The phenomenon of speaking in tongues has always intrigued and troubled me. It intrigued me because I know it exists in the Bible. It troubled me because what I saw of it in churches was not the same as what was revealed in the Bible, at least to my understanding. Several ministers have explained it to me and encouraged me to “give in” to it. However, I can’t say that those experiences involved the Holy Spirit.
With that said, I would like to investigate this topic from a biblical and historical perspective. What does the Bible reveal about speaking in tongues and what place does it have in the life of the believer? The purpose of this study, therefore, is to provide insight into the topic of speaking in tongues
The Context of Speaking in Tongues
There are two ways that the term “speaking in tongues” is used, especially in charismatic churches.
An unlearned language – Speaking in tongues is to speak in a language that you have not learned to speak. For example, a person who doesn’t know French suddenly begins speaking French.
A prayer language – Speaking in tongues sometimes refers to a personal prayer language. This is not a known language that people speak on earth. It is just a series of sounds that indicate that the words do not come from the mind, but rather from your spirit. This prayer language affords you the ability to pray to God without the mind getting in the way or limiting your prayers. As a side note to this, considering point #1 above, if I begin to speak in a language that I have not previously learned, then I think we can say for certain that what I am saying does not come from my mind either, but rather from the Spirit of God who is relaying a message to those who speak the language that the Holy Spirit has gifted me with.
In this study, I will address the teaching of speaking in tongues as a prayer language, in addition to the gift from the Holy Spirit of speaking a language that is not known by the speaker. What does it mean to speak in tongues? Should all Christians speak in tongues? Are there benefits to the believer for speaking in tongues? We will discuss this and other questions relating to speaking in tongues in this study.
From the Bible
The word “tongue” in the Bible is translated from the Greek glossa, which means tongue (the part of the body), a language, a flame tongue (Acts 2:3), or a known language (e.g., Spanish). See also Revelations 5:9, 7:9 and 14:6.
Mark 16:17–18 (NKJV) —  And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues;  they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
The word “tongue” in the above passage is the same Greek word glossa, which means a language. Jesus identifies a sign of a believer as speaking in new languages. What struck me about this Scripture is that it reveals that several signs follow believers. Speaking in new tongues is just one of them. So, why is there so much emphasis on speaking in tongues instead of laying hands on the sick? What if there was more emphasis on healing the sick and getting people delivered than speaking in tongues?
Many years ago, I asked that very same question to a pastor of a church I was attending at that time. I had a very different experience with speaking in tongues than what I saw them doing in that church. I asked, “Why do you put so much emphasis on speaking in tongues?” I was told that it was for power. They believed that speaking in tongues somehow gave the believer more power to accomplish things or the like. That wasn’t a good enough answer for me, however.
Ok. Let’s start our study by examining 1 Corinthians chapters 12 thru 14, which reveals a lot about speaking in tongues as it was practiced by the Corinthian church.
1 Corinthians 12-14
In 1 Corinthians chapters 12 – 14, Paul deals with issues involving spiritual gifts, unity of the body of Christ, and speaking in tongues. This is the only extensive coverage of speaking in tongues in the entire Bible. It is also important to note that it was only addressed to the Corinthian church, which apparently had a problem involving speaking in tongues. I believe that if speaking in tongues was critical to the Christian faith, then there would be much more coverage of it, especially by Jesus. However, the topic is hardly covered at all except to address a problem in a local church.
1 Corinthians 12 highlights the diversity of the gifts within the body of Christ, i.e., the church. It shows us that the body of Christ is composed of many members, all of which have their specific function within the body. Speaking in tongues is listed as just one of the gifts from the Holy Spirit to the body of Christ. The purpose of this gift is for edification, i.e., to build up the body of Christ.
1 Corinthians 13 highlights the importance of love regardless of what we do or what spiritual gift we have. If anything is done without love, then it is meaningless. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to the body of Christ to edify the body, not for self-exaltation. Love is the principal thing even with speaking in tongues.
1 Corinthians 14 reveals a lot about speaking in tongues as it relates to church meetings (at least in Corinth). Paul says that it is more important to prophesy than it is to speak in tongues. This is because when someone prophesies, they are speaking in a language that those who hear can understand and subsequently be edified. Speaking in a language that the hearers do not understand does not provide edification to the hearers because they don’t know what was being said. Only the one speaking may be edified (if at all). Remember that the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to the church to edify the church, not for personal edification.
