The Facts About Tongues – A Biblical Look At Tongues

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Major Debates & Deep Divisions Over Tongues

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Preface

Generally the topic of tongues invokes strong emotions and feeling either for or against one of the specific Spiritual Gifts known as the gift of speaking in tongues.

While some based their emotional and feeling on various factors, the Scriptures are fairly clear regarding the gift of tongues. Yet while some will classify their positions as liberal or conservative, orthodox or modern today in attempts to classify their feeling in terms of man’s understanding, the follow is intended to be a factual well-documented writing on the topic of tongues.

To goal in this writing is not contribute to the already highly emotional debate over the topic of tongues, rather provide Scriptural information on a non-emotional level to provide additional insights on this topic.

While is expected that those whole to a particular viewpoint may  continue to do so despite the objective evidence, it is with the utmost respect that these differences on doctrine issues be held in such manner as to respectfully disagree without being disagreeable.

Continuation vs. Cessation

At the heart of the disagreement among those that profess a belief in the valid operations of the gift of tongues today and those who oppose such views, is the disagreement that centers on the continuation of the spiritual gifts or their cessation.  Following is a discussion of both viewpoints.

Continuations – such as Pentecostals, Charismatics and Evangelical Christians generally all affirmed the continuation of the charismatic gifts in the modern church or hold to the concept of a “Latter Rain” in the outpouring of Holy Spirit gifts. 

Continuation submit to the belief that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are still distributed today, are in use, and are needed in the church is known as Continuations.  

They general believe the same Holy Spirit that inhabited the Apostle Paul and gifted him with supernatural abilities present during Old Testament times are present today. 

That there are those endowed such abilities based upon who God specifically selects to accomplish His works in New Testament times. Continuations believe this same Spirit still moves and works in the contemporary church today.

Cessations – In whatever walk of Christianity across denominational and non-denominational  belief systems that the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, prophetic utterances and faith healing, ceased with the early in Christian Church.  Those who hold this point of view are known as cessations.

Cessations – Divided Into Two Types

Classical Cessations assert that the “sign gifts” such as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues ceased with the apostles and the finishing of the canon of Scripture.  They do not accredit new The New Testament canon regarding these gifts. However some Classical Cessations believe that the miraculous gifts can take place where the message of salvation is being propagated to a tribe or nation which is unfamiliar with the Gospel.

On the the other hand Full Cessations assert that no miracles are performed by God today. This argument of course depends on one’s understanding of the gifts. 

A Cautionary Note

This writing deals and specifically is restricted to two of the twelve Spiritual Gifts in I Corinthians 12:10 related to divers kinds of tongues and interpretation of tongues.  The Office of the Prophet or those who claim to be modern prophets alleging to be speaking on behalf God in some type of directive message is not address here.

The Gift of Tongues

The gift of tongues is one of the most controversial Spiritual Gifts of this day second only to those individuals claiming to be modern-day Prophets and Apostles with good cause as it relates to the later.

Some claim that the gift of tongues is no longer operational today or that God has withdrawn the gift from use in the body of Christ.  The most ardent critics of the gift of tongues claim that anyone who speaks in tongues today that this person is simply deceived or being deceptive.  On the other hand, many claim that this gift is not only still available, but alive and operational in the body of Christ as a blessed gift from the Holy Spirit.

Adding fuel to the fire regarding modern discussions in connection with the gift of tongues was the publication The Bible Knowledge Commentary by co-editor John Walvoord in 1973. A Christian theologian and president of Dallas Theological Seminary from 1952 to 1986.  Walvoord in his personal viewpoint concluded that the gift of tongues was only temporary and that the contemporary speaking in tongues of today is considered “babbling without known words or language…without supernatural inducement.”

This contributed to the rift between opposition camps with some like Walvoord going so far as to describe tongues speakers as psychologically unbalanced, again continuing the debate on an emotional level instead of an exegetical and theological one. Others more reasonably  and without the emotional fanfare argued that the gift of tongues was meant exclusively for New Testament times only and was not present or available today.

The following will attempt to sort this out the confusion in the area regarding the gift of tongues and present non-emotional and cogent positions that the gift of tongues is still in operation today. The following is a discussion on the distinction between tongues as a message to the gathered assembly of believers (as found in the list in I Corinthians 12), and tongues as a prayer language Paul mentions in I Corinthians 14.

