Speaking in tongues remains a common declaration for those who advocate for modern miracles. It may be one of the most claimed miraculous acts mentioned in the New Testament. I meet people here in Aberdeen and throughout Monroe County who claim to speak in tongues; I have heard people describe their experiences in speaking in tongues my whole life. Because of this ubiquitous assertion, all Christians should have a defensible and teachable knowledge on the subject. What does the Bible say about speaking in tongues?
1 Corinthians 14 explains the purpose and use of speaking in tongues. This chapter should be one of the first passages Christians use to explain speaking in tongues. The church in Corinth had been abusing the spiritual gifts. Paul spends the majority of chapter 14 describing the proper use of speaking in tongues while comparing its purpose to other spiritual gifts such as prophesying.
First, consider the context. In chapter 12, Paul lists the spiritual gifts and compels the Christians at Corinth not to be jealous or covet the spiritual gifts of others, because all Christians have a place in the service of the church. Paul ends with describing the most powerful gift of all. In chapter 13, Paul elucidates the gift of love as the most powerful and lasting gift from God, which all Christians can share. The spiritual gifts are nothing compared to the gift of love because the spiritual gifts will pass away when their purpose has been fulfilled (1 Cor. 13:8-10), but love will endure forever. – The gifts will pass away. In chapter 14, Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for their misuse of the spiritual gifts and explains the proper use and purpose in specific comparison with the gift of prophecy. – How to use the gifts to serve their purpose.
According to 1 Corinthians 14, God designates two purposes for speaking in tongues: to edify the church (vs. 1-6) and to show the evidence that the speaker has been blessed and testifies on behalf of God (vs. 22-25). If a person doesn’t use the gift for these purposes, then that person doesn’t need to be using it. Those that come to the services of the church and see several people ranting in incomprehensible tongues and making a spectacle of themselves without any admonition or instruction from the speaker or interpreter will think the Christians are “mad” (vs. 23). God obviously never wanted this spiritual gift to be used to bring confusion. If a person does not explain what is being spoken, then the ‘tongue’ is not being used as God has designated (1 Cor. 14:19).
The next two verses shed more light and clarify the issue,
“What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. 16 Else when you shall bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at your giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what you sayest?”1 Corinthians 14:15,16
According to these verses, who is it that has the problem with understanding? It is actually the listener and not the speaker. Note carefully Paul’s words. He says he prays and sings with his spirit and he prays with understanding. He continues to explain that when you go to bless those in the room with the spirit that are unlearned (they don’t understand the language) they cannot say Amen because they don’t understand that language. Paul plainly states that he knows what he is saying. If you have ever had someone pray for you in their native language that you don’t understand, then you will know what Paul meant when he said, it is difficult for you to say “Amen” (meaning “so be it”) when you do not know what is being prayed.
Without an interpreter, you have no idea what was said and you may be saying “so be it” to a blessing from the devil as far as you know. This passage also sheds some light on 1 Corinthians 14:2,
“For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.”
It is obvious from the context of chapter 14 that the purpose of speaking in tongues, or foreign languages, is to communicate the Gospel and thereby edify the church. If the listeners do not understand the spoken language they cannot be edified. Consequently, if there is no interpreter, the speaker is simply speaking into the air and the only ones present who know what is being said are God and himself.
Mechanically speaking, modern performers who speak in tongues do not accurately represent the true spiritual gift of the first century. They are frauds!
Firstly, the Greek word for “tongue” is γλῶσσα [glōssa] meaning language and instrument/organ of speech (Strong). The “tongues” mentioned in this chapter are foreign languages. Languages that those in the area would be “unlearned” (1 Cor. 14:23). The miracle here is that those that could speak these foreign languages were never taught how to speak the language.
How do Christians use this passage to explain the unintelligible babble that takes place during services today? Paul is not introducing some “new” gift of tongues in chapter 14. It is a rebuke for the misuse of the gift. Again the clear Word of God is being ignored. Paul also specifically warns the Christians not to speak what could be perceived as “babble” in 1 Timothy 6:20.
O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called: Which some professing have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with thee. Amen.1 Timothy 6:20,21
In other words, if those present do not understand your communication, then keep silent. How do those who speak “babble” interpret this act unintelligible speech as speaking in tongues?
The belief of there being a heavenly prayer language comes mainly from 1 Corinthians 14:14 where Paul says,
“For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.”
This is interpreted by some to mean that when Paul prayed in the Spirit, he used a “heavenly tongue” and did not himself know what he was praying. First of all, this raises an important question. How would they ever know if their prayer was answered? What would be the point of praying such a prayer? Does God’s own Spirit just pray to Himself as some would imply?
So what is Paul really saying in this verse? The problem in understanding this verse comes largely from the issue of the awkward translation of Greek to English. Please allow me to rearticulate this verse in modern English, “If I pray in a language those around me do not know, I might be praying with the Spirit, but my thoughts would be unfruitful for those listening.” Paul is constantly putting forward the same message which is, if we pray out loud, we should either pray so others around us can understand or we should remain quiet.
Secondly, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets…” (vs. 32). The miracle workers of the first century could control their spiritual gifts; otherwise, how would they stop when Paul told them to be silent without an interpreter (vs. 28). Paul demands that unless the speaker could use an interpreter to teach the church the message of God, then the speaker was not using the gift properly and should be silent!
Some speakers of tongues today will say that the Spirit possessed them, and they didn’t even know what they were saying. If the speaker of languages and the speaker to discern languages, had no control or memory of what was said, then how could they edify themselves, as Paul says in verse 4?
Thirdly, God wants the speaker of tongues to edify the church, which implies it should used in the assembly (1 Cor. 14:12). Some people who claim to have the ability to speak in tongues will say that they use the gift in private, just between them and God. No example in Scripture exists that would allow for such usage. God designs the use of speaking in tongues for the unbeliever, not the believer (1 Cor. 14:22). Paul exhorts the brethren to use their gifts to bring glory to God, not themselves (1 Cor. 12:6).
Modern and false speakers of tongues today grossly misrepresent the biblical teaching on speaking in tongues!