Perhaps the most controversial of the spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament is the “gift of tongues.” People seem to either insist that everyone should speak in tongues or that no one should speak in tongues! My friend Matt jokingly told me that the only time he prayed for the gift of tongues was when he was about to take a Spanish test! Yet in addition to evoking strong opinions, the controversial topic of “tongues” is often so misunderstood that it is avoided.
This is unfortunate. None of the spiritual gifts, which are empowerments through the Holy Spirit for the work of the Church, should be avoided or ignored. In fact, the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:1, “Now concerning spiritual gifts… I do not want you to be uninformed.” While there are certainly some topics found in Scripture that are more challenging to understand, spiritual gifts are not as mysterious as some make them sound. Understanding the nature and function of tongues is laid out along with teaching about the rest of the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14, and is featured in several of the narratives found in the Book of Acts. Let’s consider what Scripture teaches about this controversial gift.
WHAT IS THE “GIFT OF TONGUES”?
Some of the confusion related to the “gift of tongues,” I believe, is related to Bible translation issues. Here in the United States, most of our Bibles are English (or Spanish!) translations of the original languages, right? As you may know, the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament was written exclusively in koine Greek, the common language of the 1st century Roman world.
The Greek word glōssa is translated by most of our English Bibles as “tongues,” but in the context of the Apostle Paul’s teachings on spiritual gifts, a more helpful word would be “languages,” because that is how Paul intends for the word to function, as we shall see. While glōssa is literally the Greek word for “tongue,” the context of both Acts 2:6 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 indicate that unknown languages is in mind. In fact, this is how the New Living Translation renders glōssa. Such a translation takes away a lot of the mystery associated with this gift because it clarifies that the gift is related to communication. Paul lists “speaking in unknown languages” as one of the spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 12:10, 28, 30, as well as chapter 14.
Author Wayne Grudem, who wrote the widely taught Systematic Theology, defines “speaking in tongues” as “prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker.” We also need to remember that spiritual gifts are empowered by the Spirit, which means that they are distributed by God to his people as he wills (1 Cor. 12:11).
Grudem’s definition suggests that the gift of tongues is a Spirit empowered, vertically directed, form of communication (in previous articles I have discussed “horizontally directed” Spirit empowered communication such as the gift of prophecy). By “vertically directed,” I mean that it is communication directed toward God, not people. This is exactly what the New Testament teaches. The Apostle Paul states that tongues is a form of prayer (1 Cor. 14:14-15), a form of singing to God (1 Cor. 14:15), a form of praise (1 Cor. 14:16), and a form of expressing thanksgiving to God (1 Cor. 14:17). You’ll notice that each of these functions of tongues are directed to God, not toward other human beings. The gift of tongues is expressed when the Holy Spirit empowers a person to communicate with God in a unique and supernatural way.
Correspondingly, the gift of interpreting these languages is when the Spirit gives someone the supernatural ability to translate these prayers, songs, and expressions of praise and thanksgiving into a language that other people can understand.
Some have taught that the “gift of tongues” is an ecstatic expression of the Holy Spirit, which some Christians take as an indication that worship gatherings can be marked by disorderly conduct. This idea that the gift of tongues is “ecstatic speech” suggests that people aren’t in control of themselves, that the Holy Spirit has “taken over,” and people are not responsible for their actions.
However, this is quite different than how the New Testament describes this gift. The Apostle Paul writes:
“No more than two or three should speak in tongues. They must speak one at a time, and someone must interpret what they say. But if no one is present who can interpret, they must be silent in your church meeting and speak in tongues to God privately.” (1 Cor. 14:27-28 NLT)
The Apostle Paul taught the Corinthians that they should require those who, under Spirit’s empowerment, speak in tongues do so by taking turns! Furthermore, he limited the number of those speaking in tongues to three people during the Corinthians’ worship gatherings! This indicates that the person who was speaking in tongues was in control of their minds and bodies and could use self-control in relation to whether or not to speak in tongues!
HOW SHOULD THE “GIFT OF TONGUES” FUNCTION?
According to Paul, the most important quality that must surround all expressions of spiritual gifts is simple: love. The Apostle Paul states, “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” (1 Cor. 13:1 NLT). For Christians to be empowered by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts without love is something that Paul says leads to ineffective and empty ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1-3). Without love, spiritual gifts, including the gift of tongues, are a waste of time.
Paul also writes that if a person speaks in tongues around other people, someone has to interpret! Without the interpretation, the gift doesn’t build anyone up because no one understands it. So tongues shouldn’t be expressed unless someone can interpret it, which implies that churches would be aware of who has the gift of tongues or ask God to help them interpret the tongue. Paul actually writes that “anyone who speaks in tongues should pray also for the ability to interpret what has been said” (1 Cor. 14:13 NLT). Without an interpretation, the gift of tongues is like someone playing a musical instrument out of tune (cf. 1 Cor. 14:7-12).
However, Paul did not say that without interpretation the gift of tongues is useless. Rather, he told the Corinthian Christians that he wished they could all speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14:5) and thanked God that he spoke in tongues more than them (1 Cor. 14:18), which I assume means he had a high view of this gift and that he did it often, in private.
If the gift of tongues is communication between us and God, which Scripture seems to teach, interpretations of these “tongues” should always reflect these messages by the Spirit. Interpreted tongues are not messages from one person to another person; that is what the New Testament calls “prophecy.” Those who suggest that interpreted tongues can be “prophecies” often point to 1 Cor. 14:5 as supporting evidence, which reads:
“… For prophecy is greater than speaking in tongues, unless someone interprets what you are saying so that the whole church will be strengthened. “(NLT)
However, careful readers will notice that Paul is not suggesting different functions between uninterpreted and interpreted tongues; rather, he is contrasting their value. Both interpreted and uninterpreted tongues are Spirit empowered forms of communication between Christians and God; yet uninterpreted tongues do not have the same value in the context of corporate worship gatherings because everyone isn’t able to understand the communication in order to say, “Amen” (1 Cor. 14:16).
For example, if someone speaks in an unknown language, empowered by the Spirit, and someone else interprets it, everyone has the opportunity to understand what is being said and can come into agreement with it. If someone speaks in tongues and no interpretation is provided, it’s difficult for anyone in the church gathering to agree or share in that prayer or praise.
TONGUES AND THE BODY OF CHRIST
Some Christians suggest that speaking in tongues is the only way to be sure you have received the Holy Spirit. However, we are explicitly told that Christians receive the Holy Spirit by becoming followers of Jesus (Gal. 3:1-14; Rom. 8:1-17) and there are numerous evidences for the Spirit’s activity in our lives, especially the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23). The gift of tongues is also not a gift that every single person will have, as Paul’s rhetorical questions imply in 1 Cor. 12:30:
“… Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not!” (NLT)
Scripture indicates that not everyone will have the gift of tongues, but all Christians are encouraged to desire (pray for and seek after) the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 14:1).
There is a tension here. On one hand, no one should feel pressured to speak in tongues, or assume that unless someone has spoken in tongues, that the Holy Spirit is not present. On the other hand, Paul teaches that the gift of tongues builds up the church, both collectively (when interpreted) and individually, and it is a form of Spirit empowered communication with God–a thing all followers of Jesus would desire.
Ask the Holy Spirit to empower you with all of the gifts you need to glorify Jesus, build up the Church, and serve the world. Certain spiritual gifts will show up immediately, and others may not; we can trust God’s timing and his purposes. Following Jesus means we live in an “already” and “not yet” kingdom and healthy Christian spirituality embraces the “both/and” rather than the “either/or.” You can be content as well as desire more, especially God!