Evangelicals must be cautious when dealing with the gift of tongues, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in chapel on April 4. His message on the spiritual gift of tongues was the eighth in a series of 10 sermons on the Holy Spirit.

“We have recognized across the years that the charismatic movement subtly shifts the focus of attention from salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord, repentance of sin and yielding to Him over to [a focus on] the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Patterson reminded the audience that the Holy Spirit’s primary ministry is to glorify Christ, a point which he had underscored in an earlier sermon in the series. Believers must place emphasis upon those doctrines which the Bible emphasizes, he said.

Patterson said there are two major approaches to the tongues doctrine. The first option is to hold that the concept of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 is the same as that in Acts 2. The second option is to say that the Corinthian text refers to tongues as a “rush of indeterminate sounds for the purpose of praising God and for self-edification.”

Patterson proposed a third option.

In a sermon based on 1 Corinthians 14, Patterson started by drawing attention to some “apparent contradictions:” Paul taught that prophecy is for Christians, yet said that unbelievers would repent if they heard it; Paul also taught that tongues are “a sign for unbelievers,” but unbelievers who witness the practice of tongues in the church would conclude only that they were unbalanced.

Patterson addressed these discrepancies first by explaining that 1 Corinthians 14 must be read in conjunction with the “tongues” referred to in Acts 2.

“Acts 2 portrays the legitimate gift of tongues,” Patterson said. This gift of tongues was the apostles’ ability to proclaim the gospel in languages they had never before spoken. Without this particular work of the Holy Spirit, “thousands of people in Jerusalem” might have missed the message of salvation, Patterson said.

In contrast, the Corinthian believers merely imitated the Acts 2 gift of the Spirit, Patterson said. Their imitation really only amounted to “unintelligible” speech patterns that were common among pagan prophets of the first century, and cited the Oracle at Delphi as one well-known example: Interpreters were needed to make out its pronouncements.

Patterson said immorality and pagan practices were prevalent in the Corinthian church.

“And so, that explains why tongues in Acts 2 is a sign for the unbeliever, but tongues Corinthian-style will only make people turn away and say, ‘You are out of your mind,’” Patterson said. “On the other hand, prophecy is for believers; but it even convicts the unbeliever, and brings him to faith in Jesus Christ.”

Patterson also commented on “private prayer language.” He denied the claim that prayer language is the “groanings too deep for words” which Paul mentions in Romans 8:26. The Greek reading of this verse shows that the “groanings” don’t involve sound at all. It refers to the silent “yearnings of the heart for God.”

First Corinthians 14 provides evidence for private prayer languages, Patterson said. However, Paul says that this practice leaves the mind out of prayer, and he would rather pray with the mind.

After defining the gift of tongues, Patterson outlined 10 principles for worship described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. First, everything should be done for the “edification” of the church. This term literally refers to the building up of a house, Patterson said.

“Let everything that you do in the church of God be to one end, and that is that you build up the church of God,” he said.

Second, Paul limited to two or three the number of worshipers who were allowed to speak in tongues during a service. Third, these people were to practice their gifts “in turn.” Fourth, those who speak in tongues must have an interpreter.

Fifth, prophets are to control their prophecies.

“Some people would have you believe when they (speak in tongues), they can’t help it. And that’s not true,” he said.

Sixth, God creates peace, not chaos. Seventh, women are to keep silent in the church.

“(Paul) is talking about one thing: tongues,” Patterson said. Turning to an excerpt from the 2nd century writings of Irenaeus of Lyons, Patterson said Irenaeus had to respond to one of the first “charismatic movements” in church history. Irenaeus specifically recounted how women were persuaded to speak in tongues. As in the 2nd century church, the practice of tongues was a “particular problem in the Corinthian church with women,” Patterson said. Therefore, women were not allowed to speak in tongues during worship.

Eighth, those who are “spiritual” should agree with Paul’s commands concerning worship. Ninth, the practice of tongues shouldn’t be forbidden in the church. Finally, everything is to “be done decently and in order.”

“It would be a mistake for evangelicals to forbid others to speak in tongues … That doesn’t mean that a person who is building a major part of his faith on something that is so … downplayed by Paul should be called to be your pastor,” Patterson said.

Church ministers should “build” the church on the “firm foundation of Biblical truth,” he said. If this is done, the issue of tongues won’t distract believers from “what is important, that is, getting men and women to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”