Speaking in Tongues
By David Feddes
Millions of people claim to speak in tongues. They feel moved to make sounds that aren’t part of any language they’ve learned, and they take this as a special blessing from God’s Holy Spirit. Other people want to speak in tongues but can’t, and they fear that this means their relationship to God is second-rate at best. Then there are those want to speak in tongues and think they might be doing it, but they’re not sure. They babble a bit in their private prayers or when others in their church are making unusual sounds—but they’re not sure if it’s the real deal. They wonder if they truly have a divine gift for speaking unlearned languages in praise of God, or if they’re just making noise. But one thing they’re sure of: speaking in tongues is a top priority, and they’re desperately eager to do it.
In contrast to those who speak in tongues or wish they could, there are many who shun the very idea as unhealthy. Non-religious people tend to think that someone speaking in tongues must be an irrational fanatic or an unbalanced psycho. Some Christians also take a negative view of tongues. They think unintelligible noises are not from God at all. They know that in New Testament times the Holy Spirit gave some people miraculous power to speak other languages on certain occasions, but they think that time is over. In their opinion, those who claim to speak in tongues today are babbling from an irrational part of their brain, or else the strange noises come from evil spirits. Either way, they think, the jabbering is not from God.
What’s the truth about speaking in tongues? Some think it’s the surest sign of the Holy Spirit’s power. Others think it’s weird babble that comes from mental imbalance or evil spirits. Both extremes are wrong. It’s wrong to insist that any Christian who doesn’t speak in tongues must lack Holy Spirit empowerment. It’s also wrong to say all tongue-speaking is either ditsy or demonic. The truth is that speaking in tongues is one among a variety of gifts from God’s Holy Spirit. It’s not the most important one, not every Spirit-filled person gets it, and even some who claim to speak in tongues are just babbling and fooling themselves. But the Bible plainly shows that speaking in tongues is a gift that some Christians do receive from the Holy Spirit.
If you’re a Christian who doesn’t speak in tongues, don’t rule out the possibility that God may give you that gift at some point. But don’t feel frustrated or inferior if God chooses not to give it to you. Keep in mind that the Spirit gives others gifts too, some of them more valuable than tongues. Treasure and use any gifts God has already given you to serve others. If you do have the gift of tongues, use it the way the Bible directs. Value your gift of tongues, but don’t exaggerate its importance.
The Corinthian Problem
I hear from people in various parts of the world wondering about tongues. A Nigerian person told me in an email,
This has been disturbing me so much. I’ve come out in several altar calls concerning the power of Holy Ghost. Yet nothing seems to happen. When I go to fellowship, I see some people falling in the power of the Holy Ghost, bursting in tongues, proclaiming, prophesying and lots of things, but I don’t seem to find myself there. I feel as if I’m not worthy to be in their midst. In fact, I’m envying them. I feel like crying.
If you’re in a group where many people are speaking in tongues or falling to the ground but you’re not doing those things, you may wonder, “What am I missing? What’s my problem?” Well, the problem might not be your inability to speak in tongues. The problem might be the unbiblical teaching you’ve received and the unbiblical pattern of worship you’re surrounded by.
In some circles, it’s taught that to be spiritually healthy, you must have two separate experiences. First, you must believe in Jesus and receive him as Savior. At that point you are born again and made spiritually alive by the Holy Spirit. But that’s not enough. After that first event, says the teaching, you must seek a second blessing, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When that happens, you receive a huge power boost, and the surest sign of this is speaking in tongues. In this teaching, not speaking in tongues means that you’re at best second-class, a lower-level, carnal Christian who isn’t yet as spiritual as those Spirit-baptized tongue-speakers. Such teaching tends to make you feel superior if you speak in tongues and inferior if you don’t.