Tongues Not A Simple Classification

The Greek word for tongue is “glossa”, and the Greek word for speak is “lalia”. Thus, glossolalia is to speak in tongues. The gift of tongues is an exceedingly complex gift, and it may be the gift with the most variables of operation and function.

Tongues is considered a prayer language in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4), and according to some, in this context all Christians may speak (pray) in tongues. Again this view is held by some, but not all believers in the operation gift of tongues. Inasmuch as not all called into ministry or to speak on behalf of God as a called upon true Prophet of God. Therefore, tongues is considered one of the gifts of the Spirit of I Corinthians 12, and in this context not all shall speak in tongues (I Corinthians 12:30).

The speaking in tongues can lead to personal edification (I Corinthians 14:4); but it also functions as a means of edification of the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:7, 14:5). It may function as a Spiritual Gift in a type of prayer (I Corinthians 14:15), and it may be exercised as a form of worship (I Corinthians 14:15).

In this context, the message of the tongues is to God, not to men (I Corinthians 14:2); but it is also an avenue in which messages are given to man from God (I Corinthians 14:21). When interpreted (see the following writings on the Gift of Interpretation), it is equal to prophecy (I Corinthians 14:5); and it may even function as a sign of judgment to unbelievers (I Corinthians 14:22).  Thus, there are many functions of speaking in tongues.

For instance, one might argue that tongues cannot be used to edify the body of Christ since Paul said that when one speaks in tongues, he is edifying himself (I Corinthians 14:4). Paul also said that tongues, when interpreted, has the same value to the body of Christ as prophecy which is edification (I Corinthians 14:5). The complexity adds to confusion over tongues to those who have only an ancillary understanding on the topic and application in tongues from an emotional level.

Devotional Tongues and Gift of Tongues

Adding to this confusion is use of devotional tongues and the operation of the gift of tongues. There are two essential and cardinal distinctions of tongues. First, there is what may be called “devotional tongues” or one’s “prayer language.” This “prayer language” is seen throughout the book of Acts.

The Classical Pentecostal position is that speaking in tongues is the initial, physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. However, this is not the same as receiving the gift of tongues in the assembly as message from God intended for publication to the assembled. Second, the gift of tongues as is found in I Corinthians 12:10 is that gift in which not all may not have (I Corinthians 12:30).

Tongues As A Gift

Speaking in tongues has been described by some as speaking in languages that may not be known or understood by the speaker. This position has added to the controversy on the topic of tongues by non-supporters who argue that if the person speaking in tongues does not know what they are saying, then how do they know its God speaking? 

A fair question to be covered in a moment, but a further definition might include the fact that this ability to speak in tongues is by direct unction of the Holy Spirit and is entirely supernatural which in such cases the connection is made supernaturally.

First, it is the Holy Spirit who gives the speaker the “utterance.” “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them”…“as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).

So, a “complete” definition for consideration of tongues could be: (1) speaking in languages that may be not known or understood by the speaker, (2) by direct unction of the Holy Spirit and is an entirely supernaturally, and  (3) speaking that comes as the Spirit gives the utterance.

Second, while the speaker uses his own tongue and muscles, the words come forth under the unction of the Holy Spirit, not from the speaker’s own mind. Its God speaking through this person or communicating an immediate message from God to His people in a corporate setting. This is a proper use of tongues under these circumstances and conditions as set forth in the Bible.  Use of tongues in will be discussed more in the following.

Personal Responsibility

The gift of tongues, like prophecy, is within the control of the individual exercising the gift. Also like prophecy, Paul gave Christians guidelines concerning the exercise of the gift of tongues (I Corinthians 14:26-28). Paul’s guidelines concerning tongues would be invalid if it were not possible to choose voluntarily to follow those guidelines. By giving instructions about “tongues order,” Paul thereby implies that the individual is in control of the exercise of this gift.

If someone feels that he or she has been given a tongue (message) from God for the body of Christ in assembly, but there has already been three messages in the corporate setting, this person has the responsibility to remain silent thereby following the guidelines Paul has given.

Thus, it is in the individual’s control to choose to speak an utterance of tongues or to refrain from speaking. Therefore, in the exercise of tongues within the gathered assembly personal responsibility tempered should be the guiding rule.

The ultimate purpose the gift of tongues in the gathered assembly with interpretation (the other guideline requirement) is for the edification the body of Christ (I Corinthians 14:26).  Those that do not follow these guidelines cannot shift the responsibility to being out of control or not in control the Holy Spirit as the reason for their misconduct.

