Tongues: Considering the Cessationist vs. Continuationist Views

Tongues: Considering The Cessationist Vs. Continuationist Views

National Association of Christian Ministers Summary Series: Theology

By Michael Mooney, Exec. Elder

One of the most probing questions of this age is whether or not God is still using “sign gifts” to confirm the Gospel and communicate with his church.  This topic goes to the very core of all evangelical denominations forcing them to accept or reject these gifts in their worship services.  Every congregation must express a Continuationist (continuing the gifts) or Cessationist (ceasing from the gifts) position, there is no room for indecisiveness on this subject.  The author understands the sensitivity of this matter and its importance to the expression of Christian assembly and worship.  For this reason, it seems appropriate to examine the issue very carefully.

Jesus instructed his disciples in Mark 16 to preach the Gospel to the world.  This must have been an amazing instruction to his Jewish disciples, who viewed salvation primarily for the Jews.  As if Jesus’ commission was not strange enough he went on to say: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mr 16:17, 18) These comments seem much like many non-Christian cult practices that were then and still are performed by Gentiles, also alluded to by Paul. (1 Co 12:1-3) The disciples must have found this instruction strange. Nevertheless, Jesus said it and it was entered into the canon of scripture.

The Cessationist might argue that verses 9-20 of the Gospel of Mark does not appear in some older manuscripts; however, there are two serious problems with this view.  “One of the core distinctives of evangelical theology is the conviction that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.” (Boyd. 9)  If people are allowed to decide for themselves what to add and remove from the Bible, where does it stop?  If God is in fact sovereign over all things, then certainly he was sovereign over the canonization of scripture.  Mark 16 exists in all respectable translations of the Bible; it cannot be ignored.

The second concern is that if verses 9-20 were not originally a part of this book, then it is not much of a Gospel account.  If these verses are removed, then Mark fails to testify of anyone witnessing the risen Lord other than an angel.  As Paul said, “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” (1 Co 15:14)

Interestingly, speaking in tongues was not mentioned in the Bible up until Mark 16:17 which was after the resurrection of Christ.  Then it comes up again in Acts 2 with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  This is where a lot of confusion begins among Continuationist and Cessationist.  It should be noted here that Acts 2 in no way describes the “miracle of tongues” that took place as “new”.  Jesus described the tongues as new in Mark 16:17. The tongues of Acts 2 resulted in people hearing a language that they were familiar with in their own dialect, not a new one in which that they had never heard.  The miracle of Acts 2 does not seem to appear again throughout the rest of the Bible.  Later there are other descriptions of tongues and of “praying in the Holy Spirit” but these examples do not seem to compare with Acts 2. (Jude 1:20)

In approaching this topic, it is inevitable that the book of 1 Corinthians will be considered.  Paul says in chapter 12

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant:” (1) Later after going into detail about how all the gifts fit and function in the body he said: “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant. Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues.” (1 Co 14:37-39)

Paul clearly did not want the body to be ignorant about the gifts so he took the time to carefully explain them.  Then he declared that one of “the commandments of the Lord” was that the gifts should not be forbidden.  What right does man have to alter the commandments of God?

The Cessationist might argue that this instruction was only for the Corinthians during the early church years.  Where is that contingency stated in scripture?  If something is clearly commanded then it should also be clearly explained when it changes, otherwise people are responsible to uphold the clear instruction.  Cessationists understand this point and often they point back to chapter 13:8-10 which states:

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.” 

Cessationists hold the view that this passage demonstrates that the sign gifts would fail, cease, and vanish upon the completion of the scripture being interpreted as “that which is perfect”.  By eisegesis, this passage must be forced to render this interpretation, and it in no way implies this position upon a natural reading of the text.  In verse one Paul specifically references two kinds of tongues, those of men and those of angels.  He did not specify the tongues in which he was referring.  Considering the negative events that caused God to divide the tongues of men at Babel, it seems more logical to believe that Paul was saying that these tongues would cease. (Gen 11)

He also spoke of prophecies and knowledge failing or vanishing away.  This could not happen before the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 is fulfilled.  It is not reasonable to think that Joel’s prophecy has already been fulfilled.  History does not tell of a time when the sun was darkened, and the moon turned to blood with wonders in the heavens of fire and pillars of smoke. And most certainly the day of the Lord has not yet come. (Joe 2:30, 31)

If 1 Corinthians 13:8 is compared to Joel 2:30 it becomes apparent that the anticipation of “that which is perfect” is the coming Lord himself.  Until then the church is to continue to obey the command of the Lord to forbid not the gifts.  Paul very specifically explains in Ephesians that God has gifted people i.e. “prophets…for the equipping of the saints…till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (4:12, 13)

If “that which is perfect” was somehow not to be interpreted as Jesus, the next logical interpretation would be the coming of “a perfect man” or complete body mentioned above.  Paul has clearly emphasized the necessity of the gifts working in the body of Christ for the purpose of growing into maturity.  Satan is very aware of Paul’s words and has caused discord over these gifts for the sake of keeping the church immature.

In the parable of the wheat and the tares an enemy sowed tares in the field, but the owner said “’Let both grow together until the harvest.” (Mt 13:30) This implies that Jesus will not be coming for his harvest until it grows to maturity.  The enemy is trying to keep the body of Christ immature so that he may prolong his time before Jesus returns.

In disagreement among brethren Cessationists often go so far as to argue that “Demons are capable of mimicking authentic spiritual experiences and masquerading as angels of light.” (Boyd. 223)  This idea seems totally ridiculous.  The gifts are called “sign gifts” because they are signs of faith. Jesus said, “these signs shall follow them that believe.” (Mr 16:17) If these signs promote faith in the hearts of people while Satan is the supposed author, then is he not divided against himself?  This form of accusation is nothing new; the Pharisees also accused Jesus of working his sign gifts by the power of the devil. (Lu 11:18)

In conclusion the question of whether God is currently using the sign gifts in the church is a major point of division among believers.  Continuationists believe that the Bible is clear that he is, and that they are necessary for the maturity of the body of Christ.  Cessationists believe that some of these gifts have ceased with the completion of the writing of scripture.  This view requires stringent interpretation of specific verses with much explanation to conclude.  A natural reading of the Bible will not demonstrate this position.  It should be concluded that the sign gifts are still an active part of God’s ministry, and they will continue at least until the complete fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. (2:28-32)


Works Cited

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 The Holy Bible, Modern King James Version. The Bible Collection Deluxe. CD-Rom. Value

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Vaprin, Nathanael . Introduction to Argumentative Fallacies. Vanderbilt University. Revised:

            6 may 2004.