Posted by: Dan | July 23, 2005

Glossolalia as a Universal Badge of Christian Identity

Within many “charismatic” churches it seems that speaking in tongues is elevated to a special status and a form of elitism develops around the gift. One is thought to be an inferior type of Christian if one has not yet discovered one's “prayer language.” Those who do speak in tongues (along with those who pretend to speak in tongues) form a rather comfortable clique where the members congratulate each other for being baptised in the Spirit.

The problem is that all Christians receive the Spirit of the new age as soon as the become members of the people of God. There is no initial conversion followed by a later baptism of the Spirit.* The New Testament emphatically asserts that all who are in Christ have the Spirit. Among the body that is indwelt by the Spirit, glossolalia is a gifting (contrary to the assertion of some who would deny it altogether), but it is one among many, and even a minor gifting (contrary to the assertion of those would would develop a form of charismatic elitism around glossolalia; the greater gifts are those that more powerfully build of the body of Christ).

However, when someone becomes a Christian they do receive the gift of tongues — but not in the way that that gift has been traditionally understood. Christians speak a language that is foreign to all others. Their words have unique meanings and are unintelligible to those who stand outside the tradition.** By speaking Christianly, by proclaiming the Christian story and learning the Christian language all Christians end up speaking with a foreign tongue.

Here Paul's emphasis upon prophecy comes into play. The speaking of such a foreign language to those who do not understand it has a rather limited value. When the Church lives and acts prophetically it will give a new power to the words that it says. Living prophetically means becoming the message, it means becoming Jesus, becoming the Word made flesh.

____________________
*I'm not arguing that the Spirit does not give us different giftings at later moments in life — which could also mean that a Spirit-related gift could only be momentarily accessible, and the removal of that gift would, therefore, not imply the removal of the Spirit.
**Once again I find myself referring to (and affirming) George Lindbeck's “cultural-linguistic” understanding of religion. Lindbeck asserts that the language of Christianity cannot be taught through translation anymore than one can be taught to speak French through English translations.

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