Friday, August 3, 2007

What the heck is a "private prayer language?"

The following article should not be considered a personal attack upon Christians of the Charismatic persuasion. Rather it should be viewed as a challenge to my brother's and sister's in Christ to make certain that their theology is in line with God's perfect and infallible word. Whenever belief contradicts Scripture, it is our Christian responsibility to yield to Scripture and adapt our beliefs to it's truth.

If you know anything of the Charismatic movement you've probably heard the term "private prayer language" before. The question that you might have is, what the heck is a "private prayer language?" Well, that's a good question, and it makes sense that you would be confused by such phraseology. After all the Bible doesn't use that language, nor does it even describe something that we could refer to as a "private prayer language." So what is the deal with this issue? Where did it come from? And what should be our response as Christians who believe that the Bible is the only infallible source of truth for guiding our lives in Spiritual matters?

To start off, let's discuss what in the world this is even supposed to mean. I know from personal experience, as a former charismatic myself, what people mean when they say "God has given me a private prayer language." From the charismatic viewpoint this means that God has given them the spiritual gift of tongues that is spoken of throughout the New Testament, with a particular emphasis in 1 Corinthians chapters 12;13 and 14. I would like to note here that the word that is translated "tongues(s)" is the Greek word "glossa." The word glossa could equally be translated as "language(s)" and I wish that it would be in more translations so that the mysteriousness of the word "tongues" would perhaps fade a bit. But none the less, either way it is translated, it refers to the same thing, a language. The question that we run into here is this: "what kind of language is referred to by the Greek word glossa?"

Going back yet once again to the Charismatic viewpoint and their understanding of the gift known as tongues, there is a notable amount of disagreement even within the ranks of the Charismatic movement as to how the gift functions today and what it is for.

Some Charismatics believe it only to be in the form of a private prayer language. By this they mean that it is some sort of God given language that only God Himself understands. Often times it is believed that everyone who receives such a "prayer language" it is indeed there own and no one else has one like it. The purpose of this "gift" has varying explanations depending on whom you might ask in the Charismatic movement.

1. Some say that it is a language that is meant to hide your prayers from the devil that God alone can understand so Satan does not try and hinder your prayers.

2. Some refer to Romans 8:26 where it says "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." They then say that the gift of tongues that God has given them is the Spirit of God speaking through them in ways that they do not themselves understand, and this is what happens when they do not best know how to pray.

3. Other's say that it is to "build up your Spirit" or I've even heard "build up your spirit man." Generally referring to some sort of self edification, a spiritual Pick-me-up. I've heard 1 Corinthians 14:4 used as a defense for this view where it says "4The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church."

And then there are those that have other variations on those 3 things or mix and match.

There are even some within the Charismatic realm (though certainly not all) who claim that if you do not have the gift of tongues then you are not truly a believer because they see the gift of tongues as synonymous with having God's Spirit and being saved.

Finally, most charismatics that I have talked to believe in a secondary "filling of the Holy Spirit." These charismatics are those who do not believe that you must speak in tongues to be saved, rather they often just believe that those who do not speak in tongues "are lacking the fullness of God's Spirit." Generally this is what they refer to as being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

(At Reformation In Progress we deny that there is a secondary experience after salvation where "more" of the power of God's Spirit is received. We will deal with this in a different article.)

Sticking to the issue of "private prayer languages" however, is there actually Biblical support for such a doctrine or practice? I believe the answer is a firm "no."

I think it will be helpful for us to examine what the Bible clearly says about the gift of glossa, otherwise known as "tongues" or "languages." To start, let's look at the first mention of this gift in the Bible.

Acts 2:1-21

"1When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7And they were amazed and astonished, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." 12And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13But others mocking said, "They are filled with new wine."

Things to notice about this passage.

1. It was Pentecost, a Jewish festival where every devout Jew that had any way of getting to Jerusalem would be there. (1 Cor. 2:1,5)

2. There were men from "every nation under heaven" and therefore many different languages represented at the festival. When the gift of "tongues was given to the Christians they began to speak in languages that, as Galileans, they would not usually know. (1 Cor. 2:5-11)

3. Although the languages were foreign to those speaking them, they were known languages and understood by the people from foreign countries. (1 Cor. 2:8)

If we were to read on in chapter 2, we would find that Peter goes on to tell the people about gaining salvation in Jesus Christ. The miraculous gift of tongues (languages) validated that God was behind what the apostle Peter had to say, and it was because the people recognized that the power of God was on the Peter and the other followers of Christ that they repented of their sins and believed.

