Wait, Paul! Do You Want Us to Speak in Tongues or Not?

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.

The tongue – Scripture tells us it can be a great blessing and a grave problem (James 3:1-12). And don’t we, especially I, know this truth.

But still, the tongue can be used for blessing. And I believe one way it can be used is not just through kind words of encouragement and comfort, but also through the oft-misunderstood gift of tongues.

We don’t really have much detailed instruction by way of Scripture of how this gift works. We have some directives in 1 Cor 14, as well as examples throughout the book of Acts. But there definitely isn’t a guide that says: this is exactly how you do it!

And, again, I wouldn’t expect Scripture to give exhaustive commands about this gift, since it is not some kind of guidebook listing detailed instructions on the how to’s for everything it touches upon.

But here is where things get a bit sticky with the gift of tongues: In reading 1 Cor 14, it seems Paul tells us this gift is a beneficial gift to be utilised amongst God’s people. But on the other hand, it seems we’re told almost the opposite. It’s going to cause problems for non-Christians, so don’t use it.

Which is it?

For starters, let’s see the positive statements about tongues. I think we could start with 1 Cor 14:1-5:

1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

Paul says for us to eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, and tongues is one of those gifts. That’s a plus. In vs4, we’re told that speaking in a tongue edifies the person speaking, which some take to be a negative because you’re supposed to edify the body. But that’s exactly what Paul gets to – let’s edify the body. Hence his instructions to give an interpretation when publicly using this gift. We just need to read on to vs5.

So there is opportunity for both the individual used in tongues and the body to be edified.

But, heaven knows we have Paul’s words in vs20-25. If anything, these make it very clear that tongues is actually problematic. Check out these words:

20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written:

“With other tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me,
says the Lord.”

22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

Can you see the problem?

In vs22, we read that the gift of tongues is a sign for unbelievers. And in the very next verse, we read that, if all are speaking in tongues, and an inquirer-unbeliever comes into the gathering, will this not have a negative effect, leaving this person to conclude that they are amongst lunatics?!

So there we go. Tongues can make things a bit crazy, leaving us perceived as lunatics!

And, so, what I find is that people choose one of two options: a) either strike its use altogether or b) designate it solely to small groups and prayer meetings, rather than the larger gathering of the church.

But what is going on in this passage?

I’d posit we are missing something here, especially if we hone in on 1 or 2 verses. We must not forget that Paul is using an Old Testament example to show why this gift is still needed, as it’s used in a correct way.

Something to start with is this: In vs22, when Paul says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, he is not pointing to the fact that they are a positive sign, but rather a negative sign. How? Well, this all goes back to vs21 – In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”

Here, Paul is quoting from Isaiah 28:11. It’s important to understand the context of what was spoken to Israel a long time ago. Within that specific situation, Isaiah is warning of the judgment that would come upon the people of Israel for all of their disobedience, idolatry, etc. And so, by ‘strange tongues,’ God would speak to this people. This reference was to the Assyrian armies who took the Israelites captive, ransacking the northern tribes of Israel. Of course, guess what? The Assyrians spoke a different, foreign language from the Hebrew people of that day.

And, so, what Paul alludes to in 1 Cor 14, by referring back to the words of judgment in Isa 28:11, is that, if the church gathers together and all speak in unintelligible, and uninterpreted tongues, such will become that negative sign of judgment for outsiders who have come in to the gathering – like it was for Israel of old. To this, Paul says you are not utilising the gift in a proper manner. For remember, it is uninterpreted tongues that function as a negative sign. However, interpreted tongues in the public setting are good.

That’s the context of the passage in 1 Cor 14. When you use the gift of tongues in a public setting of proclamation, you need to follow up with an interpretation. If you do so, you alleviate it acting in a negative sense, as in a sense of judgment upon these non-believers and inquirers. Let’s not go there so these non-believers can encounter the living God.

Also, just as a practical side note, I’ve been in gatherings where, once a tongue has been spoken and followed by an interpretation, one of the leaders has also followed up with an explanation of what has taken place, just to provide a little more clarity into this good gift of God’s Spirit. That can also be helpful in our Enlightenment-centered, western world of today.

