About Speaking in Tongues

Scripture, Speaking in Tongues, and You

The modern charismatic movement, with its special emphasis on speaking in tongues as a spiritual gift for the church today, is an outgrowth of the Keswick [KEH sihk] Movement in the late nineteenth century. The people involved in this movement, also known as the Deeper Life Movement, desired to infuse believers with more emotion and excitement and thus to advance kingdom growth through the churches, which Keswick advocates believed had become stale and merely intellectual in the way they did ministry. More significant to them, though, was their view that the church at that time had largely ignored the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. The movement’s emphasis on the Spirit’s work in the Christian life led to the idea that every Christian should have a crisis experience after conversion that would empower them for greater service for God. The Keswick movement thus set the stage for the charismatic movement a generation later in two ways: (1) the original charismatic leaders took the Keswick Movement one step further by claiming that the gift of speaking in tongues, which had not been practiced in the church since the early second century, should be practiced by believers today, as well as all the other spiritual gifts the New Testament mentions; (2) the crisis experience in the life of a believer, already a part of the Keswick Movement, was connected to the ability to speak in tongues, and for many charismatics (both early and modern) speaking in tongues is the primary hallmark of a Christian—the main evidence of one’s salvation. The purpose of this article is to analyze the Scriptures to see what the Spirit says about speaking in tongues, to evaluate what charismatics say about this gift, and to determine if believers today should be able to exercise this gift.
First of all, it is necessary to determine what speaking in tongues is. In other words, when someone in the first century spoke in tongues, what were they doing? Understanding what the New Testament says about speaking in tongues is the most important issue in this discussion, since this and this alone determines what believers today should do in relation to this gift. It may be surprising to some that only three New Testament books mention speaking in tongues (Mark, Acts, and I Corinthians).  The first of these is Mark 16:17, where Jesus said that His followers would “speak in new tongues.” Much scholarly debate has occurred over the past two centuries about whether Mark 16:9-20 is an authentic part of Mark’s Gospel, and the evidence seems to be against authenticity. But even if it is genuine, Mark 16:17 is simply a part of Jesus’ prophecy about what would happen on the day of Pentecost and later in the first-century church, yet He said nothing about what the person speaking in tongues would actually do. That would be quite evident when the prophecy was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost shortly thereafter.
Acts 2 records the first instance of speaking in tongues, and Luke provided a clear explanation for us about what a person speaking in tongues was actually doing. On the day of Pentecost the apostles saw “tongues of fire” (v. 3) resting on each other, which was followed by the Spirit-given ability to “speak in other tongues” (v. 4). The exact nature of speaking in tongues is provided in verses 6, 8, and 11. The Jewish people who were present from all over the Roman Empire said that they heard the apostles explaining “the wonders of God” in their own languages. The apostles spoke Aramaic as their native language and learned Greek as the international language, but they could not have known the native languages of all the other Jews throughout the empire. Acts 2:9-11 lists various geographical locations representing numerous languages throughout the first-century Roman Empire. This is the reason that speaking in tongues was such a remarkable event. Only the Holy Spirit could have given the apostles the ability to speak a language they did not know and had never studied; in fact, in many cases, these would have been languages they had never heard of. But they could still speak those languages! And in so doing, they proclaimed God’s wonderful work of salvation through Christ.
Some have suggested that this event should be understood another way. When the apostles spoke to the Jewish people from around the empire that day, the people exclaimed, “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (2:11). The alternate view is that the Spirit gave these people the ability to hear the message that the apostles spoke in Aramaic, so the Spirit’s activity was in the listeners instead of the apostles. Essentially, this would be the gift of ears, not the gift of tongues. But this view fails on at least two counts. First, the Spirit provides gifts to believers, such as the apostles in this passage, and not to the lost, such as those who were listening (though many of them were saved later that day). Second, Luke clearly points to the Spirit’s work in the apostles in giving them the ability to “speak in other tongues” (2:4). Thus the text specifically points to the gift as being tongues, indicating that the apostles received the supernatural ability to communicate with their audience in a way that they could never have done on their own.
The Book of Acts records just two more instances of speaking in tongues. Acts 10 records that the centurion Cornelius and others were saved through the witness of Peter, and then the Holy Spirit came on all the new converts so that they were “speaking in tongues and praising God” (Acts 10:46; compare 2:4,11). In Acts 19, about 12 men were baptized after hearing that the one John the Baptist said would come had indeed already come, Jesus Christ. They then “spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). In both of these situations, new Christians received the ability to speak in tongues. Luke did not attempt to explain the nature of this gift in these passages since he had already done so in Acts 2 in the Pentecost event. So, speaking in tongues in all three passages in the Book of Acts (chapters 2, 10, and 19) refers to the same phenomenon: the Spirit-given ability to speak a language one does not know.
