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The Gift of Tongues

Posted in Living by Scriptural Principles

Man’s Modern Use of Tongues

On the previous page, we showed that God’s gift of tongues was in known languages to hearers who understood the message, which was of the gospel or prophecy. How is it that modern churches take these same scriptures to teach that all true Christians must speak in tongues that no one can understand?

When the modern day Charismatic Movement began at the beginning of the twentieth century, the founder, Charles Parham, understood the gift of tongues to be actual languages used for evangelic purposes. He believed that the Holy Spirit was giving his followers the ability to speak in actual languages. Only after going off into foreign countries to spread the gospel did they have to admit that in not one single instance were they actually able to communicate with foreigners.  

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the matter. Instead, the “gift of tongues” was said to continue, despite it not being in line with the examples in scripture. William Samarin, a linguistics professor from the University of Toronto, spent years visiting various charismatic groups in several countries, tape recording their tongues in order to analyze them scientifically. He stated that not one of the examples he gathered had any indication that it was a legitimate system of communication. The Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion also concludes that speaking in tongues is “not a human language” and “cannot be interpreted or studied” as such. Similarly, the Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion also states that it is “not a language”.

To overcome this conundrum, modern charismatic teachers claim that each person is given their own unique spiritual language.  Does the Bible teach a second type of tongues by every believer? Below we look at some of the texts used to justify this belief.

Some would point to 1 Corinthians 13:1, which mentions “tongues of angels.” What are tongues of angels? In every instance where an angel communicates in Scripture, it is in a known language, conveying an understandable message to the intended recipient. In fact, the Greek word for “angel” (Strong’s G32  “aggelos”) is often translated as “messenger”. Never do we see an angel/messenger speak an unintelligible series of non-language vocalizations. But more importantly, in this passage, Paul is actually using a hypothetical example. This passage is not saying that humans can and should speak in an unknown angelic language. He is saying that “if I were to speak in a tongue of angels…” but had not love, it would mean nothing. This passage is in no way encouraging speaking in tongues; instead it is encouraging an attitude of love over one of personal gratification when using this gift.

Another passage used by modern charismatics is 1 Corinthians 14:1-3, especially verse two referring to speaking to God. The context of this passage is not an endorsement or recommendation of a non-language verbalization, but rather showing how prophecy was a greater gift.  Paul is saying that an uninterpreted language benefitted no one, except perhaps God, because no human could understand it. This single passage was not intended by Paul as a mandate for believers to unleash an unintelligible string of non-language noise as a way to speak directly to God.

Some claim that Paul himself spoke of using a private prayer language in 1 Corinthians 14:18-19, but that is stretching what he actually says. He claims that he has spoken with tongues more than the Corinthians had. But nowhere does he claim it was done in private between him and God. More likely, it was during his journeys through other countries as he was growing Messianic churches. It is adding to Scripture to claim otherwise. Nor should we interpret this as any type of bragging or pride on his part, given that his whole purpose in this section of the book was to emphasize the necessity of love for others, the opposite of bragging and pride.

Paul was also clear to limit the use of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:26-28, and never taught or advocated that it should be done by an entire congregation simultaneously. In fact, 1 Corinthians 14:40 says exactly the opposite. Paul specifically states just a few verses earlier that God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33.)

Although often quoted in the context of the gift of tongues, Romans 8:26 is not germane to this topic. It speaks of the Spirit (not us) making groaning which cannot be uttered. It is clear that the groaning mentioned here is from the Spirit, not from us, and that this groaning is not spoken.

Modern charismatic churches teach that speaking in tongues is the true evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Yet Paul teaches that, while all of the people he was addressing in his letter had been baptized into one body and one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), just a few verses later he confirms that not all of them spoke in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:4-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28-30). Rather different members had different gifts. No one gift was claimed to be a litmus test of having received the Holy Spirit.

Where do we see non-language vocalizations now? Sorry to be blunt, but aside from charismatic churches, we only see it in pagan circles and insane asylums. The Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, under the entry of Glossolalia on page 349, lists “chants of voodoo witch doctors, African animists, and the Tibetan Buddhist Monks, the prayers of Hindu holy men, and the basic primeval sounds produced by others” as examples of glossolalia. The encyclopedia goes on to list the phenomenon as occurring in “known psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis or as the consequence of neurological disorders.”  Other sources also trace the practice back to ancient Greek mystery religions, and paganism from Eskimos, Tibet, and China.

There is not one single verse in Scripture that plainly describes what we see happening in modern charismatic circles. In his book Strange Fire, John MacArthur states, “In short, the glossolalia practiced by today’s charismatics is a counterfeit that by every measure falls short of the gift of tongues described in the New Testament.” He concludes that “there is no biblical warrant for such unintelligible babble. It is a false spiritual high with no sanctifying value. The fact that modern glossolalia parallels pagan religious rites should serve as a dire warning of the spiritual dangers that can be introduced by this unbiblical practice.”