Someone asked me (again) the other day whether all Christians should speak in tongues if they are open to the gift? Or is it a gift only some Christians get? It is an important question, because if one believes all should or can speak in tongues those without the gift of tongues can feel somehow inferior. They can believe that there is something deficient in their relationship with God. On the other hand, some can take a position of spiritual superiority over others if they do speak in tongues believing that if only they are open then they will receive it. Let me add that I write this as a tongues-speaker having received the gift of tongues in my early days as a Christian. I often pray in tongues as a part of my prayer life.
Some False Ideas
There are a number of false ideas about tongues held by some Christians that can quickly be put to bed. One is that the gift no longer exists and that it was only for the time of the Apostles—cessationism. This view is often held by Classical Dispensationalists and 1 Cor 13:8 is used as support. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of this text which does not contrast the time of the apostles with the time of the church, but this present age with the age to come. There will be no need for tongues in the world to come, for we will all understand each other and be understood fully. Further, many Christians today have received this gift. This is clearly flawed.
Another is those who argue that there are two different gifts of tongues in the NT; one for private use and one for public use. This can be shown to be flawed with a quick look at the use of the Greek for tongues in the NT. There is one Greek word used across the NT for tongues, glōssa. It is found fifty times in the NT and used in different ways. It is not always used of the gift of tongues. Sometimes it is literally the human tongue (e.g. Mark 7:33; Rom 14:11; Rev 16:10); figuratively of someone’s ability to speak (e.g. Mark 7:35); of speech (Acts 2:26; 1 John 3:18); of a mouth with which one speaks (Rom 3:13; 1 Cor 14:9; Phil 2:11; Jas 1:26; 3:5, 6; 1 Pet 3:10); tongues of fire (Acts 2:3); and languages (Acts 2:11; 1 Cor 13:1; Rev 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15). In some instances, it refers to the spiritual gift of tongues (Mark 16:17; Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 28, 30; 13:8; 14:2, 4, 5, 6, 13, 14, 18, 19, 22, 23, 26, 27, 39).
In the uses for the spiritual gift, the same Greek word glōssa is used each time. If there were two gifts, we would expect some indication in Paul’s language to indicate this. However, the language does not vary indicating it is the same gift each time. However, this same gift can be used in different contexts. When used privately, one can simply speak out in tongues for personal edification uttering mysteries in the Spirit to God (1 Cor 14:2–4). When used publically, Paul expects that the utterance will be translated or interpreted using the accompanying spiritual gift of “interpretation” (1 Cor 12:10, 30; 14:13, 26, 27). There is no basis for suggesting there are two different gifts. There is one gift, but it can be used in different contexts. When it is interpreted in public, it effectively becomes prophecy as it builds up the body.
Third, tongues are not always a known language (xenoglōssia). However, it appears that sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not. In the Acts 2 outpouring, the tongues were clearly recognisable. In the other situations, it is unclear whether they are known or not. In 1 Cor 13:1 Paul mentions the “tongues of angels or of people” indicating that perhaps he or the Corinthians believed that they could be known languages or the spiritual languages employed by angels (1 Cor 13:1). Contemporary studies on tongues supports that they are usually unknown. I personally know of two first-hand accounts of people discovering that their language was known. One spoke royal Fijian, the other Tunisian.
Fourth, denominations that state you are not a Christian if you don't speak in tongues are patently wrong and heretical. The discussion below will make this clear.
Fourth, denominations that state you are not a Christian if you don't speak in tongues are patently wrong and heretical. The discussion below will make this clear.
Should All People Speak in Tongues
Now, returning to the initial question, should all people speak in tongues, or is it available to all Christians if they are open to it? The data of the NT emphatically says no. Why? Here are the reasons.
First, there is no evidence that Jesus spoke in tongues. Jesus performed miracles, healings and prophetic utterances. However, there is no reference to tongues in his practice. Surely, if it is an essential component of the gifts of the Spirit we might find something in the Gospels to suggest so. There is nothing indicating that Jesus had a special prayer language. This does not rule out that he did, but it is not mentioned. And that it is not mentioned is interesting if it is so important.
