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Comparative Theology, book by H. H. Pope Shenouda III
59- Speaking in tongues
From studying the Holy Bible and in particular chapter fourteen of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, which we may call the chapter of the gift of tongues, we notice the following points:
(1) Speaking in tongues is last in the order of gifts
When the Apostle Paul mentions the spiritual gifts in his First Epistle to the Corinthlans, he puts the gift of Speaking in tongues and their interpretation last in the order of gifts. He says: “Now, there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of hearings b the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (1Cor.12: 4-11). Thus the Apostle puts the gift of Speaking in tongues and their interpretation last in the order of gifts. The gift of Speaking in tongues is preceded by wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, and the ability to distinguish between spirits.
The Apostle also says: “And God has appointed these in the Church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues” (1Cor.12: 28). Thus the Apostle puts the gift of Speaking in tongues last in the order of gifts.
When the Apostle says: “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way” (1Cor.12: 31), he explains that this more excellent way is love. He explains how love is greater and more important than every prophecy, all knowledge, all faith which can move mountains, charity and asceticism (1Cor. 13). He explains that love is more important than Speaking in tongues of men and of angels - not of men only. He says: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal” (1Cor.13: 1).
(2) Speaking in tongues is not a gift for all
We have seen from the aforementioned that God “distributes to each one individually as He wills” (1Cor.12: 11); “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us” (Rom.12: 6) and “as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Rom.12: 3).
With regard to the gift of Speaking in tongues, the Apostle plainly says: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of hearings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (1Cor.12: 29,30) It is clear from this passage that the gift is not for all, and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. Therefore even at the time of the Apostles it was not necessary for every believer to receive the gift of Speaking in tongues which was not an essential sign to prove the descent of the Holy Spirit upon a person. A man can be a saint even though he does not speak with tongues.
God knows when to give gifts and the reason of giving them. He gave the gift of Speaking in tongues abundantly at the time of the Apostles, the beginning of preaching for the sake of edifying, because it was essential at the time.
Speaking in tongues is not necessary in every age. The Holy Bible says concerning this: “Whether there are tongues, they will cease” (1Cor.13: 8). Even in the era of the Apostles there were conditions for Speaking in tongues. We read some of these conditions in chapter fourteen of the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians:
(3) Speaking in tongues should be for edifying the church
The most important word which characterises the chapter about the gift of Speaking in tongues (1Cor.14), is the word edifying. The Apostle mentions it many times and emphasises it. He says explicitly: “Let all things be done for edification” (1Cor.14: 26) and “Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel” (1Cor.14: 12).
For the sake of edifying the church, the Apostle says that "he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues” (v.5) because “he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (v.4). The word prophesy at that time also meant teaching. The Apostle prefers prophesying because “he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men” (v.3).
(4) Speaking in tongues should be interpreted
The Apostle says: “Therefore Jet him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret” (v.13), and adds “But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church” (v.28). The Apostle's reason is obvious: the edification of the church. He says: “...unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification” (v.5). If this edification is not achieved, he should keep silent, and the phrase ‘keep silent’ is an Apostolic command. Therefore he who speaks in a tongue must either speak for the edification of the church or keep silent.
The presence of an interpreter is a testimony that the Speaking in tongues is sound. Thus the gift of tongues is given to two persons simultaneously. One is the speaker and the other the interpreter. Consequently, the Biblical verse: “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established” (2Cor.13: 1), is applied. If speaking in a tongue is without interpretation, what is its use? What is its use if all present do not understand the language?
(5) What is the meaning of 'edifies himself’?
To ‘edify himself’ is to be in a certain spiritual state of the descent of the Ho y Spirit, which is beneficial for the individual's edification. There are two remarks mentioned by St. Paul about this state. They are:
(a) The person should keep silent just as in any private spiritual state between oneself and God. The Apostle says: “...let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God” (v.28). It is a matter between him and God, more suitable for him to stay in his closet and not in church in front of people. Thus speaking in a tongue will be a kind of prayer. Even so:
(b) The mind will be unfruitful; it is just a work of the spirit. The Apostle says: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful” (v.14). The Apostle could see that this state should be completed by understanding. The person should pray in spirit and also with understanding; sing in spirit and also with understanding. Although the Apostle mentions the phrase ‘edifies himself’ very cautiously and with remarks, and points out that it is not a complete edification, yet for the sake of edification he says: “I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (vv.18, 19).
Therefore there is no need for people to strive with all their might to speak with tongues, believing that this is a great achievement.
If this is the case of Speaking in tongues as a gift of the Holy Spirit, what then shall we say when some people claim to speak with tongues and we are not certain of the genuineness of their claim?
(6) The Apostle's fight against the errors of Speaking in tongues
The Apostle fought strongly against the tongues which were not edifying the church and whose owners did not keep silent. He says that:
(a) The tongues are not beneficial "But now, brethren, if I come to you Speaking in tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching?" (v.6) He describes these tongues as musical instruments which make indistinctive, unknown and incomprehensible sounds (vv.7, 8).
(b) The tongues will be spoken into the air. The Apostle says: "So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will bespeaking into the air” (v.9).
(c) Speakers with tongues will be like foreigners. The Apostle says: “Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me” (v.11).
(d) Speakers with tongues have no fellowship with the church and do not edify others.
No one can understand the one who speaks with a tongue when he stands to pray, to give thanks or to bless the Lord. So how can he enter into a life of sharing with the believers if they do not understand him? Therefore the Apostle says: “Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say 'Amen' at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified” (vv.16, 17).
(e) Speakers with tongues will resemble the mad. “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (v.23).
(f) The tongues should be appropriate, in order and without confusion. The gift of Speaking in tongues filled everyone at the time of the Apostles, but the Apostle insists that the gift should be disciplined. He says: “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (v.33) and “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret” (v.27).
(7) Speaking in tongues is a sign for unbelievers
In the Apostle's opinion, believers will benefit from forthtelling, whereas unbelievers will profit from the tongues provided that they are interpreted. He says: “Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe” (v.22).
Therefore if those who are present in church are believers, what is the benefit of Speaking in tongues, according to the Apostle's teaching?
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