Is speaking in tongues for today?

Paul Derengowski, ThM


The issue over whether someone today can speak in tongues can be almost as volatile as the abortion issue is.  The emotion pouring forth from ardent defenders of speaking in tongues often borders on the irrational, which is why if there is going to be a conversation at all, it will most likely be short-lived.  As my mother used to say, “People are going to do what they want to do,” and in respect to tongues-speaking, that bit of insight is more than apropos.  But, does that necessarily answer whether or not what they are do doing is biblical?  I will argue that it is not.

As noted in a previous article the definition of speaking in tongues merely meant that those who did it spoke in a dialect that (1) they did not previously speak, and (2) they could be understood by those who did speak that foreign dialect.  Whether it was Parthian (Persian), Median, Egyptian, or Arabic (see Acts 2 for a longer list of dialects), when a person spoke in tongues, it was an intelligible language that they spoke.  It was not unintelligible drivel.  Therefore, that precedent in itself should tell us that if one is to speak in tongues today, that it, too, should be intelligible, even if an interpreter is needed.

That said, the apostle Paul gives several indicators of whether or not speaking in tongues is for today’s genre of spirit-filled church goers in 1 Corinthians 14.  To miss or ignore those finer points of Christian praxis, and then to magnify what was otherwise a minimalist gift originally designed to designate the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, is to do what many cults do, and that is to pick and choose certain statements from the Bible to promote a pretext, rather than exegete those statements to form one’s doctrine.

The first indicator that Paul points out deals with a contrast between the various gifts of the spirit.  Starting in 1 Corinthians 12 and extending through chapter 14, Paul catalogues several gifts that would be bestowed upon Christians by the Holy Spirit as they carried out God’s mission to spread the Gospel.  In Chapter 12 the ability to speak in tongues is #8 on the list behind other gifts like possessing the word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, and spiritual discernment.

When Paul expands on the tongues phenomenon in Chapter 14 he is doing so because the Corinthian church, unlike some other churches he had written to on other subjects, had abused the gift.  In fact, the Corinthian church was perhaps of greater concern to Paul than any of the others he had visited simply because of its waywardness and the amount of Hellenistic influence that was already a part of its culture.  If Paul were alive today, and saw the amount of confusion over tongues being spread about by those in the Charismatic Movement, he would probably write a very similar letter to its leaders like he did the Corinthians, for the problems are very similar.

Prophecy and Mysteries

Paul opens up 1 Corinthians 14 by comparing and contrasting tongues-speaking and engaging in prophecy.  “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophecy.  For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.  But one who prophecies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.  One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophecies edifies the church.”

The word “prophecy” (Gr. propheteuo) in the New Testament generally carries the connotations of either speaking in an inspired manner regarding a divine message (Luke 1:67-ff.; Jude 14; Rev. 11:3), but more often than not, prophesying had to do with predicting future events (Matt. 15:7; Mk. 7:6; Acts. 2:17-18; Rev. 10:11).  Sometimes even those who were not God’s prophets were said to prophesy, although their declarations were either disingenuous or unwittingly done (Matt. 7:22; Jn. 11:51).  It was, however, a spiritual gift that Paul valued more than speaking in tongues, as will be seen below.

Paul marks out three characteristics of speaking in tongues that, if genuine, make it less of a gift to be pursued than if one were to seek to prophecy.  One, those who spoke in tongues did so only to God.  Two, no one, probably including the person doing the speaking, understood what is said.  Because, three, what is spoken is a mystery.  It is this last characteristic that some have used, and are using, to justify the current form of speaking of tongues, which amounts to no more than babbling gibberish.  But, a closer examination of just what “mystery” meant hardly provides a warrant that what Paul was talking about and what modern-day charismatics are talking about, are one and the same thing.

“Mystery” (Gr. musteria) in the New Testament never meant uttering a line of unintelligible gibberish.  Seen 28 times in six forms, mysterious revelations had to do with that which had been held in secret in times past, but depending on the occasion, God had made something plain to the recipient at a specific time and place.  In fact, just prior to Paul’s use of mysteries in 1 Corinthians 14:2, he spoke of mysteries as something that can be intelligently known (1 Cor. 13:2) and then used the same word (musterion) in 1 Corinthians 15:51 to describe the resurrection of the dead.  There is no reason to believe that Paul’s usage elsewhere of mystery indicates something other than intelligible revelation (see Rom. 11:25; 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:1, 7; 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51; Eph. 1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 5:32; 6:19; Col. 1:26-27; 2:2; 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:9, 16).

