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Enjoying God Blog


[The editors of Pneuma Review recently asked me several questions about the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. Here it is.]

At this point in church history speaking in tongues is still a controversial subject. What would you say to someone who refers to speaking in tongues as gibberish?

If a person believes that all tongues speech both in Scripture and today is a known human language spoken somewhere in the world but previously not known by the speaker, then yes, it will come across to them as “gibberish.” It may also sound that way simply because the hearer is not familiar with the linguistic form of the tongues speech. Quite honestly, Mandarin and Swahili both sound like gibberish to me. If I had not been told they were legitimate human languages, I would probably conclude that they were non-sense utterances.

I suspect that some consider tongues speech to be “gibberish” because they fail to recognize that, although unintelligible apart from interpretation, all legitimate tongues speech today carries and expresses genuine, cognitive information. Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor. 14:2, 16, and elsewhere. It may not sound as such, but that doesn’t mean it is lacking sense or fails to communicate meaningful content in some form or other. It may also be that they think it to be “gibberish” because of a long-standing prejudice against contemporary expressions of tongues. Since most evangelicals are persuaded that in order to be of any benefit to anyone all utterances must be intelligible, they will understandably form negative opinions of “speech” patterns that they cannot decipher.

According to the Bible are tongues always known languages?

No. They certainly were known languages, spoken somewhere in the world, in Acts 2. But there is no reason to conclude that all other instances of tongues speech must adhere to the pattern described in Acts 2. In neither of the other two occurrences in Acts of tongues speech, Acts 10 and 19, were people of different linguistic backgrounds present to hear them. In other words, if all tongues are known human languages designed by God to evangelize people of a different linguistic experience (and this is what many, if not most, evangelicals believe), why were there only believers present in Acts 10 and 19 when people spoke in tongues?

I develop at length in my book a series of ten arguments from the biblical text that demonstrate clearly that the tongues as described outside of Acts 2 are not known human languages, but instead uniquely crafted linguistic expressions created by the Holy Spirit for each individual to whom he chooses to give this spiritual gift. (1) I’ve already mentioned the two other instances of tongues in Acts 10 and 19 that don’t fit the pattern of known human languages. (2) Paul speaks of various “kinds” or “species” of tongues in 1 Cor. 12:10 and 28. Hence, there are different categories of tongues speech: perhaps known human languages, heavenly languages crafted by the Spirit, the linguistic expressions among the angels, etc. (3) In 1 Corinthians 14:2 Paul says that the one who speaks in tongues does not speak to men but to God. But if all tongues are human languages, Paul would be wrong. Many would be speaking to men in whatever language they were employing.

(4) Also in 1 Cor. 14:2, Paul says that “no one understands” the person speaking in tongues. If all tongues are known human languages, that wouldn’t be true. Anyone who spoke that particular language would understand perfectly what was being said. (5) The person speaking in tongues “utters mysteries” (1 Cor. 14:2). But if all tongues are human languages, there would be no “mystery” to what is being said. Anyone who spoke that particular language would understand it perfectly. (6) If all tongues are known human languages, what need would there be for the gift of interpretation. Anyone who had been educated and raised speaking a particular language could “interpret” the tongue without the help of the Holy Spirit.

(7) The “tongues of . . . angels” (1 Cor. 13:1) at least suggests that humans can be enabled to speak them. Thus tongues in this case wouldn’t be human languages but angelic dialects. (8) In 1 Cor. 14:10-11 Paul “compares” tongues with human languages. He doesn’t equate them. He says tongues function “like” foreign languages in the sense that apart from interpretation no one will understand. (9) If tongues are always human languages, why would Paul speak “more than” all the Corinthians in private, where no one can understand, rather than in church where foreign visitors could understand? (10) If tongues are always human languages, what Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:23 wouldn’t necessarily hold true. Potentially, many outsiders visiting a church would understand. Anyone who spoke the language Paul was speaking would make perfectly good sense of it.

How would you respond to a person who says that tongues is the least of the gifts?

I would say that this is a misunderstanding of why Paul puts tongues at the bottom of his lists. He does so for at least two reasons. First, it is a gentle, but unmistakable, rebuke of the Corinthians who were insisting that it was the most important gift. Second, Paul subordinates tongues to other gifts only because apart from interpretation it is of no benefit to others in the church. But as he says in 1 Cor. 14:5, when it is accompanied by interpretation it is just as important and as effective in building up the body as is prophecy.

What are the main benefits of speaking in tongues?

