Spiritual Gifts

The truth about speaking in tongues

speaking in tonguesSpeaking in tongues is probably in the top 3 issues that Christians disagree on.  Speaking in tongues, I hope to show you, is not what many Christians think it is and not what is happening in many churches today.  The Bible, not our experience, must always be our highest authority in doctrine and practice. 


This is article is for Christians, dealing with an in-house issue.  If you are not a Christian, you may not know what I’m talking about!  Please do read the article if the subject interests you.

Charismatic definition

According to “charismatic” Christians, tongues is a heavenly or angelic prayer language and is a sign that you are filled with the Holy Spirit.   You use this ecstatic prayer language (that you don’t understand) to pray to and praise God (in a language that apparently devil doesn’t understand either).   “Charismatic” and Pentecostal Christians view use 1 Corinthians 12-14 as justification for this practice.  Here are six simple points I hope will help clarify this thorny issue1:

1. The church in Corinth was not a model church

1 Corinthians  3:1-3 says,

1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh.

The church was full of spiritually immature, childish and selfish Christians.

1 Corinthians 14:20 says, 

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.

The Christians in Corinth were children in their thinking and mature in evil!  The clear implication is that when thinking about spiritual gifts and how churches ought to conduct themselves – don’t use the Corinthian church as a model.

2. The evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work is conversion, not speaking in tongues

Some people in the Corinthian church were saying, like some misled churches today, that speaking in tongues was the evidence, the proof, the verification that you have received the Holy Spirit.

In chapter 12:1-3 Paul says that your conversion, the fact you can say Jesus is Lord, is the proof of the Spirit’s work and your conversion.   Paul goes on to say in chapter 12 that speaking in tongues is but one of the spiritual gifts and the Spirit gives different gifts to different Christians.

3. Many passages in 1 Corinthians should be read ironically and sarcastically, not as positive instruction.

Irony is the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Sarcasm is the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.

In 1 Corinthians Paul often uses irony to convey the opposite meaning to emphasis what he saying.

Note the irony in 1 Corinthians 4:8

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 

The Corinthians did not have all things, they were not spiritually rich and they were not spiritual kings.  The Corinthians were the exact opposite.  They were lacking in basic Christian fundamentals, spiritually bankrupt and spiritual paupers.

So when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:2

For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

Paul is being ironical.  Because of their misuse of the gift of tongues, as in many churches today, they are uttering “mysteries” because the meaning is incomprehensible! They are speaking to “the gods” not people, for no-one understands them!

4. Tongues were real languages meant to be understood

1 Corinthians 14:1 says, 

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.

In Chapter 12 Paul said that God the Holy Spirit determines who gets what gift – no matter whether you desire it or not.  In other words, Paul says: “As a church, earnestly seek after the gifts – they are good things – and especially that as a church you may have the gift of prophecy.”

The Corinthian church was placing an unhealthy emphasis on one particular gift – tongues.  They said that tongues was the measure of spirituality and frowned on those who did not speak in tongues as being spiritually inferior.  What was worse, they spoke in tongues in a wrong, unhelpful and ecstatic way.


The first occurrence of tongues in the early church in recorded in Acts 2.   Jesus had ascended to heaven and it was the feast of Pentecost.  The followers of Christ were gathered in Jerusalem and God poured out his Holy Spirit into the world in a radically new way.   The believers were filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in other tongues.   Gathered in Jerusalem were also people from all over the known world.  As these believers spoke in tongues the foreign visitors heard the gospel in their own language.  

Thus, speaking in tongues is the supernatural gift or ability to speak in an unlearned known foreign language.  Speaking in tongues should be called speaking in languages.  The same word for “tongues” is used in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12-14.

1 Corinthians 14:2 says, 

For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

As we have seen, Paul is rebuking the Corinthian practice of speaking in tongues. The Corinthians were imitating the pagan mystery religious of the day, where adherents would go into trance like states accompanied by ecstatic, incomprehensible speech.

Felicitas D. Goodman, a psychological anthropologist and linguist, engaged in a study of various English, Spanish, and Mayan speaking Pentecostal communities in the United States and Mexico made the following observations:

when all features of glossolalia were taken into consideration– such as sounds, syllables, phrases and other elements (namely, rhythm, accent, and especially overall intonation)– she concluded that there is no distinction in glossolalia between Christians and the followers of non-Christian (pagan) religions.”

The speaking in tongues in many churches today is no different from the ecstatic speech in non-Christian religions.  The same thing was happening in Corinth.   In 14:2, Paul is negatively rebuking the Corinthians, not positively instructing them.  The word “Spirit” in v2 should not be a capital “S”, but “spirit”.   Paul is clearly against any kind of speech that is not intelligible (v 9).   Sounds and syllables without meaning are of no use.   “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning” (v 10).   

Throughout the chapter, Paul is talking about real languages with real meaning – that’s the proper gift of speaking in tongues.  The ecstatic utterances of the charismatic movement do not correspond to the New Testament’s definition of tongues.

1 Corinthians 14:11 says, 

…if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner (“Barbarian”) to me.

All true language has meaning and if the meaning cannot be understood it is of no value.  If the speaking in tongues is merely gibberish or free vocalization and has no translatable message, it is useless. Therefore the Bible insists that whenever tongues are spoken, they should be translated.  V13 says, “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.”