Secondly, despite Mark 16:17, in fact, Jesus never taught that all believers will speak in tongues. The only reference to tongues in the Gospels is a later addition. It is found in Mark 16:17: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” Students of the NT know that this is that Mark 16:9–20 is part of the longer ending of the Gospel and not part of the original text of Mark. That is noted in most modern translations even if the verses are included. You can see further on this at http://drmarkk.blogspot.co.nz/2006/12/ending-of-marks-gospel.html. This passage is a later addition to the original Gospel of Mark. Indeed, it is certain Jesus never said these words. Rather, later Christians summarized what had happened in Acts and the experience of the church and created an ending because they were unsatisfied with the strange and abrupt ending in Mark 16:8. Further, the passage does not say all believers will speak in tongues. Neither does the passage say that all believers will cast out demons, all will heal, all will pick up serpents, and all will drink deadly poison and not die. Some Christians like Paul did these things, others did not.
Thirdly, in the five accounts of the various fresh outpourings of the Spirit in Acts, tongues not found in every instance, but only in three of the passages. It is a common misnomer that every recipient of the Spirit in Acts received the gift of tongues at the time. Tongues are mentioned in the accounts of Pentecost, Cornelius’ family, and Ephesus (Acts 2:3; 10:46; 19:6). Tongues are not mentioned at the accounts of the receipt of the Spirit for Paul (Acts 9:17–19) and Samaria (Acts 8:17–18). We know from 1 Cor 14:18 that Paul did at some point receive the gift and speak in tongues but there is no mention of it at his conversion and receipt of the Spirit through Ananias.
What is often not noted sufficiently is that other things happened when the Spirit fell in those three that do mention tongues. At Pentecost they are also impelled into the street and Peter preaches (Acts 2:5–41)—they have received power to be Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8). Cornelius’ family not only spoke in tongues, but “extol” (megalunō) God (Acts 10:46). The Ephesian believers also “prophesy” (Acts 19:6). In Paul’s case, he is healed of his blindness (Acts 9:18). The Samarian account indicates that something unspecified happened. Simon Magus was impressed with some evidence and saw that the Spirit had fallen and tried to buy it (Acts 8:18–19). However, what he saw is unclear. It can’t be assumed he saw or heard them speak in tongues. This is an argument from silence. Did Simon see them praising? Did he see some healed? Did he see them prophesy? Did he see the Spirit’s fall manifest in some other way (falling over? Crying? Laughing?, etc.). Who knows?
Importantly, it is important to note that it does not say in Acts 10 and 19 that “all” of Cornelius’ family or the Ephesian believers spoke in tongues. Nor does it say that all 3000 who were baptized at Pentecost received the gift of tongues (Acts 2:38–39). They received the Spirit, but what gifts manifested remains unknown. In these instances, it may have been some of them did. It can’t be assumed; it is another argument from silence or read into the text (eisegesis).
We can also note that tongues came twice when the Spirit fell spontaneously (Pentecost, Cornelius), and once with the laying on of hands (Ephesus). There are one or two other occasions where Luke speaks of outpourings of the Spirit, including after the prayer of Acts 4:31. In that instance, the Spirit fell, the room was shaken, and they spoke the word with boldness. The amazing events of Acts 4:32 onwards including radical material sharing, the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, the miracles of Peter, and further evangelistic zeal can be linked to this experience. Yet, tongues are not mentioned and cannot be assumed.
One more thing should be noted. There is no set order of reception of the Spirit as if there is a “second blessing” through the laying on of hands. The Pentecost recipients certainly believed, then received the Spirit. However, the Spirit fell spontaneously. Similarly the Samaritans, who received the Spirit through the laying on of hands. Cornelius’ family received the Spirit in the middle of a sermon, before baptism and the laying on of hands. Paul received the Spirit after meeting Jesus by Ananias laying hands on him. The Ephesians received the Spirit after faith. Neither is there a mention of a set “second blessing” sequence in of the other 25 books of the NT. In fact, Paul is quite clear, you receive the Spirit at conversion (e.g. Eph 1:13–14; 1 Cor 12:13). There is no set order to God’s work, the Spirit blows where the Spirit wills (John 3:8). This does not mean that some Christians do not have subsequent experiences of the Spirit including some speaking in tongues. This is when the Spirit who is already in us does a fresh work, such as impart something new. I have had a number of such experiences. However, it is not as if I received the Spirit at that point—I was already indwelt by God, but now the Spirit was doing something new. We should always be open to such fresh imparting, we should “continually be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18).
