The “speaking in tongues” debate has gone on for ages in the Christian church and has been a center point for many divisions among Christian sisters and brothers. Some say they need it for spiritual fulfillment, others say that it is to show evidence of one’s being filled with the spirit, and others say that it’s personal between them and God as their private prayer language while yet others believe that its a known language. Which is it? Is it still in existence today or a gift that is no longer needed? I believe the bible is quite clear on the gifts and their uses, but sadly many well-intentioned believers are misusing God’s gift of speaking in tongues. I believe that tongues that is described in the bible is not the tongues we see or hear among today’s professing Christians. I will give a brief summary of the gift of tongues but for in depth study, I will list references at the end of this post for further research.
One of Many Spiritual Gifts
A problem that runs consistent with many churches is the idea that the gift of tongues should be for every believer. Many say that it is a sign that one has been born again and equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit. But unfortunately, what many are ignoring is what the scriptures say about tongue being one of many gifts of the Holy Spirit and not everyone will have all of these gifts. Here is what the scriptures say:
Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
The apostle Paul, the author of the 1st and 2nd letters of Corinthian, makes it clear here that the gift of speaking in different tongues is just one of the many gifts, but all gifts work together as the Spirit of God determines – not as WE determine. That is the key of the verse. There are some of us that have determined that EVERYONE is supposed to have this particular gift, but the scriptures do teach here that God does the determining, and not us. That’s why many of our churches have spiritual gift tests so that we can all get an idea of which gift God has supplied us with. The tests aren’t foolproof of course, but they do give a glimpse on what we may be equipped to do for the body of Christ.
1 Corinthians 12 ends by summarizing:
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way. 1 Corinthians 12:27-31
The question of “do all…” should show that it is never meant for all of us to have the same gift. The gift of tongues has divided the church tremendously and it’s taken Paul three chapters to expound on the true gifts of the Holy Spirit. He started this chapter “I do not want you to be ignorant.” There is much ignorance in the church regarding spiritual gifts and Paul shows us what we need to know concerning these gifts.
What is the real “Speaking in Tongues?”
The first real occurrence of tongues appears in Acts chapter 2.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?
That last verse shows that the language of the speakers were a known language to others! Not babbling, not repeated chants, but a real understandable language. Something that we don’t see much of today.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians admonishing them on the misuse of “tongues”
Pastor John MacArthur, in his article on the Internet titled “Speaking in Tongues, Part 1,” (ref. 1) he gives a summary on the church at Corinth and the apostle Paul’s letters to them. This is important to see because one has to understand that when Paul writes chapter 14 to the Corinthians, he’s admonishing them, not praising them as some have taken his chapter to mean. See what John MacArthur says here:
1. THE INFILTRATION OF CORINTH INTO THE CHURCH
The Corinthian church had allowed the entire world system in which they existed to infiltrate their assembly. For example, they were emphasizing human philosophies (chapters 1-4), they had a hero worship cult (chapter 3), they were involved in terrible, gross, sexual immorality (chapters 5-6), they were suing each other in court (chapter 6), they had misevaluated their home and marriage relationships (chapter 7), they were confused about pagan feasts, idolatry, and things offered to idols (chapters 8-10), they had relinquished the proper place of women in the church (chapter 11), they had misunderstood the whole dimension of spiritual gifts (chapter 12), and they had lost hold of the one great thing–love (chapter 13).
You see, they had let the satanic system that existed in their society infiltrate the church. And with it came the pagan religious practices–with all of the ecstasies, eroticisms, and sensualities. The Corinthians accepted it all, creating a confused amalgamation of truth and error.
This church is constantly being verbally spanked by Paul, being the spiritual babies that they are in Christ. Once again, Paul has to chastise them and explain to them in detail the gift of Tongues as it should be used.
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 1 Corinthians 14:1-4
These truths are evident about tongues so far in this chapter:
- Men are uttering mysteries to God
- No one can understand him
- Prophesying edifies the church
- Tongues edify self
Anyone who has argued that this tongue is different than the tongues spoken about in Acts 2, is dead on! The tongues in Acts 2 are:
- In a known language
- Were not being uttered to God but to man
- Others were benefiting not self
Not self-edification, but edification of the church!
But is the tongues spoken of in 1 Corinthians receiving praise from Paul? He goes on in this chapter:
I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. 1 Corinthians 14:5
When Paul tells the Corinthians that he would love every one of them to speak in tongues, which tongues does he want them to speak? The self edifying tongues are the ones spoken to others? For understanding or the ones that only God understands? Speaking mysteries or things that will benefit people?
