Prophetic Momentum

Jon Cressey writing mostly about church, prophets and prophecy...

Tongues and gifts

gifts of the SpiritThe gift of tongues was never meant to be a source of controversy. Along with the other gifts of the Spirit, it has sadly become just that: controversial.

At the heart of this frustration lie two camps: the cessationists – convinced that miraculous gifts like tongues were exclusive to the apostolic era and only necessary until the Bible’s completion – and the continuationists, equally certain that these gifts are an enduring and essential legacy of the Spirit in the church, believing these gifts have no end date in the New Testament.

For them, the notion of the Spirit’s gifts vanishing after the first century is as improbable as a Netflix series concluding after just one episode. They regard ongoing spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues, as an integral part of the church’s narrative, where each believer plays a distinct role. I’m of this persuasion.

In the narrative of the early Church, particularly the very dramatic scenes of the birth of the Church during Pentecost in Acts 2, tongues emerge not just as a divine phenomenon but as the fulfilment of a promise (Joel 2:28-29). This was a divine punctuation mark, signalling the Spirit’s dynamic presence. It was a moment of such spiritual electricity that it would make even the most sceptical eyebrows raise.


The Apostle Paul, in his epistles, particularly in the 1 Corinthians 12-14 trilogy, approaches these gifts with a kind of spiritual pragmatism—recognizing their value while also reminding the church of the greater value of prophecy for the building and uplifting of the congregation. Jesus had been raised from the dead, and Israel was buzzing with expectation; hundreds appeared alive—also raised from the dead and seen by many. There was chaos in the temple after the curtain to the most holy place in Israel was mysteriously torn or ripped in two, from the top to the bottom, and the disciples were on edge, told to wait.

This period of expectancy stretched out for fifty sleeps, it was a long wait, yet was full a sense of excited anticipation.. And then the Spirit of God came in a flood of unprecedented power, accompanied by a rushing wind and tongues of fire; the breath of God breathed into the body of Christ, raising it to its feet with life. The Church, invigorated with power, swiftly took to the streets, villages, towns, cities, and then to the nations, sharing the good news of the gospel. Accompanying this were miracles, healings, signs, and wonders. The dead were raised, and cripples healed – everything that could only be done through the power and unction of God was accomplished.

After a while…

Time moved on, and then, over 1,500 years later, seeing how much importance Paul placed on the topic of prophecy, it was suddenly asserted by some that prophecy actually meant “preaching.” Eyebrows raised again!

In this theological tug-of-war, finding middle ground is as challenging as convincing a cat to take a leisurely bath. Doctrinally, both views appear as reconcilable as oil and water. Yet, in the lived reality of faith, there’s a spectrum of experiences that refuses to be neatly categorized – a kind of, “Mamma didn’t raise no fool” narrative – with each side looking at each other with bewilderment.  It’s ‘elephant in the room’ material – taboo of the highest kind in a day when the church has bigger battles to fight be concerned about.

The real elephant in the room, however, isn’t just the doctrinal disagreement but how it’s navigated. If the essence of Christianity is love, then the way this debate is handled is as crucial as the debate itself.

Alan & William – for example

Let’s explore what the early Church thought about spiritual gifts. Imagine ‘Alan’ and ‘William’ as symbols of two different views. Alan (gifts continuing)was very happy and thought his way of being would continue until the very last day when everything would be summed up in Christ, when the final trumpet had sounded. William (gifts have ceased) came many years later in church history and had other ideas!

The early Church leaders, who played a big role in shaping Christian beliefs, contribute to the debate.

  • Irenaeus, who lived in the late 2nd century, defended the traditional Christian beliefs against different ideas and controversies that may have proved unhelpful to doctrine and theology. In his book “Against Heresies,” he talked about the Holy Spirit still working in the Church, with things like miraculous powers and healings happening. God was still at work in and among His people in the same way that He was in the life of the early Church.
  • Tertullian, another early Christian writer, also talked about prophetic gifts still being active during his time. He mentioned how Christians were having visions and receiving revelations, which shows that these gifts were still happening in AD 150.
  • John Chrysostom said that miraculous gifts were becoming less common in his time, implying that they were gradually fading away.
  • Augustine, in his book “The City of God,” was initially doubtful about modern miracles but later admitted that they still occurred, just not as often as in the time of the apostles.