Now mind you, this is the very first example of this miraculous gift recorded in Scripture. It is very clear here what this gift given at Pentecost was for. The followers of Christ were telling the people from every nation "the mighty works of God" in their own languages (1 Cor. 2:11). This as Peter explains is an outpouring of God's Spirit (1 Cor. 2:17-21) and it validated the gospel message that Peter preached, as a result unbelieving Jews placed their trust in Christ.

In fact interestingly enough, every time the gift of glossa (tongues/languages) is used in the book of acts it is used to validate the gospel message in some way. As we have just seen, originally the gift was used to communicate the "mighty works of God" in the languages of those who had come from foreign countries, as a result the gospel message was validated by this sign and people believed the message was of God.

In Acts 10:44-48 we see that the gift on tongues is given to gentiles who receive the Spirit of God when they believe the gospel, validating the gospel message as for both Jews and gentiles alike.

Now as we move to 1 Corinthians we see in chapters 12, 13 and 14 a discussion on spiritual gifts. Let's start at the beginning and move our way forward.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

"1Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says "Jesus is accursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except in the Holy Spirit.

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills."

As Paul start the discussion of Spiritual gifts, I think there are several important things to note.

1. Paul is dealing with the Corinthian church which is not a healthy nor spiritually mature church. The church was seriously divided into factions and were not focused in Christ (1 Cor. 1:10-17). Paul refers to Christians in Corinth as acting like "people of the flesh, as infants in Christ" (1 C0r. 3:1).

2. The very reason that Paul is writing this letter to the church in Corinth is to deal with their spiritual immaturity and sinfulness. the church at Corinth was all to accepting of the practices of the world that were not meant to be mingled with Christ's church. The tone of the letter is disciplinary and corrective all the way through, this does not change when Paul enters the topic of Spiritual gifts. The Corinthians were practicing some things in regard to spiritual gifts, particularly that of glossa (tongues) that were wrong.

Now as we address the above Scripture in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, I believe that the purpose statement or thesis perhaps for the usage of any God given gift is found in verse 7.

"To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good."

If more people would just take this simple, straightforward verse into consideration perhaps this would help settle the matter of whether "private prayer languages" were supported by Scripture or not. I ask you this, can speaking in a supposed language that no human being on earth can make any sense of possibly be "for the common good?" No indeed it cannot.

In the same chapter, just preceding verses 1-11 we see that Paul continues this "purpose statement" and gives some depth to the idea of Spiritual gifts being for the common good of the church.

1 Corinthians 12:12-26

"12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

14For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." 22On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together."

In the above passage Paul uses a brilliant God breathed illustration of the church being likened to a human body. Each Christian is compared to a different part of the body, each are given a different but complimentary function. Just as a human body would not function at 100% of it's capacity if it were missing an eye, or foot, or fingers. Likewise each member of the body of Christ is given a spiritual gift and all of the different gifts are needed to operate in harmony for the church to bring the most glory to God. Regardless if one gift by human estimation seems more prominent or important, every gift that God gives is complimentary and depends upon the others. The gifts given by the spirit are meant to edify and encourage the rest of the church. A gift that is not functioning in such a way that it is supporting and harmonizing with other gifts is no gift of God at all because it breaks away from the purpose of spiritual gifts.

Hopefully at this point we are beginning to see the problem with the very idea of a "private prayer language." The problem is that the very nature of such a practice is counter to what Scripture says a Spiritual gift is and how it should function.

In regard to anyone who would hold the extreme position that only those who speak in tongues are believers, the next passage in chapter 12 clearly denies such a view to Be God's truth.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31

"27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way."

Clearly the Spirit gifts His people in different ways and the language of this passage implies an emphatic "No" after every open ended question. "Do all speak in tongues?" No. Nor were all believers ever meant to have any one gift.