Elements of true tongues
If one is speaking a real language, then there will be one who can interpret. I know, I have heard some interpretation of tongues, but funny thing is that the tongues I’ve heard have been the same type of babbling – but with different interpretations! Not consistent with God-driven languages at all. Continuing in chapter 14:
Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 1 Corinthians 14:6
Let’s see here, the important elements that make up tongues must be:
This is extremely important because for those who claim that they have a godly prayer language of tongues, what is it for? Are you receiving self-revelation, new knowledge, prophecy or instructing yourself in another language? That doesn’t even make sense and we know God is not the author of foolishness!
Can anyone understand what you are saying?
The next verses in Chapter 14 are the crux of Paul’s chastising admonishments to the Corinthians. He is clearly not happy with the way that tongues are being used, and with this church rich with pagan practices, the use of tongues is just another misuse of the gifts that God has given them with. Paul admonishes them here:
Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church. 1 Corinthians 14:7-12
Paul again repeats the purpose of true tongues:
- Tongues MUST be spoken with intelligible words
- Must be understood by others
- Must be with meaning
- Must be a gift to build up the church
Pray and sing with the understanding and fruitfulness
Paul continues in Corinthians:
For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.
– 1 Corinthians 14:13-17
It’s unbelievable to me the number of Christians that read the preceding paragraph and think Paul is patting them on a back for “praying in the spirit” using an unknown tongue! Paul is one again, chastising the baby believers for their immature use of the gift of tongues. These things he declares from those verses:
- Tongues are useless without interpretation
- The mind is unfruitful with this type of tongues
- Those who can’t understand what you are praying or singing about can’t even say “Amen”
- Praying must be done with understanding
- Singing must be done with understanding
- When praying or singing “in the spirit” of bad tongues, the other is not edified
Stop acting like children!
Paul says in verses 18-19 how he speaks in tongues more than anyone, but in church he rather speak words of understanding. Now, can anyone think after carefully reading the preceding verses that Paul speaks unintelligently and without meaning? Which tongues is Paul speaking of? He wouldn’t turn around and speak the same type of tongues he just finished chastisng the baby Christians for doing, would he?
Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written:
“Through men of strange tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord.
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” 1 Corinthians 14:20-25
Paul verbally spanking the babies again when he tells them straight out STOP ACTING LIKE CHILDREN! It’s time for them to grow up and use the gifts that God has given them for the building up of the church, not for self-glorification.
The true purpose of tongues
- Tongues are a sign for unbelievers
- Prophecy is for believers
Paul clearly defines the purpose of tongues which makes this tongue consistent with the Acts chapter 2 tongues – it was a sign for unbelievers! There are no two or three types of tongues that is acceptable, but only ONE type and that tongue must be an understandable, intelligible, language that is understood by unbelievers.
That’s the message for today’s churches and I truly believe that Paul would go have out of his mind if it were not for Christ if he were here today, because some of the most popular Christian churches are mere babies refusing to grow up. But as MacArthur wrote in his articles, Satan likes to counterfeit anything that God does, and many of these churches may not be true, but satanic disguises.
Is there any evidence of tongues being in existence today? I just refer to the scriptures and I remember in Mark 16 where it speaks of the miraculous spiritual powers given the Christians during this era:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” Mark 16:17-18
Those signs have pretty much disappeared and I believe that since tongues is lumped in with those, that it too has disappeared. But what about in 1 Corinthians 13 where it says:
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10
For we know that knowledge and prophecies haven’t failed and the tongues (languages) are still here. The understood languages are here and of course we are all living evidences of such. The evidence of the true gift of tongues I have never seen in person, nor in written form. Anyone have?
So if we are to be about our Father’s business in building up the church, then none of us should be seeking the gift of tongues. If God wants us to, He will impart that gift upon us as HE wills, and not as WE will! Edification of the church and not self is what we should seek!
- The Truth About Tongues Part 1, John MacArthur
- The Truth About Tongues Part 2, John MacArthur
- The Truth About Tongues Part 3, John MacArthur
- The Truth About Tongues Part 4, John MacArthur
James M. Frye - Speaking in Tongues
Sharper Iron (blog) – Some Reflections on the Pentecostal/Charismatic Movements, Part 2
Jesus Christology (excellent sources at the end of the post) – Fundamentalists and Charismatics Part 2
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