Speaking in Tongues
A biblical take on a difficult subject
By Lynn Burton
On the night before His death, Jesus informed the disciples that He was about to leave them alone in the world and that in His absence, they were to carry on the work He had begun. Indeed, they were to perform the same mighty deeds He had performed, with even greater effect (John 14:12). They would furthermore carry the gospel to the ends of the earth, His own ministry being confined to the geographical area surrounding Palestine. It was not expected that the disciples should accomplish this task in their own strength. God would send them the Holy Spirit, who would teach them all things; remind them of all that Jesus had taught them (verse 26); testify of Christ (John 15:26); guide them into all truth (John 16:13); show them things to come (verse 13); and empower them to witness (Acts 1:8).
Fulfillment of Christ’s promise took place initially during Pentecost, when 120 believers (including the apostles) in Jerusalem were baptized with the Holy Ghost, and consequently filled with the Spirit (see Acts 2:1-4). Just as each body part has a necessary function to perform, it would appear that each person that is filled with the Holy Spirit receives one or more spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12) that are meant to be used for the “common good” or edification of the church (verse 7). Included in the list of gifts that Paul specifically identifies with this purpose is the gift of tongues (see verses 8-10). And yet, because Paul states that (1) no one but God can understand what is said by those who speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14:2) and that (2) speaking in tongues edifies the speaker rather than the hearer (verse 4), many claim that the term tongues refers to nonhuman speech and that it is a private rather than a public gift. This interpretation is based on the assumption that both statements are referring to the tongues phenomenon per se. However, they are more likely to be referring to the Corinthian tongues speakers’ quest for personal gratification rather than to the essential characteristics of tongues speaking itself.
The Tongues in Corinth
We gather from what Paul says about the spiritual arrogance of the gifted ones in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 4:6-8) that some Corinthians had equated giftedness with spirituality and, because of their own giftedness, thought that they were not only very important people but had spiritually arrived and were in need of no further spiritual food. It would appear, however, that this erroneous view was limited to the more spectacularly gifted members of the church. This is the impression we get from 1 Corinthians 12:21-25, where Paul implies that this group of believers felt that they were spiritually superior to their lesser-gifted brothers and sisters in the church, and acted as though the church could function just as well without those with lesser gifts. Even though the ringleaders are not identified in the passage itself, two things point to a clear identification. First, the gradual narrowing down of the gifts from the nine mentioned in verses 8-10 to the gift of tongues alone in chapter 14 strongly suggests that the tongues speakers were the special object of Paul’s concern. Second, Paul’s statement that “the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:5, ESV)1 suggests that tongues speakers had an inflated ego.
In addition, the positioning of the gift of tongues last or next to last on all three lists of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 (see verses 8-10, 28-30) seems to indicate an attempt by Paul to correct the way the Corinthians exalted the gift of tongues above all others, by now putting this one gift into perspective for them. Similarly, by also placing tongues speaking at the head of the list of gifts and Christian attributes deemed to be spiritually worthless unless accompanied by love (1 Cor. 13:1-3), Paul seemingly implies that the Corinthians were currently using the gift of tongues in a loveless manner, perhaps even more so than the other gifts and attributes mentioned in these verses.
On the other hand, Paul claims that “self-seeking,” which he uses interchangeably with “self-edification” in 1 Corinthians 10:24, is the antithesis of love (1 Cor. 13:5). This would suggest that using tongues to pray out loud in church (1 Cor. 14:2) refers to the Corinthians’ loveless exercise of this gift, and not to the phenomenon itself. In addition, using tongues to edify self is contrary to the gift’s intent (1 Cor. 12:7); it flies in the face of Paul’s earlier admonition to seek to edify others instead of self (1 Cor. 10:23, 24); and it violates the principle set down in 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 of doing everything to the glory of God and for the salvation of souls, rather than for one’s own benefit or advantage.
Tongues and Mission
By way of contrast, the God-given ability to speak in other human languages without having to learn them first not only sits well with the goal of edifying the church, but it was ideally suited to evangelizing the ancient world. In the Greco-Roman world of the first century A.D., Greek and Latin were universal languages that could have been used to take the gospel message to the ends of the earth. However, because foreigners were generally frowned upon by indigenous populations, it was imperative that if Christ’s followers were to successfully share the gospel with other nationalities, they would need to converse with them in their native tongues or dialects, rather than in a common tongue, even if it were Greek or Latin. Pentecost is a case in point. The fact that lowly Galileans were suddenly and miraculously able to converse fluently in the native tongues of the foreigners present captured the latter’s attention and subsequently converted many to Christianity (see Acts 2:5-11).
It is clear from what Paul says about his practice of becoming one with the local communities with whom he labored (1 Cor. 9:19-23) that he likewise understood that if his evangelistic efforts were to be successful he, too, had to converse with them in their native tongues and dialects. This makes far more sense of his confession “I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all” (1 Cor. 14:18) than if he was able to speak in more unintelligible tongues than anyone else. Accordingly, this was no idle boast on Paul’s part, but it was his way of expressing his gratitude for the blessings he gained from being able to use so many different languages to share the good news of salvation with others.
In addition, it can be argued that there are many indications in the Bible suggesting that the Corinthian gift of tongues refers to the God-given ability to speak in other human languages without having to learn them first, and that it was meant to be used for evangelism. Still, the vast majority of modern biblical scholars believe that Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 14 support the nonhuman languages point of view. However, it would appear from the foregoing that the latter is based, in part, on the misconception that the gift of tongues is a private gift that was meant to edify self. As has been argued, it is more likely that the local tongues speakers were using this gift in a loveless manner to glorify self instead of God, which was contrary to the forward thrust of evangelistic endeavor that it was meant to afford.
1 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Lynn Burton is the pastor of the Armadale and Bickley Seventh-day Adventist Churches, in Perth, Western Australia. He recently finished his master’s degree in biblical theology focusing upon the biblical gift of tongues.