My purpose in writing this is not to prove or disprove the gift of speaking in tongues as an active gift in the church today. I will admit from the beginning that I do not believe that the gift is what the early church saw it to be and by most definitions nonexistent.
I will not write to dissuade those who say they speak in tongues because despite my own personal belief, I can offer no solid Biblical evidence to prove that the gift has ceased.
The point I desire to make with this article is that many of the churches that practice speaking in tongues do so in an unbiblical manner. If the gift of tongues is truly active in the church today, there are many churches that are in direct violation of what the Bible says concerning tongues. I feel that this is a matter that is more important to address than whether or not tongues is truly an active gift today. This is not a criticism of all charismatic churches but a warning that there are ones that clearly violate what scripture says concerning it.
First off, one does not have to speak in tongues in order to prove they are saved. Yes there are instances in the New Testament where people, even in large groups, speak in tongues upon their conversion. Speaking in tongues, however, is a gift like any of the other nineteen mentioned in the New Testament. (Most are in I Cor, others are in Romans).
In I Cor 12:29-31, Paul addresses the issue of tongues and other gifts. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts.”
The expected answer to Paul’s questions are that not all are apostles or teachers. Likewise, not all speak in tongues. Earlier in chapter 12, Paul speaks of one body with many parts. Each part is not the same, but the body would have no use for two noses if it is in need of ears. The church is the body, and each gift makes up a part of the body. It would be ridiculous for a pastor to expect his entire congregation to be made up of teachers. Likewise, if everyone was a teacher there would be no one to teach. In the same way, not everyone in the entire congregation should be expected to speak in tongues.
The Corinthian church had apparently put too much emphasis on the speaking of tongues as a gift because Paul berates them in chapter 14. Verse 6 says, “Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?” He continues in verse 9, “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.”
In verses 13-18 Paul stresses the need for others to understand what is being said. “For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen” to you thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.”
In verse 22, Paul explains that tongues are a sign. Understand that this is the main point of contention as to why many believe that tongues are no longer valid – they say that we no longer need signs. If tongues continue to be a sign though, Paul’s words are still valid. Tongues are a sign for the unbeliever and not the believer.
Verse 23, “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of you mind?” While unbelieving observers will not understand what is said, more importantly, they won’t know what is going on and it will likely scare them.
All of that was regarding the church’s misplaced emphasis on tongues. Paul continues on with how speaking on tongues is to be used in worship. Allowing for the fact that there may be people who are genuinely gifted by speaking in tongues, I will say that the church has not used the gift properly in worship.
Paul is explicit in the way the gift is to be used and when and when not to use it in worship. I will first jump to the end of the chapter where in verses 39-40 Paul says, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”
If the gift of tongues is active today, no church should forbid it. However, it must be done in the proper way. Going back to verse 27, “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.”
First of importance, speaking in tongues should be done one at a time. There should not be a mass of people speaking at the same time. There should not be such confusion.
Also of importance, and this is where I fault most churches that promote speaking in tongues, there must be an interpreter. If there is no interpreter, the speaker remains silent and speaks only to God and himself. If there is no one to interpret, the speaker does nothing but edify himself, as Paul mentions earlier in 14:4. There should never be a showcasing of gifts or holding one gift above another. A teacher would not teach just to hear him or herself talk if there were no students. A missionary would not go into a church where everyone is saved so everyone can pat him on the back. Likewise, a person with the gift of tongues is not to speak unless there is an interpreter. It is useless in worship otherwise.
This still allows for someone to speak in tongues when they are in prayer at home, or singing, or whatever else. I have heard of such stories, and even though I have no basis to evaluate them, they don’t violate what Paul has written concerning tongues.
Going back to the concept of the church as a body, a body has every part that it needs otherwise it is considered handicapped. The church likewise should have every gift it needs. There shouldn’t be many churches who truly have people gifted in tongues that don’t have an interpreter. God will provide an interpreter if there is someone speaking in tongues at your church. Otherwise, it would be a church that is missing a part.
In conclusion, the Bible offers no clear proof that tongues have ceased. Many feel strongly one way or another about the issue, as do I. More importantly however, if tongues are still active in the church today, it is often practiced in a manner that is contrary to what the Bible says about it. You can read all about it and not just take my word on it. As a matter of fact, I suggest that. I do suggest that you take God’s word on it and where things are clearly spelled out, that the churches obey it.