Paul also explains that speaking in tongues (another language) is not for the benefit of the speaker, but rather for the listening unbeliever. Consider the following entry from the Bible Knowledge Commentary (Lowery, D. K. (1985). 1 Corinthians. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 538). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books).
14:4. A person with the gift of tongues (cf. 12:10) who spoke without the benefit of the gift of interpretation (cf. 12:10) could edify himself but not others in the church. The edification resulted from the fact that the user of a gift experienced the confirmation that he was the individual object of God’s grace (cf. 12:18, 28) and able to offer praise to God (14:16). Though he himself would not comprehend the content of that praise, his feelings and emotions would be enlivened, leading to a general exhilaration and euphoria. This was not a bad thing. Paul certainly was no advocate of cold, dispassionate worship. The gifts were not given for personal enrichment, however, but for the benefit of others (12:7; cf. 10:24; 1 Peter 4:10). Personal edification and exhilaration were often natural by-products of the legitimate exercise of one’s gift, but they were not the main reasons for its exercise.
The purpose of the gifts from the Holy Spirit was not so that an individual would be edified, but rather that the body of Christ would be edified. However, a side-effect of someone manifesting a gift of the Holy Spirit is that they would be personally edified by the act of exercising that gift. For example, a person speaking in tongues, may not know what they are saying, but they will experience a sense of praise, worship, or exhilaration because they are being used by God to carry out his will.
Paul also tells the Corinthian church that there must be an interpreter if someone speaks in tongues. This was so that the congregation would know what was said and subsequently be edified. If there was no interpretation, then no one would know what was being said and therefore, not be edified by the message.
Paul goes on to say that tongues are a sign to unbelievers. If speaking in tongues means speaking a spiritual language, then how would a church visitor be edified if he does not know what people were saying? They, as Paul said, would think that the congregation was out of their minds.
At this point, the gift of speaking in tongues seems to refer to another early language and not an unknown prayer language. One could argue that even if there was a “prayer language,” then an interpreter would relay the message to those who are listening so that they would be edified or at least know what was being said in that person’s prayer language.
A Problem with Tongues and Interpretation
Paul says that someone should interpret what someone says in tongues. We have to assume that tongues biblically refers to another language like French, Spanish, etc. If someone in an English-speaking congregation started to speak Spanish, then no one would understand for the most part. However, if someone translated what was said into English, then people would know what was said.
However, if speaking in tongues is referring to an angelic or prayer language, then a potentially serious problem exists. What if someone starts to speak in their prayer language or an angelic language, which no one on earth would be able to understand. The problem is that an interpreter could claim that what was said in tongues was anything that he wanted. The interpreter could be the one speaking in tongues or someone else. Regardless, they could “interpret” the angelic language and say whatever they wanted as coming from God. This situation is ripe for spreading false doctrines and oppression.
If it were a real language being spoken, then interpreting the tongue, or confirming the interpretation would be straightforward today with so much technology available (not so much in Paul’s day). Record the message and get someone to translate it. I think it would be odd for God to open his church to such a huge vulnerability at the beginning. Anyone could claim to have the gift of speaking in tongues by authoritatively speaking gibberish and then claiming to interpret the gibberish anyway they wanted.
This is one of the reasons why I do not believe in a prayer language. The Bible doesn’t reveal anything about a prayer language as a whole. It is very dangerous to take scripture at one place out of context and make it a Christian doctrine. I think that is what happened with speaking in tongues as a prayer language.
The source text for the purported angelic language (or prayer language) is 1 Corinthians 13:1.
1 Corinthians 13:1–2 (NKJV) —  Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.  And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
The term, “tongues of angels” is also known as a heavenly language or prayer language. How should we interpret “tongues of angels?” Is Paul implying that humans may have the ability to speak the language that angels speak? Is Paul speaking hyperbole concerning his question?
A clue for interpreting 1 Corinthians 13:1 is to consider the context and therefore what he says immediately after verse one. he refers to understanding all mysteries, having all knowledge, and having all faith. What person has those attributes besides Jesus Christ? No one. No human understands all mysteries and has all knowledge. Therefore, it is very likely that Paul was not suggesting that humans could speak the language of angels. The point was that even if we could, it would mean nothing without love. Even if we had all faith and knowledge and understanding, it would mean nothing without love.