So, with what I hope is a helpful explanation of 1 Cor 14:20-25, you can now read the fuller chapter and see how Paul actually celebrates this gift as it’s used properly. This is why he comments later:

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

Following the words we just examined, Paul goes on to state that when the church gathers, people come with all sorts of giftings, including tongues and interpretation. You’d expect him to close out with those two gifts! But he wants things to be done in an edifying way – so let’s keep it to about 2 or 3 public messages in tongues, followed by an interpretation (and, noting 14:13, I believe the tongue-speaker can also be the interpreter). However, if there is certainty that no interpreter is available, then the person is to offer the tongue to God at a personal level.

I am very aware it’s much easier to shepherd a church without giving space for the gifts of the Spirit, and especially tongues. Hey, it’s even easier if you don’t allow for spontaneous prayers, songs, testimonies, etc. Keep it to 3 songs and a sermon, right?

Still, I am convinced that if we do not allow for these beautiful, and sometimes spontaneous, gifts of God we will be found lacking in many ways. The Spirit can break in as he desires. But it’s even greater when the community of Christ is already open to his word, his acts, his work through the multi-varied gifts of the Spirit.


21 thoughts on “Wait, Paul! Do You Want Us to Speak in Tongues or Not?

  1. You are so right free flow of the gifts can get messy at times. Our human flesh has a hard time handling a full frontal encounter with the Holy God. However, the benefits are worth the mess.

  2. I have to somewhat disagree with your interpretation of tongues and it’s use. I think all the controversy about it stems from our mistranslation of the word “tongue” (“glossa”). Glossa either means the physical tongue or a different language. There is nothing mystical about the word. If we simply translated this word as ‘language’ or ‘languages’ and read these verses they suddenly become so clear. If someone speaks a foreign language in a church, they are only edifying themselves (and possibly anybody else who MIGHT be able to understand them), but the majority will not know what they have said. So it is PROBABLY better for them to keep it between themselves and God. But if there is someone (possibly themselves but more likely somebody else that understands that language and the common language) that can interpret what was said, then it edifies the whole body by allowing everyone to take part in what the speaker shared.

    Tongues are a sign for people who only speak foreign languages (just as it was on the day of Pentacost) and God STILL uses this “gift” today. I say “gift” because it can be a learned skill and/or it can be given supernaturally, or a combination of both. My wife, who knows a smattering of High School Spanish, once carried on a very long and complex conversation with a couple in Spanish and afterwards had no idea all that she had said. She was able to encourage them in the Lord in a place where they felt isolated. It hasn’t happened to her since. It’s similar to knowing all the right verses when your talking to someone about spiritual matters, and afterward being surprised that you could recall it all. The Spirit aids us and “takes over” when the task at hand requires it.

    Does speaking other languages belong in the church? Depends on the church. If there are many people of different cultures who may not speak English that regularly attend your services then a word given (with interpretation) in their language may be just what the Spirit ordered. But generally, it’s not necessary.

    As for why all the seemingly negative teaching about it. I believe it was a “dangerous” gift because it could appeal to pride. People wanted to speak in other languages because the Apostles did on the Day of Pentacost. Let’s just be honest — it was cool. Would I rather praise the Lord in my own language or start talking in another language that everybody knows I don’t speak? Of course, I want to look “used by the Spirit” so I would RATHER speak in other tongues. That’s what Paul is talking to them about. He says, “Yeah, it would be GREAT if we all could do it, but it just isn’t necessary in the church in general. So don’t get worked up about it.”

    I think he’d say the same to all of us. 🙂

    • Ken –

      Those are some good thoughts to consider. But here are some other things to also consider:

      There’s no doubt that tongues can be an actual known language, one of the thousands of languages/dialects known in our world today. And I wouldn’t even have a problem saying it’s normally like that. But a) Paul tells of speaking in tongues of angels (1 Cor 13:1) and b) interpretation is a Spirit-gift as well. So a) one could speak a language no human really knows or b) one could speak a tongue that no one in the gathering knows how to interpret (or translate). Both of these call for a direct work of the Spirit where no learnedness is present to help. Also, why would someone need to pray that they can interpret?

      I believe this is ultimately a work of the Spirit, not learnedness.