Elsewhere Jesus told his disciples that they had been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom (Matt. 13:11) and in Revelation the mystery of the seven stars are interpreted to be the seven churches.  In short, “mysteries” in 1 Corinthians 14:2 is not about meaningless babble or gibberish.  The mysteries were about non-disclosed divine revelation that are yet to be intelligently understood.

Who Edifies Who?

Anyone who has ever witnessed someone that claims to be able to speak in tongues or has been privy to turn on the television the moment a charismatic figure begins to rattle off endless verbal nonsense which supposedly coincides with some kind of ecstatic infusion of the Holy Spirit, immediately begins to wonder, “Just who was this supposed to impress or edify?  Me?  God?  Themselves?”  According to the Apostle Paul, tongues-speaking is purely for the person doing it; no one else.

Of course, once again, that edification stems from understanding something of the mysteries of God that has been revealed to the person.  It is something that must correspond to previous inspired revelation and certainly is not something that occurs every day.  Moreover, if such an inspired revelation was to be conveyed to others, it would have to be in an intelligible manner so that whoever the beneficiary was would be able to understand and enjoy it as well.  Failure to recognize this point is to promote an imposter.

Are Tongues Possible?

The short answer is a qualified Yes.  It is qualified in the sense that unless it follows the biblical guidelines pointed out by Paul, then it is not speaking in tongues.  Gibberish, most likely.  Emotion-driven babble, certainly.  But, inspired revelation coming from God to help one understand some previous hidden mystery involving the Gospel or some other aspect of the kingdom of God, absolutely not.

That is why Paul would write: “Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues….”  The implication here is that not everyone speaks in tongues, nor will they.  Paul had rhetorically asked in 1 Corinthians 12:30: “All do not have gifts of healing, do they?  All do not speak with tongues, do they?  All do not interpret, do they?”  The obvious answer is NO!  Tongues are for those whom the Holy Spirit has gifted and not all people possess the same gifts, much less do they possess this particular gift, which Paul saw as being 2,000 times less important or valuable than the gift of prophesying (cf. 1 Cor. 14:19).

In fact, Paul finished 1 Corinthians 14:5 with, “but more that you would prophecy; and greater is one who prophecies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.”  So, Paul not only exalts the value of prophesying over tongues, but he places another stipulation that if one does speak in tongues, particularly in a church setting or before those who constitute the church and are to be edified, he needs an interpreter.  What does his explanation of a godly mystery have to do with helping God’s people understand Him or His kingdom that much better, in other words?  If the person practicing glossolalia does not have an interpreter, then he needs to be quiet.

Tongues are Revelation

As noted above, the mysteries behind tongues have to do with God’s intelligible revelation.  Paul reinforces that reality in verses 6-9 when he wrote: “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?  Yet lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp?  For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?  So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken?  For you will be speaking into the air.”

It should be noted, first, as before, that tongues are for the edification of others, not the self.  So many times those who involve in themselves in what they think are tongues become so proud and wrapped up in whatever “spiritual high” they’re enjoying that they completely forget that unless what they’re doing edifies others, in the sense of helping them intelligently understand some mystery of God, then they’re not engaged in tongues-speaking at all.  They’re merely “speaking into the air,” which is a euphemism for uttering nonsense.

Second, Paul explicitly tells the reader that tongues involve either revelation, knowledge, prophecy, or teaching.  It is not some random, off the cuff, blathering to oneself or toward others which has no distinct meaning.  Paul uses several musical instruments as examples to drive home his point.  If the flute, harp, or bugle were merely blown into or strummed randomly, then the sound coming forth from them would be more of an irritant than a joy.

The same applies to those randomly making noise without any apparent meaning.  Conversely, when played with distinction (Gr. eusemos, lit. “good sign,” or “intelligible”), the sound those instruments make are not only meaningful to the ears, but satisfying to the soul.  Again, the same applies to speaking in tongues.  If it isn’t clear, then it isn’t tongues.  It is irritating, meaningless noise.