Praying in tongues enables us to bring our requests to God when we’ve run out of things to say. We are finite. Our minds eventually go dry and empty. But praying in tongues is the way in which the Spirit can articulate our prayers to the Father when we feel inadequate to do so. Also, tongues is a way in which we can sing our praises to God (1 Cor. 14:15) as well as give thanks to him (1 Cor. 14:16). Paul declares that when a person prays in tongues he builds up himself, and that is a good thing (see also Jude 20). The fact that he doesn’t proceed to tell us precisely how praying in tongues builds us up spiritually is no reason for us to deny the gift or suppress its use.

In your book you say that when the gifts of tongues and interpretation are used in a church service that the interpretation that comes forth should be a word "to" God not a word "from God". You base this on the words Paul uses to describe tongues, he refers to them as prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Why do you think that some churches still practice tongues and interpretation as a message from God?

I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect that it has become so entrenched in their regular Sunday practice that they simply can’t envision discarding the exercise. Also, God is so good that he blesses us even when we don’t get everything precisely right. Thus, many have been blessed in this practice because God is good, he loves us, and he does for us countless good things even when we misunderstand his Word and go awry. Having said that, I also point out in the book that I may be restricting the use of tongues illegitimately. Perhaps an utterance in tongues can be horizontal in its focus, a message delivered to people, in spite of Paul saying that tongues is prayer, praise and thanksgiving. After all, nowhere does he explicitly deny that tongues could ever be a message to men. Perhaps something comparable would be the Psalms. There we read of David’s prayers and praise and gratitude to God, yet his “vertical” declaration to God is of tremendous benefit to us as we read and meditate on his words (in other words, the psalms function as a “message” to us even though they are predominantly God-ward in their orientation).

Many who have attended Pentecostal or Charismatic churches have heard various members of the congregation sing in tongues all at the same time. The Bible does not directly address this situation. In your opinion is this an acceptable practice?

It can be, if the purpose of the service or corporate gathering is prayer and praise and not proclamation. In other words, Paul’s demand for interpretation in 1 Corinthians 14 assumes that the gathering is designed to “build up” or edify others. Unintelligible tongues speech or singing does not profit others. But if the purpose of the gathering is not to communicate the gospel to unbelievers and not for the instruction of believers, I think it could be permissible.

What advice would you give to a pastor who is trying to lead their church into a fuller expression of the gifts of the Spirit, including tongues, in their church services?

Become extremely familiar with Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14. Don’t ever think that by following Paul’s guidelines that you are quenching the Spirit. Don’t force any spiritual gift on anyone. In fact, encourage the practice of the gifts in small groups rather than in the corporate assembly, as there is more time, more freedom, and less self-consciousness in small groups (i.e., people are less fearful of what others may think and thus more courageous to step out in faith and take risks).

As you have demonstrated in a number of places in your book there is really no scriptural support for the viewpoint known as cessationism. Why do you think some Christians still adhere to this viewpoint?

For one thing, it’s the way they were raised. They respect their parents, their pastors, their denominational affiliation, and to embrace the gifts would feel like a betrayal, or an expression of a lack of trust in the giftedness and integrity of those from whom they have learned much of their Christianity. It’s difficult for anyone to reject the teaching and influence of someone you love and respect and who has exerted a massive positive impact on your life.

I also think fear is a huge factor. People are afraid of being lumped in with those who are extreme and manipulative and perhaps have abused tongues. Tongues and other gifts are also unfairly associated with certain expressions of charismatic belief, such as the Word of Faith and Prosperity gospel movements. And people don’t want to be identified with the latter. And then of course there are a few texts (such as 1 Cor. 13:8-12) that they still believe teach that tongues would simply “die out” soon after the close of the biblical canon.

I would also say that people are afraid of what they don’t understand, and they don’t understand what they’ve never experienced. To this I would add the unfounded fear that if they yielded to the Spirit and his impartation of certain gifts, they will lose control. The desire to maintain their public image as sophisticated and self-controlled exerts a huge influence on what they will or won’t do.



I remain grateful for the contribution you have made to my understanding of the gifts of the Spirit. May the Bride of Christ be revived to take her place again in the fullness of God's promise.
Your spiritual insight and heart for God's people is very encouraging to me.

Most of what my wife and I have learned to flow in the Spirit, we have learned in small groups.

Your statement is right on. " In fact, encourage the practice of the gifts in small groups rather than in the corporate assembly, as there is more time, more freedom, and less self-consciousness in small groups (i.e., people are less fearful of what others may think and thus more courageous to step out in faith and take risks). "

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