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I remember many years ago my first encounter with a Pentecostal church service. At the time my father had just been diagnosed with a serious medical illness and my whole family was praying for God's healing. This sometimes lead to my mum and dad attending church services that had a special emphasis on healing. On one occasion, my mum, sister and I (I cannot remember my father being present, although I suppose he must have been) visited a Pentecostal church in the suburbs of Adelaide. When the service started, the pastor welcomed the congregation and invited everyone to stand and sing the first song. What followed was entirely new to me... People enthusiastically stood and raised their hands, and some sang. However, some didn't sing, but instead began chanting or babbling what seemed like nonsense to me. This was, I found out afterwards, speaking in tongues.
Teachings about Tongues
There is great confusion about speaking in tongues within the church today. Although some Christians claim to have a deep understanding about this, I'd hazard to guess that most Christians find tongues at least mildly bewildering. I certainly do.
Today when most people talk about speaking in tongues, they are referring to Christians spontaneously chanting non-human sounds or language. Speaking in tongues in this way was very uncommon until the last one hundred years. It was in fact on December 31, 1900 when Pastor Charles Parham of Bethel College in Kansas laid his hands upon some of his students and they started to speak unrecognizable words. A few years later, a few of these students moved to Los Angeles and starting holding meetings similar to that fateful one in Kansas. From that time on a wave of speaking in tongues has occurred. Initially the leaders of this movement left or were compelled to leave their respective Protestant churches, and a new group of churches were borne - Pentecostal churches. They have had many enthusiastic and active members and many churches have sprung up throughout the world, and there are now maybe 300 million Christians within Pentecostal denominations. The phenomenon of speaking in tongues has permeated into some Protestant churches, as well as the Catholic and Orthodox churches. This has been referred to as the charismatic movement.
Occasionally "speaking in tongues" is used to describe a Christian proclaiming the gospel in a human language that he completely unfamiliar with. Speaking in tongues in this way is described in the New Testament and has been uncommon since.
Teachings about tongues varies widely between different churches - many denominations do not have an "official" teaching. There is a wide variety of beliefs between Christians.
Most Pentecostal churches teach that speaking in non-human tongues is the initial physical evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit, which is a special experience that occurs followings salvation.
Some Pentecostal churches teach that speaking in tongues is required for salvation.
Many conservative Protestant churches teach that speaking in tongues is a gift of the Spirit given to some believers.
Many conservative Protestant churches teach that speaking in unintelligible tongues is an effect of emotional build-up (or worse, Satan). They teach that the speaking in tongues described in the New Testament either does not occur today or was a means God used to spread the gospel to people who spoke a foreign language.
Some liberal Protestant churches teach that speaking in tongues is an effect of emotional build-up only.
The Eastern Orthodox churches teach that speaking in tongues is a minor gift of the Holy Spirit, and is a private and personal gift.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that speaking in tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and that it should only occur if there is a Christian to interpret its meaning.
Speaking in tongues in the Bible
At the beginning of Acts, Jesus commands his disciples to remain in Jerusalem and "wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with Holy Spirit" (Acts 1: 4-5). As Jesus said, a few days later this occurred and is described in Acts 2
- 1-7 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
- 14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd... 21 "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved..."
- 36 "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
On this remarkable day, the apostles were filled with Holy Spirit, and they could speak in other languages and proclaim the gospel and 3,000 people placed their trust in Christ.
Some time later, a Roman centurion had a dream that God wanted the apostle Peter to come and speak to his household. This is the second account of talking in tongues and is found in Acts 10. It is especially a beautiful story because it marks a turning point for the Christian church, when it is finally and definitively understood by Jewish Christians, that God's desire is to save all mankind. On entering the centurions house, Peter found a large gathering
- 28 Peter said to them: You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean... 30-33 Cornelius answered: Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, "Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.' So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us..." 36 Peter said, "You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all... 39-40 They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day...43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. 44-46 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
The third description of talking in tongues in Acts occurred when the apostle Paul travelled to Ephesus (Acts 19: 1-6). Here he found some disciples who had received John the Baptist's baptism of repentance. He baptized them in Christ's name, laid hands on them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
- Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, Go into all the world and preach the good news 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; 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.
