In Christian circles of all kinds, you normally get one of two extreme views of the gift of speaking in tongues: a) you need to speak in tongues as proof that you’ve received the Holy Spirit, or b) no one speaks in tongues anymore. My background led me toward “b” for a long time, but I’ve changed my views (though certainly not to “a”).
First, let’s define what I mean by speaking in tongues. There are two types:
1) Speaking fluently in a real human language that you have not learned. We see this happening in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came on the disciples at Pentecost. There was a huge gathering of Jews from all over the place, and they all heard the “wonders of God” declared in their own language.
2) An unknown language, sometimes called the “tongues of angels” from 1 Corinthians 13.
Many have tried to explain away the gift of tongues by saying that it is simply an aptitude for learning other languages. There is no biblical evidence for this – it just seems like a way to avoid being uncomfortable about things we don’t understand.
Either way, the tongues are clearly an outpouring of the Spirit in every context that it occurs in Scripture. It is difficult to use Acts as our guide to understand the gift of tongues, since Luke just matter-of-factly says that people did it, and it was a sign of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians, however, we have teachings from Paul on how the gift of tongues is to be used in the Church, so I think that’s a more relevant place for us to study this confusing topic.
1) Tongues are Gifts of the Spirit used to Edify the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 I’ve highlighted the spiritual gifts below.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,[a] and to still another the interpretation of tongues.[b] 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
Now, when you take those spiritual gifts assessments, you will definitely see wisdom, faith, and knowledge on there. You might see healing and prophecy. But we’re uncomfortable with miraculous powers and speaking and interpreting tongues, so they are often left off those lists. But here, you can see there is no distinction between “normal” gifts and “crazy” gifts – they are all given by the same Spirit of God, for the benefit of the Church. Any attempts to distinguish between gifts that remain and gifts that ceased are arbitrary, and I have to ask, “Are we making those distinctions based on what we’re comfortable with God doing in our churches?” We need to be careful about the prominence we give our Western worldview (supernatural = suspicious, material evidence = rock solid) over the biblical worldview (God created and interacts with our world on a personal level, which will make us uncomfortable sometimes).
Paul’s argument throughout the rest of the chapter is that each of us is needed within the Body of Christ because of our different gifts. So we need to be very careful about marginalizing those with the gift of tongues (or other “crazy” gifts) because they will be used to sharpen, teach, edify, and encourage us every bit as much as someone with wisdom or faith.
2) Not Everyone Has the Gift of Tongues. At the end of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes on to say:
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
He is asking a series of rhetorical questions, which is something Paul does quite frequently in his writings. He doesn’t answer it (because, you know…it’s rhetorical), but the answer to these questions is, “Of course not!” He had just finished explaining how we’re not all hands or feet or elbows, and how an eye cannot say to a hand, “I don’t need you!” So no, we are not all apostles, prophets, teachers…or those who speak in tongues.
So, my dear Pentecostal brothers and sisters in Christ: please stop saying to those who teach, “I don’t need you!” Or those who show hospitality or mercy but do not speak in tongues, “You’re not saved!” It is deeply hurtful to us who know that we do have the Spirit of God, and we are gifted by God, but we have not spoken in tongues. It is a sign of the Holy Spirit, not the sign.
To my dear Baptist brothers and sister in Christ: please stop saying to those who speak in tongues or interpret them, “I don’t need you!” or “You’re just babbling and lying about your experience.” It is incredibly hurtful to those who have received this gift of the Spirit. We need them.
3) Speaking in Tongues without Love is Pointless. Paul moves us into 1 Corinthians 13, where he explains that any spiritual gifts (tongues are specifically mentioned, along with prophecy, knowledge, faith, and generosity) done without love are like clanging cymbals and resounding gongs: just noise. So speaking in tongues (or exercising any Spiritual gift) as a prideful exhibition is not okay.
