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Is speaking in tongues Biblical?


It has always seemed a bit odd to me that the Evangelical church has become so divided and contentious over something that the scripture speaks so clearly about. It could be that people think speaking in tongues sounds weird, or they were taught by somebody that it was of the devil, or they were so perplexed by it that they just assumed it was nonsense. Either way, I will begin this article by stating that speaking in tongues is certainly Biblical. Why? Because it's in the Bible, was clearly practiced by the early church including by the Apostle Paul, and we find no evidence in scripture that it's use in the local church body has ceased.

Many questions surrounding the topic of speaking in tongues are often discussed: Is it still for today? What about pagan cultures that "speak in tongues" during their demonic rituals? What types of tongues are there? What does speaking in tongues do? When is it appropriate to speak in tongues? How is speaking in tongues related to the Baptism in the Holy Spirit? Can everyone speak in tongues? And so on and so forth.  I intend on answering many of these questions in this article, and hopefully it will be a blessing for all who are searching for Biblical answers about this commonly discussed topic.

We will begin by answering two questions at once: Is speaking in tongues for today? And, what about pagan cultures that "speak in tongues" in their demonic rituals? First of all I want to explain why some people think that speaking in tongues is a gift that is no longer in use. There is a certain school of thought that interprets a passage in 1 Corinthians 13 to mean that speaking in tongues has ceased, here is the 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."

Notice in verse 8 it says "where there are tongues, they will be stilled" and in verse 10 it says "but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears." Some people including a popular Bible commentator named John MacArthur believe that this passage is saying that tongues will be stilled (or caused to cease) when the canon of scripture is complete. That is, they believe Paul was referring to a future time when all of his letters and other New Testament scriptures would be combined together to form the Bible (the canon of scripture), and that when the Bible was completed tongues would no longer be necessary because we have all that we need in the Word of God.

The problem with this is that in context this passage is not referring to the completion of the Bible. I would even argue that there is not even the slightest indication that Paul is referring to the canonization of scripture here. The overwhelming contextual evidence of this passage points to Paul referring to the resurrection, not the completion of the Bible. So when he says, "but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears,"  he is referring to Christians receiving their glorified  bodies in which they will be equipped to fully understand God's love and see clearly those things which our current faculties do not have the capacity for. Even though we now have the canonization of scripture there are still many things that we only know "in part." If Paul was referring to the canonization of scripture he would not have used the phrase "we" (verse 9) including himself and the Corinthians who were all dead by the time that scripture was canonized. Paul was speaking of something that both he and all of the Corinthian believers would experience together, namely, the resurrection. That at the resurrection we will be equipped with what we need to fully know certain things that were only able to be partly known during our life on Earth.

Now some people often allude to the fact that many pagan cultures use a sort of "gibberish" in their demonic ceremonies and rituals. They have asserted that because this "gibberish" sounds like what many Christians sound like when they speak in tongues then it must be that Christians are practicing a pagan exercise when they do so. This explanation is found to be unwarranted because the Bible teaches that speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift from God to a believer, not a gift from the devil to an unbeliever. It could be argued much more effectively that Satan, who envies God, attempts to manifest a counterfeit version of tongues among these Pagan rituals. Or it could also be that these rituals are merely using inane gibberish and not a "counterfeit tongues" at all! Therefore, it's really nothing but baseless speculation going with this argument, not a valid Biblical objection.

This leads naturally to our next two questions: What types of tongues are there? And, what does speaking in tongues do? According to the Bible, there are two different types of tongues, one is where God empowers an individual to speak in an Earthly language that he/she has never learned for the purpose of evangelism (Paul calls it a "sign to unbelievers" in 1 Corinth 14:22), the other is where God empowers a person to pray in an angelic language for the purpose of praying God's complete will. 1 Corinthians 13:1 says, "If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn't love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." Here in ch. 13 Paul begins naming a list of spiritual gifts that people could use while explaining that using them in love is the key, the first gift he mentions is the two different types of speaking in tongues (1. speaking all the languages of the earth and 2. speaking the language of angels). An example of the first type of speaking in tongues is found in Acts chapter 2:

v. 1-8-"When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?

So here we see the disciples of Jesus gather together in prayer on the day of Pentecost. The next thing you know they become filled with the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. In this particular instance God caused the tongues to be in the languages of those who were visiting Jerusalem for Pentecost and they were able to hear God's word. It was a "sign" to them that God was speaking through the disciples. In the very next part of the chapter all of those who were present got saved and were baptized. So it is clear in scripture that one way that the gift of tongues manifests is in an Earthly language for the purpose of evangelism, but what about the tongues of angels that Paul refers to in 1 Corinth 13? Many Christians call this type of tongues their "prayer language" and Paul explains it in 1 Corinthians chapter 14:

v. 2 "For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries."