You can avoid the pitfalls of feeling superior or inferior if you know what the Bible says and what it doesn’t say. The Bible mentions a few cases where people began to speak in tongues when they were first filled with the Holy Spirit, but the Bible does not require a two-stage pattern for all Christians, and the Bible does not say that tongues are the badge of Spirit baptism which every first-rate Christian should have. On the contrary, the Bible speaks of other spiritual gifts which rank higher than tongues, and the Bible says that the highest mark of being Spirit-filled is love, not any particular talent or ability.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Tongues are a gift that will pass away when we know God fully, but love lasts forever (13:8-13). So if you want to measure spiritual maturity and how much the Holy Spirit has flooded you, the measuring stick is how much you love, not how often you speak in tongues.
In New Testament times, some Christians in the church at Corinth exaggerated the importance of tongues, often at the expense of love. They made tongues the main mark of being super-spiritual, and there were many divisions and quarrels in their congregation. Their wrong thinking led to wrong conduct in worship, and something similar happens in some churches today. Going overboard on tongues leads to worship gatherings where large numbers of people speak in tongues all at the same time during worship services. That sort of thing was happening in the church of Corinth. There was lots of noise but no clear message that anyone could understand.
The apostle Paul, inspired by God, told the Corinthian Christians to get their worship in order. Paul said that in public worship, only one person at a time should speak in a tongue, and then only if someone could interpret the meaning. The tongue-speaking should be limited to only two or at most three people in a worship service. They should not speak at the same time or try to shout above the noise of the others but should speak one at a time, with each waiting his turn. If the tongue-speakers had only the sounds of an unknown language but no translation or explanation, they were not to speak in tongues at all during the worship meeting but only in their personal times of worship (see 1 Corinthians 14:27-28). That was God’s word of guidance to correct the noisy free-for-all in Corinth, and that is still God’s word of guidance for the use of tongues today.
God of Order
It’s all too easy to associate Holy Spirit power with loud sounds and dramatic action. It might seem that God is more active among people who are making lots of noise and toppling over than among people who sit quietly and listen to clear teaching. But that’s not what the Bible says. Paul told the Corinthians, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (14:33).
In public worship, said Paul, a few clear words are worth more than all kinds of noise that nobody can understand. Did Paul say this because he was an ultra-rational person who couldn’t speak in tongues and didn’t want anybody else doing it? No, Paul said he’d be happy if all the Corinthians had the ability to speak in tongues (14:5), and he said that he himself could speak in tongues with the best of them. Paul wrote, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (14:18-19).
Earlier I quoted an email from someone who referred to crowds of people in his church speaking in tongues and also “falling in the power of the Holy Spirit.” People falling down during a worship gathering is in a whole different category from speaking in tongues. The Bible speaks of tongues as one of the spiritual gifts that a Christian might receive; the Bible never speaks of falling as a special gift. Falling is a sign of weakness, not a sign of being super-spiritual. Falling or fainting means your body and spirit aren’t strong enough to handle a certain kind of pressure. Whether it’s the pressure to fall when a hypnotic leader touches you or the pressure of group hysteria that makes you fall like so many others in the meeting, or whether it really is the pressure of the mighty presence of God upon you, falling means you’re too weak to handle something.
In America’s Great Awakening of the mid-1700s, some people collapsed during meetings as they felt the weight of God’s presence and their own sin. Others fell just because they got overexcited and fainted. The leaders of the Awakening, such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, didn’t see falling down in church as a bad or good. They were matter-of-fact about it. Edwards described falling as an occasional side-effect affecting people of “a weaker frame.” These mighty preachers were concerned with changing hearts, not with making bodies fall over. They knew that many who didn’t fall were touched and transformed by the Spirit, while some who did fall turned out later on to be just as unsaved and unchanged as ever. So if people fell, the preachers didn’t praise or scold them. They simply helped them regain their senses and encouraged them to keep seeking God.
In the powerful Korean revivals of the early 1900s which launched Christianity as a major force in Korea, there were meetings in which people felt overwhelmed and fell to the ground. How did the preachers in Korea respond? Did they try to make even more people fall over as some sort of special blessing? No, they helped the fallen back up and encouraged them with words of God’s forgiveness and transforming power. The falling was not important of itself. It was just an occasional side-effect. The leaders never promoted it; they tried to keep it to a minimum.
