Speaking in Tongues

Scott Crocker


What is the gift of tongues or speaking in tongues? Speaking in tongues is “speaking in a language either unknown to the speaker or incomprehensible to the speaker.”6

Speaking in tongues is referred to in Greek as glossolalia, which is taken from two words — glossa and lalia. Glossa refers to: 1) the physical organ of the tongue; 2) something shaped like a tongue; or 3) a language or dialect. Lalia refers to speech. Thus, glossolalia refers to speaking in languages or tongues.

It does need to be mentioned here that there is a wide spectrum of belief on the issue of speaking in tongues. There are some who would say that the existence of this gift has ceased since its purpose was completed when the biblical canon was established. Others claim that speaking in tongues is the only definitive evidence that one is actually a Christian.

For our purposes here, I will attempt to take a more middle-of-the-road approach on this matter and provide a biblical framework for speaking in tongues.

THE PURPOSE OF TONGUES

First Corinthians 14 clearly states that the gift of tongues is unprofitable if what is said is not interpreted and, therefore, not understood. Also, the fact that those who possessed this gift could be commanded to control their speaking (14:27-28) indicates that this gift was not one that was an uncontrollable ecstatic utterance. Rather, when the term glossa is used biblically, it refers to a known human language. The apostle Paul encourages believers to not be immature in their thinking when it comes to spiritual gifts and, thus, it is important to understand what the Bible does and does not teach about the purpose of speaking in tongues.

According to 1 Corinthians 14:22, tongues are not for believers, but for unbelievers as a sign from God. Tongues were used as a sign to authenticate God’s message and activity in unbelieving people groups. They were also used as a sign to unbelievers who had rejected Jesus as the Messiah (see 1 Corinthians 14:21). In the early church, God used the gift of tongues to demonstrate to unbelieving Jews that He was, in fact, identifying Himself through this gospel message.

There are some who would argue that tongues are good for self-edification and use 1 Corinthians 14:4 to back up that claim. However, it is clear from the context of that passage that Paul is downplaying the significance of this gift. He does not put utmost importance on it and is essentially saying, “What good does it do to speak in tongues when no one else knows what you’re saying? It doesn’t help anybody, but just makes you feel better about yourself.”

For those who would argue that tongues are proof of one’s salvation or evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in one’s life, it is important to note that speaking in tongues is not unique to Christian cultures. Look at what author William Fitch has to say:

In many parts of the world, glossolalia is a well-known fact of life. Buddhist and Shintoist priests speak in alien tongues while in a trance. Speaking in tongues exists as much in South America as it does in India or Australia … Whatever else we may say about glossolalia, we cannot escape the fact that it is not a phenomenon unique to Christianity.7

Since it is known that non-Christians can speak in tongues or even that this can be a learned behavior among Christians, isn’t it unwise to base the judgment of one’s relationship with God on such a faulty foundation? In fact, this gift has often been used by immature individuals as a weapon to demonstrate their deeper spirituality over someone else’s. But if, in fact, this gift demonstrates that one has a deeper relationship with God than others do, couldn’t we logically conclude that this spiritual depth would result in greater Christ-likeness and not in a judgmental and impatient treatment of others?

It is a tragedy that some have been made to feel that their salvation should be questioned, that their walk with God is not sincere or even that they are not as special in God’s eyes as others who have exhibited this gift. Those who turn the Christian life into the “haves” and the “have nots” do a great disservice to the gospel and can hinder others from experiencing the abundant life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. Since Jesus (or even the apostle Paul) never indicated that the gift of tongues is the measurement for one’s spirituality, we would be wise to not emphasize this gift either.

CRU’S STANCE ON SPEAKING IN TONGUES

As an interdenominational movement that seeks to minister to all segments of the body of Christ, the leadership of Cru realizes that there is division within the body of Christ over the matter of speaking in tongues. Just as we deal with any doctrinal issue that is not central to the work to which God has called us, we ask our staff, volunteers and student leaders to avoid division or confusion by not emphasizing the gift of tongues or using this gift publicly.

Cru takes a biblical stance on speaking in tongues, arising from the framework laid out in 1 Corinthians 12-14, and we as a movement neither condemn nor condone its use. In allowing the private use of tongues, we are not endorsing or promoting tongues. Rather, we are giving freedom to spiritually mature leaders within Cru — who believe they have the gift — to choose whether God would have them exercise the gift of tongues privately.

The person being considered for leadership within Cru who privately speaks in tongues must demonstrate strong spiritual maturity and a trustworthiness that they will not promote tongues. The bottom line is that any Cru staff, volunteer or student leader who feels that he or she has the gift of tongues must refrain from:

a) promoting the public or private use of that gift, and b) using the gift of tongues publicly — restricting any practice of tongues to his or her private devotional life.

HOW TO RESPOND

As has already been mentioned, there are varying perspectives on this matter within the body of Christ. So how should we deal with this issue when it arises? There are several principles that can be followed:

  1. We should understand clearly what the Bible teaches about this subject. We should listen to God’s Word on this matter and not just our pastor or favorite televangelist. Familiarize yourself with 1 and 2 Corinthians, as these matters are addressed thoroughly in those two books.
  2. No matter what our opinion on the matter is, we should always speak the truth in love. If a discussion on speaking in tongues cannot be entered into without an argument, then it is unnecessary to have the discussion.
  3. We must not attack those with whom we disagree on this issue. No matter what our perspective is, we should recognize that this is not a matter over which it is worth breaking fellowship. If someone feels so strongly about speaking in tongues that he or she can’t coexist with you because you don’t agree doctrinally, then it is that person who has the problem, not you.
  4. If our church practices this gift, it is reasonable that it be done according to Scriptural guidelines:
    • The gift is not for everyone (1 Corinthians 12:30).
    • Without a translation, the practice of this gift has no value (1 Corinthians 14:1-5).
    • It is more important to speak in your own language (1 Corinthians 14:18-19).
    • No more than two or three are to speak in tongues in one service (1 Corinthians 14:27).
    • There should be one speaker and interpreter at a time (1 Corinthians 14:27).
    • If there is no interpreter, the person who has the gift of tongues should remain silent (1 Corinthians 14:28).
    • The gift of tongues is not uncontrollable (1 Corinthians 14:32-33).

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