In this chapter Paul is explaining the operation of tongues as a prayer language. He show us that when one prays in tongues it is ultimately the Holy Spirit praying through us. Our "spirit prays" and our spirit is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in us (see 1 Corinth 6:19). Paul confirms this in 1 Corinthians 14:14 saying, "for if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays."  This powerful gift is very helpful for a person who is called to be a prayer warrior in the church. A person with the gift of tongues can use his/her gift to allow the Holy Spirit to intercede through them according to God's perfect will, sometimes with "groanings"(see Romans 8:26). Our Earthly languages can only partly describe God's will, but when the Holy Spirit prays through us in the language of Heaven (angels) He is able to perfectly describe God's will. Paul encourages the one who prays in tongues to ask for an interpretation because not even they can understand what they are praying, but what they are praying is from God (1 Corinth 13:14).

Our next question is: When is it appropriate to speak in tongues? I will begin my answer by addressing the first operation of tongues (speaking in an unknown Earthly language for the purpose of evangelism). In this scenario the Bible gives us one primary example which we discussed out of Acts chapter 2. I do not see any major guidelines being set forth for this specific operation but I do see two primary conditions being met. 1. Being empowered to speak in the unknown tongue. 2. Having people present who speak that language. So basically we should use this operation of the gift whenever God allows us to, trusting Him to sovereignly orchestrate the revelation of His will to the hearers that are present. 

Now, with addressing the operation of tongues as a "prayer language" I have to say the Bible does set forth some guidelines as to what the appropriate use of this gift should be. The reason the Bible gives us guidelines regarding this operation of the gift is because usually nobody can understand what you are saying when you use it, unless they have the gift of interpretation of tongues. 

1 Corinthians 14:23-25- "23 Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you."

So here Paul explains that when the church assembles it would be better for the person who is addressing the crowd to speak a word of prophecy rather than tongues because if an unbeliever or ungifted person is among the crowd they will not be able to understand you if you do. Paul explained why tongues normally isn't understood by others earlier in the chapter saying, "2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. 3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation." So here Paul advocates for the use of tongues to be generally done in private because He would rather the church be strengthened by words that people can understand. However, Paul does give permission for tongues to be used while addressing the assembly if someone who is gifted to interpret is present: v. 27- "If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God."

So what does all this mean practically? If you have the gift of tongues it would be put to good use by using it primarily in a private setting. Does this mean it cannot be used at church? No because Paul says, "do not forbid to speak in tongues (1 Corinth 14:39)." But it does mean one should use it wisely. If you are addressing the church corporately do not speak in tongues unless you have an interpreter or unless the Lord has given you the interpretation of your unknown tongue directly. If you are using it during worship be aware of who is around you and use discretion as to whether or not you could be a distraction to their worship. 

1 Corinthians 4:23- "So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?"

If you are in a setting in which it would be inappropriate to pray in tongues audibly, do so inwardly. And finally I think it is healthy for the church to have times set aside for prayer in which people are welcome to freely pray in tongues and commune with God, this would usually happen at a private prayer meeting which is specifically structured for freedom in the Spirit (See Acts 2:4). We also must be sensitive to the fact that in the Bible people who were filled with the Spirit for the first time would often speak in tongues, so we need to be open to this possibility when gathering together, doing missions, etc. (Acts 2:4, 10:44-46, 15:7-9, 19:1-7). All in all whatever gift we use, we need to use it for the purpose of love. If my praying in tongues does nothing for the edification of another person I will wait until a more appropriate situation to use it. 

The next common question related to speaking in tongues is:  How is speaking in tongues related to the Baptism in the Holy Spirit? Being that this topic is quite lengthy a requires proper historical and Biblical context I would direct you to read my article about this HERE.

The last question related to speaking in tongues is: Can everyone speak in tongues? The answer is simple. Everyone whom God gives the gift of speaking in tongues can speak in tongues :) .Does this mean that God wants to give the gift to everyone? Paul gives us an answer in 1 Corinthians chapter 12:       
v. 29-30- "29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?

Here Paul explains that every one is given specific gifts, but not everyone has the same gift. Also, we must understand that in each congregation not ever members has yet received the gift of speaking in tongues or Baptism in the Holy Spirit so there will always be members of the body in the assembly who do not speak in tongues, and this does not make them "second class Christians." Paul says that God "distributes spiritual gifts to each person according to His will (1 Corinth 12:11)."  God's will also involves God's wisdom and timing. As a Spirit-filled Pastor I have met many Christians who serve God fervently even though they have not operated in the gift of tongues, even though I am passionate about people receiving this gift, I am not na├»ve to the fact that some simply do not have it for whatever reason. 

All of the contention and division that we have allowed to creep into the church because of a misunderstanding of the gift of tongues really needs to be put away. The Bible has clearly explained what the gift of tongues is, it's purpose, and it's power. We need to come together in unity based upon what the Word of God says on the issue and be willing to lay down our preconceived thoughts if they do not agree with scripture. Speaking in tongues clearly has a purpose, but like any gift it can be misused. I believe that the balanced, Biblical approach used in this article should be considered by all when we discuss this issue. If we do this, people will see our love for one another and know that we are true followers of Christ (John 13:35). 

Written by: Kyle Bailey, D.Min.

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Photo credit: http://www.dodsonlumber.com/Acts242/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/pentecost1.gif

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