For this week’s guest article, Rocky asked me to discuss speaking in tongues. What they are, what they aren’t, and how people misinterpret passages about them. Before we begin, though, I would like to make it clear that we will be operating under the belief that sign gifts have continued into the present age. If you would like an in-depth reasoning as to why, please see my article – cessationism vs. continuationism.1
For brevity’s sake (and your sanity) the basic gist of the article is: There are few compelling arguments for the discontinuation of the miraculous gifts. The best of which being its almost complete disappearance as the church was maturing. When history is taken into account, though, this could be more due to church politics and hierarchal pressure than the actual ending of the miraculous gifts.
And now some background on Nick – I grew up in a church where speaking in tongues was expected of you. The process of salvation in this church went as such: you accept Jesus into your heart,2 some time after that you’re baptized in the holy spirit by some of the elders of the church, they then confirm you’re able to speak in tongues. Congrats, you’re confirmed to be saved.3 They said, without saying, that if you didn’t speak in tongues you weren’t saved. Tongues were used in nearly (if not every) church gathering and were basically the endcap to any prayer.
I’m going to use this experience as the catalyst for this article with three questions:
Y’all ready to begin?
What are tongues?
There are two camps of belief on what tongues are.
1) tongues are an actual language spoken by someone who does not know the language in order to communicate the gospel to someone who speaks a different language.
2) tongues are a language unknown to man used to communicate with God.
Both are true. We see the first instance in Acts when Pentecost began.4 And in First Corinthians, Paul begins to discuss with the church how and when to use tongues. He discusses mostly using them within the church to build up the body and glorify God.5 Many focus on one and often ignore the other, but it’s important to remember that tongues serve a two-fold purpose. To communicate the gospel with those whom we can’t naturally communicate, and to communicate with God and build up the church.
It should be noted that in the second view, tongues are an unknown language. Unlike the first where it’s simply a language unknown to the speaker, this is a non-human language. Some call it the language of angels, but this is unsubstantiated. Many take Romans 8:266 to be addressing tongues. They assert that the way the spirit intercedes for us is by speaking in tongues. This is a widely debated view with little evidence for it and seems like a stretch, but that doesn’t make it impossible.
For the rest of this article, we will focus on tongues type 2 because that is the one that is most often referenced when discussing tongues in the modern world.
What place do tongues have in the church?
It seems that Paul wants people to speak in tongues. But it also seems that he wants everyone to benefit from the gifts used in the church. Tongues only benefit the entire church when there is someone to interpret. He even tells them to keep quiet if there is not an interpreter present. He says to “speak to God privately.”
Paul seems to be saying that tongues are meant as a form of communication with God, at least in this instance. A peculiar part of the passage is where he states that tongues are for unbelievers, not believers. But why would he expect them to be a part of the church service and even used privately if they’re solely for the benefit of unbelievers?
Paul describes praying in tongues with his spirit in a language he doesn’t understand, but also in a language he does. Some would argue that all this indicates that tongues is only other known languages, but why would someone pray to God privately in a language they don’t know? What benefit would that do anyone? Would it not be better to just say, “God, I don’t know what or how to pray, but you know what I want to communicate?” than for someone who only speaks Arabic to begin speaking English?
On the other side, if tongues is an unearthly language used to communicate with God, then it makes sense for one to pray privately to God with words they don’t understand because God does.
I know I’ve strayed a little from the question proposed in this section, but thought processes are not always linear. To sum up the question- tongues seem to be meant to pray to God things that cannot be expressed in words by the prayer, but are meant to be interpreted so that everyone can benefit from them (both believers and nonbelievers).
Lastly, How do people misuse tongues?
This is a loaded question, and it ties deeply in with my background. It is my belief that the church I was was raised in, and any others like it, heavily misuse tongues, often to the point of spiritual manipulation and abuse.
We know that not everyone is given every spiritual gift.7 This means not everyone is meant to speak in tongues. The belief of churches that expect everyone to speak in tongues is detrimental to one’s spiritual health. I know I spent probably 15 years pretending to speak in tongues because I believed I was supposed to. I often felt like I wasn’t saved because I knew I was making it up.8 Anything that makes someone question their salvation is a manipulative tactic to keep them tied tightly to your specific beliefs (whether intentional or not) and is contra-Gospel.
Paul also requests that only one or two people speak in tongues in a service and one at a time.9 Contrast this with the way many charismatic churches request the entire congregation to speak in tongues at once. Large scale prayer in tongues is not unusual in these churches, even if it is not how tongues are meant to be used.
Lastly, tongues are not meant to be interpreted in real time and, if they can’t be, should be kept private.10 Again, this is not how many churches in the charismatic vein operate their tongues, and should be checked.
I will be clear: I believe in speaking in tongues. I think it’s real and present in today’s age. I do, however, think we need to be very careful and discerning over when it’s used. It must be used properly as outlined by Paul. It also must not be forced on anyone.
I’ll also be honest: while I firmly believe in tongues, I’ve become very skeptical of it when people use it. My experience has left me feeling like it’s fake in nearly all circumstances. Yes, this is textbook cognitive dissonance. But that’s what happens when things are used improperly and borderline manipulation is present. You lose the ability to think critically and clearly about things in some circumstances.
And that’s just one of the dangers of misusing tongues. What if I had decided I wasn’t actually saved because I knew I was making up the tongues and had decided to step away from the church? What if I had never come to the proper understanding of the subject and was still abusing people into believing they must speak in tongues? A misunderstanding and misuse of tongues as far greater consequences than just a group of people babbling nonsense in a room. It can lead people away from the church and leave them emotionally and spiritually scarred.
1: Disclaimer: the article is rather lengthy with a 15 minute estimated read.
2: Another issue for another day.
3: That’s much more simplistic, but it’s the way it was presented.
4: Acts 2
5: 1Cor 14
6: “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” (NLT)
7: 1 Cor 12:11
8: But, now, I bet 90% of the other people were making it up as they went along just like I was.
9: 1 Cor 14:27
10: 1 Cor 14:28