My Friend Is Questioning the Reason and Need to Speak “in Tongues”

Question from a reader:

The Biblical accounts I have read are of those doing this was at Pentecost, when the Lord distributed (gifted) the Christians with His voice to enable the listeners from different languages to hear in their own language—not gibberish. It was an outpouring to spread the word and testify to Jesus. My friend is questioning the reason and need to speak “in tongues” while praying, etc. I don’t doubt that our Father could allow this to happen, but I just don’t see biblical evidence that God requires His children to “learn a prayer language.” I am certain God has no problem hearing me in my own language when I call to Him! I want to encourage her to search for truth. Her churches do believe in basic doctrine; salvation by grace, Christ as God/Man, evidencing that we are Christians by our love and works, so why do they feel this must be added? It appears to me that something other than Christ is being glorified, and that concerns me.

Answer from Cathy Ramey and Marshall Beretta:

We are impressed with your biblical grounding. Your questions and comments demonstrate a wider knowledge of Scripture.

This is not a complete answer about tongues, but some quick thoughts. The Pentecostal, Full Gospel, Holiness churches see some of the special “signs” in the early history of the spread of Christ’s message and add them to current worship. Some more obscure practices involve snake handling and poison drinking. More familiar are healing, exorcism, and most widely the ability to pray in tongues. We fully agree with you that God can do anything. He may even choose some or all of the above in particular circumstances. However, never were the above a required part of Christian worship despite the fact that such “gifts” were particularly prevalent during a time when God’s message was being authenticated by the Holy Spirit (before the Bible was fully compiled).

We now have the final revealed Word. One thing that is of concern is that some might construe that any new speaking through the Holy Spirit could legitimately be written down as new revelation or new Scripture. I, Marshall, do not speak from much experience other than visiting a service once where tongues were used so some of my thoughts are still in process. The Bible is less-than-dogmatic on the question of the exact use and nature of tongues in private use, so a definite yes or no is not possible. The interpretation of the tongues spoken in the one setting I mention was simply a restatement of certain passages of the Bible. What was the purpose behind the “heavenly tongues” if all the Spirit was telling us was already written as Bible verses?

The biggest issue with the modern Tongues movement is that often it seems that it is the Holy Spirit who is being glorified, and according to Scripture the Holy Spirit does not glorify Himself (John 16:13). The Spirit glorifies Christ and unifies rather than causing unnecessary division in the Body of Christ (Eph 4:3; 1 Cor. 1:10). As we understand it, these churches also seem to add speaking in tongues as a necessary second blessing to salvation; that a true believer must experience this gifting or he is either false or second-class in some respect. Jesus says nothing about this and the overall impact is that what is implied diminishes the act of salvation.

Some will say it is no different than baptism coming after salvation. But baptism is a public symbol that salvation has taken place and the believer is willing to respond in obedience to his new life in Christ. It does not say “believe, be baptized, and speak in tongues.” The gifts of the Spirit are not given to complete salvation, but are dispersed to church members by the Holy Spirit just as He wills (1 Cor. 12:11).

The first mention of such speech follows about 40 days after Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, at Pentecost. Everything about Pentecost is unique and specifically focused as indicated in the history of the event recorded in Acts 2:1-13. At that time tongues appeared as distinct known languages so onlookers could hear the amazing gospel. As I read the passage, I note that only the mockers apparently didn’t understand a language and thought the disciples to be drunk. In other words, the words spoken were intelligible to at least one or more other people. Is that significant in how we ought to view tongues today? I think so. When Paul discusses church order in 1 Corinthians 14, he instructs that there must be at least one person who has the gifting to interpret what is said (v. 27, 28).

So if it happened at Pentecost, why not accept that anytime a person speaks in tongues that such ability is unique as a gift of God? For centuries before New Testament times “ecstatic utterances” were part of religion and mysticism. The Oracle of Delphi used it. Dancing rituals were usually associated with such exuberance utterances. Some of this is faked and some of this is mass hysteria common to crowds. Some ecstatic utterances were associated with wanting to be included or to prove the validity of an initiation. That something resembling tongues may have been associated with other practices does not rule out that tongues might be an ongoing gift of God, but it does demonstrate that not all “ecstatic utterances” are of Divine origin.

Now to the Scriptures! Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:30 that “not all speak tongues, do they?” The word he uses means “language” or “utterance” and is followed by a metabasis—a use of the Greek language in which one turns abruptly to address what is of greater importance. In this case that would be the admonition to choose love above all else, including special gifts.

1 Corinthians 12:31 sometimes reads in English “But earnestly desire the best gifts” as if the verb was an imperative. However, in Greek the form is identical with the simple present. In 13:1, Paul goes on to form something of an apologetic against viewing tongues as “the best” gift. It is in the instrumental position; by that I mean that in the Greek it is listed first simply to emphasize that it is the least valuable gift, especially in light of the command to love. After all, we are told in 14:12 and 14:19 that tongues are valuable for personal edification, but they hold little refreshment for those who cannot understand what is spoken. This reflects back to what Paul states in 13:1 that “Even if I could speak the language of Angels as well as all the language of men, it is worthless bantering without love!” So, one is definitely not to pursue tongues. They are not for everyone—maybe even only a few.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8 Paul hints that “tongues” will cease. When? I don’t know. From church history in the first and second century it seems that “signs and wonders” were not prevalent since Jesus’ ministry was already authenticated, however we are not even certain to what degree miracles were (or are) occurring. In the same way, we are told that tongues are a sign for those who do not believe (1 Cor. 14:22); since the world still operates in unbelief, there is no reason to assume that the Spirit has withdrawn the gift of tongues altogether. Still, Paul downplays it as impractical as a norm (apart from an interpreter) except for talking to God, who does not need us to have a special language. Again, in chapter 14 he emphasizes that each one is to be prepared, not to edify only himself, but to act in such a way that others are blessed.