the people up. The focus was on what happened to people during church, and not on what they did the rest of the time. The “revival” has driven away half the church!

Many of the “blessing” people are Christians who love Jesus. But as we know from our own experience, it is possible to be Christian while also wrong on major doctrinal questions. I do not want to bash and condemn. I do not attack the people, or call them agents of Satan, but I do have the responsibility, as an under-shepherd of Jesus Christ, to warn our members about false, destructive and divisive doctrines. I want to help people avoid the pain and suffering that comes from following religious errors. The truth sets people free, but errors lead people into bondage.

In summary, we do not speak in tongues in our worship services, and we do not promote the more exotic “Pentecostal” manifestations. To use an analogy, what you eat for breakfast is your own business – but no matter how good it tastes to you, do not act like your choice is spiritually better than other people’s. Do not try to get everyone to act like you do. If you have a particular gift, be thankful and rejoice, but do not be divisive. Whatever gift you have, use it to serve others, keeping Scripture as your ultimate authority for faith and practice.

Author: Joseph Tkach


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