If you’ve ever fallen during an experience of God’s presence, don’t be ashamed of it, but don’t be proud of it, either. Some call this “being slain in the Spirit,” but that phrase is a human invention, not a divine revelation. Fainting is no grand event. It’s not important. What matters is whether you love God, trust Jesus, and live by his Spirit.
Liveliness and orderliness are not opposites; they belong together. The Corinthian church had a problem of liveliness without orderliness, and some churches today have the same problem. But let’s be honest: many church gatherings suffer from the opposite problem. They have orderliness without liveliness. These meetings aren’t so overwhelming that weaker souls can’t handle it and topple over. These worship services are so sedate and predictable that if anyone fell over, it would be from boredom or sleepiness. In the Bible Paul had to tell the Corinthians to bring more order to their wild, noisy worship gatherings, but it’s still better to be too lively than too lifeless. It’s not good if too many people are losing control, but it’s worse when nobody senses the Holy Spirit’s power among them. It’s not good if everybody in a church is trying to speak in tongues or prophesy or display their spiritual gifts at the same time in one huge hubbub, but it’s worse if nobody in the church ever uses spiritual gifts except one paid pastor delivering a prepared sermon.
Churches don’t have to choose between order on the one hand or lively participation with speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts on the other. The apostle Paul summarized the matter perfectly when he said, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:39-40).
Spiritual gifts are not meant to be used in a disorderly way, but they are meant to be used. The Spirit’s fire is not meant to burn out of control, but it is meant to burn. The Bible says, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). A church is like a fireplace. It’s made for fire to burn in a controlled way. It’s not meant to be an uncontrolled explosion of flame, and it’s not meant to be a heap of cold, dead ashes. The church is meant to be aglow with the well-ordered flame of the Holy Spirit. Then there will be light and warmth to bless the people and gladden God.
The church needs the Holy Spirit in all his liveliness and orderliness, and so does each individual. You don’t need to speak in tongues as the sign of being flooded with the Holy Spirit, but you do need to be flooded by the Holy Spirit. You need to be filled to overflowing with the life and power of God. Don’t settle for less. Let’s not overemphasize tongues, but let’s also not underestimate our need for the Holy Spirit. If you believe in Jesus and belong to him at all, the Holy Spirit is already living and working in you. You couldn’t have come to Christ without the Spirit. But don’t be satisfied with that. Seek more.
The teaching about a two-stage experience of first being born again and later being baptized by the Spirit is mistaken because it forces the Holy Spirit into a rigid formula which the Bible doesn’t teach. Still, those who teach this are right about at least one thing: God has much more to give you than what you receive when you first become a Christian, and you shouldn’t rest content with staying at the same level as when you were saved. Seek to grow in grace. Seek for the Spirit to flood you with love, to fill you with assurance, to equip you with gifts for serving others, to empower you afresh to meet new challenges and do great things for God. Don’t just ask for one sensational “baptism of the Spirit” or settle for a so-called “second blessing.” Even if God gives you a mighty anointing of the Spirit unlike anything you’ve experienced before, don’t say, “Now I’ve had the experience. Now I’ve arrived!” No, keep seeking more of God. Pray that the Spirit may fill you again and again and again, that he may keep pouring into you more and more of the spiritual blessings that Jesus has earned for you.
Unity in Diversity
Speaking in tongues is one among many gifts of the Holy Spirit. When the Bible talks about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, it lists a wide variety, including apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, gifts of healing, those able to help others, gifts of administration, “and those speaking in different kinds of tongues” (12:28). Each time Paul’s letter to the Corinthians gives a list of spiritual gifts, tongues is mentioned last. Other books of the Bible list a variety of other gifts and don’t even mention tongues. That’s not a knock on the gift of tongues. Scripture plainly says, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” (14:39). We should not stifle or speak ill of any gift of the Spirit. But neither should we exaggerate any particular gift as the gift every person should have above all others, the badge of being a truly Spirit-filled person.
