The gift of tongues needs no introduction. I am sure you have heard of someone tell of how they speak in tongues. If not then at least you have heard someone teaching about this gift. Others have written articles and books about the gift. One statement I have heard is that “tongues are angelic languages” However, only the Bible can tell us whether they are angelic because it is from the Bible that we learn of tongues. So then what does the Bible say? What are tongues or what is the gift of tongues? To get a clear definition of this gift one must know the origin word “glosa.” The word tongues (glossais in greek) means a language or dialect (known spoken language). Generally when people spoke in tongues in Scripture, it was to praise God (tell of his wonderful works). Therefore, speaking in tongues is the ability given to someone by the Holy Spirit to praise God by word of mouth in an unlearned language. To get a clear understanding of what the Bible teaches I seek to explain the nature of this gift, the purpose of the gift and finally the practices of the gift today. All thoughts and ideas are based on Scripture.
First of all it is clear from Scripture that people heard and spoke known languages and not gibberish. In Acts 2:8 some of the men were actually amazed at how they were able to hear other people speak in their own native tongues (languages). The second thing that should be noted is that not everyone gathered was given the ability to speak in another tongue. In Acts 2 only those upon whom the Holy Spirit fell were able to speak as the Spirit gave them utterance. In 1 Corinthians 14:27 the Scriptures actually indicate that when people are gathered for worship there should be three to speak at the most. In line with the second point is the systematic flow of the tongues spoken. By this I mean that not everyone would speak at the same time but that the ones speaking should do it in an orderly manner, one after the other (1 Corinth 14:27). Another trait that we see is the interpretation of the tongues spoken 1 Corinth 14:6,13, 27). Anyone who spoke in tongues would see to it that interpretation is done or else keep silent (1 Corinth 14:28)
It is clear from Scripture that the ultimate purpose of this gift was to assist the unbelieving people especially the Jews to believe in the saving work of Christ (1 Corinth 14:20). For some Jews, it was for them to believe that salvation had also come to the gentiles (Acts 10:46). You will note that in the three instances when tongues were spoken, in the book of Acts, Jews were present (Acts 2:4-5, 10: 44-46, 19:6).
The practice of the gift today
We have surveyed the Scriptures and have an idea of the nature and purpose of the gift of tongues. Based upon these truths we can assess and judge whether today’s tongues are scriptural. First of all, today’s tongues are said to be “angelic language” This means that no one is able to understand what a person is saying when he begins to speak in tongues. The support verses used for this claim are 1 Corinth 13:1, 14:2. In both cases it is important that one looks at the context in which these verses are used. For example in 1Corinth 13:1 all the Scriptures are saying is that love for fellow believers must be the basis for desiring spiritual gifts. Therefore by using the phrase “tongues of angels” the writer is saying that no matter how heavenly the tongue (language) may sound, it will not do any good to the body of Christ if it is not motivated by love for the fellow believer. The Scriptures in 1 Corinth 14:6-12 again emphasize that tongues must be known languages because no language is without distinction. In Acts 2:1-12 we see a group of people who were actually amazed at how they were able to hear others speak in their own native tongues.
Another error we see in today’s tongues is that 99% of the church speaks in tongues. This again is not biblical. If it were true, we would see two or at the most three speaking according to 1 Cor 14:27.
Another questionable trait in the present practice of tongues is the lack of interpretation. Remember that the sole purpose for the spiritual gifts is so that believers are edified. But without interpretation of the tongues no one is edified except the one speaking if at all they are (1 Corinth 14:13, 27). And that then is not love but selfishness.
Another questionable observation in the tongues for today is that there is a lack of order. The practice is that almost everyone starts shouting on top their voices and then “as the spirit leads” they stop after some time. The Bible in 1 Corinth 14:27 indicates that there should be some order in the way everything is done. The maximum number should be three and the ones speaking should speak in turns, one after the other.
Lack of self control is another error we see today when people are “speaking in tongues.” The speaker loses awareness. He does not have control of when to start and when to stop speaking. If it means going on for an hour then so be it. And immediately the congregation finishes “speaking”, they begin to sing or do something else. The problem with this is that it goes contrary to the Scriptures teaching that the believers practice self control and that God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinth 14:33). Self control and order in the church will accommodate interpretation of tongues. However, how does one interpret if he is not given chance to do so? How does one get edified if the tongues are not interpreted?
Lastly, the tongues for today are said to be a way to show or prove that someone is saved. Biblically speaking, tongues have nothing to do with salvation. Someone who is saved we are told in Scripture that he has the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and this is manifested in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). In 1 Corinth 14:30. Paul actually asks rhetorically whether it is all who are suppose to speak in tongues. It’s certainly not all. If all who are saved are suppose to speak in tongues then it defeats the whole purpose of spiritual gifts. The goal is to bring edification to the church. But if the whole church speaks in tongues then who interprets? If the whole church speaks in tongues then all should possess the other gifts as well, and if that is the case then it means the members of the church do not need each other because all have the same gifts, and if this is the case again then all that is done today is contrary to what the Scriptures says in 1 Corinth 12:12-20. It is clear in these verses that the body of Christ is not just a single member (tongues) but a body with many parts, (faith, wisdom, teaching, hospitality etc) yet one body.
Spiritual gifts are for edification of the body of Christ. According to that which we have seen from the Scriptures in regard to speaking in tongues, the present practice is not biblical. Remember that the spiritual gift you have is not meant for you but for the edification of others. Therefore use your gift to build others.