The last passage in Scripture where speaking in tongues is mentioned is I Corinthians 1214, which contains Paul’s extended discussion on spiritual gifts in general. An important consideration about all spiritual gifts is Paul’s statement in 12:11 that all these gifts “are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” Charismatics claim that all believers should speak in tongues, and because of this view they advocate teaching believers to speak in tongues if they never have before. But Paul says that the Holy Spirit alone determines who gets a certain gift, and no passage of Scripture indicates that a person can be taught a gift they do not already have. This is one example of charismatic assumptions moving far beyond the teachings of Scripture.
The first mention of tongues in these three chapters is in 12:10, where “speaking in different kinds of tongues” is eighth in a list of nine spiritual gifts—the ninth being “the interpretation of tongues.” Paul refers to both of these gifts again in 12:28-30, where he clearly states that not everyone has all of the gifts. The questions in verses 29-30 expect a “no” answer in the original Greek. No one thinks that every believer is an apostle (there were only about 15 of them!), or a prophet, or a teacher. So why do some insist that everyone should have the gift of speaking in tongues? Especially when Paul specifically says that is not the case: “Do all speak in tongues?”—with the expected answer, “No, they don’t.” And the same is true of interpretation (v. 30)—not everyone has that gift or any other gift. Those who claim that every believer should have a specific gift—whether speaking in tongues or some other gift—are simply denying what Paul clearly states here.
There are two references to speaking in tongues in chapter 13, the beloved passage on the excellence and priority of love. In 13:1 Paul refers to “the tongues of men and of angels,” which shows that communication between humans and between angels is through actual languages. We do not know what language the angels have spoken to each other all these thousands of years since they were created, but they are not limited to human languages such as English or Spanish—both of which have been in use a very brief time in comparison to the length of time angels have existed. Scripture shows that angels can speak human languages when speaking to humans, but they are not limited to these in the way they communicate with each other. Paul’s point here is that someone with the gift of speaking in tongues, an actual gift of the Spirit, is just making noise if that gift is exercised without love; and the same is true if someone could, hypothetically, speak the language of the angels. Neither ability is worth anything without love. In 13:8, Paul says that “where there are tongues, they will be stilled,” or, more literally, “if there are tongues, they will cease.” Paul does not say when this gift would cease, but he does say it will happen. Historically, by the early second century believers were no longer exercising the gift of speaking in tongues. This is the testimony of several early church fathers. Thus the question arises, is the revival of speaking in tongues in the late nineteenth century legitimate, i.e., is it really the same phenomenon as in New Testament times?
Thus far Paul has simply referred to the gift of tongues on several occasions in I Corinthians, but he has not really described it as Luke did in Acts 2. In chapter 14, Paul provides more detail about tongues in comparing it to prophecy, but he does not fully describe it here either—though he does give important details that help us understand what this gift was. Actually, there was no need for Paul to describe the gift since the Corinthian believers knew all too well what it was. They were overemphasizing this gift to the neglect of more important ones—a point that needs to be made today as well. Tongues was not the primary gift even in the first century, so why do charismatics put such great emphasis on it now? Paul lists apostles, prophets, and teachers as the three primary gifts, with tongues much further down the line (12:28-30). He also tells the Corinthians to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (14:1)—but instead of pursuing all the gifts with an emphasis on prophecy, the Corinthain believers focused on the gift of tongues to the neglect of all the others. To be sure that the Corinthians did not overreact to his rebukes about overemphasizing tongues, Paul’s last reference to tongues is “do not forbid speaking in tongues” (14:39)—but this is a far cry from demanding that everyone speak in tongues.
The view that speaking in tongues in I Corinthians is not the same as in the Book of Acts is necessary for modern charismatics because they define tongues as “ecstatic speech” (not a real language) and/or a special prayer language that only God understands. Supposedly, support for this interpretation comes from Paul’s discussion about tongues and prophecy in I Corinthians 14. So the crux of the entire debate boils down to this: Does I Corinthians 14 support the claims of the modern charismatic movement on the nature of speaking in tongues?
