On Speaking in Tongues

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I stumbled into speaking in tongues. At the time, it wasn’t what I wanted.

I was sixteen. I’d only been “born again” for about six months, and I knew I could experience God the same way people in the New Testament did. Paul talked about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians – healing, prophecy – and I believed.

I wanted Jesus to fill me with the Holy Spirit, the same way he did for believers in Acts.

I tend to get loud when I pray, and I needed to pray. I didn’t want to freak out my parents, so I decided to pray at a park near my house. At night. I wanted power. Power to do miracles. Power to heal the sick. Power to raise the dead. I’d wait in silence, but eventually, the prayers came out. I cried out to God, even argued with God. And every time, I felt something: warm waves of love crashed into my chest. I physically trembled. I shook.

I kept it up for over a month. Nightly trips to the park, rain or snow. The good feelings kept coming, but I wasn’t experiencing the power I wanted. I wanted more than a feeling. So I decided to chill out on begging God to Spirit-baptize me. Every once in awhile, I’d mention it in my prayers, but disappointment restrained my expectations.

And then I was troubled. I’d stopped actively seeking my own personal Pentecost, and one night, as I prayed, my words were dry, inauthentic. It annoyed me. I remember pacing through the second floor of our house, ticked off at God, and as I stepped into the bathroom, some words fell out of my mouth. But they weren’t in English. I didn’t recognize them.

Was I speaking in tongues?

I was scared. This wasn’t the gift I wanted. It didn’t make sense. But it felt – good. So good!

I ran to my room and prayed in the most pious position I could think of, with my hands folded on the corner of my bed, back straight, knees bent on the floor. I asked God for wisdom in regard to whatever had just occurred. As a precaution, I cast out any pesky demons trying to deceive me, and I asked God, yet again, to fill me with the Spirit. I felt an urge to open my mouth and there they were, those same mysterious words.

They kept coming. And somehow these words that I didn’t understand felt truer than anything else I’d prayed that night. Somehow the barriers I’d been running up against in prayer were gone.

I was skeptical of this new thing. But I was open to God, to whatever God wanted to do, and the result was that God gave me the goofiest and least powerful of the charismatic gifts: the gift of tongues.

The night I first spoke in tongues, I felt those feelings again – the ones that made me quake. The love rushing over me. Like I was cocooned in the Holy Spirit. After I stopped praying, and as I laid in my bed, the warmth and energy remained hovering over me, covering me; and I was at peace. I felt safe. I felt known.

I was humbled, too.

So many times, the Spirit had crept up on me, and I’d dismissed her. The feelings hadn’t seemed valid because they were just feelings. I’d wanted power. Somehow, God knew I needed comfort. That night, I praised God until I fell asleep. I slept well.

Looking back on that night, I recognize that God welcomed me into what N.T. Wright calls a “private language of love.” It felt intimate and holy. The Bible doesn’t say much about what tongues are or how the gift works (let alone what it’s for), but Paul uses the word “edifying.” Some talk about tongues as a way to receive power, like you’re building up Holy Spirit power in order to shoot out miracles. But that’s not what this gift does for me. It helps me tap into the indwelling presence of God. It’s a way of being, of cooperating, of resting with God. Speaking in tongues is about abiding in Christ.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with prayer. Praying has been awkward and unnatural for me the past few months. I don’t know what to say to God. I’m fighting doubt as I pray, and I get overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness. I’ve been repeating the Lord’s Prayer a lot, and I’ve been praying in tongues. Most of the time, I just don’t know what to pray, and words fail to carry what God is stirring within me, so I lean on the Spirit and let her pray for me. In that place, I find rest. The syllables and noises can be clumsy and strange, but as they roll out (or burst out) I feel my spirit breathing, I feel life pouring in.

This act of holy-foolishness grounds me in Christ’s faithfulness, gives me a way to yield and be faithful in the face of my own confusion. The truth is, I still want power. But God knows what I really need.

The Gift of Tongues in Corporate Worship

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Micah Bales recently posted “Are Quakers Allowed to Speak in Tongues?“, and I have to say this post was another reminder of why I am thankful for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. Micah does not speak in tongues nor is he seeking this gift, and he actually admitted to having felt nervous in the presence of tongues in our fellowship. He followed this vulnerable admission with something I found incredibly affirming for those like me who do speak in tongues.

I’m proud of my community. Friends of Jesus Fellowship isn’t obsessed with charismatic expressions. We’re not chasing after exotic gifts and wonders. At the same time, we don’t flee from them when they do occur. On the contrary, our 2014 Fall Gathering was edified by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, expressed in large part through the ecstatic prayer and non-rational utterances by several of our brothers and sisters.