While it is true that spiritual gifts played a role in authenticating the early Church, the Bible does not explicitly state that these gifts would cease with the end of the apostolic era. In fact, the New Testament does not set a specific timeframe for when these gifts would cease, leaving room for their continuation.

While the completion of the New Testament is significant, the Bible itself does not claim that the availability of the written scriptures would lead to the cessation of spiritual gifts. The Bible encourages believers to desire spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1) and suggests that prophecy, one of the spiritual gifts, is desirable for the edification of the Church (1 Corinthians 14:3).

The Bible does not indicate that the need for miraculous signs and wonders diminishes as the Church becomes more established, in fact, the book of Acts records instances of miracles occurring as the early Church grew. Not only that, Jesus himself said that believers would do greater works (miracles) than He did (John 14:12), suggesting an ongoing role for miracles in the Church.

‘Alan’ would argue that there is no biblical passage that explicitly states that these gifts would cease,  instead, he  would point to passages like 1 Corinthians 12-14 which discuss the enduring nature of spiritual gifts. He would also advocate that God’s character and willingness to interact with humanity have not changed, and so, He continues to bestow these gifts on believers.

There’s also the challenge for Alan that the gifts of the Spirit, including tongues, are there to build up one another, and also that God supplies His Spirit and does miracles among the believers by the faith!

So what about William?

William believes that after the time of the apostles, special spiritual gifts like prophecy and miracles were no longer needed. These gifts were meant to establish the early Church and its message. With the completion of the New Testament, which contains the apostles’ teachings, some people think these extraordinary gifts became unnecessary. Early Church leaders also noticed these gifts becoming less common, leading to the belief that they were gradually disappearing.

William’s conclusion is we don’t need, and no longer require the gifts of the Spirit today for our spiritual growth and edification, building up and comfort because we have the Scriptures.

In contrast, Alan values both the spiritual gifts and especially the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God.

What now?

We have different opinions, but there is something you may not have considered – and it’s more important than you realise…

  • For ‘William’, happy with his Bible in hand the challenge is not to look down upon Alan’s experiences as spiritual theatrics but to embrace the mystery and diversity of the Spirit’s workings.
  • For Alan, it’s not about wearing spiritual experiences like a badge of honour but about marvelling, sometimes with a bemused shake of the head, at how the same Spirit operates so diversely within the body of Christ.

For the Alan group, who believe in the ongoing spiritual gifts as a vital part of their faith, it’s important to approach the William’s with kindness to support what they think God is doing in their lives. For Alan, it’s not about questioning spirituality or faith depth; it’s more about being amazed at how someone can navigate their Christian journey without what they see as the extra boost from the Spirit’s dynamic gifts and a strong sense of God’s presence. It’s like watching someone run a marathon in flip-flops – impressive, but you can’t help but think it could be smoother with the right gear.

Here’s the challenge – William might say that Alan is not following the right path, that what he’s experiencing isn’t based on the Bible and might have questionable origins. How is Alan supposed to respond to such a challenge? Stop praying in tongues, praying for the sick and speaking out things God brings to mind? Practically, what are the implications without it being controlling and legalistic?

On the other hand, on Alan’s side, he simply thinks that William is missing out. We need to be careful with our words and attitudes – in honour preferring one another. Love is essential.

The debate about whether spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues, have stopped or continue is more than just a theological puzzle. It’s a lively conversation that goes to the heart of Christian practice and community. Maybe the real victory isn’t in winning the argument, but in finding a balance between staying true to your own beliefs and being humble, while respecting others’ journeys. In this conversation, as in everything, the ultimate goal is to reflect the Spirit’s diverse and sometimes mysterious work in the church, which brings unity in its own unique way.

Tongues and gifts
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