Tongues are a Language

Too many times those in the Charismatic Movement or some Pentecostal setting try to blur the meaning of tongues by saying that, Yes, they believe that tongues are language: the language of angels or something of a mystical sort that no one, including the babbler, can understand.  Only God, through the Spirit who gave the utterance, understands what is going on; the speaker is simply the instrument who is enjoying the experience.  But, that’s not how Paul described speaking in tongues.

Paul wrote, “There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages (Gr. phonon; lit. “voices” or  “sounds”) in the world, and none are language-less (Gr. aphōnos; lit. “voiceless,” “meaningless,” or “inarticulate”).  In other words, language, in order for it to be meaningful, must be arranged in a specific pattern that can be understood by another person who hears it.  It cannot be a series of capricious sounds strung together in a haphazard manner.  The goal of language is to communicate, and if the goal is not met, then either it is not language being spoken or the person using it is violating the language by doing his own thing.  Paul makes that very point in his next statement.

“If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.”  Tongues are language that has meaning.  They are not some off-the-wall emotive utterance that conveys something that perhaps only a barbarian (lit. someone who stammers) would feign to understand.  Yet, so many times we hear of those, or from those, who claim that stammering is speaking in tongues, as they unintelligibly go about spitting out repetitively twists and turns of their tongue in an effort to impress others or themselves.  The reality is what they’re doing is something that completely defies what Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 14 and is equal to the barbarians.

Tongues are to be Interpreted

If there is one thing that is frequently missing when one is privy to observe someone involved in speaking in tongues, or someone who at least claims that they can, it is the absence of an interpreter.  According to Paul this can either be the person doing the speaking, particularly if prayer is involved (v. 14), or if in a community setting, the interpreter can be someone else (v. 27).  It is an interesting omission, but an important one that needs to be taken note of, if one truly wishes to be recognized as someone who can speak in tongues.  If there is no interpreter, then there is to be no speaking in tongues.

The purpose for interpretation, once again, is for the edification of others (v. 17).  Paul aligns speaking in tongues with the activity of mind, arguing that unless there is an interpretation of what was said, then the mind is “unfruitful” or spiritually barren.  The prayer itself means nothing.  Conversely, speaking where the language is interpreted affected not only the mind, but one’s capability to “sing with the mind also.”  There is meaning when one speaks in a tongue when the language is understood!

The alternative, though, is the non-edification of others who might hear the tongues-speaker.  Paul asks, “Otherwise if you bless in the spirit, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?  For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.”  In other words, mindless praying and singing in the spirit is contrary to what tongues and the goal of tongues is all about, namely the edification or building up of others.  Again, where there is no edification of others, tongues are off-limits.

The Mathematics of Tongues

As mentioned above, Paul saw the advantage of prophesying to be 2,000 times greater than speaking in tongues.  It was not that he did not value speaking in tongues or discouraged it.  He simply saw that particular gift to be much less valuable to the propagation of the Gospel and living the Christian life than other gifts that preceded it.  Put practically, for every occurrence of speaking in tongues, a person should prophesy 2,000 times.

Paul told the Corinthians, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:18-19).  Speaking in tongues was something that Paul was quite familiar with, so those who might argue that Paul really did not understand what they were all about or that he was being overly critical toward the phenomenon are simply off-base.  He intimately knew what tongues were, what their function was, and how and when they were to be used, “more than you all.”

It is because of Paul’s personal familiarity with them, as well as with those who were abusing or feigning the gift, that he could do the math and say that prophesying was 2,000 times more instructive than tongues were or will ever be.  The word “instruct” might also be translated catechize or to teach, meaning that in order to teach there must be not only an order, but depth and assurance that what one is teaching is correct.  Revelation again comes to mind in this sense.  Paul found that prophesy, teaching, and revelation to be far and away more important than speaking in tongues.  It is something that every charismatic today ought to consider the next time he or she goes into an ecstatic rant that produces nothing but a narcissistic impulse coupled with a meaningless message.