The discussions around this post, on both Micah’s site and facebook, have been incredibly interesting with people from all over the board, including skeptical former Pentecostals to Quakers who discretely practice the gift of tongues. One of the major concerns of those in the middle, perhaps the “open but cautious” types, is how tongues should operate in corporate worship.

Many claim that the use of tongues for prayer and worship in corporate settings is terribly inappropriate and not in line with 1 Corinthians. Others see tongues without interpretation as unable to ever be profitable to the Church and dismiss any use of tongues that has no interpretation. Despite all the arguments and debates on how tongues should be used within a body, I think 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14 bring the needed clarity into this topic as they go into great detail about the importance of the charismatic gifts and how they ought to be used properly.

I will preface this post by saying that this is not the official or even the majority view among the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, especially my view that tongues is a gift that all may experience in Christ and not a select few.  That said, I hope that this post can shed some light on the nature of tongues and their use in worship, even if you do not find yourself quite agreeing with what I have to say.

Two kinds of tongues

1 Corinthians 14 goes into most depth about two gifts, that being tongues and prophecy. In this chapter, we see there being two natures to tongues, one of edification for the body of saints (with interpretation, v.5) and the other being for the individual in their prayer-life (v.2). One form of tongues is seen as on the same level as prophecy (v.5), as it may be bring “revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction” (v.6). According to verse 27, “let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.” So then, the gift of tongues could operate up to 2 or 3 in succession, then the congregation should allow time for there to be an interpretation before resuming with more tongues (if the Spirit so moves). That way, interpretation is coming forth at regular intervals so the congregation is edified.

The other tongues, though, is for prayer and worship (vs. 14-17). Without interpretation, this use of tongues is still edifying for one’s spirit (v.14). That being true, Paul encouraged tongue-prayers to ask the Lord for the power to interpret their own tongues so they may also understand what they are praying and have their mind be fruitful (v. 13). We see Paul is thankful to speak in tongues more than the rest of the Corinthians (v.18), which is quite incredibly considering how tongue-crazy they were, but in a church he found it more profitable to bring intelligible instruction than display his prayer language before the whole assembly.

I would also argue that only one form of these tongues is the gift listed in 1 Cor. 12. that being the tongues that brings forth prophetic messages. I say this because each “manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7), and the personal use of tongues is not strictly for the common good but most often for the building up of one’s spirit. This may be why later on in 1 Corinthians 12:30, Paul rhetorically asks, “Do all speak in tongues?” The answer of course being “no”, for up to this point he only discussed the gift of tongues and not the prayer language he expands on in chapter 14.

The pentecostal inheritance

Many believe that the tongues at Pentecost were human languages and were for the purpose of evangelism, but as I discussed in a previous post on tongues, the tongues at Pentecost seemed to be more doxological than evangelistic, as the unbelievers heard declarations of “the wonders of God in [their] own tongues” (Acts 2:11).  More importantly than glossolalia, Pentecost brought forth the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church. Pentecost opened the hearts of the early Christians to the revelation of the new covenant: In Christ, we are children of God (Gal. 3:26). As the people and children of God, we need no mediator between us and Christ (Heb. 9:15, 12:24), we have been made the temple of the Spirit as individuals and corporately (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 2:5),  and God is within us (Ez. 36:27, Rom. 8:11, 2 Tim. 1:14).

As the prophecy in Joel 2 became fulfilled at Pentecost, as Peter subsequently went on to sermonize about (Acts 2:14-41), the prophetic role of this new covenant people was also revealed. As indicated by Joel and Peter, every believer has the ability to listen to the voice of God and experience direct revelations from God. As Robert Barclay wrote in Apology for the True Christian Divinity, by the Spirit, “God always revealed himself to his children.”

As this reality is uncovered by Peter, all those in Christ seeking the promise of the Father at this point (Acts 1:4), that is the prophetic and charismatic endowment of the Spirit, had been given the ability to utter doxologies in other tongues. Though tongues was not explicitly mentioned in every account of the Spirit-baptism in Acts (Acts 11:15-17), it is most commonly manifested in this spiritual event throughout Acts (Acts 2:11; Acts 10:46; Acts 19:6).