For the record, this is not to suggest that the angels do not have their own language. After all, what language does God speak? Angels were speaking to each other long before the languages of the earth were created. However, when angels spoke to people, they spoke to them in that person’s language so that he or she would understand.
An example of God’s language, and angels, compared to human language is the Genesis record of creation. The Bible declares that God said, “Let there be light” in the creation account in Genesis 1. What language did he speak? He didn’t speak English because English didn’t exist then. As a matter of fact, people didn’t exist then to speak English or any other language. God obviously speaks to the angels because they are his messengers.
This suggests that there is a heavenly language, but we do not know what it is. To say that someone can speak in the language of angels because of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 13:1, is not supported by the Bible.
It Is a Gift
Speaking in tongues (another language) is a gift from the Holy Spirit to the church. This gift can be exercised at the will of the person, otherwise, there would have been no problem in the Corinthian church because no one would have been able to speak in tongues unless the Holy Spirit caused it at any given time. Therefore, if the Holy Spirit, for example, gave me the gift of tongues and I could speak German, then I would be able to speak in German whenever I wanted even though I would not know what I was saying. Someone who understood German would understand.
Evidently, the church at Corinth had a problem where people who had the gift of tongues were abusing it in one way or another. This implies that we must manage the gift(s) that the Holy Spirit gives us.
A Problem with Gifts and Tongues in the Church
One of the things that I see frequently in churches is people being instructed or guided through the process of receiving their prayer language or speaking in tongues. In some cases, perhaps many from my experiences, speaking in tongues overshadows the presentation of the gospel message. Even in prayer lines I have seen people being instructed in praying in tongues or receiving their prayer language over and above the reason they came for prayer in the first place.
How can you instruct someone to receive a gift? If the Holy Spirit gives each person gifts as he chooses (1 Corinthians 12:11), then how can you manifest a gift from the Holy Spirit if he did not give it to you? Consider the following passage of Scripture.
1 Corinthians 12:4–11 (NKJV) —  There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.  There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord.  And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.  But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all:  for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit,  to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit,  to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
Paul lists several gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to individuals in the body of Christ.
- Word of wisdom
- Word of knowledge
- Gifts of healings
- Working of miracles
- Discerning of spirits
- Different kinds of tongues (languages)
We should not assume that every believer has the gift of speaking in tongues in the same way we accept the fact that not every believer has the gift of faith or the word of knowledge. Some may argue that Jesus said that a sign of believers is that they would speak in new tongues (Mark 16:17). That is true. However, that wasn’t the only sign. Why do ministers not put as much emphasis on laying hands on the sick as there are with speaking in tongues? Jesus wasn’t referring to gifts from the Holy Spirit, but rather signs that followed believers. Those signs pointed to something else, which was Jesus.
Therefore, it seems unbiblical to think that someone can be taught to operate in a gift that the Holy Spirit might not have given them. In the book of Acts, those who did speak in tongues were not coached to do it. They simply received the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues. If a person is being led to Christ by the presentation of the gospel, then they do not need to be coached to speak in tongues. The precedence that we have from the book of Acts is that it will happen if the Holy Spirit causes it to happen.
Should All Believers Speak In Tongues?
Since the Holy Spirit gives the gift of tongues to whom he decides, as well as any other gift, then every Christian will not speak in tongues. It is, therefore, not necessary to believe that you, as a Christian, must speak in tongues to show a level of spirituality, acquire power from God, etc.
1 Corinthians 12:28–30 (NKJV) —  And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles?  Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
Why not teach that all believers should work miracles, have the gift of healings, have the gift of administrations, etc.? Why isn’t there more teaching on healing or how to have faith in the church? Instead, people put their focus on a false doctrine that is easy to fabricate. Anyone can start speaking gibberish and say they are speaking in tongues or a prayer language, and then “interpret” it any way they want.
The bottom line is that all believers may not speak in tongues because the Holy Spirit may not give that gift to every believer. Do not feel that if you do not have the gift of speaking in tongues that you are somehow a lesser Christian than someone who does have that gift, or appears to have the gift. Not everyone who purports to speak in tongues has that gift from the Holy Spirit and has, instead created their own heavenly language, which is not consistent with the Bible.