Now as we reach chapter 13 we start to reach the place where people who hold to the charismatic practice and view of "private prayer languages" often draw their theology. Let's take a look at the next passage that follows immediately after the last.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

"1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

The apostle Paul begins here to engage in some hyperbole. The point that the apostle is making is that regardless of what one is capable of doing, if the motivation is not love, it is of no spiritual benefit to them. To emphasize His point, Paul uses exaggerated language. If he Paul speaks in the tongues/languages of men (an actual gift of the Spirit) or even if He was so incredibly gifted as to speak in the tongues/languages of angels (something we see no example of in Scripture) if he does not do these in love for the church, it is nothing, worhtless.

Likewise if Paul has prophetic powers (which he does as this very letter is recognized as "theopneustos" or "God breathed" Scripture) or if Paul knew everything that there was to know (Paul of course is not omniscient) or if he had a faith that could literally uproot mountains (which of course is an exaggeration) regardless if the motivation behind such things is not love of others then it is of no benefit. The purpose of Spiritual gifts is the encouragement and edification of the church for "the common good."

When Paul speak of the tongues of angels, He does not say that this is something that could actually happen, he merely points out that even if He were so gifted if it were not used in a way that would be selfless love, benefiting the church, then it is no good. I remind you here that this is a corrective letter, the Corinthians were full of pride and loved to boast in their own spirituality, this is the attitude that Paul deals with in the first 3 chapters of this letter. It's likely that the Corinthians were boasting in their gifts and not using them in love for the encouragement of the body of Christ. It is, furthermore, likely that the immature Christians were even boasting that God had endowed them with abilities beyond what was a reality.

Regardless of what was going on, Paul reminds them that all gifts are to be used in love and for the common good of the body of Christ. Something that the Corinthians were surely guilty of not doing as those who were acting as "people of the flesh. as infants in Christ" (1 Cor. 3:1).

Let's move on to the next passage 1 Cor. 13:8-13

"8Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

I don't want to spend much time upon this issue now, but it is reasonable to at least mention here that there is a good argument for the gift of glossa as a gift among several that is no longer given. It is amongst what are commonly referred to as the sign gifts such as tongues, prophecy, miracles, healing, etc. The argument centers on this passage where it says that "prophecies they will pass away; as for tongues they will cease..." I think that this is a credible argument, however this is not the issue at hand. We are trying to ascertain what the gift of tongues truly is Biblically speaking, and what it is not. Whether it is a gift for today is for another conversation. But the point is made yet once again that love never ends and is the greatest importance of all.

Let's venture on to the next passage, 1 Corinthians 14:1-5.

"1Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up."

Now, once again, this is a place where a lot of Charismatics grasp their theology about tongues. They will say to me "You see, it says that they are speaking to God and men cannot understand. Private prayer language, right there!" However, let's put this in context. We see that Paul goes on to say that "the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation." Now this fits the purpose statement of Spiritual gifts, being used for the common good. Paul then counters that thought with what the Corinthians were doing with this gift of glossa, or at least what they were supposedly doing. Paul says that the one who speaks in a tongue "builds up Himself" rather than building up the church. This is counter to the purpose of Spiritual gifts.

This being the case, what the Corinthians were practicing and calling the gift of tongues, was either not the genuine gift, (claiming to speak an unknown, perhaps, angelic language), or it was genuine that they were speaking in real, human languages, but with no one around who knew the language (which is why they were speaking "not to men but to God" because God knows all languages). Regardless, this was really just one more way to boast in themselves as they have been doing with other things like claiming superiority to others based on whom they calimed to follow (1 Cor. 1:11-17). Paul is not commending the Corinthians on their practice of tongues in the way that they are practicing it, in fact He is condemning it because their motivation is selfish, prideful and boasing in themselves. They were in effect, showing off, saying "Look what I can do!" Spiritual gifts are for the upbuilding and encouragement of the Church, they should never be used for ones own self alone.

Let's continue in chapter 14:6-12.

"6Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church."

This needs little commentary, but, does it sound like to you that Paul thinks people should speak in unknown mysterious languages? Will it build up the church? No. Gifts are to be used for "the common good." A private prayer language cannot do that.

1 Corinthians 14:13-19

"13Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue."