      • Indeed the so-called gift of tongues in 1 Cor. 14: 2 is clear to show there, that it is quite “mysterious”, i.e. “he speaks mysteries” (from his own “spirit”). But, it is still somewhat controlled by the man or person himself. It is always a must to read our Greek NT in these areas! 🙂

      • Scott,

        One verse. An entire spiritual movement based on ONE VERSE! Seems more than a bit tenuous. Especially given the quite possible argument that Paul was exaggerating for effect (using hyperbole) in proclaiming that no matter WHAT kind of “noise” you make, if it’s not out of love (and interpreted) it’s pointless.

        And where else in scripture is there ANY incidence of an angel speaking in an unintelligible language? None that I know of. Angels speak to men in human languages. What would be the point of them NOT? It makes no sense. If THEY don’t do it, why should PEOPLE speak an unintelligible “heavenly” language? Is it a sign of REALLY having the Spirit? Just sounds all rather silly and dangerously vain to me.


        The word translated “mysteries” could also be translated “secrets”. If something said in a foreign language is untranslated than it’s a secret between that person and God because nobody else understands it. If the speaker doesn’t normally speak that language, then it is LIKELY a sign for someone listening who speaks it natively. A sign generated “by the Spirit”. But still a secret to everyone else until it’s translated. We just love the word “mystery” because it sounds so much cooler.

      • Ken –

        An entire spiritual movement based on one verse? I think that might be a slight overstatement. Anyways, I’ve addressed this issue before on my blog and the words of 1 Cor 13:1. It might be worth reading those thoughts.

      • Scott,

        I read the post you pointed back to. I am willing to concede that it MAY be possible to speak in an “angelic” tongue, but I question the profitability of it within the church. And given the temptation to vanity inherent in the practice, I think it should NOT be something to strive for.

        I still believe the structure of the passage makes the 2nd part of each “If I…” statement an exaggeration (an EXTREME possibility – tongues of angels, knowing ALL mysteries, martyrdom) by Paul. Sure, they are POSSIBLE, but he used them for EFFECT. Maybe he had heard rumors of the practice, too, but wanted to make sure they knew that even doing THAT wasn’t any proof of the Spirit without love.

        In any case, with the lack of Biblical teaching about the subject (heavenly languages), it doesn’t sound like something we are generally expected to do as Christians.

      • The Greek word here in 1 Cor. 14: 2, is the plural of “Musterion”, which Paul uses quite often, as in 1 Cor. 4:1. Indeed the translation of “secret'” really misses the meaning and point, which in the context of 1 Cor. 14: 2 is more toward the “spirit” of the man, speaking to or in/with/by the Spirit of God, i.e. in “mysteries”. (See too verse 14). In the contrast too of “prophesying” (which is closer to speaking for God), pastorally…in understanding). In 1 Cor. 13: 1, it is the again the “tongues”.. plural, of men and angels! It seems to imply that there are different kinds of tongues.

      • Btw, just speaking for myself, but I have found myself at least well beyond “vanity” in this verse and subject! Speaking before the Lord alone in tongues (my prayer closet), has certainly not given me much to be vain at all about! But rather a greater sense of awe and wonderment in the mystery of God Himself, especially to this old Irish born sinner! And btw, I have not found it to be a place of any bragging rights at all! Since I have not been able to “figure” out God still! 😉 – Note I am smirking!

      • Robert, I did not mean to imply that you held vanity in your heart. I was saying that the practice of speaking heavenly, or even earthly foreign languages, IN the congregation can become a temptation toward vanity. I believe such was the case in the Corinthian church. If there is no interpretation (be it earthly or heavenly language) to edify the entire body, it should be kept private.

        After reading the original Greek of verses 2 and 14, I have my own ideas of how it could be more clearly stated. But I’m SO far away from the “accepted” translation, I don’t even wish to share it here for fear of the chuckles I would receive. Let’s just say I think we have overcomplicated the whole idea of tongues.

