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What is "speaking in tongues"?

In the late 1970's, no issue was more divisive for evangelicals than the "Charismatic" movement and especially the experience called "speaking in tongues." While divisions regarding this phenomenon seem less intense today, confusion still surrounds the issue.

Should all Christians "speak in tongues"?

The question first arises at Pentecost, when early believers "were filled with the Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them" (Ac 2:4). It seems clear that the activity of speaking in "other tongues" was a direct result of the Spirit's work, and that it was experienced by every believer.

Later, the Corinthian Christians experienced an ecstatic kind of spiritual language as one of the Spirit's gifts (1 Cor 12:30; 14:1-25). This gift is usually called speaking in "unknown tongues." Some suggest that every Christian should share in the Corinthian experience, since every Christian at Pentecost "spoke in tongues." Is this so?

Let's note the contrast between Pentecost and Corinth:

  • At Pentecost all spoke in tongues (Ac 2:4); this was not true at Corinth (1 Cor 12:30, where the Greek syntax is literally translated, "All do not speak in tongues, do they?").
  • At Pentecost these tongues were understood as languages by the crowd (Ac 2:6); at Corinth they were understood by none (1 Cor 14:2).
  • At Pentecost the Christians spoke to men (Ac 2:6); at Corinth, they spoke to God (1 Cor 14:2).
  • At Pentecost no interpreter was needed (Ac 2:6); at Corinth public tongue-speaking was prohibited unless an interpreter was present (1 Cor 14:23-28).
  • At Pentecost there was perfect harmony (Ac 2:1); at Corinth there was confusion (1 Cor 14:33).
And so the Corinthian experience was completely different from the Pentecost event. In Jerusalem on Pentecost day, Christians were given the divine ability to share the gospel with the assembled crowds by using known languages which they had not yet learned. At Corinth, believers were given the divine ability to speak to God in a language known only to his Spirit. Nowhere does the Bible teach that all Christians will speak in tongues as did some in Corinth. In fact, it is clear that they will not (1 Cor 12:30).

What do we know about "unknown tongues"?

The Pentecost gift is found in Acts 2 and never mentioned or practiced again. However, the "unknown tongues" practiced in Corinth have been a significant part of the Charismatic movement and Pentecostal worship in recent generations.

What can we learn from Scripture about this experience?

  • Jesus never mentioned this gift.
  • Numerous conversions occur in Acts without this accompanying sign.
  • The spiritual gifts are given to the edification of the church (Eph 4:12). Any gift which is used to the division of the church rather than for its edification is being abused.
  • Any person who desires to speak in an "unknown tongue" in public must first determine whether one with the gift of interpretation is present (1 Cor 14:27-28). If an interpreter is present, only two or three are to speak, and each in turn (1 Cor 14:27).
  • Tongues are given last in every list where they are found (1 Cor 12:8-10, 28-30), and are not included in lists found in Romans 12:6-8 and Ephesians 4:11.
  • But Paul rejoiced that he spoke in tongues "more than all of you" (1 Cor 14:18).
Are "unknown tongues" still a valid gift today?

Some say no. Paul predicted that tongues would "one day cease" (1 Cor 13:8), and they are omitted in Ephesians 4 and Romans 12, gift lists written later in the New Testament.

However, 1 Corinthians 13:8 also states, "where there are prophecies, they will cease." "Prophecies" means preaching; no one claims that preaching has ceased as a spiritual gift and activity. Paul's reference in 1 Corinthians 13 relates to that time in glory "when perfection comes" (v. 10). And nowhere does the New Testament clearly teach that this gift is temporary.

Some suggest that the reason for the gift ceased at Pentecost, since we are able to translate the gospel into hundreds of languages today. However, such interpretation confuses the Pentecost experience with the Corinthian gift.

Paul wrote: "Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers" (1 Cor 14:22). And so some believe that the purpose of "unknown tongues," like other "sign gifts" of miracles and healing, is no longer valid today. In this reasoning, these spiritual gifts existed to show the unbelieving world the truth and veracity of the Christian faith. Now that the New Testament and its church are established, these gifts of persuasion are no longer necessary.

However, no text teaches that this is so. Believers who consider "tongues" to be invalid still pray for God to heal bodies and work other miracles. I can find no biblical warrant for dismissing "tongues" as a valid gift for believers today. When this gift is used within Scriptural guidelines, it apparently draws those who practice it closer to the Father.

So we can conclude that "tongues" are still a valid spiritual gift. But we should also note: no biblical text suggests that "tongues" is a superior spiritual gift, or that it demonstrates that the believer is more "filled" with the Spirit (Eph 5:18). We are all to be submitted to the leading of God's Spirit each day. Then our spiritual gifts will fulfill his purpose, to his glory and our good.

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