The gift of tongues, or (as I prefer to call it) the gift of languages, is the most controversial of the all the spiritual gifts we find in the New Testament, and that's saying something. It attracts more extreme comments than any other gift, from both sides of the aisle. Many Pentecostals regard it as the sine qua non of Spirit baptism, and many conservatives regard those who use it (or claim to) as emotionally suggestible, unbiblical, or perhaps even demonic; damned if you do, damned if you don't. In between, a huge number of Christians—especially, it seems to me, in North America—are open to the gift of tongues in theory, but extremely cautious (or even frightened) in practice, not least because it is so often practised in sub-biblical or even downright bizarre ways. As someone who writes a lot about theology and prays in languages most days, I have a few thoughts about that.
Here are ten points that need to be borne in mind when developing a theology, and practice, of the gift of languages:
1. The gift of languages on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and the gift of languages in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 12-14) are almost certainly different. This is true whether or not we see Paul as alluding to the difference in his famous comment about “the tongues of men, and of angels.” The former were immediately understood by those who heard; the latter required interpretation. The former demonstrated blessing, as those who speak other languages understand, in reversal of the curse of Babel; the latter demonstrated judgment, as those who speak other languages do not understand, in fulfilment of Isaiah (1 Cor 14:21). The former is assumed to function like prophecy by Peter (Acts 2:16-18); the latter is explicitly differentiated from prophecy by Paul (1 Cor 14:4). The former had a declarative, even evangelistic, purpose, and is aimed at people: “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” The latter is described in terms of prayer, song and thanksgiving, and is aimed at God (1 Cor 14:13-19). The purpose of the former is the edification of the hearer; the purpose of the latter, if there is no interpreter, is the edification of the speaker. The two are, therefore, highly likely to be different in form. If Paul was addressing the use of the Pentecost-style gift of languages in Corinth, I suggest, he went about it in a very strange way.
2. The eschatology of the New Testament suggests that both forms of the gift continue until the return of Christ. The continuation of Pentecost-style languages is strongly implied by Peter’s interpretation of it within its eschatological context (Acts 2:14-21); Peter sees the gift of languages as an example of exactly what Joel said would characterise the “last days,” which (last time I checked) have not finished. (As an aside, some of my favourite miraculous stories centre on people who have heard the gospel in their own language through someone who has not naturally learned it. Talk about the reversal of Babel.) The continuation of Corinth-style languages until the parousiais clearer: “you are not lacking in any charismata, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7), and of course, “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (13:8-10).
3. At least two of the Church fathers make reference to the continuation of the gift of languages beyond the apostolic period. Here’s Irenaeus (c.180): “In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God ...” Or consider how Tertullian taunts the heretic Marcion (c.210): “Let him produce a psalm, a vision, a prayer—only let it be by the Spirit, in an ecstasy, that is, in a rapture, whenever an interpretation of tongues has occurred to him; let him show to me also, that any woman of boastful tongue in his community has ever prophesied from among those specially holy sisters of his. Now all these signs are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty.”
4. The gift of languages should be pursued. All gifts of the Spirit, including the gift of languages, should be earnestly desired (1 Cor 14:1); Paul says he wants all believers to speak in languages (14:5); he says that whoever prays in a language builds themselves up (14:4); and he speaks in languages more than anyone (14:18). This is not the same as saying that all church meetings should include languages, or that they are sub-biblical if they don’t (see #5, below); but it is to say that, according to Paul, we should desire to speak in languages.
5. The use of the gift in a public meeting is only legitimate if its purpose is to build up the church. In the church, the gift is not for self-expression, or ecstatic encounters, or especially vivid prayers, let alone proof of spirituality; it should only be used out of a desire to love (13:1-13) and edify (14:6-12) other believers.
6. Practically, that means that in the church, languages should always, always be interpreted. If they aren’t, they shouldn’t be used in the first place (14:27-28). This is not just because we want to build up the church, but also because we don’t want unbelievers—who in Corinth, as in the modern West, were expected to turn up in Christian meetings—to think we have all lost our minds (14:23). It seems to me that the common Charismatic practice of singing in other languages in public Sunday meetings, all at once and without any interpretation, clearly falls foul of Paul’s instructions here.
7. Therefore, anyone who speaks in languages in public should pray that they may interpret what they have said (14:13). In Charismatic churches that I have experienced, this is possibly the most ignored instruction in the chapter: it remains pretty common for people to go to the microphone, drop the T-bomb, and then walk straight back to their seat, leaving the meeting leader and the rest of the congregation stranded until/unless someone else comes forward (which sometimes happens, but by no means always). This, we might suggest, is at risk of being the opposite of building up the church.
8. Not all believers will speak in languages. This is true of all spiritual gifts, as is clear from Paul’s string of rhetorical questions in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30 (“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?”), but is frequently denied when it comes to the gift of languages, usually on the basis of the common connection between Spirit baptism and language-speaking in Acts. Yet not only are people filled with the Spirit without languages being mentioned, even in Acts (4:8, 31; 8:14-17; 9:17-19), but Paul uses the fact that no gift is given to everyone as a basis to argue that the church is a body (1 Cor 12:17-20). Everybody has some gift(s); nobody has every gift; no gift is given to everybody; so we all need each other.
9. There is no scriptural precedent for teaching people to speak in languages by imitating someone else’s sounds. (“Repeat after me: ba-car-ash-und-al ...”) I suspect this sort of thing also makes the entire gift look bogus to an awful lot of Christians, let alone unbelievers—and even if it didn’t, it would surely detract from the sudden, spontaneous phenomenon we read about in the book of Acts.
10. Banning tongue-speaking is manifestly unbiblical. “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor 14:39). Given such an explicit apostolic instruction, it is remarkable how many have done exactly this, based on an assumed discontinuity between Paul’s day and ours for which (as we have seen in #2, and maybe even #3) there is very little justification.
That’s a starter for ten. If you want to follow this up, you might find Sam Storms’s message at Convergence helpful on the subject, although practically speaking, there is little substitute for actually seeing the gift practised and handled well in a local church. So eagerly desire spiritual gifts! But all things should be done in a fitting and orderly way.