Tongues and Personal Edification

The private exercise of the gift of tongues, whether in the body of Christ (I Corinthians 14:28) or alone (I Corinthians 14:18-19), is also edifying for the speaker. Thus, there is a tremendous benefit for the individual who speaks in tongues alone as part of their devotions to God.

This use of the gift of tongues is seen by many to be a prayer language in the Holy Spirit. Because of Paul’s teaching that the use of tongues is under the control of the individual speaking; one may willfully engage in prayer tongues for personal spiritual edification… “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” (I Corinthians 14:15).

Tongues is a medium of prayer and worship, for Paul says that when one speaks in a tongue, he is speaking to God (I Corinthians 14:2) and that one may both pray and sing in tongues (I Corinthians 14:15). Further Jude says that one can build himself up in the most holy faith by praying in the Holy Ghost, i.e., tongues.

It is essential that when tongues goes forth in a corporate setting it’s for edifying the gathered, an interpretation is required by either the speaker or another to provided in unambiguous language, the statements on what God has intended for His people.

When Private Use Is Out of Order

There has been much written about the subject of tongues as a sign, and not everyone agrees on the interpretation of Paul’s words concerning tongues being a sign for the unbelievers. The Scripture which contains Paul’s statement of tongues as a sign is I Corinthians 14:20-25.

Some consider tongues as a negative sign to unbelievers who think Christians who speak in tongues are insane. This is why Paul says, to limit their operation to two or at the most three, and then only with interpretation the follows.

Tongues does not indicate to the unbeliever that God is present or a supernatural manifestation to the unbeliever since the unbeliever has even yet come up to bat from God and Jesus. So their lack of understanding is understandable and fully expected.

The only apparent power that tongues has on the unbeliever is to convince him that the church is full of unbalanced people. So, tongues appears to be a sign to the unbeliever as a negative sign and a sign of judgment have been reserved for question.

Adding to the confusion is the private (individual) function of tongues that some use in the public setting of the gathered assembly in simultaneous operation with others exercising their private (individual) function of the same gift.

In other words, more than one is exercising the private use of tongues in a public setting or some churches allow the entire congregation to speak and sing in tongues at one time with no need of interpretation which tend to rub both the uninitiated and non-supporters of tongues to wrong way.

For those who have been rubbed the wrong way the following is offered as consideration regarding an explanation. The reason this is allowed sometimes is that it understood that each person knows that he or she is individually worshiping and edifying God by himself and not giving an utterance to the body for the purpose of collective edification. In this setting, each individual is exercising their privilege to speak in tongues for personal edification with no need of an interpretation which is completely in order.

In a worship setting, the private prayer language and not a message from intended for the entire assembly that is spoken out loud by a person who possesses this gift that can be confusing to the unlearned in this area.  This is the very reason why Paul set fort certain guidelines to help avoid the unlearned with feeling alienated.

Nevertheless,  such persons speaking out loud at the same time for the purpose of individual edification when allowed by the minster or pastor in charge grants permission is acceptable since such use does not require an interpretation as not being intended for the assembly rather as for worship of the gathered.

Many church leaders argue that since these tongues (i.e., prayer tongues) are Spiritual Gifts not intended as messages to the body, but rather are the private prayer language of individuals as they speak to God, they do not fall within the guidelines that Paul laid down concerning messages through the gift of tongues.

Therefore, such private tongues need not be limited to two or at the most three and no one need interpret, as the use is one of personal use and personal worship all occurring at one time in a corporate setting.

 Summary Tongues

The gift of tongues is an exceedingly a complex gift as with the most variables of operation and function of some spiritual  gifts. There are two basic distinctions of tongues.

The first is as a “prayer language,” which is displayed in the book of Acts and in the teachings of Paul (I Corinthians 14:14-15). The second is the gift of tongues which is listed as one of the gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 12:10.

Speaking in tongues is speaking by direct unction of the Holy Spirit in a language that may not be known or understood by the speaker. Speaking in tongues is the combination of the natural (i.e., man) as a willing vessel and the supernatural (i.e., the Holy Spirit).

The operation of the gift of tongues is within the control of the individual exercising the gift and within the control of the individual speaking in tongues. The private exercise of the gift of tongues is edifying for the speaker.

Tongues and interpretation are equal to prophecy in the end result for edification.  Tongues and interpretation is a message from God to man in the same way as is prophecy. It is the individual who prays in tongues not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables the individual to speak, but it is the individual, not the Holy Spirit, who is speaking while it is the Holy Spirit giving the message to be spoken.