1 Corinthians 14:27-28 says,

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.

In other words, if someone is authentically speaking in tongues the speech has a message and the message must be translated for those who hear.   Even if the tongues-speaker is praying alone and no one else is around to hear, he is to pray that he may interpret.  Unfortunately this guideline is not what we observe in many  churches.


Rather than a sign of maturity or the Holy Spirit, misuse of the spiritual gifts is a sign of immaturity, according to Paul.  Paul was not arguing for the use of tongues as a private prayer language, but rather emphasized that when tongues is spoken, whether in public or private, or in prophecy or prayer, an interpretation is always to be required.

5. Speaking in tongues is not meant to be a mystical experience that bypasses the mind.

Paul’s overriding message throughout this whole chapter is that everything done in the corporate worship service is supposed to be edifying, up-building and encouraging to the hearers.   Paul is calling for intelligibility and understand-ability.  When we say something in a church service, the people in the congregation need to understand what’s being said.   Many Christians in our “spirituality” era have the totally wrong notion that true spirituality is something that bypasses the intellect and rational thought and operates mysteriously in the soul.   However, this sounds more like Hinduism than true Christianity.


Genuine Christianity is not anti-intellectual.  We do not believe that the mind is harmful to spirituality.   In fact, we believe true spirituality involves being transformed “by the renewing of our minds”. (cf. Romans 12:1-2)  We are sanctified by the truth, and truth is something we understand primarily with our minds.

1 Corinthians 14:13-14 says, 

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.

Paul is not positively teaching, but negatively rebuking the Corinthians for their mindless practices.

1 Corinthians 14:15-17 says, 

15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.

The notion that the mind or intellect is to be switched off while we seek some form of intellectually detached spiritual ecstasy is a completely wrong and immature thought.  In v17, Paul is telling us that the primary purpose of spiritual gifts is for building-up or edification.  This means the building up of the mind through a better understanding of the truth and this why utterances in other tongues must be translated.  What good is a message that bypasses the minds of the hearers?

Mind games

We don’t grow spiritually through trances, dreams, meditation or emptying our mind.  Rather, we grow spiritually when the truth is applied to our minds and our minds are transformed.  The Holy Spirit does not gift people with languages just to make weird noises.  There is always a message to be conveyed, just as at Pentecost in Acts 2, when the mighty works of God were proclaimed in the hearer’s own language.

If you are in a Charismatic church and you want to speak in tongues, you must remain silent, unless the message you have is going to be interpreted and understood.

1 Corinthians 14:28 says, 

But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.

What happens in many charismatic churches is that there is a time of “open” prayer and worship.  Just about everyone is speaking, praying or praising in tongues.  Result is a chaotic noise and incomprehensible babble.

1 Corinthians 14:23 and 33 says,

23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

The so-called “Toronto blessing” with uncontrolled laughter and falling is the exact opposite of what Paul was arguing for.

6. Tongues are a sign to unbelievers, not believers

1 Corinthians 14:22 says ,

Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is (a sign) not for unbelievers but for believers.

Here Paul contrasts tongues with prophecy, which he says is meant for believers.  Prophecy involved a message from God in a language everyone understood.   The message conveyed in tongues was intelligible only to those who understood the language.  For unbelievers, foreign or uninterpreted tongues are a sign of judgment.


Isaiah 28:11 has this promise about the Christ: “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people”.  When the Babylonians invaded Judah in 587BC and ransacked Jerusalem, and the Jews heard the Babylonian soldiers speak in foreign tongues, they were to remember that this was God’s judgment.   Uninterrupted tongues (the gift of speaking in foreign languages) were a sign of judgment to unbelievers.  On the other hand, interpreted tongues were a token of divine grace to those who heard the message of the gospel in their own language. Speaking in tongues was never intended to be an out-of-control ecstatic noise that no one understood.


What does Paul mean in v18-19?

v18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 

Paul is not against the true gift of languages, he does that himself!

v19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Paul is arguing for clarity; intelligible meaning that you can understand with your mind. This is how you become a Christian – when you understand the gospel – and how you grow as a Christian – as you understand the gospel and its implications more and more.

What is happening in charismatic churches today?

Felicitas D. Goodman concludes that glossolalia “is actually a learned behaviour, learned either unawarely or, sometimes consciously.”

We know that because often in charismatic churches people are taught to speak in tongues.


If you speak in tongues and you’re convinced its right, don’t make a big deal out of it.  It’s not a mark of spirituality.  What is a mark of true spirituality is conversion and growing to be more like Christ.   What if you are in very charismatic church?  Ask yourself: do they follow the guidelines of insisting on interpretation of tongues or is it a free for all?  If they are not following the guidelines, you need to leave that church because if they are not obeying God’s word in that area I guarantee there are other areas also where they are not following God’s word.  

The Apostle Paul says that we as Christians, especially teachers of the Bible, we must correctly divide the word of truth.   If you are part of a church that’s not doing that, you need to challenge the leadership to explain the conduct and if necessary leave that church for a church where God’s word is being taught and obeyed.  

The Bible must be the Christian’s highest authority. 


1. I’m relying heavily on the teaching of John MacArthur of Grace Community Church and that of Phil Johnson.


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