Both tongues and prophecy are closely related, as indicated by both Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, and to some degree are related. The whole Church is set apart as a prophetic people but there is the gifting and anointing of those called to be prophets. Paul indicates the uniqueness of this gift in same 1 Corinthians 12:29 when he asks rhetorically, “Are all prophets?” This prophetic gifting is for one to be set apart to be constantly building up the church with prophecies, as well as weighing prophecies (1 Cor. 14:29). Though prophets are set apart as a unique calling, the call to prophesy is for all believers (Acts 2:17-21, 1 Cor. 14:1, 39), and in the new covenant we are all promised to hear the Shepherd’s voice (Acts 2, John 10). Like the role and grace of being a prophet, there are those who are especially gifted with the gift of tongues for the sake of delivering prophetic messages (1 Cor. 12:30), but it is indicated that the ability to pray and worship in other tongues is normative for all believers. Both prophecy and tongues seem to be the pentecostal inheritance of all believers.

Tongues sung and prayed in church

Early on in Church history there were instances of the corporate use of tongues. One example would be Jubilation, which was a widespread practice of what could very well be labeled worshiping in tongues. It was described by Eddie Ensley in Sounds of Wonder as a point in the 4th to 9th century liturgy when “the people moved into exuberant wordless singing on vowel sounds [which] could last for up to five minutes.” Jubilation was replaced by written music for various reasons, but continued as a private practice and was exercised by St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and other mystics.

From experience, I must say, that when tongues is sang corporately, there is a loss of distinction in the individual tongues and a beautiful, almost angelic sound does arise. I have heard several testimonies of men stumbling into charismatic meetings and being drawn by the powerful beauty of the sound of melodies in tongues. Though this argument is not at all part of the exegetical study of the corporate use of tongues, it is definitely worth considering. This is probably why so many of the major fathers of the Church enthusiastically wrote about the practice of jubilation, as Richard Hogue noted in Tongues: A Theological History of Christian Glossalalia:

“Augustine, Jerome, John Cassian, Ambrose, Pter Chrysologus, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, and Cassiodorus–wrote of jubilation. Obviously, most of the fathers of the late Roman Empire and Dark Ages believed jubilation was the continuation of a biblical and apostolic tradition. To the fathers, the relationship Christians enjoyed with God was at its best a mystery. For them, praying and singing with God was a way of entering into that mystery, a way of experiencing God that was too great for ordinary words. It was a mean of entering into mystery, of being led into the mystery with body and soil. And it worked. It seems to have been the use of jubilation that kept Augustine open to the supernatural. Later in his life, Augustine, writing his famous work, The City of God, acknowledge his great joy at the miraculous move of the Holy Spirit in his church at Hippo: ‘Even now, miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by sacraments or by prayer or the relics of his saints.'”

The issues with worshiping in tongues

The idea of whole-church participation in speaking in tongues may be concerning to many because of 1 Corinthians 14:22-25:

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 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? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

What does Paul mean when he writes that tongues are a sign for unbelievers?

First off, that tongues and interpretation is described to be for the edification of the Church (v. 5), and that prophecy was also used to expose the unbelievers’ hearts and draw them to Christ (v. 25). Prophecy and tongues are for both the edification of the saints and evangelism to the lost. Perhaps it could be said that tongues is primarily a sign for unbelievers, but also a gift to the Church, and prophecy is primarily a gift to the Church, but also a sign to unbelievers.

Tongues when interpreted is, as noted earlier, a “revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction.” It is basically a prophetic message, but first coming in an unknown tongue. This tongue could be of any language and there is a possibility that the tongue-speaker could be speaking in the unbeliever’s language (1 Cor. 13:1), or at least they could hear it as their own. In this way, tongues offer a greater sign to the unbeliever.

If the whole Church gathered and allowed all to individually deliver their tongue without any interpretation, this would be chaotic and unedifying. This would be perfect reason for an unbeliever to conclude that Christians are out of their minds (v. 23). This is what seemed to be happening in the Corinthian church.

It could be said that the Corinthians are an example of over-enthusiastic charismatics on the verge of idolizing the signs and wonders. They may have gathered to produce the sign for the sake of producing a sign. He points them to way of love (1 Cor. 13, 14:1), encourages them to keep desiring the manifestations of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:31, 14:1), and never claims that the gifts and miracles among them were not from God but instead tells them to be wiser in their discernment and to keep the unbeliever in mind.

I think it should also be noted that it would be unfair if a tongue with a message specifically for the unbeliever is left uninterpreted. This profound message from God is instead judged as fanaticism by the one who desperately needs ears to hear.

