Sun | Oct 1, 2023

Sean Major-Campbell | ‘Speaking in tongues’ not a characteristic of Pentecost

Published:Sunday | May 28, 2023 | 12:41 AM
Fr Sean Major-Campbell
Fr Sean Major-Campbell

TODAY MARKS the annual Christian celebration of Pentecost. In the Christian tradition, it is customary to “baptise” previously existing terms or traditions and use same to convey the good news in Jesus Christ.

Pentecost originally refers to a harvest festival or ‘Feast of Weeks’. It fell on the 50th day after Passover. On this day, the promised Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. It is even referred to as the birthday of the Church.

It may seem strange, but it is true that many Christians have misunderstood the biblical account of this event to the point where they give the impression that the celebration requires the speaking of “unknown tongues”. You may have heard people speak of “getting in the spirit”, which is considered evidenced by speaking in unknown tongues.

In psychology, we know that glossolalia is a thing. It characterises an altered state of consciousness in which ecstatic speech is expressed. If that is useful to the individual, then so be it. The problem comes when some assume that others are to be judged on the basis of this phenomenon or the lack thereof. Interestingly, the scriptural account does not present speaking in unknown tongues (unknown languages) as a characteristic of Pentecost. Instead, the account clearly states in Acts 2 that “when they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?”

We now have a host of Christians who believe that zeal for God is evidenced by speaking in unknown tongues, foaming at the mouth, and rolling on the ground (especially where carpeting is available). Some churches even facilitate speak-in-tongue training sessions.

When I was a student in high school, I recall having teachers who came to school hoarse because they were tarrying the night before at church. The class certainly cracked up one morning when a hoarse, sleepy, fasting teacher with a lisp indicated, “Good morning, claath. I wath tarrying laath night at church tho if I look thleepy ith becauth I wuth at church late and am faathting today.”

While the Bible states that the disciples were told to tarry (wait) for the Holy Spirit, it is to be noted that the Day of Pentecost saw the objective of their waiting. The Holy Spirit came. The invitation for them to wait then for the arrival of the Holy Spirit no longer had currency. One, however, understands that if people are hungry for some dramatic appearance of God, a pastor’s invitation to late-night tarrying will find appeal.

A much-forgotten teaching from Paul in the New Testament is that speaking in tongues is the least of the gifts. He even declares that the greatest of the gifts is love. In some places you may, however, believe that hatred is a Christian calling.

In Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit is clearly stated: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” In other words, you may tell so much about a person’s character and life by the fruit that person bears. I have also seen Christians who wore a depressed facial presentation as they showed the world that they are serious Christians. They are cautious about laughter, joy, and happiness.

Last week, while the nation was engaging the shocking news of how salary increases were announced, I took to social media asking the question, ‘Where is the prophetic voice of the Church at this time of national disgrace?’ I committed to prayer the situation, in the hope that the Church would, with wisdom under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, respond prophetically. I say national disgrace simply because it is problematic that after asking the workforce for the most part to hold strain, the bombshell of dramatic increases was savagely thrown into the faces of what may be loosely called the proletariat. So this is not a question of whether increases are deserved.

In his wisdom, the Holy Spirit leads various arms of the Church to respond without partisan bias and instead in the interest of the whole. President of the Jamaica Council of Churches, the Most Reverend Kenneth Richards, for example, stated: “We are concerned that the apparent philosophical underpinning for the massive increases in the salaries of governmental officials is the use of the principle of equality. We fear that the outcomes of such a pursuit would simply maintain the status quo and worsen the disparities which exist.”

President of the Jamaica Evangelical Alliance, Bishop Alvin Bailey, observed, “This move shows insensitivity on the part of Government, especially as the minister cited economic constraints as the reason he appealed to members of the public sector to accept the recent compensation packages that were below their expectations.”

The Reverend Peter Espeut, sociologist and development scientist, writing in The Gleaner. noted, “These contemporary occurrences point to fundamental flaws in our present constitutional arrangements which confer absolute sovereignty on the prime minister and lesser sovereignty on his Cabinet ministers.”

Principles of equality, equity, economic justice, and people sovereignty are indeed consistent with good news, and voices from across the Church were united in the same affirmation. They are in one accord on these principles.

On another note, someone had better sponsor space in Family and Religion if I am going to cover many of the concerns that readers have made inquiries about. Have a great week!

Father Sean Major-Campbell is an Anglican priest and advocate for human dignity, human rights and justice. Send feedback to