Speaking in Tongues: The Facts from Scripture

Painting of the Apostles from Acts 2 with flaming tongues above their heads.

Few topics elicit more controversy than speaking in tongues. Wading through the anecdotes and personal experiences can make it difficult to know truth from fiction.

WHAT WE CAN KNOW

When we look in Scripture, here are the few things we see about speaking in tongues.

In the Book of Acts, there seem to be two types of tongues when you look at how they function. First is "extraordinary" tongues, where the speaker is speaking in multiple languages at once. An example of this would be Acts 2:7-8 where Peter is preaching to everyone and each can hear what they are saying in their own language:

Acts 2:7-8
7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?

This "extraordinary" tongue occurs particularly in times where the gospel is crossing a cultural line: as when Peter sees that Gentiles can also be discipels in Acts 10:44-48; 11:15-18, and when Paul brings the gospel to Ephesus in Acts 19:5-6. "Extraordinary" tongues seem to have a specific purpose of confirmation - they convey to everyone around that what is happening is of God.

The second type of tongue we see is "relaxed" tongues where the speaker is speaking an unintelligible language. This could potentially be "tongues of angels" (1 Corinthians 13:1) or "groanings too deep for words" that the Holy Spirit uses (Romans 8:26). Regardless, this "relaxed" tongue seems to be different then the "vibrant" tongues in the speaker's ability to control the tongue. Look at this encouragement regarding tongues:

1 Corinthians 14:26-28
26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.

Peter in Acts 2 and the house of Cornelius in Acts 10 clearly had little control over their speaking in tongues. From the Scripture you get the impression, they were simply preaching (Peter in Acts 2) or glorifying God (Acts 10) and tongues just... happened.

Additionally, this "relaxed" tongue functions as a way to encourage and proclaim things to the church. Besdies the verses cited above, all of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 help us understand the place of "relaxed" tongues within the church.

People sometimes treat tongues as a "holy sneeze" that they cannot hold in, but Scripture seems to indicate otherwise.

WHAT WE DO

Nowhere in Scripture does it declare that tongues have stopped in any way. In fact, it says that tongues should not be forbidden (1 Corinthians 14:39)! Anyone that declares the opposite does so without the weight of Scripture, and their evidence should be weighed carefully. Because of this, churches and leaders must plan to handle tongues well.

"VIBRANT" TONGUES
With a "vibrant" tongue, if you are blessed enough to experience a true occurance of this, simply give the Spirit room. Although, if there is no cross-cultural, gospel-confirming element going on, it might be fake. Even in the New Testament, these instances were rare.

"RELAXED" TONGUES
What churches will more often deal with is a "relaxed" tongue experience. Here is some biblical encouragement:

  1. Following 1 Corinthians 14:26-28, speaking in tongues within a worship service needs an interpreter. If someone has a tongue, they are encouraged to share it with church leadership directly, and not in the middle of a worship service as a disruption. Leadership will pray for an interpreter, and if one is found the encouragement will be shared with the church.

  2. Following 1 Corinthians 14:39, churches should not forbid speaking in tongues, even as a private prayer language (see 14:13-15). We often fear what we do not know, but Scripture gives us another direction to take.

  3. Speaking in tongues should never become a high-level issue. It is something bestowed by God for his service, and not something to be waved around (literally or figuratively) as a badge of spirituality. See SPIRITUAL "GIFTS" AND TONGUES for more on this issue.

SPIRITUAL "GIFTS" AND TONGUES

Many times we call speaking in tongues a spiritual gift, but this is where a careful reading of the Bible can benefit us greatly. There are three major lists of spiritual "gifts," but these "gifts" are entirely different from one another.

In Romans 12:6-8, the "gifts" listed are part of our spiritual DNA. If I have the gift of leadership (12:8) listed here, then I will lead by the Spirit's power in many different scenarios in my lifetime. We could think of these are character traits.

In Ephesians 4:11, the "gifts" listed are roles within a church. If I have the gift of being an evangelist, then I will function as an evangelist within my church. My spiritual DNA (in Romans 12) might be leadership or teaching, but I will function as an evangelist. We could think of these as job titles, and they could change depending on our gifting and church context.

In 1 Corinthians 12, the "gifts" listed are "manifestations of the Spirit" (12:7), meaning they are an indicator of the Spirit's work or presence. If I have the gift of an utterance of wisdom (12:8), I might experience only one time, or I might experience it many times. However, these "gifts" are not part of my spiritual DNA (like Romans 12), nor do they define my role within the church (like Ephesians 4). They happen at whatever frequency God deems fit.

When we differentiate these "gifts," we can better understand how God has shaped us to serve the church body.