Brian Fulthorp, a Pentecostal pastor, has opened up discussion of speaking in tongues, with two reports on books, a review of the 40th anniversary edition of John Sherrill’s book They Speak with Other Tongues, and a brief notice of a new book Initial Evidence. Tim Chesterton also mentioned speaking in tongues in a great post which is in effect his testimony of how he became a Christian.
Like Tim, I first prayed in tongues here in Essex in the 1970s. In fact I can tell you the date, 11th April 1979, and the precise spot, 51°42’54.32″N 0°31’9.58″E (according to Google Earth). The evening before I had had a long talk with some older Christians about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, at the end of which I let them pray for me. Nothing happened at that moment, and I was left confused, but the next evening as I went for a walk to think and pray about what had happened, I suddenly started to speak in tongues. In fact the words came out in a flood. as if a dam had broken, and at the same time I felt a great release of previously dammed up joy and peace. I have been praying in tongues on and off since that day, so for nearly 30 years, and in general consider it helpful as part of my prayer life.
My initial reluctance to accept this gift was largely because of the teaching on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit which seemed to go with it. According to the kind of teaching I heard (although maybe they didn’t intend to put it quite like this), since before that day I didn’t speak in tongues, I must have been some kind of second class Christian, and what I needed to become first class was to experience something called the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. The way to know that I had received this would be if I spoke in tongues. This is more or less the classic Pentecostal doctrine of Initial Evidence which Brian refers to. And it was this teaching which was a stumbling block to me as a young Christian, a recent graduate, well schooled in UCCF‘s brand of evangelicalism. Nevertheless, I was hungry then as now for all the good things God had for me, and so I let these people pray for me to receive this Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
At that time, the late 1970s and the early 1980s, a lot of well known Christian authors were writing their books giving their different perspectives on this Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Some embraced the Pentecostal doctrine. Some rejected speaking in tongues as demonic, or at least as unhelpful emotionalism. But the most convincing, to me at least, were the ones which concluded that speaking in tongues is a genuine and good gift from God, one which Christians should seek, but not evidence of or a prerequisite for a full Christian life.
And that is basically the position I have come to over the years. I continue to speak in tongues, and to encourage and pray for others to do so if they want to. But I don’t condemn those who don’t speak in tongues or don’t want to as unspiritual or second class Christians. I am happy to work alongside Pentecostals as long as they don’t make too big a thing of this gift, and alongside those who don’t speak in tongues as long as they don’t reject me because of my experience and the way I pray.
So, what of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit? I know that this is the name often given to the very clear experience, accompanied by speaking in tongues, which I had. And I don’t reject the name as long as it is not associated too dogmatically with what John the Baptist prophesied about the ministry of Jesus:
I baptise you with [footnote: Or in] water, but he will baptise you with [footnote: Or in] the Holy Spirit.
Mark 1:8 (TNIV)
I believe that all Christians receive the Holy Spirit at conversion, and perhaps this is what John was referring to in this verse. Nevertheless, many who profess to be Christians have never had any experience of the Holy Spirit working in them. That is the position I was in as a student in a UCCF group. I knew my doctrine backwards, but only in my head, but I knew I was missing out on something, especially when I met Christians who had experienced the reality of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives.
In my church these days we don’t make a big thing about speaking in tongues. And I think this is wise. But in line with practice at for example Soul Survivor and Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, we pray for people, whether already Christian or not, and expect them to have an experience of the reality of the Holy Spirit. For those not already Christians, this will be accompanied by repentance and faith; for those already Christians, this will be some kind of second experience. The evidence or manifestation of this experience is very varied – it may be shaking, or tears, or laughter, or even the infamous Toronto Blessing animal noises, or it may just be an inner sense of peace or joy. Such experiences can be repeated. But somehow having had one once is enough to change a person’s life, because they suddenly realise, not just in their heads but deep in their hearts, that God is real, alive, and working inside them.
When you have experienced all that, it somehow seems petty to try to insist that this experience is only fully valid if the evidence is speaking in tongues.