Understanding the Gift of Tongues
I was reading up on your website and I came across the article about the different types of the Holy Spirit and also speaking in tongues. (On Tongues and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit). I was wondering if speaking in tongues is "right"...for example i went to church with a friend of mine who was Pentecostal and their whole church spoke in tongues while praying.... I was the only person that did not and to me, it sounded like nothing. Is this what happens when a person is blessed with the gift of speaking in tongues? What is it used for?
I'm very confused...thanks so much!
Thank you so much for writing and asking this important question. The whole issue of tongues has been very confusing for many people, especially since it has received a lot of attention within certain movements in the past fifty years or so. I think it would be very beneficial for us to go back to the Bible and see just how the gift of tongues is presented and how it should be thought of. Only by placing this gift back into a biblical framework will we be able to properly discern its place in the church and how we should approach it.
1. Tongues Serve as a Sign for Others
The gift of tongues first appears in Acts chapter 2 on the day of Pentecost. Luke describes the event in verses 4 and 6, saying the Apostles "were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance... And the crowd came together and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language." This marks the beginning of the ecclesiastic age; in other words, it was here that the Christian church started, and tongues served as a sign to Jews in Jerusalem that God's Spirit was with the Apostles.
Peter states as much when he answers the charge of drunkenness from the crowd. He quotes the prophet Joel and replies that tongues are evidence of God pouring His Spirit upon them (vs. 16, 18). We see a similar instance of tongues being bestowed upon the first Gentile converts to the church in Acts 10:44-46. There, as Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles and Peter and his companions recognized that they had become believers _in the same way_ that the Apostles did earlier.1 In Acts 19:6, where Paul questions the Ephesians about their beliefs, God again uses tongues to show that they now had a proper acceptance of Jesus.
It's important here to realize that in each of these instances, the idea wasn't to demonstrate an individual as being saved, but to show God's salvation is available to a specific category of people who did not formerly know the Gospel or whose spiritual condition was in question. The experience at Pentecost served as a sign to the Jews. Peter's experience with the Gentiles proved to the other Apostles that they could be saved. The Ephesians had only believed in John's baptism and needed to be instructed more completely.
2. Not Everyone is Given the Gift of Tongues
When the issue of tongues arose in the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul sought to clarify the misunderstandings the believers held, one of which was that everyone should be able to speak in tongues. We find his correction in 1 Corinthians 12-14, the defining chapters on how to properly understand spiritual gifts.
Starting in 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul writes, "to each one is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given the word of Wisdom by the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; ...to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all theses things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills."
Paul then uses the analogy of how our bodies have many parts, each with its own function, but all are important to the whole. He then states that not everyone will have tongues. "All do not have the gift of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?" And in chapter 14, Paul wished all the Corinthians spoke in tongues (vs. 5) - so it's obvious they all didn't!
3. Tongues Are Manifested in Real Languages, Not Babble
An important point in understanding the gift of tongues is the fact that tongues are real languages. The crowd in Acts 2 noted this when they said, "We hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God." Paul confirms this as well when he says "Unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air." (1 Cor. 14:9)
Unfortunately today, there are many congregations that are so eager to speak in tongues, the worshippers will babble phonetic sounds but they aren't speaking a real language. In a situation such as the one you faced, there can sometimes be so much pressure to "manifest" tongues that congregants feel as though they need to say something, and they speak whatever comes to mind. I think that this is putting too much emphasis on one specific gift ,and this error can cause the whole congregation to stumble as a result.
Worse, I have heard some popular Word Faith teachers, such as Ken Hagin, stand in front of a congregation and purport to speak in tongues, but in reality they were speaking gibberish on purpose! I believe that by so doing, they are not honoring the Holy Spirit but mocking God by falsifying His gifts. (For more discussion on this point, please see the next article "Can Men Speak in a Heavenly Language?")
4. Speaking in Tongues Should be Done Orderly and With Interpretation
The biggest problem concerning tongues within Pentecostalism today is ignoring Paul's admonition of orderliness and control. Paul rightly paints a picture of your experience when he writes "If the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?" (1 Cor. 14:23) It's clear that Paul is trying to let the Corinthians know that tongues should not be abused. He notes that true spiritual gifts are under the control of the person possessing them (verse 32) and they are therefore able to control the manifestation of those gifts.
Paul continues, "Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be two or at most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpretation, he must keep silent in the church; let him speak to himself and to God" (verses 26-28). Paul also says that interpretation of tongues is important since speaking in tongues benefits the spirit of man, but it doesn't help us know God or know about Him any better. That's why "one who speaks should pray to interpret also, otherwise your mind is not blessed and neither are the others around you" (verses 13-17). Again, people become so enamored with some kind of miraculous experience that they seek the emotion rather than seeking to know God in a way that will affect their lives.
5. Speaking in Tongues Should Exalt God
Finally, speaking in tongues always results in praises to God, not prophetic statements to believers or some other instruction. Acts 2 reports that the crowd heard the Apostles "speaking with tongues and exulting God." And again, Paul says that the person manifesting tongues"does not speak to men but to God"(1 Cor. 14:2).
I hope you understand the gift of tongues a bit better now. It's important to realize that although Paul prayed for the Corinthians to have the gift of tongues, he did not consider that the best gift to seek. He says that prophecy is the better gift because it instructs and is intelligible rather than foreign. And above all he says that without true Christian love, the gift of tongues becomes nothing more than a noisy gong.
Please take some time and read through 1 Corinthians 12 through 14 and let me know if you still don't understand anything. Understanding the whole counsel of God is the first step in understanding Him in a more intimate way. May God bless you as you walk with Him.
1. - This point is pivotal to a number of important Christian doctrines. In Acts 15:7-9, Peter drives this point home when the question arises as to whether Gentiles needed to keep the Jewish law and be circumcised before they could be considered believers, and therefore part of the church. Peter notes that since the Holy Spirit was bestowed in the same manner, they had already become true believers - before being circumcised - and therefore circumcision is not a necessary component of salvation. Similarly, we may look at this event today and note that the Gentiles had become true believers before they were baptized, and therefore baptism is not required to be considered saved. For more on this, see "Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?"