Can Christians Forbid “Private Prayer Languages”?

Can Christians Forbid The trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) responded to Dwight McKissic’s chapel sermon advocating a private prayer language with the following statement: “Southwestern will not knowingly endorse in any way, advertise, or commend the conclusions of the contemporary charismatic movement including ‘private prayer language.’ Neither will Southwestern knowingly employ professors or administrators who promote such practices.”

Pastor McKissic, who is himself a trustee at the SWBTS, has responded (here and here) to this statement implying that the trustees have a adopted a policy that forbids what the apostle Paul says must not be forbidden (1 Corinthians 14:39). I do not wish to debate on this blog whether Pastor McKissic should have said what he said in SWBTS’s chapel service last month. I believe that McKissic and the SWBTS trustees have come to terms on that question.

What I do wish to discuss is the following question. Does the apostle Paul teach in 1 Corinthians 14:39 that Christians should not forbid speaking in a private prayer language? The answer to this question depends entirely upon what Paul meant by speaking in “tongues” in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Some people interpret it such that tongues are sometimes a public manifestation of Spirit-inspired utterance, at other times they are a private utterance.

The idea of a private prayer language derives from a certain reading of 1 Corinthians 14:2-4, which says “2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in the Spirit he speaks mysteries. . . 4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.”

Of course there is much more that could and should be said about this text. But I offer the following as just some of the reasons that we should not understand Paul to be teaching about a “private prayer language” in 1 Corinthians 14.

First of all, it’s a Spirit-inspired utterance, not a private one. In verse 2, the reference to the “spirit” is not talking about the human “spirit” of the one speaking in tongues. The Greek text of verse 2 does not have the possessive pronoun “his” as in the NASB and NIV translations. Actually, the speaking of the mysteries happens “in” or “by” the “Spirit,” that is, by the Holy Spirit (see ESV, NET, NKJV, NRSV, NLT, NJB). The reference to “Spirit” in this text cannot be used as a reference to the “privacy” of the utterance. That’s not the point at all.

Second, the content of the “tongue” is the speaking of “mysteries.” Many take this reference to “mysteries” to indicate that what is being spoken is either indistinct or unintelligible speech. Yet for the apostle Paul, the term “mystery” has a very specific referent. It is clear from his other uses of the term that a “mystery” refers to truth that was previously undisclosed but that is now revealed in the preaching of the Gospel (e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:7; 4:1; 13:2; 15:51). Whatever the language that is being spoken, the translation of it amounts to Gospel content, not giberrish, groans, or sighs.

Third, when Paul says that the one who speaks in a tongue “does not speak to men, but to God,” all he means is that the only one who can understand an untranslated tongue in the public assembly is God. This hardly amounts to a “private prayer language.” Paul rebukes this practice because the context is the public assembly of saints, and everything that is done there must be done for the edification of the body, not self-edification (1 Corinthians 14:5).

Fourth, it’s not clear that the speech is directed to God as a “prayer” per se. Paul says that the untranslated tongue is directed toward God only in the sense that God is the only one who understands, “for no one understands” (14:2). The untranslated tongue is described as “speaking into the air” in 14:9, so it looks like the grounds for regarding this as a prescribed prayer-practice is tendentious at best.

Please note that I have not thus far advocated a cessassionist reading of 1 Corinthians 14. All I have tried to show is that the Spirit-inspired utterances of 1 Corinthians 14 do not amount to a private prayer language. The real question is, what is the nature of speaking in tongues in this chapter? It does not appear that Paul teaches about two different kinds of tongues-speaking (i.e., private prayer language and glossalia). Rather, he is addressing the one gift that he began addressing in chapter 12:10, “tongues.”

The conclusion is this. Since Paul does not appear to have “private prayer language” in view in this text, 1 Corinthians 14:39 does not prevent Christians from forbidding “private prayer languages.”

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In a previous post, I said that I would address three issues raised by the McKissic controversy. This is part one. Parts two and three will be coming later this week.

6 Responses to Can Christians Forbid “Private Prayer Languages”?

  1. Debbie Wimmers October 25, 2006 at 12:37 pm #

    I have been to two different pentecostal churches. One was a very crazy experience. The other is mild in comparison.
    I think if one person speaks, another intreprets. The service doesn’t seem chaotic.
    When several people pray out loud, it seems very distrurbing. I orefer to pray alone in my own environment.
    I believe that if the bible says not to forbid the speech than we shouldn’t forbid it in a private setting. i believe it when the Bible says ‘I am the Lord God, I change not’ in Malachi
    ‘Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever’ in Hebrews
    So why should we argue about the relevancy of scripture today as opposed to history as it was being written.

