What Does The Bible Say About Tongues?



My brother is not a Christian. He went with a friend to church a few times, but he no longer attends. The friend that he went with was Pentecostal, and the issue that scared my brother away from the church was the issue of speaking in tongues. When my brother later asked me about speaking in tongues, I told him that it is not something that is necessary to be a Christian. Having attended a Christian high school that was charismatic and actively encouraged speaking in tongues, I understood his concern. If you have spent any significant time around other Christians, you have probably run into a Pentecostal Christian, since Pentecostals comprise approximately 26 percent of all Christians worldwide.

Those in Pentecostal circles typically view tongues as an unintelligible language. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that the gift of tongues, whatever it was, has ceased after the death of the apostles (or shortly thereafter). Which view, if either, is correct? What is (or was) tongues? Are tongues for today? Are there different kinds of tongues? Must all Christians speak in tongues? These are all important questions that I think should be answered each in turn.

What Are Tongues According To The Bible?

The Bible says relatively little about tongues in comparison to many other topics, such as heaven, hell, sin, salvation, and the nature of God. The one letter in which it is discussed at length is a letter sent to correct the improper use of the gift. While we may not have answers to every question that arises concerning this doctrine, we do know a few things.

First, in the biblical sense, tongues were known languages, not incoherent sounds. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles and they began to speak in different tongues. As we read verses 7 and 8, we discover that the people were amazed and astonished. As a result, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in our own native languages?" The passage then goes on to list the various places from which these individuals had come. It is clear that this passage was describing a known language and not a type of incoherent speech. There is still the question of whether or not the apostles spoke in their own language, and were heard in another, or whether they were able to simply speak another language without studying. Either way, the important thing to remember is that the language could be recognized by those around them.

The Pentecostal who is reading this will make a distinction between what happened at Pentecost and what happens today in Pentecostal churches, arguing that there is a difference between the public gift of tongues and tongues as a private prayer language. Many will point to 1 Corinthians 13:1, where Paul writes, "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." This is often used to draw a distinction between the tongues of mortals/men, which are claimed to be known languages, with the tongues of angels, which are claimed to be unknown languages. However, this interpretation fails to understand Paul's use of hyperbole here. Paul is exaggerating for rhetorical effect, as is evident from the next verse. In 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul uses the same rhetorical technique, statin, "And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing." Paul is exaggerating, stating that even if he knew and understood everything, if he didn't have love, all of that knowledge is worthless. In verse 1, Paul is not drawing a distinction between the tongues of men and the tongues of angels. Rather, he is showing the superiority of love over whatever spiritual gift that he might have. While many Pentecostals will draw a distinction between tongues in churches and tongues as a private prayer language, the fact is that Paul never actually does this, and the attempts to find this in Paul's text are more eisegetical than anything else.

Are Tongues For Today?

Some have reacted to the concept of tongues by arguing that the spiritual gifts of tongues (along with prophecy and some others) died out with the apostles or shortly thereafter. In support of this view, many will cite 1 Corinthians 13:8, which states, "Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end." Cessationists (those who believe these gifts have ceased) would interpret this verse to mean that these gifts stopped being given to the church after the death of the apostles. I don't think that this passage supports cessationism in the way that many cessationists would hope. The reason has to do with the context.

1 Corinthians 13:10 makes it clear that prophecy, tongues, and knowledge will cease "when the perfect comes." Cessationists will likely argue that this referred to the completion of the New Testament canon. However, this does not appear to be what Paul had in mind. Paul likely had in mind the end of time, when Christ returns. The point Paul is probably making, especially given the context, is that prophecy, tongues, and knowledge serve a temporal function, while love serves an eternal function. Thus this does not succeed as an argument for cessationism.

Does this mean that tongues are supposed to be normative for today? I think this would be reading too much into the text, as well. I will say this: I don't think that a biblical case can be made that the biblical gift of tongues has ceased. However, I do not know anyone who actually has experienced this in the biblical sense. It is theoretically possible, in my mind at least, for a missionary to walk up to a remote tribe and preach the Gospel in one language, only to be heard in another language. However, I don't know of any examples where this has happened.

Must All Christians Speak In Tongues?

This leads us to another interesting question. The Pentecostal movement has often argued that speaking in tongues (as in an incomprehensible language) is the sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit. However, this is not what Paul taught. In listing several spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, Paul makes it clear that not everyone will receive every gift, including tongues. Implied in verse 10 is the idea that only certain people will have received this gift.

We can confirm that this is Paul's stance on the issue from the rhetorical questions he asks only a few verses later. In 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, Paul lists several gifts, including tongues, and essentially asks whether or not every person has these gifts. The implies answer is "No." Only some were teachers. Only some worked miracles. Only some interpreted tongues. And only some spoke in tongues. The Christian who argues that all Christians must speak in tongues ultimately contradicts Paul's writings.

Are There Different Kinds Of Tongues?

Some Pentecostal Christians have argued that there are two kinds of tongues. The first is similar to what happened at Pentecost. The second is a private prayer language that is entirely unintelligible to human beings. Typically, 1 Corinthians 14:2 is cited in defense of this position. However, I do not think that this supports the Pentecostal position in the way that many Pentecostals would like. In 1 Corinthians 14:2, Paul writes, "For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit." The statement "for nobody understands them" is taken to mean that the type of tongues in mind is the kind of ecstatic speaking that is common in Pentecostal churches today, but this may not be what Paul had in mind. This interpretation appears to come more from reading modern experience back into the text than from the text itself.

Based on the context of this passage, Paul is speaking about orderliness in the Church. Paul expressly states that no tongues should be given unless there is an interpreter. That is, someone who understands the language (1 Corinthians 14:28). This would exclude the kind of ecstatic speaking that is commonplace in most Pentecostal churches. In short, Paul's instructions throughout 1 Corinthians 12-14 seem to presuppose that known languages are being spoken about. It is pointless to read back modern experiences into the text of Scripture. Rather, we must let the Scripture speak for itself.

In conclusion, I love my brothers and sisters in the Pentecostal movement. However, I think that one of their chief doctrines is  incorrect from a biblical standpoint. The fact is that the biblical view of tongues looks quite different from what we see in many Charismatic circles today. In fact, it doesn't seem to be until the late 19th/early 20th century, in the teaching of Charles Parham and William J Seymour, that the kind of ecstatic speaking that is common in Pentecostal circles became associated with the biblical statements about tongues. All of the biblical and historical evidence leads me to believe that Pentecostals have this doctrine incorrect.

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