In verse 28, Paul tells those who are unable to find one gifted in interpretation to “speak to himself and to God.” In this way, uninterpreted tongues is permitted as long as it is not directed to the congregation. There’s a possibility that this tongue was not inspired for the use of corporate edification and that is why no interpreter could be found. Evidence of this would be in the fact that this speaker was able to “speak to himself and to God.”

I write all of this out of my gratitude for what I have experienced with worship and prayer in tongues, in my own devotional life and when practiced in community, as well as my conviction that a revival of the body-building gift of tongues (and not just the ability to pray in other tongues) needs to arise in the Church. I also hope I could address the legitimate concerns of those against the use of uninterpreted tongues for worship, prayer, and personal edification. For those who do not understand praying in tongues and have been uncomfortable with its practice in fellowship, I hope that you would keep in mind the words of my friend Micah:

I don’t have to understand speaking in tongues to know that it felt healthy when others did. I don’t have to pretend I’m comfortable with tongues to welcome these gifts into our community.

May we all be willing to embrace the gifts among our brothers and sisters, no matter how unfamiliar or even quirky, and may we be wise and discerning, truly valuing God’s gifts for all that they are.

Further reading:
Blog: LCMS Post Cessationist Theology: Jubilation & the Gift of Tongues
Article: “The Gift of Tongues & Jubilation” by Terry Donahue
Book: Gift of the Holy Spirit by Paul Ragan
Book: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Revised Edition by Gordon Fee

What Tongue is Tongues?

My first post in awhile and yes, it is on tongues. You would think I would come back from my hiatus with some mystical reflections, but no, just some thoughts on glossolalia and the Bible. What else do you expect from me, though?

So… what language is all this wacky tongues-speaking in? And does it matter?

From the New York Times' article "A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues"

From the New York Times’ article “A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues”

Some take bold stands against the charismatic practice of speaking in tongues because many examples of tongues that have been observed do not seem to resemble any known human language.  Many argue that tongues could not possibly be anything but a human language, turning for proof to Pentecost in Acts 2, when many Jews were able to understand the tongues that the disciples spoke, as well as to 1 Corinthians 14:10, which says, “Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.” 1 Corinthians 14 sheds some light on the linguistics of tongues.

Many theologians would say there is a difference between the tongues of Pentecost and the tongues described in 1 Corinthians, saying that Pentecost was with known languages, as the Jews from different nations and regions were able to recognize their language being spoken by the disciples (vv. 5-8). Though this is very much possible, I tend to side with the view that the tongues that occurred during Pentecost were the same kind of ‘doxological’ (instead of evangelistic) tongues of the Corinthians. I would propose that the disciples were not actually speaking in known human languages but the unbelievers miraculously were able to hear the disciples’ praise in their own languages. The fact that Pentecost included 120 disciples who spoke in tongues simultaneously makes the probability of one of the foreigners hearing their own language and identifying the words quite slim, especially since these foreigners were on the streets while the disciples were in the Upper Room. The varieties of languages spoken at once would likely keep one from hearing the disciple(s) who’s praise was in their particular language. Even if the tongues at Pentecost were actually human languages, the gift of tongues that Paul speaks of does not always seem to be.

1 Corinthians 14 is obviously the chapter many use to dive into the topic of tongues and how this gift ought to be handled in fellowship. He writes that “no one understands them”, in reference to those who speak in a tongue, and goes on to say “they utter mysteries by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2). In the same verse, he makes known that this form of tongues is not for speaking to people but to God. Then he goes on to push believers to not come before the church speaking in tongues if there is no interpretation, for then it is but “unintelligible words” which does not edify the body (vv.6-12). It is clear that Paul does not see tongues as something to be understood by the natural ear and this is why he pushes believers to interpret (v.5), which does come from human knowledge but through the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:10). Tongues with interpretation are done so that the Church may be built up;3 tongues in personal devotion is only fruitful for an individual’s spirit (vv.4,14).

The interpretation of tongues is seen as vital whenever a tongue is spoken to the body (1 Corinthians 14:5-6) and Paul even forbids tongues that are not interpreted to be spoken to the body (vv.27-28). This seems to indicate that it was very unlikely for somebody to actually understand tongues if there was no interpretation. Would the gift of interpretation of tongues be vital in the corporate use of tongues if tongues were a human language?

As mentioned before, many of those who argue that tongues has to be a human language point to 1 Corinthians 14:10. They also make use of the following verse, which says, “If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.” If I went abroad to a non-English-speaking country, I would be experiencing the same thing as one who hears uninterpreted tongues, which is Paul’s point in these verses. He is not saying that tongues are human languages but he is instead giving an analogy that reveals that tongues function like human languages.

