Speaking in Tongues

Ian Boyne

The issue of speaking in tongues has divided many Churches. Is there a biblical basis for tongue speaking as commonly practiced in the Churches? Does God want us to talk in tongues? By tongues, I mean unknown languages, or ecstatic speech. Is tongues a kind of prayer language?

What is important is a love of the Truth. The Holy Scriptures represent Truth. We must anchor our faith on the Scripture. If there are experiences from God, they should be validated by the Scripture. We should at least see some teaching that validates speaking in tongues. If we find that the scriptures cannot back that up, then we are in difficulty.

Experience is not the ground of Truth. The scripture is. No Church has any authority over the scriptures. Every Church must be guided by the scriptures.

Two or Three, with Interpreter

I would like to point out that the way tongues are practiced in some Churches is not the way that the apostle Paul recommends the use of tongues. Here are some example from scripture.

Paul states that he who speaks in an unknown tongue edifies himself, but only prophesy (preaching) edifies the Church (1 Corinthians 14:4). Tongue speaking is not something that edifies the Church! He states that if any man speaks in an unknown tongue, that it must be by two or three at the most, and each in turn, one at a time (verse 27). In these Churches today, a lot of people babble and speak in tongues at the same time, and Paul says this should not be. Paul also says that there must be an interpreter (verse 27). But you never hear, in your own language, the interpretation of these tongues in these Churches. That is a direct contradiction of this scripture. Paul says if there is no interpreter, then the tongues must not be spoken in church! 1 Corinthians 14:28, "...let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God." If a man feels moved to speak in tongues, and there's no interpreter, then he should speak to himself and to God. Therefore, if a man feels moved to pray in tongues, by himself, then that is scripturally based.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is elevating teaching and preaching over tongue speaking. In fact, Paul says that tongues are not a sign for believers, but for unbelievers (verse 22), while prophesy (preaching) is not for unbelievers, but for believers. So if people want to edify the Church, it is done through prophesy and teaching, and not through tongue speaking, according to scripture.

This is one thing you must judge your Church by; if people start speaking in tongues, and thereís no interpreter to tell you what theyíre saying. Why? Is that for show? Is that just a display to show that they are so spiritual and righteous? And is that a practice for a humble servant of God?

Is Tongues a Sign of a Believer?

Now, there are those that say tongues are the initial evidence of the Holy Spirit. That when you get the Holy Spirit, the sign that you got the Holy Spirit is tongue speaking. Some believe it is a sign of a second blessing, that tongues represent a further anointing. Theyíll quote Acts 8:17-19; 10:44; and Acts 19 to show when believers were baptized with the Holy Spirit, they spoke in tongues. But there are an equal amount of verses that show believers did not talk in tongues when they were baptized (Acts 8:38-40; 9:17-20; 16:15,32-34).

Tongues cannot be the initial evidence of the Holy Spirit, because it is not a sign of believers, but of unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22)! Also, read 1 Corinthians 12:27-30 where the apostle Paul asks rhetorical questions. He asks, 'are all apostles?' No is the obvious answer. 'Are all prophets?' No. 'Are all teachers?' No. 'Are all workers of miracles?' No. 'Do all have the gifts of healing?' No. 'Do all speak with tongues?' NO! This means that not all believers speak in tongues. Therefore, tongues could not be a sign of the receipt of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is given to everyone who sincerely repents and is baptized, but not everyone has the gift of tongues. So this one text alone rebukes the teaching that it is a sign of the receipt of the Holy Spirit.

Tongues in the Book of Acts

The first recorded instance where tongues were spoken is in Acts 2. Here, the term 'tongues' means "a known language". Tongues here is not unknown tongues, or ecstatic speech. Why? Because everybody understood what was being said in their own language (Acts 2:6-11). This was a sign to the unbelievers; that God accepted these nationsí languages. God used the medium of language to say it is not just Hebrew alone which is the language with which the righteous can communicate. I am going to let the gospel be preached to them as a sign of the fact that the gospel would reach all four corners of the earth. Tongues here were for communication, but also for a sign to those who did not believe. The languages of these people were accepted.

Tongues, in the book of Acts, functions as a sign of the acceptance of the gentiles, and to authenticate the ministry of the early Church. Miracles were done to prove the authenticity and truthfulness of Christianity. Tongues were not used as a means to build up the spiritual life of the believer, but as a sign to the unbeliever.

Look at Acts 10:44-46, where it says the circumcised (Jews) were amazed that the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit. Why were they amazed? If there was no sign, if there was nothing visible that occurred, if there was no manifestation, how would the skeptical believers know that the Holy Spirit had come into them? There had to be a sign! Why? Because the Jewish believers in Christ had a hard time understanding that God had moved beyond their narrow confines. That their little game was over. God was embracing all people. God had called other nations to be on equal footing, and not strangers; to be members under a new covenant. Unlike the old covenant which had gentiles accepted under it but were not accepted with the same kind of status as the native born Jews. It was still a covenant made with Israel, through which the gentiles had access, but the new covenant is made with believers in all nations.

The Jews could not believe that the gentiles were given the gift of the Holy Spirit, because they felt that they were to be the only recipients of this great gift. So the tongues were given as a sign to let the Jews know the gentiles were accepted. The Jewish believers felt that God was exclusively theirs, that they were the special people of God, and they were seeing now that this special gift of the Holy Spirit was manifested by speaking in tongues. They now see that these despised Gentiles have the same gift.