This does not mean that you should not ask the Holy Spirit for that gift or any of the other gifts. Perhaps you desire to be a missionary and would like to be able to communicate with people who speak a different language than you. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will give you that gift. However, I recall reading how missionaries would pray for that gift but instead had to learn the language of the people and build relationships with them to effect ministry.
The False Teachings of Speaking in Tongues
I want to elaborate on the modern concept of speaking in tongues because it is so prevalent in some churches today. I’ve seen people come for prayer in a church service only to be tutored on how to speak in tongues. Jesus never did that. Jesus never told anyone to be healed or to receive from God requires them to speak in tongues. I’ve been in church services where the “entire” congregation was speaking in tongues at the same time, which is not Scriptural.
It is taught that speaking in tongues is evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Bible also does not support this doctrine. Instead, we see in the Bible that sometimes when people received the Holy Spirit that they spoke in tongues (another language). All believers have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and are baptized with the Holy Spirit. All, however, do not speak in tongues.
Insight From Acts
The following lists passages of scripture that come from the book of Acts and are related to the Holy Spirit or speaking in tongues.
- Act 4:8 – Filled with the Holy Spirit to speak boldly.
- Acts 4:31 – filled with the Holy Spirit to preach boldly and bravely against the religious system
- Acts 6:5, 10 – Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit, who gave him great wisdom
- Acts 7:55 – Stephen filled with the Holy Spirit and could see in the spirit, i.e., he saw spiritual things
- Acts 8:15 – The believers in Samaria had not received the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was imparted by the laying on of hands by the apostles.
- Acts 9:22 – Paul preached with great power. Was that because of the Holy Spirit?
- Acts 10:44-46 – The Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius’ household and they spoke in unknown languages and praised God.
- Acts 11:16 – Baptized with the Ho)y Spirit is equated to what Cornelius and his household received
- Acts 13:9-11 – Paul filled with the Holy Spirit and became bold and cursed Bar-Jesus
- Acts 13:52 – Filled with the Holy Spirit because of the preaching of the gospel
- Acts 19:1-7 Those who only knew of John the Baptist’s baptism and later received the Holy Spirit after putting their faith in Christ, spoke in tongues
- Acts 21:4 – People warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem by the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 21:10-15 – Paul was warned again about not going to Jerusalem. Some pleaded with Paul not to go. However, Paul would not be persuaded. He was adamant about going to Jerusalem, and therefore ignoring the Holy Spirit’s warning not to go.
Speaking in tongues biblically means to speak in another language so that the message of the gospel would be perpetuated among dissimilar people. It also occurred when some people would receive the Holy Spirit. The Apostle recognized that phenomenon because it happened to them at Pentecost.
The concept of the prayer language, heavenly language, or angelic language with regards to speaking in tongues is not supported in the Bible. The Bible does not indicate that people could speak in the language that angels speak. Even when angels spoke to humans, they would speak in that person’s language.
An especially important point about speaking in tongues, i.e., other languages, is that it is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we cannot coach or compel someone to speak in tongues. If the Holy Spirit gives a person the gift of tongues, then that person will speak in tongues. Not all Christians need to speak in tongues and not all Christians will. The Holy Spirit gives the gift of tongues to those whom he chooses.
Do not seek to speak in tongues as a way to impress God, pursue power, or merely to follow the group in a religious environment. Instead, seek a personal and intimate relationship with God. Pursue your dreams and live your life to the fullest. Acknowledge God in whatever you do and he will show you the way you should go.
Do not think that there is something magical about speaking in tongues because it isn’t. Biblically speaking, it is merely the ability to speak in a language that you have not learned. Another important thing to consider about speaking in tongues is that it is a gift. You cannot learn to speak in tongues, though many will claim to be capable of teaching you.
You do not need to speak in tongues for more effective prayers. The Bible says that if we pray according to God’s will, then he hears us and we will have what we pray for. Jesus taught that we receive what we believe when we pray. There is never a requirement to speak in tongues to get your prayers answered.
Be free in your prayer life and enjoy the wonderful relationship you have with God through Christ.