  2. Bryan L October 25, 2006 at 1:38 pm #

    Denny,

    A few points in response to your points

    1. I agree that it’s not speaking of the person’s own spirit but of the Holy Spirit (even though 14:15 seems to suggest otherwise). But just because it comes from the Holy Spirit, that doesn’t mean it has to be public and can’t be something done in private.

    2. Being that Paul’s use of “mystery” here is plural where as everywhere else outside of 1 Corinthians it’s singular, are you sure it can be pushed for such a technical meaning, as to be speaking of only the Gospel (I’m not really willing to argue this point it’s just a consideration).

    3. You still have to get past the fact that if it is another language why does Paul tell them to speak to themselves and God unless there is someone there to interpret? And the fact that he suggest that they can praise God and bless God in tongues, argues against your view that the reason Paul says that people are speaking only to God is because ‘the only one who can understand an untranslated tongue in the public assembly is God.” Paul sounds like the reason they are speaking only to God is because they are addressing him (1 Cor. 14:15-17)
    Yes everything in the assembly must be done for edification that’s why Paul says to pray to interpret or not say anything if there is no one to interpret because “You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.” No one else is edified by the spirit inspired thanks, blessings or praise, unless someone interprets.

    The thing I find most troubling in all of this, is with the view that Paul is speaking of human languages when he speaks of tongues (whether it was private or public).
    To say that tongues are human languages, or strictly for missionary purposes is that it’s basically suggesting that people who spoke neither Greek nor Latin, were always walking in off the street into these homes where the church was gathered (and traveling all around the empire with no language resources). And then when you have Paul suggest in 14:23 that the unbeliever who comes in off the street who hears you speaking in tongues would think that you’re out of your mind (since they can’t understand), while they would understand prophecy (which is distinguished as being in the speakers known language and understandable by everyone), seems to argue even more against this view.
    Also this view suggest that God was inspiring people to speak or pray other languages that they didn’t know all the time (it must have been all the time since it was a problem Paul addresses), when there weren’t people present to even understand. Like if I were hanging out with my friends and God was always gifting me with the ability to speak words of another language but no one else including me, could understand it, so I had to stay quiet.
    But if instead I’m speaking praises and blessings to God then it’s understandable why I would be gifted for it but be encouraged to do it in between God and myself (which would make it private).

    Either way thinks for you bringing this subject up for discussion. I’m sure it will be fruitful and enlightening for everyone involved and I hope we can all be cordial in dealing with people of differing views.

    Blessings,
    Bryan

  3. Michael Bird October 25, 2006 at 5:08 pm #

    Denny,

    Is there any place where you would not prohibit tongues? Or, is there any place for tongues in the life of the believer?

  4. dennyrburk October 25, 2006 at 5:46 pm #

    Michael,

    I do not read 1 Corinthians 13 as teaching a cessation of gifts. I am, however, pretty persuaded by Dick Gaffin’s argument that translated tongues were the functional equivalent of prophecy. Just as prophecy and apostleship were foundational gifts (Eph 2:20) and have receded from the life of the church, so it is with tongues.

    If the Spirit were to inspire tongues today, it would be according to the pattern we find in the canon of scripture. I take Acts 2:1-13; 10:44-48 and 19:1-7 as more illuminating commentaries on 1 Corinthians 12-14 than the non-canonical “parallels” (e.g., Testament of Job 48:1-50:3; Jubilees 25:14; Testament of Judah 25:3; 1 Enoch 40; 71:11; 4 Macc 10:21). Thus, I think the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is the supernatural ability to speak a human language.

    Yes, I know. I’m old timey. But you’re not surprised, are you? 🙂

    Much luf,
    Denny

  5. MMO October 25, 2006 at 7:01 pm #

    you were looking pretty “ol’ timey” in that bball tourney today…

  6. Debbie Wimmers October 30, 2006 at 2:02 pm #

    Like I said before, if God, Father and God, the son say are the same and Jesus is the Word, why do we assume the spiritual gifts concerning tongues and prophecy have ceased. I believe I Cor. 13 is about the mellinium when Jesus is ruling this Earth. Then, there won’t be any need for a prayer language because we can go directly to Him.

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