What is the purpose of speaking and praying in tongues? Should all Christians speak in tongues?
Although the phenomenon of speaking in tongues is described in only two books in the New Testament – Acts and 1 Corinthians – it has attracted much attention and controversy in the church. No consensus has been reached among Christians from different backgrounds and denominations about its place in the church today, and contradictory and conflicting views continue to persist. On one extreme end of the spectrum is the cessationist view that asserts that tongues, together with the other miraculous gifts described in the New Testament, have ceased at the close of the apostolic age. On the other end, Pentecostals maintain that tongues are a universal gift in the church and that every Christian should speak in tongues.
In his discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul devotes much attention to the gift of tongues. What was Paul referring to when he speaks of the gift of tongues? I think we can describe tongues as the gift of ecstatic speech. As this passage from 1 Corinthians makes clear, the Holy Spirit bestows this gift on some Christians. Unlike the practices of some cults and pagan religions, however, tongues-speech in the Christian church is not a type of somnambulism where the speaker is in a trancelike state.
Commenting on the phenomenon in Volume 4 of his magisterial Church Dogmatics, the Swiss German theologian of the last century, Karl Barth, describes speaking in tongues as ‘an attempt to express the inexpressible in which the tongue rushes past … the notions and concepts necessary to ordinary speech and utters what can be received only as a groan or sigh, thus needing at once interpretation or exposition’. For Barth tongues-speech is not a ‘bizarre stuttering and stammering’, but rather an ecstatic flow of inexpressible joy.
The phenomenon of tongues-speech in the Corinthian church must be distinguished from that described in Acts. The tongues that the disciples spoke at Pentecost were actual foreign languages (xenolalia). Hence Acts 2:8ff states that the bewildered crowd was able to hear the Galileans praise God in their own languages. But the tongues that were spoken by members of the Corinthian church were unintelligible to both speakers (14:14) and hearers (14:16) and required Spirit-enabled interpretation. This phenomenon is arguably similar to that which is found in some contemporary churches.
Tongues can be seen as a type of prayer for Paul says that the person who prays in tongues addresses God (1 Cor 14:2, 14). In 1 Corinthians, Paul asserts that when used in private devotions this gift can edify the believer. He explains further that with interpretation tongues can edify the whole church, and in this sense must be deemed as valuable as prophecy (1 Cor 14:5). Paul therefore urges his readers who have the gift of tongues to also pray for the ability to interpret (1 Cor 14:13). The apostle affirms the gift of tongues and even boasts that he uses this gift more than the Corinthian Christians (14:18). He teaches that the ability to speak in tongues is a gift that the Holy Spirit bestows upon Christians. This gift is to be received with gratitude and exercised for personal edification as well as that of the community of believers.
Some Christians think that speaking in tongues is a higher form of prayer. Such a view must be rejected. In 14:14-15 Paul emphasizes that praying with the mind (i.e., praying intelligibly with one’s understanding) is just as important as praying in the spirit (i.e., praying ecstatically in tongues). The context of 1 Corinthians 12-14 also suggests that some believers in the church at Corinth had elevated the gift of tongues above the other gifts. In this letter, Paul takes great pains to refute this teaching. In verse 28, Paul delineates the various gifts of the Spirit in a hierarchy (indicated by his use of ‘first, second, third’, etc) and places the gift of tongues at the very bottom of the list. Furthermore, Paul rejects the view of some believers in Corinth that only truly spiritual believers could speak in tongues (12:29).
Some Christians (Pentecostals and some charismatics) have associated the ability to speak in tongues with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I hope address this topic in another article. The question that I wish to deal with in the final few sentences of the present article is whether Paul had expected every Christian to speak in tongues. Paul certainly desired that every Corinthian Christian would speak in tongues (14:5). But as the rhetorical questions in 12:29-30 make clear Paul did not expect every Christian to possess this gift. This is perfectly congruent with Paul’s insistence that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are distributed according to the sovereign will of God.
Let me end by underscoring Paul’s closing remarks on this topic found in 1 Corinthians 14:39-40. Because tongues-speech is controversial and problematic, there is a tendency for some to prohibit it altogether. Paul’s response is unequivocal: ‘do not forbid speaking in tongues’ (v. 39b). How can the church prohibit what God by his grace wishes to grant? But tongues-speech must be regulated and practiced in a ‘fitting and orderly way’ because God is not a God of disorder (14:33). In dealing with this controversial practice, Paul counseled propriety, not prohibition.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (June 2014).