The Gift of Interpretation

Much of the information that has gone before concerning tongues and prophecy apply to the gift of interpretation because: (1) it has the same outcome as prophecy, i.e., a Spirit-given word to the body of Christ, and (2) it works in conjunction with the gift of tongues. Therefore, this  discussion will be brief and will not repeat the aforementiond information.

Like tongues, the gift of interpretation this is not a natural talent, but a gift of the Holy Spirit. The gift of interpretation of tongues is the interpretation or translation of tongues so that those present may understand the utterance of the tongues and thereby be edified. 

Interpretation of tongues is the supernatural power to understand and utter the significance of the mysteries spoken in diverse kinds of tongues. The gift is the supernatural power to understand tongues.

The gift of tongues is useful to the edification of the body of Christ only when interpreted. Therefore, some believe the gift of interpretation should be sought by those who already have the gift of tongues.

“For this reason the man who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says” (1 Corinthians 14:13). While this is the belief of some, this is not always and if often not the case.

This exclusive position does not take into account the fact that it is entirely possible for a person who is gifted in tongues and speaks is such a manner as directed by the Holy Spirit, that the utterances can be understood by a person of another culture or language that does not have the gift of tongues. We see evidence of this fact from the book of Act on the Day of Pentecost. 

It is very important to note here that despite the prior comprehensive discussion on the validity of tongues, it is for reason in the lack of interpretation or that the messenger gifted in tongues may not be understood what they are speaking or worse yet what is being spoken in the culture or language another, that many hold that tongues is not valid today.

This is the error in wisdom and fact that John Walvoord the Christian theologian and president of Dallas Theological Seminary ran into when trying to debunk the operation of tongues in modern times. The gift of interpretation expressed in the content of an utterance in an unknown tongue is often not understood by the uninitiated or unintended, but it does not invalidate the gifts of tongues or interpretation.  

Private tongues are edifying only to the speaker unless the complimentary gift of interpretation is manifested. When interpretation of tongues takes place, the entire assembly is edified (I Corinthians 14:5). This is considered pubic tongues.

Some of the main guidelines for prophecy apply equally to interpretation. One key point that bears repeating is like prophecy, an interpretation of tongues needs to be judged because of the various sources from which the interpretation may derive.

An evaluation is also necessary because the gifts by spiritual gifts are incarnate by possession in nature, and the Scripture states that we are to test the spirits to see if they are of God (I John 4:1-3).

Next, like prophecy, it should be noted that nowhere in the Scriptures are tongues and interpretation used as initial guidance and direction from God. Thus, tongues is the interpretation similar to prophecy that can be used as confirmatory, but never initially directive (i.e. stating the will of God).

The gift of tongues will be useful to the edification of the body of Christ only when interpreted. Therefore, the gift of interpretation should normally be sought by those who already have the gift of tongues. “Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.” (I Corinthians 14:13).

Abuses of Interpretation

There have been abuses of the twin gifts of tongues and interpretation obvious to anyone who has watched these gifts for any length of time. This has caused many to call in question these gifts. Those who misuse these gifts for personal gain have caused many in the body of Christ to call into question these gifts and their effectiveness.

Legitimate examples of people misusing the gifts of the Spirit are the outward demonstrations of actions that are nothing more than a demonstration of a person’s fantasy or even of demonic influence, which is passed off as a gift of the Spirit. All of these things must be guarded against.

The fact that there are those who would misuse the gift of interpretation (or claim to be exercising it when, in fact, they are not exercising it at all), only proves that Christians must follow Paul’s commands concerning the guidelines of the gift, and that they must weigh carefully every manifestation that is purported to be a gift.

Summary on Interpretation

The gift of interpretation is the divinely given ability to interpret a message in tongues. Its purpose is to make the message in tongues understandable to the congregation. Interpretation of tongues edifies the members of the body of Christ (I Corinthians 14:5).

The interpreter may not have any natural knowledge of the language being spoken. Interpretation comes directly from the Holy Spirit. The main guidelines for prophecy apply equally to interpretation. It needs to be judged. It is not to be used for initial guidance and direction from God.

Christians must follow the Scriptural regulations of the gifts of tongues and interpretation. The twin gifts are not to be uncritically accepted, but they must be judged and weighed to see whether they be of God or not.

Paul sets an absolute limit on the number of tongues in a single service. Since they are a sign of judgment to the unbelievers or at the most three messages in any single gathering, and someone must interpret these messages. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should quietly speak to himself and God (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).

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