Tongues are for a Sign

Paul continues his instruction on tongues by pointing out that tongues are not for believers.  Instead, they were a sign to unbelievers.  Citing Isaiah 28, Paul refers to an unbelieving nation of Jews who, though existing amid impending peril, could not hear the voice of the Lord because of all the babbling preachers who were saying, “The overwhelming scourge will not reach us when it passes by, for we have made falsehood our refuge and we have concealed ourselves with deception.”  The tongues of deception in the Old Testament had become the tongues of deception in the New, primarily because in under the New Covenant, those speaking tongues were at odds with God’s intent for them.

“So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers.”  On the other hand, “prophecy is not to unbelievers, but to believers.”  Paul’s interpretation of tongues is instructive in the sense that what many assume today as a divine outpouring of the Holy Spirit is actually something indicative of unbelief.  For if those same persons were really intent on manifesting the gifts of the Spirit in terms of worshiping God and reaching a lost world, they wouldn’t be pursuing something that would repel the unbeliever with charges of madness.  They would be pursuing gifts would bring conviction and conversion.  Only prophesying does that.

According to Paul, “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.”  Yet, in many Pentecostal/charismatic circles, speaking in tongues is supposedly to be a sign that one is truly saved, which is completely contrary with not only what Paul wrote here, but elsewhere on the subject of salvation.  To Paul, emphasis on tongue-speaking was a sign of unbelief, not belief, while prophesying was a sign of belief, not unbelief.


Paul concludes his discourse on the subject of tongues by offering four final bits of advice, the first of which is really nothing more than a rehash of his whole argument.
First, if one speaks in tongues, let it be done for the edification of others.  There should not be more than three speakers in tongues at any given church setting and then with at least one interpreter.  “If there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.”  Let there be two or three prophets speak, on the other hand, but only in order.  “God is not a God of confusion,” but given the emphasis on speaking in tongues in many charismatic churches, that is about all that can take place.

Second, “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says.”  Often this verse get misconstrued to mean that women ought not to say anything in church, including possibly even the teaching of little children.  But, given the overall context, it has nothing to do with bridling females from speaking in church.  It has to do with them speaking in tongues in the church.  They are to “keep silent.”

Yet, how often do we see so-called prophetesses get before the camera or on-stage and start blathering in tongues in an effort to impress the audience that they have some kind of calling of God to do so?  One time, years ago, I attended a Pentecostal service to hear what an author had to say about the New Age Movement.  During the warm-up to his rather shallow insights, a women prophetess was called to the stage to provide futuristic insight and to speak in tongues.  It was totally hideous to say the least.  Not only did she violate this clear passage on women speaking in tongues in the church, there was no interpreter, and frankly, it made absolutely no sense.

Third, those who claim to be prophets or spiritual-minded need to recognize that what Paul is writing is “the Lord’s commandment.”  Failure to agree is to put oneself on the shelf as someone who does not need to be recognized.  His word has divine sanction and is final and those in opposition should be noted and silenced.

Finally, Paul reiterates the importance of prophesying, but does not discount the possibility that there are some who might speak in tongues.  “But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner.”  Again, anyone who has witnessed what takes place in many charismatic or Pentecostal churches, particularly when certain individuals are “slain in the spirit” and begin to babble, can attest that things tend to get out of hand fairly quickly.  That is not something which is of God.

There is an order to God’s church and service, particularly when it comes to speaking in tongues and prophesying.  Going beyond that order simply because someone “feels the spirit” and has the impulse to engage in mindless jawing needs to think twice about what they’re doing.  Since that “spiritual” impulse is not from God, then they need to reconsider just where it is coming from and then go join a congregation or setting that better suits the impulse or simply repent and quit doing it altogether.

Therefore, speaking in tongues is a gift that some may possess today.  It is not for everyone, though.  And when someone claims to possess the gift of tongues, there are some very specific biblical guidelines that have been given to (1) validate the claim and (2) sanction their practice.

In over 30 years of watching and listening to those who claim to be able to speak in tongues, I have yet to find one person who actually followed the biblical paradigm.  That is not to say that someone in the world does not possess the gift, only that with such a clear biblical mandate on the subject, I have yet to meet a person who fulfilled the criteria.  I suspect that if I live another 30 years I will not find one who will either.  Perhaps when I meet 2,000 people who genuinely prophecy in a biblical sense, I’ll come across my first genuine tongues speaker.