Friday, February 5, 2021


Someone asked by email about my views on cessationism. So I thought I'd try and lay those out a little more explicitly. When I was somewhere about 20 years old, I read the statement of faith from a church that said something to the effect that speaking in tongues is not for today. I remember being struck forcibly that Scripture says "forbid not to speak in tongues" (1 Corinthians 14:39), and here was a church doing exactly what Scripture commanded not to do. That was the exact moment I realized I couldn't be a cessationist.

So on the simplest level, I gave up cessationism when I realized I couldn't obey 1 Corinthians 14:39. 

It strikes me when I read Acts 2:32–36 that Peter reasons almost exactly oppositely from the majority of Christians I know. Peter says, the Holy Spirit's presence is proof that Jesus Christ is sitting at God's right hand. And Paul says the Galatians ought to have recognized their desire to live under Law was wrong, because they had received the Holy Spirit on the basis of faith, not of works (Galatians 3:1–5 ).  So the New Testament points to the Holy Spirit's presence as observable evidence a doctrine is true.

But the majority of ministry I have heard says, you can know you have the Holy Spirit, because Christ is sitting at God's right hand. In other words, the Holy Spirit's presence is something we have to take on faith, because we know our doctrine is correct. I don't see that argument in Scripture. And I have to say, it's odd to believe that God would be present, but we wouldn't notice Him.

What I see in Scripture is, the presence of the Holy Spirit is obvious, visible, and noticeable. 

If we read 1 Corinthians 14:22–25, we find that what characterizes the Holy Spirit's presence is not necessarily speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:22–23). It's not that we're looking for an ecstatic experience: we don't judge the Holy Spirit's presence by sensationalism, but by conviction (1 Corinthians 14:24–25). Spirit-filled ministry will strike the heart of the unbeliever, making him admit God is there. He might shrug off ecstatic utterances as madness, but he can't deny the effect of Spirit-filled "prophesying" on his heart and conscience.

Few passages have ruined the comfort of my life like 1 Corinthians 14. Without in any way trying to give an explication of that chapter, let's notice some highlights and themes.

First, we don't see a lot of schedule or agenda in that chapter. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says that whenever we come together, everyone brings something – a song, an exhortation, a teaching, etc. And we're to have the freedom to share those, but there is prescribed order. That verse led me into a long adventure when I was younger, because I realized the "open brethren" I was meeting with never practiced it. Sure, they had a more-or-less open format for the Lord's Supper, but every other meeting was carefully scheduled and planned. And the more I looked at 1 Corinthians 14:26, the more I saw the weight of the words whenever ye come together. I didn't see a lot of room for the agenda-driven meetings I was used to.

Second, we see a prescribed order for speaking in tongues in the assemblies of Christians: two or three ("at the most three") can speak in tongues, separately (1 Corinthians 14:27).  So when there are a whole lot of people all speaking at once, we can know they're not obeying the Word of God. There can be at the most three, and they must speak one at a time.  And there must be an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:27). If there's no one there to interpret, then the tongues-speaker must be silent (1 Corinthians 14:28).

I have only once seen these two verses obeyed. I was in a meeting, and a man stood up and began speaking in Spanish. Another man stood up and interpreted every sentence. They spoke one at a time (the first man would make a point and then pause, the second would interpret what had been said). That was exactly according to 1 Corinthians 14:27–28.

Now, some would say that was a legitimate experience, because it was Spanish, not some "unknown tongue". I disagree. The reality is that as far as I'm concerned – as far as most people are concerned – the majority of human languages are "unknown tongues." It makes little difference to me whether someone speaks in the tongue of angels, or if someone speaks in Swahili. They are equally unintelligible to me. I likely couldn't tell them apart. 

I find the need to decide whether speaking in tongues is legitimate based on whether the tongue is a currently-spoken language entirely irrational. If someone speaks in a language I don't know, then it doesn't matter to me where or who speaks it. 1 Corinthians 13:1 talks about the tongues of men and of angels, and I am content to lump them together.

Third, we find a prescribed order for prophesying in the assemblies of Christians (1 Corinthians 14:29–33). Two or three prophets may speak, the rest are to judge (1 Corinthians 14:29). They may only speak one at a time (1 Corinthians 14:31), they are not to be speaking over one another. And if one begins speaking while the other is still speaking, then the first – the interrupted, not the interruptor – is to stop (1 Corinthians 14:30). 

This section ends with the remarkable statement that "spirits of prophets are subject to prophets" (1 Corinthians 14:32). That is a remarkable statement, and I don't think we take it seriously enough. I can only take that to mean that if I am sitting in a meeting and I feel particularly led of the Lord to say something, then if it would violate the order in 1 Corinthians 14:29–33, I need to not say it. Let that sink in – even if I feel led to say something, I am responsible not to say it if it would violate this passage.

I have experienced this many times. I don't know how many times I've been struck by a thought in a meeting, and been about to stand up and talk about it, when someone else rises to speak. The Word of God is clear that I have been interrupted, and I need to stay silent. Or sometimes I've been in a meeting and two other people have already spoken, when I feel led to speak on something. Then someone else stands up. Scripture is specific that only "two or three" may speak (1 Corinthians 14:29): I, as the fourth, must be silent.

Fourth, we have instructions concerning women in the assemblies of Christians (1 Corinthians 14:34–35). Women are to be silent in the assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:34), not even asking questions (1 Corinthians 14:35). Notice this is "in the assemblies," not in every part of life. This isn't a stricture against women speaking in general, but specifically in the context of addressing the assembled church.

On this last note, let me say that there are many women I know who are over me in the Lord. There are many women who have corrected me,  encouraged me, exhorted me, and admonished me. They were not at all wrong to do that. But it wasn't in the context of the assembled church. That's all I have to say about that.

What I find fascinating about 1 Corinthians 14 is that it's an appeal to order that implicitly expects visible, noticeable effects from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the assembly. The effect is not necessarily ecstatic experience (although that can certainly be part of it), but it's an effect that should drive and characterize everything.

And here's where I most often have seen failure in the assemblies of Christians. It's almost like the Christians I have known most closely have been content with an entire lack of the Holy Spirit's power, as long as they can check the order items of the list: "Let's see, women silent? check! Only two or at the most three? check!" But that's not all that the chapter says. The chapter specifically requires the Holy Spirit's power  that would be so visible even an unbeliever would not be able to deny it (1 Corinthians 14:24–25). Why are we so hung up on the other rules, but ignore this one?

I don't know how many times I've heard someone "minister in the assembly" with nothing to say. That's not obeying 1 Corinthians 14! It might not be violating the "two or at the most three" rule, but it certainly violates the "is God among you" rule (1 Corinthians 14:25). Someone giving a pointless, powerless, anemic talk in the assembly is as much a violation of 1 Corinthians 14 as ten people speaking in an unknown tongue, all at once, without an interpreter.

And that's really why I'm not a cessationist. It began when I realized I couldn't forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39).  If the Lord chooses to give someone a miraculous gift, I won't be part of gainsaying it. I cannot build a theology that forbids God from working however He sees fit. That doesn't mean I think there must be miraculous signs, it just means I'm OK with God doing what He wants, even if it involves so-called sign gifts.

But more importantly, I realize I have largely bought into a theology that asserts the Holy Spirit's presence based on doctrinal assumptions, which is the opposite of what the Apostles taught. The Apostles used the Holy Spirit's visible, noticeable presence as proof of their doctrine, not the other way around. Again, they didn't always do that in terms of ecstatic experience: sometimes it was the conviction of the hearer. But the Scripture always assumes people notice when God is there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The comments are cessationist, even if the post is not!