The apostle Paul compares people with different personalities and spiritual gifts to different parts of a body. An ear should not feel inferior to an eye because the ear can’t see; that’s not the ear’s job. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?” (12:17). Likewise, someone with a special gift of helping or administration should not feel inferior to someone with a special gift for healing or speaking in tongues. All the gifts are valuable, and the church body benefits from the variety.
The goal is for all parts to work in harmony, not for all parts to be identical. A healthy body has unity in diversity, and a healthy church has unity in diversity. If you have a quiet, thoughtful personality, you don’t have to become loud and boisterous to be spiritually alive. If you have an outgoing, talkative personality, you don’t have to become a silent scholar to be truly godly. God created us with various personalities. He doesn’t force everyone into the same mold. The Holy Spirit adorns each unique person with a unique mix of gifts which can bring blessing to the whole body. Unity is not based on everyone having the same personality and the same abilities. Unity is based on everyone belonging to the same Spirit, the same Lord Jesus, the same heavenly Father. As Paul put it, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men” (12:4-6). If you have a gift of tongues and I have a gift of teaching, both come from the divine Source. Neither is “more spiritual” than the other. Neither is more a mark of Spirit-baptism than the other. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body” (12:13).
Spiritual gifts are not collector’s items just to put in a trophy case and admire. The gifts are to be used for God’s glory, for your own good, and for the good of others. With the gift of tongues, the Holy Spirit moves your spirit to speak in a language which your mind hasn’t learned and doesn’t recognize. Many people testify that speaking in tongues is a liberating, empowering experience which adds a new dimension to their praying and praising God. In the Bible Paul wrote, “Anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit” (14:2). As your spirit voices mysteries that your mind doesn’t grasp, it can build you up as an individual and enhance your personal praise of God.
But can speaking in tongues build up fellow Christians who don’t speak in tongues? Yes it can, but only if the Spirit gives someone the gift to know and explain what the sounds mean. Without interpretation, speaking in tongues is just noise to those who overhear it. “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air” (14:9) You won’t be helping fellow believers. They can’t gain any truth from what you’re saying and they can’t say “Amen” in agreement if they can’t make sense of the sounds you’re making. “You will be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified” (14:9,17)
If someone who isn’t a Christian comes to a meeting and hears someone speaking in a tongue, followed by a meaningful interpretation, it could be a powerful sign for the nonbeliever. But if lots of people are speaking in tongues with no interpretation, it no longer serves as a sign to help persuade nonbelievers of God’s presence. It only sends a signal that you’re crazy. Paul wrote the Corinthians, “If the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (14:23).
To help nonbelievers know Christ and to help believers grow in Christ, we need to communicate. We need to convey a clear meaning. Therefore, any spiritual gift which communicates a clear, understandable word from God is of greater value in public worship than speaking in tongues with no interpretation. Tongues can build others up when accompanied by a clear, true meaning. Otherwise, speaking in tongues is for personal, private outpouring of your spirit as moved by God’s Spirit.
At one point Paul asked the Corinthians, “Do all speak in tongues?” (12:30) He phrased the question in such a way that the obvious answer was no, not all speak in tongues. Some do; some don’t. In the long history of the worldwide church, there have been many mighty servants of God who never spoke in tongues. There have been many churches abounding in spiritual power where tongues were not spoken. There have even been periods of history, times of tremendous reformation and revival in the Holy Spirit, where the gift of tongues did not appear anywhere. That does not mean the gift was only for the early church or that it became forever defunct or useless. It just means that God can give it or withhold it whenever and to whomever he pleases.
According to Jesus, the Holy Spirit is like a wind which “blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit is not bound by our formulas. He is not bound by the formula that all Spirit-filled people speak in tongues. He is not bound by the formula that nobody should speak in tongues. The Spirit gives the gift of tongues as he decides, and it must be used as he directs. If you have the gift of tongues, use it to praise God in private and to be built up in worship and adoration. Use the gift in a gathering of others only when it will build them up.
If you don’t have the gift of tongues, use whatever gifts you do have to build others up, and keep seeking whatever additional empowerment and gifts the Spirit may be pleased to grant you. Seek this not merely for your own status but for the good of others. “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts” (14:1).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.