An unexpected response to an unexpected outburst

Tyler S. Ramey

My early and young adult years were spent in the Assemblies of God.  My heart and mind remain in a Pentecostal tradition, and it’s Pentecostal or Charismatic worship that I love.  Some folks who share my heritage will appreciate the following story and related stuff in this article. Note: Those UN-acquainted with biblical Pentecostalism typically confuse it with all sorts of unfortunate and even unbiblical groups that claim the tradition. Such, however, is not the case.

I was recently delighted during a visit to an Assembly of God church when the pastor politely halted an out-of-order exercise of the gift of tongues.  My experience in Pentecostal churches has been that the Apostle Paul’s instructions regarding tongues gets neglected if not ignored altogether.  So, I was pleasantly surprised during a Christmas program at what appeared to be this pastor’s adherence to Paul’s directives regarding a public exercise of tongues.

Here’s what happened: As the pastor began to introduce the music and drama, a man interrupted with what was presumably a message in tongues.  I say “presumably” because I didn’t know the man, and it’s possible for a person to interrupt corporate gatherings for various reasons.  The pastor kindly but sternly directed the man to stop while church leaders intercepted him and quieted the outburst.  That, friends, was refreshing, because being thoroughly Pentecostal (I like the label “Pentellectual,” a thinking Pentecostal), my experience growing up in the AG was one where corporate gatherings were always marked by some measure of disorder that were rarely if ever addressed.  But the Apostle Paul is clear about these things, and this pastor was apparently familiar with some if not all of Paul’s teaching, at least as far as I could tell from this single episode.  What exactly was wrong with the man’s speaking in tongues?  Well, it’s possible (and I don’t know) that the man was known by church leadership to be a disrupter of sorts, but I didn’t get that sense; although, it is a possibility.  So, halting such an outburst expeditiously could well have been a planned thing, and a good one.  Let’s take a look at the Apostle Paul’s teaching.

First Corinthians 12-14 addresses many relevant details, but I’ll limit this article to the most salient points.  Paul recognizes the Corinthians’ zeal when they gathered for corporate worship, but he responds to the apparent chaos that occurred during those times and instructs them that God is a God of order, not disorder (14:32, 39-40).  Paul gives details about the orderly operation of the gifts of the Spirit, and he is especially sensitive to unbelievers and untaught Christians when it comes to tongues.  He makes clear to us in his letter to the Corinthians that exercising the gifts of the Spirit must be done in love (see Chapter 13 paying careful attention to the context of Chapters 12 and 14).  Note: Chapter 13 is known as a “love” commentary, but reading it apart from Paul’s primary message about the gifts and the Corinthian tendency toward chaotic gatherings yields a shortsighted interpretation of the passage.  Now, regarding the man who spoke out of order during the church service . . . the pastor (I assume) likely halted the tongues because it was disorderly.  But stopping the exercise of tongues at this time should—and might have been, I don’t know—for the sake of unbelievers or unlearned Christians that were present and upon whom the tongues would have had a negative effect.  Paul says that “Tongues are a sign” (a negative one) and “if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand” is present, he’ll say that “you are out of your mind” (vv. 22, 23).  Please note here that I don’t know the extent of the theological understanding of the pastor regarding spiritual gifts, nor do I know if he stopped the man from speaking in tongues for all of the reasons noted herein.  Nevertheless, why should this likely well intentioned man have been silenced as he in fact was? 

First, in a large congregation of people, he couldn’t know with certainty that an unbeliever or untaught Christian were not present; thus, the sensitivities of these folks would be violated and a real risk of scaring them away from Christian faith was apparent.  Also, remember that Paul said these same folks would accuse the group and the speaker of being crazy.  Imagine the sorts of rumors that could spread around, perhaps even about the Holy Spirit himself, if no biblical controls were exercised during public gatherings regarding the operation of the gifts of the Spirit, especially tongues.  All this is not to say that tongues are forbidden altogether in a gathering where unbelievers or untaught Christians are present, but when they do operate, there is an order and process (14:27) that Paul outlines to avoid the sort of pandemonium he criticized of the Corinthians.

Second, (and this wouldn’t necessarily apply if the man were halted exclusively for being out of order) the man likely was unaware of an interpreter for the message, unless he himself were granted such by the Holy Spirit (14:26-28).  It is a responsibility of one used by the Spirit to know that an interpretation is available, otherwise he should be silent and keep to himself and the Lord (14:27-28).  Bear in mind that this restriction from Paul doesn’t exclude traditionally Pentecostal worship marked by singing in tongues or praying in tongues; Paul’s concern lies with the unbeliever and untaught Christian—and order, of course.  In any case, the first reason above should be the main purpose for silencing the outburst, but certainly an orderly operation of tongues ought to be considered at all times (14:26-33; 39, 40).

Third, this was a Christmas program, a time when the Gospel is shared with those who don’t know Jesus.  Lots of visitors who don’t know the Lord or who don’t have any experience with Christian faith or God’s people come to such events, and this could have been the main reason for silencing the man.  No matter the case, it was simply an inappropriate time to speak in tongues, as are many large gatherings.

Finally, when attention is drawn away from the collective purpose of the gathering, and focus centers on one person speaking in tongues, the primary emphasis of Paul’s instructions are violated.  While it is difficult to know the specifics for each and every situation where tongues are present, we do know that  we’re to exercise love (Chapter 13; 14:1), order and decorum.  This is all for the sake of the Church’s edification and her benefit as unbelievers and unlearned Christians travel the same road to understanding and experiencing the Spirit-filled life.

“Now about spiritual gifts . . . do not be ignorant” (I Cor. 12:1)



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