What Does the Bible Say about the Gifts of Tongues?

When it comes to the spiritual gifts (notice the plural; more on that later) of tongues, there are two extremes. At one extreme, you have cessationists; these are Christians who believe that the gifts of tongues were for the early church only and that they no longer exist today. At the other extreme, you have people who believe that every Christian can and even should speak in tongues.

In examining Scripture, I think the best place to begin is in Acts 2, the well-known chapter about Pentecost. In verse 4 we read, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Who is “them” in this verse? If you go back to Chapter 1, you will see that this pronoun refers to either the twelve apostles or to the 120 Jesus-followers at that time. What does “tongues” mean? If you look at verses 6 and 8 in Chapter 2, you will see that it means “languages.” Verses 5-6 say, “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” (By the way, what happened on the day of Pentecost was prophesied by Jesus Himself just a few weeks earlier. In Mark 16:17, Jesus said, “They [those who believe] will speak in new tongues.”)

When I was a young Christian teaching in China many years ago, I met some other American believers who spoke in tongues; not only that, but they believed that every Christian could do so. A friend of mine (also a Christian) heard what they said, believed it, and said that she wanted the gift of tongues. The tongue-speakers gathered around her, laid their hands on her, and prayed in tongues over her, but after a few minutes, my friend had still not received the gift of tongues. She left in tears of frustration and doubt. When I talked to these tongue-speakers, they said that they believed every Christian should speak in tongues because of I Corinthians 14:5, where Paul tells us, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.” However, I Corinthians 12, one of the chapters about spiritual gifts, makes it very clear that not every believer has this gift.

There is disagreement among Bible teachers about whether the gifts of tongues that Paul writes about in I Corinthians 14 refer to actual languages or something else, like the language of angels in I Corinthians 13:1. However, it is not my purpose in this post to answer that question; I want to focus on the guidelines for tongues that Paul gives in Chapter 14. As you read this chapter, you will notice that Paul tells us about two gifts of tongues: speaking and interpreting. Perhaps you already noticed this in verse 5, which I quoted in the previous paragraph. Verse 13 is similar: “For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.” Later, in verses 27-28, Paul writes, “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two–or at the most three–should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” I want to emphasize three things here:

  • When God’s people are together, any tongue-speaking should be done one person at a time.
  • Someone must (not should) interpret.
  • If there is no interpreter, the person speaking in tongues should keep quiet.

How could Paul make it any plainer to us?! Contrast his instructions with what John MacArthur has called the “charismatic chaos” that goes on in some churches, where multiple people are simultaneously speaking in tongues and no one is interpreting. In fact, one thing I have noticed is that when American Christians talk about “tongues,” it is almost always spoken of as the gift of tongues, not the gifts. In other words, it seems to always be thought of as speaking in tongues, while interpreting tongues is ignored.

More than once, I have been praying with a group of believers and someone has started praying in tongues. However, there has never been an interpreter. I was an ESL teacher for 32 years and heard a very large number of languages spoken during that time. Frankly, during the times that I have heard believers speaking in tongues, it has sounded like gibberish, not a possible language. In fact, John MacArthur in his book Strange Fire reports an analysis done of tongue-speaking in which no grammatical regularities could be found.

A sister in Christ once reported to me that she had overheard a couple speaking a language that sounded like something she herself had spoken in her private tongue-speaking. I asked her why she hadn’t spoken to them in that tongue, and she just said something like, “Oh, I never thought of that!” Based on Acts 2, isn’t communication with people at least one of the purposes of tongue-speaking?

Let me repeat I Corinthians 14:28: “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” In a similar vein, I Corinthians 14:2 says, “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God.” Finally, the second part of I Corinthians 14:39 says, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues.” I believe there is a place for speaking in tongues in private. However, Paul makes it crystal clear that when believers are together, speaking in tongues and interpreting them must be conjoined.

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