In verse 18, Paul talks about how he is thankful that he “speaks in tongues more than” all the Corinthians. Wayne Grudem argues that if tongues “were known foreign languages that foreigners could understand… why would Paul speak more than all the Corinthians in private, where no one would understand, rather than in church where foreign visitors could understand?” (Systematic Theology, 1072)

So what is the language of tongues?

Now there are some speculative issues when it comes to what the language of tongues is exactly. The infighting in the Church over tongues often is whether it is angelic or human, or perhaps something else altogether.

Some believe the notion that tongues is an angelic language is ridiculous and say that 1 Corinthians 13:1, where the tongues of angels is mentioned, is hyperbolic. Though such an argument is consistent with the language of the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13, Gordon Fee proposes that the possibility of the Corinthians, as well as Paul, thinking of tongues as angelic is likely because of ancient Jewish sources speaking of angelic languages being spoken by humans by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He also proposes that the Corinthians’ view of spirituality may have been skewed by a belief that they “already entered into some expression of angelic existence”, and that it is likely that Corinthians may have believed they were actually speaking in these angelic languages. This could possibly explain their bizarre view of sexuality (1 Corinthians 7:1-7, 11:2-16) and perhaps even contribute to why they often denied the future existence of a glorified body (15:12, 35). (Gordon Fee, New International Commentary of the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 630-631)

Some see the worship of our spirit through tongues as carrying a whole new language that can only be produced by the Holy Spirit, and though this is very much possible, there is not enough in Scripture to support this view, other than the fact that the tongues in Corinth very much do not seem human. Some see 1 Corinthians 13:1 as hyperbolic, in regards to not just the angelic tongues but also the human tongues. They see Paul making the idea of being able to speak in tongues of either men or angels to be extraordinary and not normative for tongues-speakers. Those who take such a view usually do not believe that the disciples in Acts 2 were speaking human languages but a language of the Spirit and that God performed a miracle of hearing on the unbelieving.

Some, such as D.A. Carson, view praying in tongues likely to be in some Spirit-guided code; though this is a minority view, It seems consistent with the view previously mentioned. Many, such as Sam Storms, take a broader view. In the first part of Storms’ essay called “Tongues: Praying and Praising in the Spirit”, he concludes that “tongues may be human languages never before learned by the speaker, but need not be. They may also be angelic dialects or unique linguistic utterances shaped specially by the Spirit and distributed to believers according to the will of God.”

Personally, I do hold to Storms’ view of tongues, acknowledging that there are in fact a diversity of tongues that can be spoken (1 Corinthians 12:10) and that it may just be beyond the tongues of men and angels. A lot of this is speculative, but restricting tongues to only that of humans would not fit 1 Corinthians. This gift for prayer, worship, and the edification of the Church should not be shut down simply because the language is unidentifiable by those present or hindered because of silly debates on its exact nature, but discerned, celebrated, and encouraged, especially when accompanied by interpretation. Let us heed to Paul’s encouragement in 1 Cor. 14:39, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”

Are Tongues Always For Evangelism?

Pentecost Icon

A growing discussion and 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. There is much opposition to the modern-day practice of tongues for several reasons, and a major reason being that tongues is seen by many as solely a gift used for evangelistic purposes. This gift is only mentioned in Acts and 1 Corinthians, but seemed to have a fairly prominent role in the lives of believers and the Church as a whole. This topic, in my opinion, deserves to be explored further for the sake of the Church.

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 to unlikely be primarily, let alone solely, a gift for evangelism. These chapters raise a few questions for those who hold to the evangelistic-view:

  1. 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”. 
  2. 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). 
  3. 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). This phenomena occurs today throughout the global Church for her building up and perhaps even her expansion.

Some Non-Theological Thoughts on Singing in Tongues

Jean II Restout, 'Pentecost'

Jean II Restout, ‘Pentecost’

Some people wander into charismatic prayer meetings and worship services startled or distressed by the use of tongues for worship and prayer. They hear it sporadically break into the service by various congregants and all their ears catch are repeated syllables, sometimes sounding like some exotic battle chant and other times like gentle whispers of gibberish. Though I affirm the use of tongues for what is commonly known in charismatic circles as the ‘prayer-language’ and am a tongues-speaker myself, I can understand why some would dismiss this practice as nonsensical. It often sounds like foolish babble.

