The Truth about Tongues

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Every now and then, I come across someone who insists that speaking in tongues is a necessary sign of salvation. While most Christians would not go so far, there is no doubt a great deal of confusion within the church about this issue. In this blog, I want to provide some very important points to consider that will hopefully help us to make sense of things.

The first, and arguably the most important, thing to understand is that the Bible uses the term “tongues” in more than one way.

The Greek word “glóssa” is what is translated as “tongues,” and it can pertain to the literal tongue in our mouths (Mk. 7:33, Lk. 16:24, etc.). More often, it simply refers to the various languages of the world. As a prime example, consider the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. After the Spirit filled many of those who had been gathered together, we read that “tongues as of fire” rested on each of the men (2:3). As a result, they all began speaking in different languages. Due to all the commotion, a large group of people crowded in to see what was happening. Here is what occurred afterwards:

“And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born’? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (2:6-11).

It is absolutely critical that we understand what this text is telling us. The men at Pentecost did not begin speaking in unknown, heavenly languages. Rather, they began speaking in various languages of the world: “how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born” (my emphasis)? This would be no different than being able to suddenly speak in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, or any of the like. It was miraculous because people were able to communicate in languages they had not previously understood. The truth is, this is what the term “glóssa” almost always means when it does not pertain to our physical tongues.

With this said, there is also another meaning of the word “glóssa” that bears discussion. On occasion, the word seems to be used to describe an unknown language that does not have its roots in our world. Several verses of Scripture point in this direction. One is 1 Corinthians 14:2: “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.” Another example is 13:1 within the same letter, which mentions “tongues of men or of angels.” Finally, Romans 8:26b provides probably the weakest allusion to this type of tongues: “ . . . the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

While few in number, these verses at least establish a precedent for a mysterious, and perhaps otherworldly, type of “tongues.”

I have always had difficulty understanding the point of such a thing, though I do not doubt that there is one. I have known numerous godly men and women whom I have personally heard speak in a personal prayer language, and I have no reason to believe it was contrived. However, what exactly it accomplishes in their life is simply unknown to me. I have always faired well in plain old English, but that’s just me.

So, there are clearly multiple types of tongues described in the Bible. The question remains though as to what role they are expected to have in the life of the church. Is everyone supposed to have this gift? Are there stipulations involved in the use of tongues? We should start with something very important that Paul told the believers in Corinth:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills” (1 Cor. 12:4-11).

Unequivocally and without question, the gift of tongues is not given to all believers. If this weren’t clear enough, Paul also said the following:

“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? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?” (1 Cor. 12:29-30).

“All do not speak in tongues, do they?” No, Paul, of course not. Just as some are called to be prophets, apostles, teachers, healers, miracle workers, etc., some are also called to speak in tongues. Even then, there must also be an interpreter present, otherwise the speaker must “ . . . keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God” (14:28). Moreover, he also said:

“Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?’ You will just be speaking into the air” (14:9).

Clearly, Paul had reservations about this particular practice.

As a matter of fact, Paul was more cautious about the use of tongues than any other spiritual gift, by far. He sprinkled these directives all throughout 1 Corinthians 14, and I would highly suggest reading that chapter in its entirety. Be forewarned, however, that it is often difficult to discern whether the subject is earthly languages or mysterious languages. Part of his hesitation was no doubt because the church at Corinth was infatuated with tongues, and anything else that could be used to show how “spiritual” they were (14:12).

It is also worth noting that tongues—unless there be a genuine interpreter present—is by far the easiest gift to fake. It would be difficult to prophesy, teach, heal, perform some other miracle, and the like, without having to truthfully demonstrate the gift. Tongues, however, can be faked by anyone who desires to do so. With a little practice, anyone can ramble and speak gibberish on command. This could be easily mistaken for “speaking mysteries” (14:2). This prospect may have been behind Paul’s perspective in 14:23: “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?”

Maybe this is also why Paul remarked: “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:18-19).

Lastly, Paul repeatedly mentions that the gift of prophecy is much more beneficial to the church and should be desired above the gift of tongues (14:1, 5). He even placed tongues last on the list of spiritual gifts whenever they were discussed. Tongues went below wisdom, faith, knowledge, healing miracles, prophecy, and the discernment of spirits (12:4-11).  When you finally get to the bottom of the list, you will there find the gift of tongues. If you think this placement was unintentional, you may want to study how precise Paul’s terminology is as a whole.

With all this being said, here are our takeaways from this study:

  1. The word translated as “tongues” (glóssa) can be used in three ways: to talk about the tongue in a person’s mouth, to talk about someone speaking in a mysterious language, and—more frequently—to talk about ordinary human languages.
  2. The gift of speaking in tongues is not intended for every believer and is not a necessary sign of salvation. While it can indicate the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life, so would the presence of any other spiritual gift. Paul was abundantly clear that some would be gifted to speak in tongues and others would not (1 Cor. 12:4-11).
  3. Adding to the previous point, Paul was far and away more cautious about the use of tongues than any other spiritual gift. He repeatedly emphasized the need for an interpreter and suggested that people should strive more earnestly for other gifts. He even said that those who speak in tongues often edify themselves rather than the church (1 Cor. 14:3).

It is also necessary to mention that we should not forbid the public use of tongues (14:39). However, there had better be a real message involved in each occurrence and someone who can accurately interpret that message. There is a time and a place for tongues—especially the use of different worldly languages—but far too often tongues are used either for self-edification or as a display of false spiritual piety.

If mysterious tongues are useful in an individual’s personal prayer life, there is value in that. If someone is able to speak to others in their own dialect, there is even more value in that. But if tongues become a mockery, a show, or a “necessary” sign of salvation, we are charged to put an immediate stop to such uses.

My personal advice on this issue would be to tread lightly: tread very lightly.

 

For more on these issues, and a host of other interesting phenomena, see my books God Made the Aliens and The Death Myth.

 

Author: Brian M. Rossiter

I am a Christian teacher, author, and lecturer. Most importantly, I am a truth-seeker. My most significant work has been "The Death Myth," which was written to reveal the true biblical teaching on the afterlife, the interim period, and the nature of the human soul. I have also co-authored the book "Mind Over Matter: the Necessity of Metaphysics in a Material World," in order to show that a being of metaphysical nature is responsible for the universe as we find it.

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