Bible Q&A: What is the gift of speaking in tongues, and is it for today?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question: What is the gift of speaking in tongues, and is it for today?  

Answer:

The gift of tongues is one of the gifts of the Spirit described in the New Testament. 

These gifts are things God allows us to do to serve and encourage one another by his power, and they signify that a believer has the Holy Spirit in their lives. They are exercised through faith.  

One problem is deciding whether what modern-day Christians mean by the gift of tongues matches what the Bible says. Today, speaking in tongues can also be described as glossolalia:  the speaker makes utterances that form words, but the words can’t be recognised as belonging to a known language such as French or Latin. This happens frequently in Pentecostal and charismatic traditions, where these words are believed to be spoken under the direction of the Holy Spirit, meaning they have spiritual significance.  In 1 Corinthians 13.1, Paul mentions the tongue ’of angels’ in the context of speaking in tongues. In light of this, many charismatics interpret the language to be a heavenly or spiritual language.   

The purpose of speaking in tongues as laid out in the Bible is for edification, or encouragement. 1 Corinthians 14.4–5 says that a person speaking in tongues edifies themselves, and that when accompanied by an interpretation it edifies the whole church (Paul also makes clear that a person should pray for an interpretation of what they say).  

The present-day activity of speaking in tongues is easily observable if you go to a charismatic service or event. However, some would argue that the utterances charismatic Christians today believe are a spiritual language are not true speaking in tongues. These ‘cessationists’ believe that the gifts of the Spirit have ceased, or are no longer available to believers after the generation of the apostles passed away.   

Cessationists argue that the phenomenon seen in charismatic circles doesn’t match the depiction of speaking in tongues in the Bible. They point to Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers and they began praising God in different languages, and those around on the streets began to hear and recognise the languages that they grew up with. They argue that in Acts, the early Christians were clearly speaking in discernible languages of other nations rather than incomprehensibly. However, an alternate reading of this passage is that it was a miracle of hearing rather than the gift of tongues – that those around the believers heard what was being spoken in their language, not that the languages were themselves being spoken.  

The gift of tongues is also talked about in detail in 1 Corinthians 14. Verse 2 talks about the gift of tongues as utterances that ‘no one understands’, and as ‘mysteries’. The emphasis is on the mysteriousness of the language; this could be referring to a natural language being spoken when no one else can understand it, but this description also fits the mysteriousness of charismatic glossolalia. We cannot know for sure the nature of the language being spoken, but we can try to imagine the context and see if Paul’s language surrounding it fits – for example, we can read about the expected reaction of an unbeliever to hearing it. From 1 Corinthians 14.23 we can see that the tongues are thought to be quite shocking or even bizarre for others to hear. It is hard to imagine someone walking into a church and seeing a variety of people praising God in recognisably natural languages and thinking that they have lost their minds – why would they? On the other hand, it is easy to see why someone might react that way if the tongues in question were glossolalia. 

 Therefore, depending on our interpretation of this passage and of 1 Corinthians 13.1, there may be a scriptural basis for charismatic utterances – although again we can’t know for sure what the context of tongues in the Corinthian church was.   

However, there are many Christians who believe that the gift of tongues encompasses both glossolalia and speaking a foreign language that hasn’t been learned naturally. Even if we consider the gift of tongues to be speaking in foreign languages only, this does not necessarily mean that the gift has ceased. Although hearing someone spontaneously begin speaking a language they haven’t learned is rarer, there are many more recent accounts of it happening – for example, early in the Pentecostal movement in 1900, it was reported that Agnes Ozman (one of the first in the movement) began speaking in tongues, and she testified that a Bohemian (from the present-day Czech Republic) understood her.    

It is clear that at the time when these New Testament books were written receiving the gift of tongues was a frequent experience of believers. Mainstream Christianity has often been suspicious of gifts of the Spirit that seem to challenge the control exercised by religious leaders, like prophecy, healing and tongues. However, these manifestations of God’s power have repeatedly appeared in the life of the Church, and many Christians would testify to their sense of God being active in these ways. There are great dangers in gifts like speaking in tongues being seen as some kind of proof of God’s blessing, but many Christians would see them as genuine gifts nevertheless, and something to be thankful for.

 

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