So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.[1 Corinthians 14:39-40]
The gift of speaking in tongues is among the most controversial in the body of Christ today. Some denominations teach that the “sign” gifts of healing, miracles, and tongues ceased with the death of the Apostles and are no longer in operation within the church today [see cessationism]. Other charismatic Christian camps, however, place special prominence on the gift of tongues as the exclusive sign of Spirit baptism in a believer. Some more extreme charismatic churches would even go as far as teaching that speaking in tongues is a prerequisite sign for salvation.
While I personally have never spoken in tongues, I am of the persuasion that this particular gift — like all gifts of the Holy Spirit [Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12] — can and should still be expressed in the body of Christ today. My biggest concern, however, is not in answering the question of “if” but rather “how” tongues are to be expressed in the context of the local church.
So what does the Bible say about the gift of speaking in tongues?
Tongues are Always Intelligible Languages
So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.[1 Corinthians 14:9-11]
Right away it must be clarified that when the Biblical authors used the Greek word for tongues — glóssa γλῶσσα — it always is within the context of a known or intelligible language or dialect. For example, I cannot speak nor understand the Arabic “tongue,” so when my Arabic friends are talking to one another, it is foreign to my ears but not without meaning. Just because I can’t understand it does not mean that it is unintelligible.
In the Apostle Paul’s great commentary on the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, he makes this exact point. He says that there are many languages in the world but none is “without meaning” [1 Cor. 14:10]. Likewise, when the early church was first filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost [Acts 2], they were given the supernatural ability to share the gospel in other languages.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?[Acts 2:4-9]
So the first Biblical principle we discover about speaking in tongues is that it is not expressed through senseless, unintelligible gibberish or mindless, ecstatic babbling. The gift of tongues is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that enables a believer to speak in an otherwise foreign language.
But how would an observer know the difference between mindless gibberish without meaning and an intelligible language with meaning? Fortunately the Bible tells us.
Tongues must be Accompanied by Interpretation
If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.[1 Corinthians 14:27-28]
It is interesting that in many charismatic churches there is almost an unhealthy obsession with the gift of tongues, and yet there is little to no mention about the spiritual gift of interpretation [see 1 Corinthians 12:10-11]. The gift of interpretation is equally as important as speaking in tongues because without interpretation there is no way to truly test and approve the one who is speaking in tongues. In other words, the only way to differentiate between mindless babble and a legitimate foreign language is by way of interpretation.
Paul goes as far as saying that if there is no one present in the church with the proven gift of interpretation, then whoever speaks in tongues must remain silent in the church. Unfortunately, this conditional restriction is almost always avoided in the charismatic church today, which causes me to doubt the legitimacy of the gift as it is being used.
Tongues can be both Private and Public
For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.[1 Corinthians 14:2]
Paul said he was grateful that he spoke in tongues more than anyone [1 Cor. 14:18] and desired that everyone would exercise the gift of tongues [1 Cor. 14:5], yet he also clearly drew a distinction between speaking privately to God in tongues and speaking publicly in the context of corporate worship in the local church.
I have had many brothers and sisters in Christ who have been given what is called a “private prayer language,” and I do not doubt their authenticity. Pauls seems to affirm the personal edification of the private gift of praying in tongues. He says that the one speaks in tongues “builds up himself,” whereas the gift of prophesy builds up the corporate church.
Even such a private prayer language, however, can become unfruitful according to Paul, especially at the exclusion of praying with our minds.
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.15What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.[1 Corinthians 14:14-15]
Tongues are a Sign for the Unbeliever, Not the Believer
Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?[1 Corinthians 14:22-23]
Perhaps most surprising to many in the charismatic camp is when they finally discover the Biblical purpose for the gift of tongues. Speaking in tongues is not a sign gift for believers in the church! This one truth flies in the face of much of the modern charismatic movement because the gift of tongues is almost exclusively exercised among believers within the church and without interpretation.
The Bible says that the gift of tongues exclusively is a supernatural sign for unbelievers. In other words, if an unbeliever or outsider hears the gospel in his own native language or hears the interpretation of tongues to his benefit, then he is more likely to acknowledge the legitimacy of the supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of the gospel.
On the other hand, if an outsider enters a church context that is abusing and mishandling the gift of tongues with ecstatic babbling, he will immediately think that Christians have lost their minds. Ironically, that is precisely what happens when the gift of tongues is misused. Believers are giving their minds over to something else, and by all accounts it is not the Holy Spirit.
As Paul says, “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” [1 Cor. 14:19], which leads me to my next point.
Tongues are Inferior to Prophesying the Word of God
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy … Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up[1 Corinthians 14:1, 5]
Furthermore, God’s word places emphasis and gives priority to the gift of prophesy over and above the gift of speaking in tongues. Although I couldn’t possibly write exhaustively on what the Bible says about prophesying, I will say that generally speaking the gift of prophesy gives precedence to the role of preaching and teaching God’s revealed word. Although there can be a predictive element to the gift of prophesy, it must never be in violation or contradiction to the revealed word of God contained in the holy Scriptures.
At the end of the day, Paul is saying that no spiritual gift supersedes the proclamation and instruction of the word of God.
Everything must be Done in Order
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.[1 Corinthians 14:26]
Finally, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the corporate gathering of believers is sacred and that everything should be done decently and in order. God is not the author of confusion and chaos but rather of peace and order.
Once again, this is condemning to the modern charismatic movement, especially within churches that promote and encourage the ecstatic and chaotic expression of tongues to run wild during corporate worship. I wonder how Paul would react if he were to see these churches in operation today? Certainly such rampant and unhindered emotionalism cannot be justified Scripturally.
For the record, I am not anti-emotion. Quite the contrary. I am just as turned off by a rigid, emotionless church atmosphere as I am an overly ecstatic one. I believe we can worship the Lord Jesus both in spirit and in truth without compromising one for the other. The main goal, however, for any church must always be to remain uncompromisingly Biblical in both our doctrine and practice.
Only then will God be both pleased with and glorified by His people.