The gift of tongues often seems to divide Bible-believing Christians. Some ignore it, some oppose it, while others insist on it. Who is right? Is it something which all Christians can and should do, or a minority interest, or completely spurious and therefore to be avoided?
The gift of tongues is the ability to speak in an unlearned language. It is clear from Scripture that at least some folk in the early church had this gift. It appears several times in Acts. There is teaching on it in 1 Corinthians.
People disagree on whether the gift relates to a heavenly language or a variety of human languages. In Acts 2 it was clearly a number of human languages. Elsewhere it is unclear, although there is a hint in 1 Corinthians 13 that it could be both types of language.
Most of the time it seems that the speaker did not know what he was saying (1 Corinthians 14). Sometimes a hearer would understand, but usually an interpretation would be needed. This interpretation is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit, so there is no suggestion that the interpreter had a normal understanding of the language used; rather he was given the meaning in much the same way as a prophecy.
There seem to be three purposes:
Paul says that when a person prays in tongues he is praying directly with his spirit, but his mind is unfruitful (because he does not know what he is saying). Therefore it is necessary to pray with our minds too. The same applies when considering singing in tongues. So the gift of tongues allows direct access to God by the human spirit, without the mind getting in the way. Given the obvious advantages of this, it is perhaps surprising that this gift is not given to all Christians (see below).
There are examples (e.g. Acts 10) of tongues being used to publicly praise God. This is a corporate example of edification. However, there is a danger of confusion so if there are any 'enquirers' present it is better to prophesy instead. Occasional public use of tongues is permitted provided there is interpretation.
The day of Pentecost (Acts 2) is an example of cross-cultural use of tongues. The church was given the ability to speak in the (unlearned) languages of those foreigners who were present. This use of tongues is mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14.
It is claimed by some that tongues is the sign that someone has received the Holy Spirit. Scripture does not teach this. On the contrary, it is clear that not all will receive this gift. However, there are a number of examples in Scripture where tongues was a sign that the Spirit had been received. Tongues should be regarded as possible, perhaps likely, but not inevitable.
There is not the slightest hint in Scripture that tongues was a gift which was only intended for the early church. Therefore we must assume that it continues. Paul says quite explicitly in 1 Corinthians 13 that gifts such as tongues will continue until Christ returns, but we must keep things in perspective. Given the (false) choice between gifts and love, Paul would always choose love. Fortunately we do not have to make that choice. God intends that we use gifts as a way to express our love. Ignoring gifts thus limits the expression of our love towards God and his people. Churches which oppose the use of tongues are being unbiblical.
Are all modern claims to tongues genuine? I think not. Some churches place far too much emphasis on the gift of tongues, and may even try to 'teach' people how to do it. The result is likely to be false tongues, which consist of little more than random sounds from the speakers' native language. The worst case scenario is a demonic tongue - yes, I believe even Christians can get these although they are probably rare.
Some churches seem to pay lip-service to tongues. Although in theory they accept them they do not expect to hear them, and would be unclear what to do if they happened in a meeting. In such a church most tongues-speakers would not only avoid public use of their gift, but would probably try to avoid admitting that they had it.
The sad result is that Christians, and churches, seem to polarise into 'everybody has tongues' and 'nobody has tongues' groups. They put their personal experience (or lack of it) above the teaching of Scripture.
A more detailed look at the New Testament teaching on this can be found in my note on the gift of tongues.
For an alternative view, and in a spirit of Christian unity, I am happy to provide a link to a reasoned account of the normal charismatic/pentecostal position on tongues. This is the second part of a sermon series on the Holy Spirit by Rob McFarlane at the River Church. I have to say that I disagree with the speaker on two main points: that all can/should speak in tongues because this is the sign of baptism in the Spirit, and that baptism in the Spirit is distinct from conversion. I believe that it, like water baptism, should be part of a full conversion experience; we have separated what God intends to be joined together. Ideally, people should repent from sin, trust Christ, be baptised in water and consciously receive the Holy Spirit all within a few days or, at most, a few weeks. The whole package is conversion, but charismatics seem to make the same mistake as conservative evangelicals in calling only the first two items "conversion".
back to Bible home, becoming a Christian, receiving the Spirit, starting with the gifts, the gift of prophecy
updated 20 July 2009: add link to sermon