What’s the Gift of Tongues?

What’s the Gift of Tongues?

Paul talks about a gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:10, 30), and then returns to the topic of tongues and how they work in the gathering in 1 Corinthians 14.

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit… to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” — 1 Corinthians 12:7-8, 10

Paul says tongues are a gift from the Spirit for the common good.

But what are they?

You’ll notice that the footnotes in most Bibles chimes in with a helpful ‘or languages’ in chapter 12. The Greek word is glossa which is both the word for tongue and for language. These tongues need some sort of interpretation, also provided by the Spirit, which suggests they are otherwise unintelligible to the hearer.

When Paul returns to the issue of tongues in chapter 14, here are some of the things he says:

  1. Tongues are not directed to people, but to God, uttering ‘mysteries by the Spirit.’ (1 Corinthians 14:2)
  2. Tongues edify, or build up, the individual (without interpretation) (1 Corinthians 14:4, 13)
  3. Tongues are useless if they do not bring clarity to people. Intelligibility is the goal for speaking with love to one another (1 Corinthians 14:6-12).
  4. Tongues have meaning; but that meaning will be foreign to somebody who does not speak that same tongue (1 Corinthians 14:11).
  5. Tongues can be used for prayer; where the ‘spirit is praying but the mind is unfruitful’ (1 Corinthians 14:14).
  6. When other people are around it is better to pray with both spirit and understanding; because when we are praising God in the Spirit it is a good thing that an inquirer be able to understand and come to agreement with what is going on (1 Cor 14:15-16).
  7. Tongues are a legitimate way to give thanks to God, but not in circumstances when others are able to be edified by your words (1 Corinthians 14:17).
  8. Paul is thankful that he speaks in tongues, but ‘in the church’ would rather ‘five clear words’ for the sake of others than ‘ten thousand words in tongues’ (1 Corinthians 14:18).
  9. Paul has a rule about the use of tongues in church gatherings — that speech in church is to edify those present, so without an interpreter the tongue speaker is not to speak in tongues; but should ‘speak to himself and God’ (1 Corinthians 14:26-28).
  10. Paul also says not to forbid tongues, but to approach the gift through these rules.

So that’s what Paul says about tongues and how they function in the life of the church. But what exactly are they? It’s hard to be clear on this (except on how they should or shouldn’t be used in gatherings of believers) and to call the debate on what tongues are in the life of the global church substantial would be an understatement, but the nature of a post like this is that it’s of most value if the writer takes a position (while acknowledging an incredible diversity of views). So here goes. I believe there are two senses in which tongues occur in the New Testament, and that both of these occur in different ways in the life of the church today (and that there are some churches who practice the second in their corporate gatherings, sometimes without heeding Paul’s rule for the use of tongues outlined above).

1. Foreign human languages being spoken and understood or interpreted

This includes spirit-led proclamation of the Gospel that transcends human language; or people speaking in one language and being heard by listeners in their own. This is the Acts 2 picture of tongues. It sees tongues as human language or the Spirit interceding to make human language intelligible to others (without a human interpreter). In Acts 2 the apostles proclaim the Gospel and a number of people who speak different languages simultaneously hear their message in their own tongue.

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” — Acts 2:4

In this view tongues are human languages, which fits with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14, and so apart from the miraculous in the moment translation of the Spirit, it would seem that an interpreter is one who speaks the language and relates the meaning of what is spoken to everybody else.

“Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.” — 1 Corinthians 14:9-11

An example of how this might play out in the life of our church is that at our South Bank campus we often have people speaking Farsi up the front; our Iranian brothers and sisters read the Bible in Farsi, and when an Iranian is being baptised we often have a Farsi prayer; the way to make those moments inclusive rather than exclusive is to have them translated into English. The reason to have those moments in the service is to translate some of what is happening (especially the most important bit — the Bible reading) into the heart language of some members of the body. We work around the intelligibility of the other parts of the service by working through the talk midweek with people who have the capacity to translate, and by conversations that help our Iranian brothers and sisters speak English. We work to minimise the sense that we, as members of the body of Christ, are foreigners to each other.

2. A language of the Spirit where words are inadequate

I have friends who pray in tongues in a manner consistent with Paul’s description of tongues being a language spoken to God where the Spirit is engaged but in a way without the ‘understanding’ also being engaged; there are no doubt times where the anguish or groaning or elation of our Spirit can not be articulated in the right words, but where taking those feelings or emotions to God is a vital part of relationship; it’s interesting to me to consider how people without language for various reasons might pray too, and this would enable that sort of communion or communication with God. This seems to fit with how tongues might work privately as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians, and with a picture of how the Spirit intercedes and interprets for us to make our desires clearer in prayer as Paul describes this in Romans 8, where Paul says:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies…

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. — Romans 8:22-23, 26-27

There are some things it is clear tongues are not, from 1 Corinthians 14, they are not an essential gift of the Spirit that mark whether or not a person has the Spirit dwelling in them; the measure of whether a person has the Spirit comes from earlier in Paul’s letter — it’s a question of whether a person is living by the Spirit and ultimately whether they are seeing Jesus and the message of him crucified as true (whether they have what Paul earlier calls ‘the mind of Christ’). The mark of a person having received the Spirit is that they worship Jesus as Lord:

“You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. — 1 Corinthians 12:2-3

This is what we should be using our God given tongues to declare; and declaring it in ways that are able to be understood by the people around us is our calling; that’s why Paul, if he had to choose, would pick prophecy over tongues, or five clear words over 10,000 in tongues.

Nathan Campbell – Campus Pastor, Creek Road South Bank