Some background on the city of Corinth sheds some light on the historical situation Paul and the believers there faced in the first century. Corinth was a thriving Greco-Roman metropolis that was served by two port cities: Cenchrea (see Romans 16:1) was just six miles away and Lechaion just two miles away, both on the Aegean Sea. Corinth was a strategic part of a major trade route that served the entire Mediterranean world for trade and commerce. This meant that, in addition to the Greek language that the natives of Corinth and the province of Achaia spoke, many other languages were spoken there because so many people from various cultures travelled to the city—and some decided to stay. In light of the fact that so many people in Corinth did not speak Greek as their native language, it is not surprising that I Corinthians is the only epistle to mention the gift of tongues. This gift would have been especially needed in a city and in a church bustling with people whose native languages were different. In fact, this parallels the city of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. Jews from around the world had travelled to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, but they did not speak Aramaic as their native tongue. And God wanted them to hear the gospel and the truths of the Christian faith in their own language. Just 20 years later, the same occurred in Corinth but on a more permanent basis (not just related to a feast). When the church gathered together for worship, the prophets would speak in the Greek language (which everyone likely understood at least as a second language), but those with the gift of tongues would also speak, allowing everyone to hear these truths in their own native languages. No doubt this occurred in many other places in the early church, not just in Jerusalem and Corinth, but it was especially prominent in Corinth, since only 20 years separated the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) from Paul’s founding of the church in Corinth (Acts 18). It is highly unlikely that the exact same expression (“speaking in tongues”; in Greek, the verb laleo, “to speak,” plus the noun glossa, “tongue”) would be used by Luke and Paul to describe two entirely different phenomena. Paul’s instructions about tongues make perfect sense when interpreting this gift as the same one in Acts 2.
In I Corinthians 14, Paul refers to the gift of tongues fifteen times, compared to only six in the rest of the book; (see 12:10,10,28,30; 13:1,8). Some of these actually refer to the gift of interpretation of tongues, a significant issue in this debate. Everyone is familiar with the need for interpreters when people who do not speak the same language have to communicate to do business, politics, or missions. So, the gift of interpretation coincides quite nicely with the view that tongues in I Corinthians are actual human languages. If tongues is just “ecstatic speech,” then any interpretation will work since no one knows if it is accurate or not. If tongues is just a private prayer language, why does it need to be interpreted? God doesn’t need an interpreter. But Paul said that no one should speak in tongues unless there is an interpreter (14:13, 27-28). And Paul’s statement that someone could pray in a tongue (14:14) simply means that this gift allowed a person to speak another language to men (proclamation) and to God (prayer), and this was for the benefit of those who spoke that language. A prophet or a teacher would do the same thing in his own language: he would proclaim God’s Word to men and also pray to God. Paul also indicates that speaking in tongues was more evangelistic in nature than prophecy was. It was for unbelievers (14:22a) so they could understand the gospel in their own language, precisely the situation that occurred on the Day of Pentecost. But prophecy was for believers (14:22b), the primary means God used to reveal His will to His people in the church prior to the writing of the New Testament.
It may be helpful to provide the evidences about the nature of speaking in tongues in Corinth. First, Acts 2:1-12 clearly describes speaking in tongues as the Spirit-given ability to speak an actual human language that one does not already know, and this first happened on the Day of Pentecost. Believers spoke in tongues in Joppa about 10 years later (Acts 10:44-46), and again in Ephesus about 22 years later (Acts 19:1-6). But charismatics want us to believe that when the gospel reached Corinth (Acts 18), two years earlier than in Ephesus, speaking in tongues was a completely different gift—ecstatic speech, one not described in Scripture and one that does not need interpretation since there is no way to know for certain if the interpretation is correct. One is certainly justified in challenging the charismatic understanding of these passages.
Second, the Greek word for “tongue” is glossa, which was one of the primary terms in koine Greek for an actual human language. Another is dialektos (the basis for the English word dialect), which occurs parallel to glossa in Acts 2:6,8. The word glossa occurs 50 times in the New Testament, and every use of this term refers to the actual organ in the mouth or to a human language for which the tongue is necessary. This calls into question the charismatic claim that glossa must be something completely different in I Corinthians. If “ecstatic speech” or something similar is what Paul had meant, then he would have had to use another term.