What we can say from Acts is that the Spirit fell on people either spontaneously or by the laying on of hands and sometimes some people received the gift of tongues. They also received other experiences such as prophesying, praising God, healing, deliverance, strong mission-power to witness, an impulse to radical material generosity, and miracles.
Fourthly, tongues are only mentioned in Paul in one section of all his letters, in 1 Corinthians 12–14. Paul makes no mention of it in his other twelve letters. Very importantly, it is not included in the gift lists of Romans 12:4–8 and Eph 4:11. Romans was written to a non-Pauline church, and if tongues were so critical, I would imagine Paul would mention it. Yet he doesn’t. Why? In 1 Corinthians tongues is mentioned alongside interpretation as one of many gifts in 1 Cor 12:8–10. There is no suggestion that this gift or any of the gifts listed is given to all believers. Indeed, the point Paul is making is the very converse; no one gets all the gifts, each gets some, and God, Father, Son and Spirit, decides what he gives to each (1 Cor 12:4–6). That is, “to each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:8). And, “all these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” The implication is not that all get all, but that all get some, as God apportions. Similarly, there is no suggestion all get tongues any more than all get the gift of miracles or healing. There is no basis for putting others down because they have received tongues or any of God’s gifts. Nor is there any basis for spiritual smugness among those who do speak in tongues or move in another gift. We are all one in Christ, equal, who have different gifts and roles.
The next reference is 1 Cor 12:27–31. In v. 28 Paul lists gifts which “God has appointed.” In v. 29, Paul asks a series of Greek questions beginning with the Greek mē. As Greek grammars and lexicons indicate, when a Greek question begins with mē and the indicative, it expects the answer “no” (e.g. BDAG, 642; EDNT, 2.242). In this string, Paul’s questions then read: “Not all are apostles are they? Not all are prophets are they? Not all are teachers are they? Not all have miracles do they? Not all have gifts of healing(s) do they? Not all speak in tongues do they? Not all interpret do they?” This could not be clearer in the Greek. Paul is emphatically making the express point that not all receive the gift of tongues. He ends with tongues and interpretation to emphasize it so that the Corinthians do not elevate the gift of tongues over other gifts as they seem to be doing. It is patently obvious that only some Christians are appointed to be apostles and prophets. Similarly, only some Christians speak in tongues. This is such basic Greek that is unquestionable and it amazes me that people including some biblical teachers persist in arguing all should speak in tongues. They either show utter ignorance of the Greek or find some creative loophole. One is to argue that there are two different gifts. However, as I have shown above, the consistent use of glōssa in the NT rules this out (above).
Paul goes on to say more about tongues. In 1 Cor 13:1 he states that love is more important than any gift of tongues. This verse highlights to the tragedy of Christians with the gift of tongues lovelessly looking down on others who don’t. If they do, their babbling is no more use than an annoying clanging cymbal! That is really annoying! It is tragic that misinformed Christians who believe the NT says all should or can speak in tongues make others feel inadequate for not doing so. This is a violation of the essence of Christian ethics—love! That is one of Paul’s main points in 1 Cor 13!
