On the day of Pentecost, 120 followers of Jesus began speaking in tongues. That is, they spoke in some other language besides the one or ones they knew. They spilled out into the street. Some foreigners in Jerusalem for the festival recognized their own native languages.
That strange sign caught people’s attention. Peter addressed the crowd and 3,000 of them believed in Jesus. The Christian church was born.
Speaking in tongues on that occasion began to reverse the confusion of languages God had inflicted on the builders of Babel. It brought a kind of unity where there had been division before.
Two later passages in Acts describe people speaking in tongues. At least one other strongly implies people speaking in tongues. Paul devoted three chapters of 1 Corinthians to teaching on gifts of the Spirit, including tongues.
So much of the modern church regards speaking in tongues with suspicion, hostility, and fear. Why?
Some examples of bad teaching about speaking in tongues
A doctrine called cessationism teaches that spiritual gifts and anything miraculous passed away at the end of the apostolic age. It cites 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which ends, “but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away with” (NASB).
If the perfect has already come, we’re in big trouble.
And why would Paul write that in the middle of an extended discussion of spiritual gifts if they were going to die about the same time he did?
But cessationism has one psychological advantage for its adherents: it shields them from the necessity of acknowledging anything beyond ordinary, everyday experience. They can keep supernatural events back in the past, where they’re safe.
I have even heard preachers suggest that the real miracle on Pentecost was that these foreign visitors heard their own native languages. The 120 weren’t really speaking them! A direct contradiction of Acts 2:4.
Some scholars define speaking in tongues as “ecstatic utterance.” That is, meaningless sounds that can sound language-like, spoken in a state of heightened emotion. That’s not what happened at Pentecost. No scripture uses the phrase or anything like it. No scripture describes worshipers of the living God behaving that way. Ecstatic utterance more closely describe the priests of Baal trying to call down fire as Elijah suggested.
In Numbers 11:24-30, Moses appointed 70 elders, and on one and only one occasion, they prophesied. At least one commentary describes the scene as ecstatic utterance, similar to speaking in tongues.
Yet in v. 29, Moses expressed the wish that all the people were prophets. And prophets don’t speak gibberish. In 1 Corinthians 14:3, Paul says that “the one who prophesies speaks to the people for edification, exhortation, and consolation.” That must be what the elders did in the camp. In v. 2, Paul says that whoever speaks in tongues speaks not to people but to God.
And who can object to that?
No wish to offend
But people do. A church I attended in Chicago bought a course on spiritual gifts, which my Sunday school class used. The publishers made it available in two editions. One omitted the chapters on tongues and interpretation of tongues. After all, those topics bother some people. And we don’t want to teach anything offensive, do we?
How easily we ignore how offensive the whole gospel is to the whole world! Wherever and whatever Jesus taught, people were offended. And not just the Pharisees.
We should avoid offensive behavior and offensive rhetoric, but we can’t avoid offensive topics if we’re going to preach the gospel at all. Does anyone seriously expect that we can censor Scripture without offending God himself?
Confusion over speaking in tongues from the very beginning
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 12-14 because he didn’t want the church to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. It amazes me how many people take verses out of context and thus teach the church to be ignorant about them. But I, too, once tried to use a verse from that passage as a defense against tongues.
One of my friends in the first church I joined after I became a believer was a former Pentecostal preacher. He had left his denomination because it taught that speaking in tongues is necessary for salvation—an error equal and opposite to cessationism. A tongue-talker moved in next door to me, and that wasn’t the only thing very strange about his behavior.
I was past 30 before I knew anyone who seriously suggested that modern Christians ought to seek the gifts of the Spirit, and explicitly, tongues. But I was ready; I quoted, “Greater is the one who prophesies than the one who speaks in tongues.” So why waste time talking about something that’s not important?
My friend pointed out the rest of the verse: “unless he interprets, so the church may receive edification.” He was too polite to point it out to me, but I couldn’t have defined what it means to prophesy. I was only using it to change the subject from something uncomfortable.
But let’s consider why Paul wrote those chapters. People in Corinth, at least, were ignorant of spiritual gifts. Regarding tongues, some enthusiastically spoke in tongues without restraint. They thought all Christians should be just like them. Others didn’t speak in tongues and considered the ones who did strange. They thought all Christians should be just like them. This bunch would have gladly forbidden the others to speak in tongues at all.
What 1 Corinthians 12-14 says
Here, Paul especially emphasizes gifts the Holy Spirit gives to believers on occasion to demonstrate his active presence. They include special words, healing, miracles, and tongues.
If these gifts ever pass away, it will mean that the Holy Spirit no longer wants to make his presence known.
Paul exhorts us to seek the greater gifts. And, by the way, he never tells us to desire the gifts of the Father in Romans 12 or the gifts of the Son in Ephesians 4. But he wants us to desire to manifest the Holy Spirit’s presence.
The greater gifts must be prophecy and tongues, because chapter 14 doesn’t mention any of the others. And prophecy, by the way, doesn’t mean predicting the future. Prophecy speaks God’s thoughts in a known language. It builds up everyone who hears it.
Tongues speaks mysteries to God in a language unknown to either the speaker or, probably, anyone else who might hear. 1 Corinthians 14:17 says that the one who prays in tongues gives thanks well enough. I don’t know any other scripture that uses “enough” to describe anything I can do. But no one else gets any benefit from it.
Tongues without interpretation in public worship can drive people away. It also contributes to disorderly worship.
But tongues plus interpretation equals the effect of prophecy. Paul would have liked for everyone in the church to prophesy and pray in tongues, but obviously, not everyone does. But he himself prayed in tongues more than anyone.
And his final word on the subject? Do not forbid speaking in tongues.