Third, Paul used the term glossa in I Corinthians 14:21 in a way that has to refer to a human language: “‘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.” This verse is a quotation of Isaiah 28:11-12 and refers to the language of the Assyrians as a sign of God’s judgment on the wicked people of Israel. When the men in the Assyrian army invaded the land speaking in “strange tongues,” then God’s judgment on Israel had arrived and the nation would be taken into captivity (this occurred in 721 B.C.). This use of the term glossa is perfectly consistent with the view that the gift of tongues refers to actual human languages, but it makes no sense if it refers to “ecstatic speech”—the Assyrians certainly did not arrive in Israel doing that. Again, if Paul meant something else in his use of the term glossa, then he should not have quoted this passage to help define the term.
Fourth, a similar example occurs in I Corinthians 14:9-10. The word glossa must refer to actual human languages here too. Paul refers to foreigners coming to the assembly, no doubt a common occurrence in Corinth, who speak in languages that many people cannot understand. In order to communicate, they must speak the same language or just find themselves “speaking into the air” (v. 9). Here Paul used glossa (v. 9) in parallel with phone (literally, “voice”), another Greek (but less common) word for actual human languages (v. 10).
Turning back to I Corinthians 14, understanding the gift of tongues as actual human languages makes perfect sense in each occurrence. Charismatics claim that 14:2-4 proves their case, but does it? First, it is dangerous to depend so heavily on a few verses to prove such a major doctrinal position. There needs to be more support than a questionable interpretation of this admittedly difficult passage to validate the charismatic viewpoint on tongues. Second, these verses also fit quite nicely with the view advocated in this article. If someone spoke in a tongue (a language he does not know) and no one was around to hear it, then the only person who did understand him was God (He “does not speak to men but to God”). Thus when a person exercised this gift, he needed to make sure that some people who spoke that tongue as their native language were present, and there also had to be an interpreter present so everyone else could understand what was said (14:5b,27-28). All spiritual gifts are for the benefit of the body, not for the benefit of those who exercise the gifts (14:12,26b; see 12:7,12,24-27). The goal is edification for the whole church, not for the individual. The prophet exercised his gift in a language everyone understood (Greek in Corinth) so that everyone would be edified (14:3,5b). But if someone exercised the gift of tongues in a situation where no one understood him but God, he alone received the edification (14:4)—and this is not what the Holy Spirit intended (14:5b).
One approach to I Corinthians 14 in non-charismatic circles claims that Paul made a distinction between “tongue” (singular) and “tongues” (plural), as if the two referred to different phenomena. For example, John MacArthur views the singular as referring to “the counterfeit gift of pagan gibberish” and the plural as the genuine gift (John MacArthur Study Bible). But this is highly unlikely for three main reasons. First, using the same word with such a major difference in meaning between the singular and the plural in the same context is not only unusual but probably unprecedented elsewhere in the New Testament. A writer would more likely avoid using words this way since such an approach would be easily misunderstood and would also be much more confusing than helpful.  Second, if Paul refers to “pagan gibberish” in the use of the singular “tongue,” it is rather surprising that he does not use much harsher language in ridding the church of this practice, as he did pagan ideas about sexuality earlier in the epistle. Instead, Paul accepts and approves this “tongue,” ranking it equally with “a hymn” and “a word of instruction” and “a revelation.” All of these are clearly the work of the Holy Spirit “for the strengthening of the church” (v. 26). Third, the text itself does not support such a distinction. Paul speaks of himself using both the singular and the plural in exercising this gift, and making a distinction between them is almost certainly artificial (14:6,14,18,19). Also, in 14:18 Paul says he speaks in “tongues” (plural), clearly a reference to the spiritual gift. But as we have seen, in 14:26 Paul says that someone may have “a tongue” (singular), clearly a reference to the same spiritual gift, especially since it is connected to “an interpretation” (compare 12:10 where the plural is used of both speaking in tongues and interpretation). Actually, the difference between the singular and the plural is a simple one: the plural refers to the gift itself or to the exercise of the gift in various situations, while the singular refers to an individual’s exercise of the gift in a specific situation. So “tongue” and “tongues” both refer to the same gift throughout 1 Corinthians 12–14, the Spirit-given ability to speak a language one does not know.
In conclusion, charismatic teachings about speaking in tongues are not supported by Scripture. Regardless of their claims related to personal experiences, Scripture is still the final authority on every issue related to Christian faith and practice. If the charismatics could demonstrate that their views are taken directly from the teachings of Scripture, then it would be necessary for all Christians to join them. But this is not the case. The evidence from Scripture is decidedly against them.
However, despite our differences with those involved in the charismatic movement, we still need to accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ and work with them to reach lost people with the gospel in our communities and around the world.