        Anyway, I have just one more question for you, Robert. You say you have prayed in tongues by yourself before God. I don’t deny that you have and that it has blessed you in some way. But my question is WHY? What is the benefit of doing that vs. simply praying in English? I guess I just don’t get what the fuss is about. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a “prayer time” with God. I just talk to Him like I would someone sitting in the car next to me. He’s part of my life, part of my day. I don’t feel like I do anything that He’s not part of it. Maybe I’m not taking Him seriously enough? Am I missing something? I’m just not the type to go hide in my room and “spend time” with God. It just doesn’t work for ME. Do you think that’s OK? Maybe we all find different things that “connect” us with God. If tongues does it for you and others, who am I to tell them they are “wrong” or misguided? I wish them well. But I don’t feel like it’s something I will ever do personally, and I think I’m OK with that.

      • @Ken; Well first, speaking in tongues in one’s prayer closet is just that… Speaking, praying and just worshipping God, in Himself! And this is a spiritual and even mystical affair, and so it is not exactly just mental alone, though of course somehow the mind is involved, but at a different level or better “place”! The place of my spirit with God’s Spirit, in a mystical place of prayer. And as Scott notes, this is not really a place of “learnedness”.

      • Robert, thank you for the insight into your worship experience. I don’t know if that kind of thing would “work” for me. I’m not into “mystical” stuff. That’s not to say I think it’s without merit, but it’s just not me. I think God is able to meet us at many levels in as varied ways as we have different personalities. But He created and loves us all and will connect with us where we “hear” Him.

        In conclusion I’ll say that tongues as foreign languages I “get” I used to be firmly against it – a strict cessationsist, but I’ve heard and seen enough to realize I can’t put chains on the Spirit. However, I’m just not “ready” for heavenly tongues. It doesn’t really make sense to me yet. But I can accept it works for other people and I believe it DOES have a place in worship, especially personal worship. I will continue to keep an open mind and try not to stifle the Spirit.

      • @Ken: Indeed that’s all any of us can do, is to be as honest as we can be as Christians still living in a fallen world. Note this was somewhat where Luther came to settle, he related Holy Scripture to our personal existence, and conscience. As he stated toward Scripture, “my conscience is bound, I can do no other.” And he came to see the great Christological places and meaning of Augustine. This was the blessing and really place of the Reformers, at least the so-called ‘top-tier’ Reformers: Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, etc. (actually many more men and names).

        Myself, as one raised Irish Roman Catholic, I suppose I gathered some of the mystical ideas from there. I was a Benedictine monk for a few years in my late 20’s (right after my first combat tour as an RMC), but left both the monastic life and Catholicism, then I became an Anglican. And even there I was High Church Anglican for a few years, before I came to the more Reformed positions. It was there I became close in some ways to the EO, or Orthodoxy. So yes, though I am Reformed on the Doctrines of Grace, but I still have what I see as something of Paul’s and his Pauline mystical approach. This is one of the great losses in the Protestant and general Evangelical Churches today, save some Anglicans and some Lutherans, but only to degree.

        Btw, I did live through the Charismatic movement in both Catholicism and somewhat in the Anglican Communion. So I am no stranger to what Pentecostals believe and do. But, I am a light or soft cessationist, as to the so-called Sign Gifts.

      • Ken –

        Sorry for coming in a bit late. Things have been busy to interact with comments. You stated to Robert: Anyway, I have just one more question for you, Robert. You say you have prayed in tongues by yourself before God. I don’t deny that you have and that it has blessed you in some way. But my question is WHY? What is the benefit of doing that vs. simply praying in English?

        I’d say that, though not unequivocally, there have tended to be a few passages to consider about personal prayer in tongues. I’ll try and list them out.

        1 Cor 14:4 – Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.

        We know speaking in tongues does edify oneself. In the public setting, Paul instructs the Corinthians not to stop there but to offer the interpretation – so that the body may also be edified. But we know tongues edifies, builds up the one speaking.

        1 Cor 14:28 – If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

        Paul instructs that, if no one can interpret, then they are to speak to himself and to God. The tongue can continue (and we could debate it that means ‘at home’ or in the gathering but in a way that it does not disturb or draw attention). But there is benefit even between the person and God. So there is some kind of personal engagement only here.