That being said, there is something about the corporate use of tongues in worship that is powerful. I have even heard this being admitted by some who are quite hesitant to believe the charismatic practice of tongues as an authentic charism, at least the one described by Paul to the Corinthians. Their theology may not much have space for speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, but they still come to admit to there being a heart-drilling beauty in the corporate singing in tongues, or ‘singing in the Spirit’.

I have heard stories of those converted to Christ by walking into a meeting where almost every individual made melodies in tongues. Their eyes, foreign to the work of Christ, could see a people swept up by the Spirit as these songs were poured out of them. Without a theology on glossolalia, those clueless souls knew something beyond them was occurring and the love and grace of God would well up in their hearts.

I have been in places where you hear singing in tongues and it can be a pleasant sound to listen to, but very few times have I heard the whole meeting caught up in singing in the Spirit. This phenomenon was quite common during the days of the Charismatic Renewal but sadly this rarely manifests nowadays in both charismatic and Pentecostal meetings. The few times that I have witnessed and took part in such deep worship, I was shaken up in the most delightful way. The praise band calmed down and the drums went completely silent. Only the guitar would be strummed or the keyboard lightly played. Somehow the whole body of believers knew that words from their mind could no longer be used and just about every individual would let their spirit dive in song. Despite every individual coming before the Lord with their own song, there was still somehow unity and oneness in this worship. The Spirit sowed every song together and birthed a new song.

My eyes danced around trying to capture a full picture of what God was doing among his people during one of those rare moments of singing in the Spirit. It was during an ecumenical retreat centered on teaching about our companion, the Holy Spirit. I saw people of all sorts of backgrounds, ethnically and theologically, united in this new song together. I saw Lutherans, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and all sorts of other streams in the Church flow together in worship. I sensed a freedom bouncing off every person as they enjoyed the barriers of language collapsing in their praise of God. My spirit leaped as I saw the curse of Babel is being done away with.

Just as powerful as those moments caught up in song was the moment following it all. The music completely died down and all the voices faded. A thrilling silence consumed God’s people, in awe of what he had just done. Overwhelmed and incredibly satisfied, some teared up while others had stretched out smiles and glowed with gladness. Though this holy moment probably lasted just a few seconds, time became meaningless and it almost felt like being caught up in eternity.

Such experiences have convinced me that tongues is not the fruit of a shallow spirituality nor is it purely birthed out of emotionalism, as many like to mock. I could go on and on about the theology of glossolalia, defending it as a good and perfect gift from above. I have done that enough in my life, though. What it does to God’s people is a testimony in itself. It may seem odd and even foolish but it is beautifully used by the Holy Spirit, and I have not only seen it transform corporate worship but my own prayer life. Because of that, I can only encourage people to pursue and ask God for this grace in their lives.

My Struggle with Silence

Photo © Michael Moran/Otto

Photo © Michael Moran/Otto

I am charismatic, in the theological sense of the word, so I think it goes without saying that I like speaking in tongues. Somehow this gives me peace and directs my thoughts to God and often I receive revelations as I go off in this mysterious language. Tongues is very much a part of my devotions as well as my daily life. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences the past year were when I worked at a grocery store and I would mutter in tongues under my breath while putting the produce out.

There are times, though, where I need to not speak in tongues and embrace silence. Silence can be a bit more challenging.

As soon as I start praying in tongues, I find myself feeling lighter and more ‘spiritual’. Yet silence confronts me in my humanity; to reach out for God in this state is difficult. I have all sorts of thoughts flooding in, often completely random—like scenes from horror movies I watched 5-10 years ago or I start thinking about my friend Tori’s dog, Stella. Perhaps that is why this is a discipline I so desperately need. Thank God I’m a Quaker.

I think from time to time I may use tongues to fill up my spirituality quota for the day, and though I may receive revelations from God as I speak in tongues, it may also be my way of drowning out the voice of God. I am sure it edifies my spirit but the truth is my escapist tendencies creep their way it into my life with the Spirit. I am a bit scared that I may pray in known and unknown languages so often in order to avoid silence.

In silence, I direct myself to God and intentionally wait on him, seeking dialogue and guidance. In silence, I put down my ambitions and say, “you do you, God”, and I slowly receive things to intercede about or things to reflect on or verses to dwell on or words to hold on to. Or I just find stillness and peace; a presence that centers me.

In silence, I get frustrated, bored, and annoyed—but also, I grow in patience, finding greater glory in the small things, sensing and experiencing Christ’s presence even more fully. I can really hate this silence thing, but, my God, it is a gift.