An often divisive topic among Christians is the practice of “speaking in tongues.” The number of tongues-speakers has exploded since the Pentecostal revivals of the early twentieth century and many from non-Pentecostal backgrounds, such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc., have come pray and praise in what they believe to be the New Testament gift of tongues. A major reason why the modern-day practice of speaking in tongues rallies so much opposition is that many Evangelicals believe this is a gift solely used for evangelistic purposes. Cessationists believe that all the “charismatic gifts” have ceased since the death of the apostles, and so this gift has no relevance whatsoever. Some simply think this isn’t worth exploring since this gift is only mentioned in Acts and 1 Corinthians. That said, it seems that this gift played a prominent role in both personal devotion and corporate during the early Church. When it comes down to it, this gift could benefit the body of Christ, and the church’s healthy and well-being is enough reason to look deeper into the issue of tongues.
Tongues in Acts
When the fire of the Holy Spirit fell on the 120 disciples during Pentecost, the gift of speaking in tongues was first manifested. Jews from afar were gathered in Jerusalem during this time for Passover and heard the disciples speaking in their languages. These Jews were perplexed that these disciples could be speaking the languages of the Romans, Cretans, Arabs, etc. Many claim that this is the first appearance of tongues used as evangelism, for these unbelievers heard declarations of “the wonders of God in [their] own tongues” (Acts 2:11).
What they heard, though, did not exactly seem evangelistic but rather doxological. The tongues heard were of Christians worshipping and praising God. If anything, the sermon delivered by Peter was evangelistic (Acts 2:17-41). Some theologians have proposed that the miracle was in the hearing (interpretation of tongues) rather than the disciples speaking in the languages of those outside the upper room, citing Acts 2:8, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” Also, there were 120 people speaking in tongues, and for one to be able to spot and hear their individual language being spoken from outside would be a whole other miracle in itself. All that to say that the tongues spoken could have very well been the same kind of gift Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians, that are “mysteries in the Spirit” and need one with the gift of interpretation to understand these tongues. Nevertheless, it is hard to create a dogmatic theology on tongues out of the verses on Pentecost.
There are two other mentions of speaking in tongues in Acts and that would be in chapter 10 and 19. In chapter 10, the Spirit falls on gentiles who were heard “speaking in tongues and praising God” (v. 46). They spoke in tongues after hearing the Gospel and there is no indication that they went out to evangelize in tongues. The correlation between speaking in tongues and praising God should be noted, as this sheds light on the nature of tongues. In chapter 19, Paul presents the fullness of the Gospel to twelve Ephesians who were baptized by John the Baptist, and they were baptized and were then prayed on to receive the Holy Spirit. As they were being prayed on ”they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (v.6). Again, there is no indication that this gift was manifested for evangelism’s sake.
Tongues in 1 Corinthians
1 Corinthians 12-14 are the “gifts” chapters, where the nine charismatic gifts are explained thoroughly, as well as how they ought to be used. As tongues is mentioned to be a gift that serves “the common good” and is to be used in the body, tongues seems unlikely to be primarily, let alone solely, a gift for evangelism. These chapters raise a few questions for those who hold to the evangelistic-view:
- If tongues was a gift used to deliver a message to a foreign people and were therefore always human languages and evangelistic, why would tongues be spoken in the meetings of believers and why would there need to be an interpreter? Paul makes it clear that tongues with interpretation edify the body and, like all the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12, serve the “common good”.
- For those who hold to the belief that tongues was to be used as a sign of judgment (1 Corinthians 14:22) to the Jewish people who rejected Christ, why would interpretation be used at all? This sign of judgment would be a language they are unable to understand. Some argue that this would shock the Jewish people and therefore bring conversion. If tongues were just a sign to unbelievers, and were not supposed to be understood, then the gift of interpretation would not be necessary and Paul would not have advised against speaking in tongues without interpretation among unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:23).
- If this is a sign against the Jews, why is tongues practiced in Corinth? That is not to say that there were no Jews in Corinth but it was much more likely for an unbeliever or inquirer who would make his or her way into these meetings to be a gentile.
It seems that Paul does not actually want believers to practice uninterpreted tongues to unbelievers because it was a sign of judgment. These unbelievers will not be shocked into regeneration but instead confused, likely judging Christians as out of their minds (1 Corinthians 14:23).
I will not completely rule out the possibility of God granting tongues to somebody so they may speak a language they do not know, especially in the mission field. There are many claims that this occurs, even among non-charismatic groups like the Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, the tongues presented in Acts and 1 Corinthians do not indicate that the gift of tongues is primarily for such a service.
So what is the gift of tongues?
- Paul makes it clear that tongues is primarily not for speaking to people but to God (1 Corinthians 14:2). Those who cannot provide an interpretation to their tongues are not to deliver a message in tongues but is to “speak to himself and to God” (v. 28).
- Tongues is linked to praise in Acts (2:11, 10:46) and is used for praise and thanksgiving in 1 Corinthians 14:10.
- Paul says that uninterpreted tongues edifies individuals (v.4), though he encourages tongues-speakers to pray for the power to interpret (v.13). He says this so that those who pray in tongues would not only be fruitful in their spirit but also in their mind (v.14).
- Paul asks the Corinthians to limit those delivering tongues to two or three at a time (v.27), which seems to imply that people with the ability to speak in tongues can do so at their own will. If God desired no more than three tongues-speakers to deliver messages in tongues, then he would not manifest this gift in more than three people. This gift, though, is one that could manifest as one pleases.
The idea of tongues being used for personal prayer is not as ridiculous as many cessationists make it seems. Though it is a powerful personal practice, tongues is also seen as something to be exercised in the body (1 Corinthians 12:10, 14:26). When tongues is interpreted, one can possibly receive some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction (v.6) or be used for corporate prayer (v.16-17). It is arguable that tongues with interpretation is on the same footing as prophecy (v.5), which is a gift that Paul encourages Christians to most earnestly desire (v. 1). All over the world, millions pray in tongues, and know what seems nonsensical to the world is truly divine.