Speaking in tongues is a big issue for John MacArthur and Co. and it was also for the apostle Paul, except that their take on it is completely different.
Part of MacArthur’s problem, a major part, is one of hermeneutic, how you interpret the Scriptures. MacArthur works within a moderate dispensational framework, a framework which tends to divide human history into particular periods of God’s activity, so within this framework the baptism and gifts of the Spirit were for the founding of the church, after which they were withdrawn as they were no longer needed.
The problem with such an approach is that you have nowhere to place any demonstrations of the Spirit today, so you are left with no other course of action than to describe them as false, gibberish and at worse demonic. Sadly this was seen at the Strange Fire Conference, yet perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised as it can be seen in John MacArthur’s Study Bible (a huge amount of which is very good) where in regard to tongues in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians MacArthur appears to be at a complete loss in how to deal with them and in order to win his point must argue that Paul is actually dealing with counterfeit tongues and not the real thing.
MacArthur says in commentating on chapter 4:2 “he who speaks in a tongue. This is singular, indicating that it refers to the false gibberish of the counterfeit pagan ecstatic speech. The singular is used because gibberish can’t be plural; there are not various kinds of non-language”, and again in chapter 14 v. 14-17, “Paul continued to speak sarcastically (cf. v. 16; 4:8-10) about counterfeit tongues, so he used the singular “tongue”…, which refers to the fake gift. He was speaking hypothetically to illustrate the foolishness and pointlessness of speaking in ecstatic gibberish.” Again in 14:26 MacArthur says “each of you has… a tongue. In the singular, this refers to the counterfeit.” Now nowhere in the context is there any suggestion that Paul thinks they are uttering false tongues or speaking in gibberish! Absolutely nowhere. That is simply being read into the text.
The first thing to note is that MacArthur trys to make a difference between a ‘tongue’ and ‘tongues,’ the “singular ‘tongue'” he says “refers to the fake”, the latter plural “tongues” the genuine. Again this is being read into the text, and it should be noted that you can only speak in one tongue at a time, so Paul’s terminology, his Greek, is quite correct. Paul is not saying the gift is false, and he is certainly not saying they should stop it, rather he is saying, look, this is one of the gifts of the Spirit and it is of great benefit, but only if it is interpreted.
Secondly, Paul’s problem then is with their use and abuse of the gift, and his great concern is not in stopping it but getting them to exercise it in the right way. In chapter 14:13 he says “Let him who speaks in a tongue (note the singular) pray that he may interpret.” Not for one moment does he say, “stop, it’s gibberish, don’t you know, it’s of the devil,” rather, what he says is that unless an interpretation is given what they say will not benefit those who are listening, so pray for the interpretation.
Thirdly, as Paul goes on there is no way that he is being sarcastic, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding.” This is not sarcasm, that is being read into the text by MacArthur to suit his own belief and experience, something that we all need to be aware of – reading the text from where we are. Rather Paul says when I pray in a tongue my spirit is praying, not my mind, and so I don’t understand what I’m saying, so I will do both, pray in a tongue and pray with my intellect/understanding – the argument is for one of balance and edification.
Paul said that he himself welcomed the gift and spoke in tongues more than all of them (14:18). What about you?