In 1 Cor 14:1–25 Paul gives careful instructions concerning the meaning and use of tongues. Likely, some of the Corinthians were into tongues big time and their meetings were out of control with their use. Some were likely looking down on others who did not have the gift. Paul says a number of things concerning tongues. Christians should pursue gifts that build others up, especially prophecy. He demonstrates that prophecy is more important for the church than tongues because it builds up the community not just the individual. Tongues are a personal prayer language in which one speaks mysteries to God. Tongues are for personal edification. Paul wishes all could speak in tongues. Note however that he does not say all will and all should. His personal desire is that all do. Yet, he would strongly prefer that all prophesy. The one who prophesies is “greater” than the one who speaks in tongues, as he or she builds the church up. Paul emphasizes the importance of interpretation—one should only speak in tongues in the church gathering if it is interpreted. He gives a number of illustrations to make this point in vv. 7–11. The person who brings the message in tongues should seek to interpret it themselves. He speaks of the importance of the tongues message being interpreted so that people can understand and affirm what is prayed (vv. 13–17). He is grateful that he speaks in tongues (v. 18). Yet, he would rather speak five instructive words in a common language than 10,000 words in tongues if they are not understood. For Paul, tongues are a negative sign to believers of judgment or of Christian “madness.” Whereas, tongues are a positive sign for believers, as they build the church up. He warns the church to avoid corporate tongues speaking, as it will alienate outsiders and unbelievers.
Put simply, there is nothing in 1 Cor 14 to suggest all will speak in tongues. Paul would like all to do so, but I am sure he would like all believers to have all the gifts, to heal the sick, raise the dead, walk on water, feed the poor, prophesy, etc. Knowing that not all receive the gift, he is much more concerned about the other more important gifts—gifts that build up, like prophecy. All in all, tongues are great for those who have the gift, but there are way more important gifts that build up, and believers should seek these (“the greater gifts”).
Fifthly, aside from Acts and 1 Cor 12–14, there are no references to tongues in the supernatural gift sense in the NT anywhere. I have already mentioned that in twelve of Paul’s thirteen letters tongues are not mentioned. And it is only mentioned in one section, 1 Cor 12–14. If tongues are so important, one might expect that they would be mentioned much more and included in his other gift lists. Further, in Hebrews, James, Peter’s two letters, John’s three letters, Jude, and Revelation, there is no mention of them.
In sum, it would seem pretty clear-cut that believers should not expect that everyone who receives the Holy Spirit will necessarily speak in tongues any more than all will be prophets, apostles, work miracles, have the gift of healing, or the many other gifts listed in the NT.
On the other hand, we should expect that some will speak in tongues. Indeed, that is what the empirical evidence suggests—some receive the gift, some do not. I know great Christians from a range of denominations who do speak in tongues, I know many who don’t. There is nothing deficient in those who do not speak in tongues. The Spirit gives as the Spirit wills. Somewhat ironically, one can argue that as tongues is a gift given to believers for their personal edification, those who do not receive it may be the stronger Christian because they have not received it!
Irony aside, what is clear is that we must no longer allow tongues to divide us or become a basis for pride or inadequacy before others. The NT is clear, if we believe in Jesus we have received the Spirit as a seal (e.g. Eph 1:13–14; 2 Cor 1:21–22; 1 Cor 12:13). The signs of that receipt are things like ongoing faith, a preparedness to confess Christ as Lord and a refusal to ever curse him (1 Cor 12:3), love (1 Cor 12:31–13:13), a missiological impulse (e.g. Acts 2), radical generosity (Acts 4), for some miracles (Acts 5), the inward witness of the Spirit (Rom 8:16), and so on. And remember, the greatest of these is the most excellent way, love (1 Cor 12:31; 13:13).
If a Christian desires to have the gift of tongues, that is fine and they should ask God to bless them with it. If God chooses to do so, that is his prerogative, for “he distributes them (the gifts) to each one, just as he determines” (1 Cor 12:11). If he doesn’t, no worries, we are secure in Jesus and we have received the Spirit. Personally, I would take Paul’s advice and seek the greater gifts—those that build up the people of God (1 Cor 12:31; 14:1).
So, if you have had prayer for the receipt of the Spirit and tongues, and have not received it, relax! It’s ok! You are ok! Don’t let others put you down and rob you of your status as a child of God, signed and sealed by the Spirit, destined to be delivered to eternal life, an heir of the universe, etc. On the converse, if you do speak in tongues, stop putting others down who do not. To do so is to violate the primary fruit of the Spirit—love! There is no basis for spiritual arrogance. Read 1 Cor 12:11–13:13 very carefully, and live out of love! As Paul says in Phil 2:3, “consider others above yourselves!”
Shalom in the Spirit.