I need to insert a note about 1 Corinthians 13. There is a group of theologians (John MacArthur, Vern Poythress are probably the foremost) called “cessationists,” who say that the gifts of tongues and prophecy have ceased after the formation of the canon, and their main argument that I often hear comes from this passage:
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
Now, they use this passage to say that these “apostolic gifts” were only given for a brief time, while the Gospel was being proclaimed for the first time and the canon of Scripture was being written and finalized. But I believe it is a stretch to say that the “completeness” and “fully” are descriptive of the age right after he canon was formed. The passage seems to be talking about the Second Coming of Christ, the full inauguration of God’s Kingdom. And has knowledge passed away, as tongues and prophecies are supposed to have passed away? The arguments coming from this passage on cessationism seem to be inconsistent in the way they interpret Scripture, and they are reading a lot of things into the text that don’t seem very natural readings. If you are a cessationist and there are better passages that state your case, please leave a comment!
4) Someone Needs to Interpret Tongues in a Public Setting. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul sets a standard for some order in worship, based on the love described in chapter 13:
1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tonguedoes not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
So, if you are speaking in tongues in a corporate worship setting, but no one is there to interpret, you need to be quiet. It does seem like inane babbling, and not all that edifying. But if someone interprets, then you have an edifying combination that needs to be spoken to the Church! So do it.
Paul continues in verse 13:
13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer,say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
5) But Why Bother Praying in Tongues if You Yourself Cannot Understand it?
I hear this argument a lot against tongues. Because of what we learned in #4, we know that we need an interpreter to speak in corporate worship in tongues. But when we have to “remain quiet” and speak only to God, what good does that do? This is called a “private prayer language” – keeping your gift of tongues separate in your personal prayer life (unless, of course, you are given the interpretation).
If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God. (1 Corint. 14: 27)
In the passage above in #5 (vv. 13-17), it says that the person speaking in tongues is praying and singing with their spirit, praising God in the Spirit, and giving thanks to God – all without understanding. And “no one else is edified.” So what’s the point of a private prayer language?
And here is where I, a Southern Baptist, divulge my dirty little secret.
Once when I was in college, I was in my car having an intense time of prayer in a parking lot. My brother had just died the week before, my wedding was in 2 weeks, I was struggling with a sin, and I was at the end of my rope. I felt like God had abandoned me, and I had never felt so stressed, empty, and alone. With my palms pressed hard to my forehead, tears gushing and unfettered, I strained to pour out a black and broken heart to God. And I couldn’t. I fought against numbness; I could almost feel my heart hardening into cement. He felt like that distant clock-maker who had set he world in motion and then left it to tick on its own. I had no hope left. And then it happened.
I started speaking in a language I didn’t know.
It was easy – not like if you tried to make up a fake language and the words come out stupid-sounding and vaguely English-like words (I’m the worst at fake languages!). I had no idea what I was doing. But I felt a release – like all the words I could not say in English could tumble up to heaven in these words. I could praise. I could question. I could give thanks. I could doubt. But I had no interpretation. No one else was edified. But I suddenly knew God was not that clock-maker. And that is all I needed.
I told you before that in my struggle after my brother’s death I was also given a dream. But these things still did not provide a magic formula to end my depression or get me to trust God fully. But they were small steps (though they seem big and insane to us Westerners) on my road to healing. Reading Scripture and opening up to my husband were also important for me on this journey.
It did, however, end up being a really frustrating experience. Later that year, Brady and I began the application process with the International Mission Board to begin our careers as missionaries. They rejected us early on in the process, simply because of this experience, no questions asked. I’ve come to believe that perhaps God also gave me this experience to keep us stateside for awhile to mature, become better equipped to share the Gospel cross-culturally, and to learn some hard lessons. But I also think that the IMB is wrong in their stance on charismatic gifts. I stand with many, many IMB missionaries worldwide and global believers who recognize that charismatic gifts are common and valid in many other parts of the world. I also have some very dear friends who have this gift (though, like me, they feel they have to stay “in the closet,” so to speak because of Southern Baptist politics).
Miraculous works are important for the Church. But they are not an end-all. Many flocked to Jesus to see signs and wonders, but few remained. They still yelled, “Crucify!” on that Friday. Miracles do not produces obedience or lasting faith – but they can be tools that God uses to turn a heart to Him. We need to value the charismatic gifts of the Spirit – but not too highly.
What do you think about the gift of tongues? Why?
Have you ever spoken in tongues? Would you share your experiences with us? (You can post as “anonymous” if you’re still “in the closet”, haha)
Why are we so wary of “supernatural” gifts? Should we be more cautious of putting God into our Western worldview box?