        Rom 8:26 – In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

        This is also a very debatable passage. But, for all I can tell, the Spirit himself is doing the intercession through our groans. Not tongue, rather groans. But the Spirit is enabling this kind of prayer, somewhat like he enables tongues. And I expect the believer to be encouraged by this interaction.

        Jude 1:20-21 – But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.

        This praying in the Holy Spirit is probably broader than tongues, and the groans of Rom 8. However, I would imagine this also embraces tongues. Tongues is an expression of praying in the Holy Spirit, which is for building yourself up, edifying oneself.

        I hope that’s helpful.

        Lastly, you stated: In any case, with the lack of Biblical teaching about the subject (heavenly languages), it doesn’t sound like something we are generally expected to do as Christians.

        If something is ‘of the Spirit’, then it is also ‘of heaven’. So I’d argue that tongues, enabled by the Spirit, is ‘heavenly’ of ‘of the kingdom of heaven’. Those are some thoughts worth pondering.

      • Scott,

        Thank you for trying to clear this issue up for me. But I have to tell you I have different ideas of what those verses say that have nothing to do with speaking in a mystical or heavenly language (I’m sure you’ve heard them all before). However, I don’t have the audacity to tell anyone who has experienced this phenomenon for themselves that they are “wrong” or that it’s “all in your head”. I know the Spirit is bigger than my preconceived notions or limited experiences.

        But for where I’m at right NOW, the idea of a heavenly language doesn’t make sense or work for ME. But I will continue to keep an open mind and see if the Holy Spirit teaches me something new somewhere down the line.

      • I have noted for many years how many Protestant and Evangelical Christians are simply anti-mystical! I find this quite puzzling for those that read and study their Bibles, and especially those that are pastor-teachers and have theological training. Indeed in theology Paul and the Pauline has been called the great Mystical aspect in NT theology, i.e. a Christ Mysticism! And really too the Johannine of John. The great Gospel of John has been called the “Spiritual Gospel”, and certainly the Gospel of Salvation! Noting the chapters of John 14 thru 16, which are most certainly Trinitarian! (John 14: 16-17, etc. ; 15:26 ; 16: 7-15).

        The whole subject of Pneumatology is quite glossed over in far too many Protestant Churches, but of course other Churches, as the Pentecostal and many Charismatic types simply go well beyond the balance of both history and theology. But this is my opinion. But the whole doctrine of the Holy Spirit is one of the most profound in the whole of the NT, certainly! And we will never escape the great subject of the mystical and the whole reality of GOD as the greatest Mystical and Spiritual Truth in the creation and the universe! As Jesus Himself said: “God is Spirit/spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4: 24) And to quote E.W. Bullinger: “Few subjects are of greater importance, or fraught with weightier consequences to our theology, than this one: which bears directly upon the Holy Spirit, and His operations in connection with the Church of God as a whole, and with the individual experience of the child of God.” (See btw, EWB’s book: Word Studies on the Holy Spirit, Kregel Pub.)…From which I took this quote, great little book! Crammed-full for only 223 pages.

        “pneuma hagion” (holy spirit) / “hagion pneuma” (spirit holy) / “the hagion pneuma” / “the pneuma the hagion” / as also, “pneuma Theou ; pneuma Christou”. And we must note too, that He, (Christ) in resurrection became a quickening or life-giving “pneuma” (1 Cor. 15: 48).

        And too we should note, “Pneuma” is used “psychologically” of man’s “nature” according to Gen. 2: 7. By the union of “body” and “pneuma,” man becomes “living soul,” i.e., a living being. And btw, all persons have “pneuma”, psychologically: but not all have Divine “pneuma”. But only he/them that are “born from above”, by God! (John 3: 3)

        Great subject here!

      • If we read the text even helps, administrations, mercy and many more are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Why are all these not given any attention in the church. If some one is of help in the church how may of us are ready to give credit to the Holy Spirit for the gift. Its very strange these gifts of `unknown’ tongues seems to get all the attention. People are even judged if they have the Holy Spirit on basis of speaking in tongues. And there would be someone in the corner of your church blessed by the Holy Spirit to be of some help as the spirit desires, and he continues to do as the Holy Spirit leads him as you all continue to speak in angelic languages. I pray and thank God for all those helps in church. May God Bless them.

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