The body of Christ is diverse. Though united by the gospel, different interpretations of biblical texts have led to multiple Christian denominations. Each of these denominations holds to a doctrine—a set of biblically based beliefs—that characterizes their worldview.
While the diversity of the church has its benefits (more opportunity to evangelize, for example), it has also divided Christians on some theological issues. One such issue is the gift of tongues.
What Is the Gift of Tongues?
“Tongue” is another word for “language.” The gift of tongues is the supernatural ability to speak a different language through the power and influence of the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of glorifying God. We see the gift of tongues used and discussed several times in Scripture, specifically in the New Testament. Even Jesus testified that tongues would be part of the gospel’s influence:
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues…” (Mark 16:15-17)
The first recorded instance where the gift of tongues was used took place at the festival of Pentecost in Acts 2. As the disciples of Jesus prayed in an upper room, “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2:2-4) Their testimony—spoken in languages all the people within hearing distance could understand—brought many people to Christ that day.
The Apostle Paul further discusses tongues in 1 Corinthians 12. In this passage and others, he makes some clear points about tongues to consider as we develop our own stance on this issue.
Not Everyone Has the Same Spiritual Gift
Tongues are a gift of the Spirit. They are not forced, nor are they used to glorify personal ability. The purpose of tongues—just like any spiritual gift—is to spread the gospel and upbuild the church. That said, not everyone has the same spiritual gift:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)
Some members of the church may exercise the gift of tongues, whether in speaking or in prayer. Others may be gifted in teaching, prophecy (truth speaking), helping or healing (1 Corinthians 12:28, Romans 12:6-8). The Holy Spirit works in each person in a unique way, not so we can glorify ourselves with our gifting, but so we can point to the glory of God.
How Are Spiritual Gifts to Be Used?
All spiritual gifts are to be used in an orderly fashion with a spirit of love. Tongues can be a powerful force for the gospel, but like any gift, they are not to be used in a disorderly or self-glorifying fashion. When tongues are abused, spiritual gifts become little more than a show of emotion, no longer effective for gospel purposes. While Paul repeatedly encourages the use of tongues (1 Corinthians 14:5, 18), he also designated an order in which they could be practiced:
For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. (1 Corinthians 14:13)
He also notes that the purpose of tongues should not be forgotten:
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. (1 Corinthians 14:22)
Tongues are to be used to spread the gospel and encourage the body of Christ. That’s why tongues must have an interpretation if spoken publicly. Otherwise, “if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:23)
Tongues are effective only when practiced in a spirit of love (1 Corinthians 13:1) and honor. If we lose sight of God’s purpose in equipping us with spiritual gifts, we separate ourselves from the power of God—the most necessary component for evangelism.
Some theologians hold that the gift of tongues ceased at the close of the New Testament canon:
But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be restrained; where there is knowledge, it will be dismissed. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial passes away. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)
“The perfect,” they submit, is the close of the New Testament canon and the end of the early church. Tongues ceased at this point and no longer serve a purpose for modern evangelism. However, in the context of 1 Corinthians 13, the “perfect” seems more likely to refer to the return of Christ, the only Perfect being described in Scripture. At that point, tongues will no longer be necessary, as the whole world will be united under His reign.
Though opinions differ on this topic, one thing is true: God’s Spirit gives us gifts that are individual to the call on our lives. By embracing the gifts we’ve been given, we become a force for the gospel in this world.