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The Contemporary “Gift of Tongues”

In the middle of the 20th century there arose in the United States the so-called “charismatic” movement (from the Greek word “charis” – grace), whose goal was to revive in contemporary society the gifts of grace that had been received by the apostles on the day of the Pentecost and, in particular, the “gift of tongues” – the unexpectedly acquired ability to speak other languages. This movement attracted a row of Baptist and Methodist churches. It was only to be expected that the “charismatic” movement would originate in a Protestant environment, since Protestantism, not possessing the apostolic succession of priesthood, lacks the grace-filled power of the holy sacraments in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are proffered. Sectarian prayer meetings, lacking grace, cannot give a Christian the spiritual satisfaction he needs.

The charismatic movement, promising the infusion of a fresh stream of spirituality into the life of the Protestant churches, became quite popular, and in various parts of the United States there soon began to arise groups of “Pentecostals.” This movement also affected several more traditionally-oriented churches. Furthermore, Pentecostal communities have begun to appear fairly recently in Europe and in Russia.

The Pentecostals and similar “charismatics” attempt to induce in themselves, by artificial (actually shamanistic) methods, the ability to speak a new tongue, which they value tremendously and of which they are extremely proud. However, what they achieve is something quite bizarre, which bears no relation whatsoever to the manifestation of the gifts of grace in apostolic times.

The miraculous and genuine gift of tongues received by the apostles on the day the Holy Spirit descended upon them is described in the opening chapters of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Apostle Paul writes about the essence and the purpose of this gift of tongues in chapters 12-14 of his epistle to the Corinthians. As we have said earlier, the gift of tongues was necessary to the apostles for a successful spreading of the Gospel. Having received the ability to speak the language of one people or another, the apostles could preach to these peoples without spending time on learning the requisite languages, which helped spread Christ’s Church quickly and widely. As we know from subsequent church history, this gift was meant to exist only briefly. As local Christian preachers with an excellent knowledge of their native tongue began to appear in various countries, the need for a supernatural gift of tongues began to diminish. Thus, by the time of Irineus of Lyon, in the middle of the 3rd century, the gift of tongues is mentioned as a rare occurrence.

Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians leads us to conclude that the gift of tongues was more widespread in this particular church than in the others. At that time the gift of tongues was one of the spiritual endowments which some of the Christians received after baptism and the placement of the apostles’ hands upon them. Not all the Christians of Corinth knew how to handle this gift of tongues properly, and Apostle Paul warns them against abusing it. The problem was that during prayer meetings the Corinthian Christians began speaking in different languages when there was no need for it. They apparently did this out of vanity, in order to show off in front of each other. Apostle Paul explains that the gift of tongues is needed not for believers, but for unbelievers, in order to attract them to the faith.

Moreover, the gift of tongues also had a negative effect on prayer meetings when it was used inappropriately. During a service, for example, when several people simultaneously began to speak in different languages that were incomprehensible to the majority of those present, this created a great deal of noise and led to a loss of the proper mood for prayer. In order to avoid the inappropriate use of the miraculously received gift of speaking new languages, Apostle Paul explains to the Corinthians that the gift of tongues is the very least gift in a row of other spiritual endowments that are more necessary to the individual. The Corinthian Christians would do better if instead of the gift of tongues they were to ask God to enrich them with faith, abstinence, patience, love, wisdom and other requisite moral gifts.

Comparing the gift of tongues in apostolic times to modern “tongue-gabbing,” one must acknowledge an essential difference between them. In apostolic times Christians received the ability to speak in a genuine language that was in existence at that time. This was normal, articulate human speech, such as a preacher would need. In contrast to the genuine gift of tongues in apostolic times, the contemporary “speaking in tongues” practiced by the Pentecostals is simply a jumble of incoherent and meaningless sounds, taking the form of either jabbering or frenzied shouting. This fact is admitted by the Pentecostals themselves; however, they explain it away by saying that it is supposedly the language of the denizens of Paradise! Nevertheless, it is impossible to accept such meaningless sounds as a miracle from God. They are rather the result of nervous stimulation, a falling into trance, and hallucinations strongly suggestive of demonic possession. Therefore, these sectarians exhibit their extreme spiritual ignorance and even blaspheme when they ascribe an artificially induced exaltation and unintelligible sounds to God’s inspiration.

In general, a tendency towards all sorts of strong sensations is characteristic of modern society, which is attracted to wild music that incites malevolent and erotic feelings, – a society which justifies sexual deviation, abuses stimulant substances and narcotics, is attracted to films that are full of horrible crimes and all kinds of demonic monsters. All these perversions are symptoms of modern society’s illness.

Similarly, the Christians’ search for rapture and ecstasy in prayer is a manifestation of passion and spiritual pride. The charismatics substitute the genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit with artificially-induced emotional sensations. Ignoring the spiritual experience amassed by Christianity in the course of nearly 2,000 years and recorded in the writings of the Holy Fathers, discarding the priesthood and the sacraments that had been established by God Himself, contemporary sectarians try to establish within themselves a state of grace by means of all kinds of dubious and dangerous techniques. They end up with self-deception and prelest, against which all the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church issue warnings. Such inner states bear no relation to Christianity whatsoever, and they were well-known both to ancient pagans and to contemporary Hindus.

Orthodox Christians must absolutely keep away from such perversions of religious feeling. They have access to genuine treasures of grace in the sacraments of the Church, in its holy services, and in their own sincere prayers. In communing with God one must not seek rapture and strong sensations, but rather the renewal of one’s sinful soul. Such renewal comes through humility, repentance and self-correction. And while the Christian is renewing his soul, he will receive the true grace of God, which will bring him heavenly peace and pure joy, in comparison with which all earthly rapture seems cheap and pitiful.

Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

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