Paul thanks God that He speaks in tongues more than any of them. No one is denying that tongues is, or at the very least was a real gift of the Spirit, but Paul used it in the proper method. As a missionary Paul traveled all over the world and God enabled him to speak in languages he would not otherwise know as sign that gave creedence to his message of the gospel of Christ as being from God. But in a setting where Paul was with brothers in Christ, it would be foolish to speak in a tongue that they did not know. If you do not know what a person is saying, you cannot be encouraged in the Lord, and vice-versa.

1 Corinthians 14:20-25

"20Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, "By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord." 22Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you."

This once again indicates the purpose of the genuine gift of glossa (tongues/languages). The gift was meant to be a sign for unbelievers, just like in Acts 2. God used Galileans who spoke one language to speak to people who were foreign to them in their languages, some believed some didn't. But the purpose of the gift was clear there in Acts 2 and now it is reemphasized here. The gift is not for personal upbuilding, rather it is evangelistic in nature, a sign for unbelievers.

This passage also speaks against the usage of tongues in a worship gathering where all are speaking at once and no one understands. Paul says that people will think the Corinthians "are out of your minds." But prophecy, speaking intelligible words about Christ and His gospel, this causes people to worship God and recognize His presence in the church.

1 Corinthians 14:26-32

"26What then, brothers? 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. 27If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets."

Her Paul discusses having order and reverence in worship Once again it is stressed that whatever is done, should be done for the building up of others, for the common good. In regard to tongues there are several things made clear.

1. There should only be 1 or 2 or 3 people at most speaking in tongues in the service.

2. Each should take a turn, it should not be done all at the same time.

3. There should be an interpreter, if there is not they should keep it to themselves and the Lord.

4. The very fact that an interpreter is mentioned points to the fact that tongues should be an intelligible language that someone on earth should know.

This certainly chastizes the practice of many charismatic churches when the multitude speaks in "tongues" all at once. There is nothing but confusion in such a practice and as the Scripture says "God is not a God of confusion but of peace."

Now to deal with that "stray" verse in Romans 8:26-27 that is often used as a justification for tongues as a "private prayer language."

The Scripture says:

"26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

Let's consider what the Scripture actually teaches here.

1. The Spirit of God helps us in our weakness.

2. We don't always know how we should pray, or what best to pray for.

3. Because God knows us better thatn we know ourselves and all the details of our lives, He actually intercedes on our behalf "with groanings to deep for words."

4. The Spirit intercedes for us as Christians according to the will of God.

Here is the question. Is the gift of tongues referred to? No. Does it say that the Spirit interceding for His people makes sounds through those people? No. It is a leap and an illogical assumption to tie the gift of tongues to this passage. Indeed it comes from the presupposition that a "private prayer language" exists and then looks through the Bible to try and find Scripture that supports the presupposition. This is a fallacy of Bible interpretation. Context is everything and the gift of tongues is not mentioned.

We have now systematically looked at the issue of tongues. Let's summarize out findings.

1. The gift of tongues (as is true with all gifts of the Spirit) is meant for the building up of others, for the common good of God's church.

2. The gift of tongues is a sign that validates the gospel message.

3. It is evangelistic in nature.

4. It is actual known, human languages.

5. It should only be used when there is someone to interpret it.

6. Not all believers are meant to speak in tongues.

It is my conviction based off of this kind of study that the gift of tongues was meant as a way of communicating the gospel of Christ and validating the gospel message as from God and proving that the gospel was for all people including the gentiles.

If tongues were for today, it would not be as a "private prayer language." There is no Scriptural support for such a practice. It would be for the communicating of the gospel message in a foreign language one did not typically speak in.

Upcoming Posts:

You Can't Tell Me My Experience Was Wrong

Is the Gift of Glossa for Today?

Serving Christ,

Jacob Allee

1 comment:

The Seeking Disciple said...

Wanted to recommend a few good books on the subject. One is by Rick Walston called "The Speaking In Tongues Controversy." The next is by Dr. Sam Storms. It is entitled "Convergence: Spiritual Journeys of a Charismatic Calvinist." Both books represent differing views on speaking in tongues. Also, I recommend Jack Hayford's "The Beauty of Spiritual Language."

I enjoy your blog.