In Acts 19:1-6, the Holy Spirit entered certain people, then those people "spake with tongues, and prophesied." Why? In this case, the primary sign was that the ministry of Jesus is superior to the ministry of John. There were still disciples of John even after Christís ministry had come to an end.

You might ask, "Donít we need that sign today? Donít we need to get the gospel out?" Well, the purpose was not just a matter of getting the gospel out, it was a matter of proving Christianity to the skeptics. Matthew 12:39, "...An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign;" The greatest sign those who are converted can have is the life of Christ lived through the Holy Spirit and through the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Speaking in tongues was necessary to establish the Church in the first century. God established Christianity through signs and wonders and miracles (Hebrews 2:3-4). That was how Christianity was spread rapidly. That was one of the reasons why it gave the early believers such a zeal that they were able to withstand the greatest of persecutions. Signs.

When John the Baptist was in prison, he had doubts that Jesus was the Messiah. He sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he were really the Messiah. "Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them" (Matthew 11:4-5). All of these miracles Jesus pointed to as signs that he was the Messiah. And when Christianity was to be established, those signs were given.

Tongues represent a sign. Tongues are not given for the believers edification. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul admonishes teaching and preaching instead over speaking in tongues. "For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him" (1 Corinthians 14:2). Is Paul saying here that the use of tongues must be just devotional? No. Paul states that he who speaks in tongues is not really speaking for communication, he is not really speaking to edify. He is speaking to God, because only God understands what he is saying. This is sarcastic speech. Paul was saying to keep quiet. Speak to God, then, but leave it out of the Church.

There are varieties of gifts, but they are from the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4), the same God inspires them all. Each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (verse 7). There is no example in the Scripture where a gift of the Holy Spirit is given for a personal benefit or personal edification. A gift is for the service of the Church. Therefore, the view that tongue speaking represents a special anointing, a second blessing, is not supported in the Word of God.

Does Tongues profit the Church?

Paul asks, "Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?" (1 Corinthians 14:6). Paul says tongue speaking does not profit the Church! Why then are people speaking with tongues in Church? Why this practice? Why this noise when Paul is saying there should be no place for that if there is no interpreter?

You might ask, "Does the fact that Paul says there should be an interpreter mean that he acknowledges the use of tongues, and what he is merely doing is regulating tongues?" Well, Paul knows that this ecstatic speech is not authentic, and by calling for people to speak in turn and to have interpreters, he was actually showing the inauthenticity of tongues. How so? Paul knew that this manifestation of tongue speaking was not genuine, and he knew that believers could not interpret. So when he would have had a few instances of people speaking, and nobody being able to honestly interpret, then that should take care of the practice. Paul was saying you donít need to speak in tongues. Paul was simply saying, "Why not be like me and speak five words to edify the Church instead of ten thousand words in an unknown tongue? Hey, the way you are doing it is wrong. If you insist on doing it, then find an interpreter!" If somebody starts to go into ecstatic speech, others would not be able to interpret. Why? Because it would not be a genuine language. Paul was saying something which was foolproof to show that the practice was not of God.

You might say, "Thatís speculation!" But I say, if thatís not the correct interpretation, then your interpretation of these tongues are to benefit individuals spiritually, which is not supported by the scriptures. If God has a message for the Church, would it make sense for God to give that message to us in French, just to have someone else interpret that for us in English for the rest of us? Why didnít God in the first instance give us the message in English? You might say, "Thatís human reasoning." But do you believe God gives it in French to impress others?

When Paul said, "I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all" (1 Corinthians 14:18), was he authenticating tongue speaking? No. In the next verse, Paul himself said that, in Church, he would rather speak five words in his own tongue than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue in order that he could teach others (verse 19). Paul was belittling tongues! Paul, as an educated person, was very likely multi-lingual. Not many Corinthians were wise by human standards, nor influential, nor of noble birth (1 Corinthians 1:26), they were ordinary people. When he told the Corinthians he spoke with tongues more than them, Paul spoke more genuine languages than they did! But Paul was telling them to follow his example, and to not speak with tongues in the Church. Paul is elevating the use of the native language over languages which were not known or speech which could not communicate fruits.

If people are speaking in tongues, and others do not know what they are saying, how does that benefit them? Will speaking in tongues today really convert an unbeliever? How could anyone say, "Amen" when he does not know what they are saying? When you go to Church, and people are speaking in tongues, and you are saying, "Amen", how do you know that theyíre not cursing God? Yet, this is done every day in some Churches. If the whole Church began to speak in tongues, as happens many times in these Churches, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that they are all mad?

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, who were mistaking speaking in tongues for the power of the Holy Spirit, he said, "When I come into your midst, I am not just going to listen to your testimonies or to your speech (whether in a known language or an unknown), but I am going to see whether there is any power in your lives. For the kingdom of God and the Holy Spirit is manifested not in mere words but in power" (1 Corinthians 4:19-20-Paraphrase).

We, the followers of Christ, profess to be indwelt by the Spirit of God. But let us not forget that He Who indwells us is called the Holy Spirit, and that His primary function is not to give us gifts but to make us holy. May God give you the strength, dear reader, to live a Holy Life. Amen.

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