What Was the Gift of Tongues, and Why Don’t We Practice It?

nbelievers, invited there to begin a several-week investigation of Christianity, arrive at a catered midweek service. There, they meet their group leaders who encourage them to ask questions about the faith. Aspects of the Gospel are presented over the next few weeks with hopes that unbelievers will repeat the sinner’s prayer, and many will. They are now ready for their Holy Spirit Weekend, where they will gather to lift their voices in chaotic syllables and tones—where they will learn to sing and pray “in the Spirit.”

I’ve attended one of these Holy Spirit Weekends, but since I did not believe the Holy Spirit endorses tongues “singing,” I took on the role of an observer. The instructions I heard were similar to those given by Charismatic radio broadcasts. Get rid of doubt and fear. Ask, and the Father will give you the good gift of the Holy Spirit. Open your mouths in faith and begin producing sounds, and the Holy Spirit will take control. As the guitar plays, listen to what beautiful music the Spirit moves us to produce.

Charismatic glossolalia or tongues-speaking can produce a unique euphoria, especially if preceded by lengthy worship sessions. When one releases his inhibitions, there is a certain freedom that follows a time of unguided, non-cognitive utterances. When young believers first embark on these kinds of experiences, many find them addictive, especially if they come from a non-religious background. It's natural for someone to feel more spiritual afterwards—refreshed, in a sense.

Intriguing as this may be, our church does not invite believers to such sessions or to seek such experiences. We do encourage Christians to seek the Holy Spirit, and the first place to go in such an endeavor is the Word He inspired. There, we read about a very different gift of tongues. When we ask the question, “Does God call His children to speak and pray in tongues?” we get a negative answer.

First, we must note that God does not like experimental religion. When the people of Israel arrived at Mt. Sinai, they began work on a tabernacle or “dwelling place” for Yahweh. But when the inaugural day came, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offered unauthorized or “strange fire” (KJV) and died on the spot (Lv 10:1–2). God replied, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (v. 3). His message was clear that day: those approaching Him will come respect His terms, not their own.

After Pentecost, the church grew at an exponential rate, both numerically and spiritually. Because of their overflow of love for one another, no Christian had need (Acts 4:32–37). Ananias and Sapphira, however, had their own interests in mind when they sold property and gave some of the funds to the church. Peter replied that they “have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:4), that they were testing the Holy Spirit (v. 9). Their deaths remind His children that God still wants to be approached with a reverential awe, for “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (v. 11).

Both of these events occur at the beginning of a new move of God. Even with all of the excitement accompanying our new lives in Christ, we must temper ourselves according to what He has already revealed. We should ask what Paul did when wading through matters of the Spirit: “But what does the Scripture say?” (Gal 4:30). Indeed, a better respect for God’s Word would have saved those four lives; praise God for His mercy to the rest of us!

Second, when we evaluate what Scripture says concerning tongues, we find they operated differently than those in Charismatic sessions. Though there are a few verses that seem to give tacit approval to tongues as a prayer language, there is no clear passage stating such. Indeed, the passage that records the clearest example of tongues-speaking, start-to-finish, is Acts 2, and there it involves preaching in previously unlearned languages for the purpose of evangelism.

While most Charismatic believers agree with this assessment of the Acts 2 Pentecostal experience, they believe Paul introduces a second kind of tongues-speaking in 1 Corinthians 14, one that is a private prayer-language (that can also be “sung” at some gatherings, depending on who you ask). However, this would create tension between the theologies of Paul and Luke—did they believe the same thing concerning tongues? We can be sure that if the Holy Spirit was guiding holy men to pen the very words of God, then there is no contradiction between Paul and Luke. Moreover, these two men were friends who traveled together through Corinth. Considering that Luke wrote Acts after the Corinthian question of tongues arose, and that he composed it with a major focus on Paul, it seems illogical that Luke’s presentation of Pentecost was meant to be anything but a clarification of how the gift historically operated for the benefit of those who were misusing it.

First, Luke is consistent in his presentation of tongues in Acts. In Acts 11:15–17, Peter reflects upon the Gentiles’ tongues-speaking. He said, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning” (v. 15), believing that “God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us” (v. 17). Luke records another tongues experience, this time with the disciples of John the Baptist (19:6); he records that Paul continued with those disciples for two years “so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (v. 10). Luke’s presentation of tongues, then, demonstrates a consistent pattern of foreign, unlearned languages that always confirms a move of the Holy Spirit and, at least twice, accompanies evangelistic endeavors.

Is this different from Paul’s presentation? Paul presents tongues as evidence of a move of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12; it is a “manifestation” of the Spirit (v. 7). Paul recognizes it as a speaking gift (12:30; 14:2; 5), but nowhere does he call it a prayer language. Through the Spirit, he says, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning” (v. 10), and the most common Greek word he uses, glossa, means “language” (cf. 12:10, 28; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4, 5, 9, 13, 18, 19, 22, 23, 26, 27, 39). He also confirms that “tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers” (14:22). Thus, Paul also presents tongues that are a previously unlearned language spoken in the Spirit that is for evangelistic purposes.

Yet, is there a possibility that Paul also includes discussion on a prayer language in 1 Corinthians 14? Paul’s mention of the “unknown tongue” in 14:2 and 5 (as the KJV has it) is corrective—they desired the “showy” gifts (cf. 12:31) whereas they were supposed to seek to edify the church. They were misusing tongues for the same reason Ananias and Sapphira deceived the brethren: they wanted attention. Paul responds that tongues are useless without interpretation (cf. 12:10; 14:5, 13). He asks them to honestly evaluate the situation: “If I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you” (v. 6)? His point is that they claim to want to edify the church, so they should focus on gifts that can actually do that (like prophecy), and save tongues-speaking for another time (like when there is someone there who can understand what is being said). In this light, 1 Corinthians 14 does not have verses endorsing a privatized prayer-language, it has verses correcting the misuse of tongues in congregational worship.

In summary, we should not experiment with spiritual gifts in the name of worship. If we are confused by what Paul means in 1 Corinthians, we can study Acts because it gives consistent examples of tongues-speaking. Both books present the same gift—glossalalia was a sign-gift to unbelievers, particularly Jews of the disaporia or dispersion (those who speak other languages), so they can come to faith in Christ.

This invalidates the relatively new tradition that there is a special prayer language for believers. The Holy Spirit does not call us to speak in any other language than our native tongues when we pray. His Word only knows of tongues that are human languages. Moreover, since they are so closely related with prophetic and Apostolic ministries, we agree with the majority historical consensus in classifying it as a foundation-level gift that served a first-century purpose.

We know that the tongues issue has been clouded with questions and controversy for more than a hundred years, but hopefully this clears some of the fog and reveal why we choose not to endorse tongues-speaking here.
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