The final major reference to speaking in tongues is found in 1 Corinthians. This was a letter written by Paul, addressed to the church in Corinth. There is a long passage from chapters 12 to 14 that discusses the issue of speaking in tongues.
- 12: 4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit... 12: 8-11 To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. 12: 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 12: 29-30 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?
- 13: 1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
- 14:1-4 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no-one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 14: 6 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? 14: 9-18 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 he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church. 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 your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? 14: 19 In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. 14: 22-25 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. 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 your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, God is really among you! 14: 26-28 What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. 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
It seems that tongues must have been a big issue in the church in Corinth at this time. It's interesting to notice that this topic isn't discussed in the other letters of the New Testament, suggesting that it wasn't such a problem for these churches. Similarly, since Corinthians was written, tongues has only been a major issue in the last century.
Dangerous emphasis on tongues
During my first visit to a Pentecostal church, I witnessed something that saddens me to this day. A young Christian man was called to the front of the church because he was very ill. The pastor asked him if he believed that the Holy Spirit could heal him. "Yes" responded the young man. And the pastor replied, "The Spirit will heal you tonight, but first he must enter you and you will speak in tongues". The young man stood there silently as the minister prayed and encouraged him to begin speaking in tongues. Slowly, the man began to look more and more uncomfortable. The pastor noticed this and became more and more forceful, telling the young man he needed to speak in tongues before he could be healed. This went on for maybe two or three minutes and the young man still had not spoken in tongues. The minister's force was becoming overwhelming, and finally, the young man's will was broken. He mumbled or "spoke in tongues" quickly, and seeing that the pastor was satisfied, he took his seat. The emotions and thoughts of something being not quite right were imprinted on my mind and they still haunt me to this day when I think about speaking in tongues.
I believe the greatest danger facing Pentecostal churches is an unhealthy emphasis on speaking in tongues. Many Pentecostal churches teach that speaking in tongues is not required for salvation and that speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift given as evidence of a later baptism by the Holy Spirit. In many of these churches, you are left with overwhelming feeling that you're not as strong a Christian if you don't speak in tongues, or worse, that you are not a Christian at all. In the more extreme Pentecostal churches there is doctrine that speaking in tongues is required evidence of salvation. For this teaching, they tend to use an argument along the lines of
People are justified by faith. When a person believes in Christ, he is baptized by the Holy Spirit. The physical evidence of baptism by the Holy Spirit is talking in tongues. Therefore, if a person claims to be a Christian but has not spoken in tongues, he is deceiving himself and is not really a Christian.
This is not Christian teaching and this is not taught in the Bible. In fact, in Corinthians, Paul wrote that the gift of knowledge is given to some, the gift of prophecy to others and the gift of tongues to others again, and so on. He rhetorically asks, "Do all speak in tongues?"
Could true speaking in tongues simply mean speaking different unlearnt human languages?
Some Christians believe that to speak in tongues refers specifically to God giving a Christian the ability to speak and understand a language that was previously foreign to him. They believe that the non-human-language speaking in tongues of today are not a gift from God, and are a misinterpretation of scripture.
On the day of Pentecost, when the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, they spoke in the languages of the people visiting Jerusalem from afar. The purpose of speaking in tongues was to proclaim the gospel to these people in a language that they would understand - and many people became Christians that day.
Later in the book of the Acts, the meaning of tongues is not discussed. So there is no reason to assume that when Cornelius and his household spoke in tongues, that they babbled an unintelligible non-human language. It is just as likely that they spoke in tongues in the same way that occurred on Pentecost. However, if the purpose of the speaking in tongues was to proclaim the Gospel to those in other languages, then why would God have given the gift of tongues to these new Roman Christians? Is it possible that God used this to confirm definitively to Peter and those with him that salvation was for the Gentiles too?
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul also did not explain the meaning of tongues. He talked about the purpose of tongues - to build up the church through understanding and meaning. And so he encouraged the Corinthians who could speak in tongues, to only do so if there was a person to interpret them, because without an interpreter, no meaning could be gained. This suggests that in the church in Corinth, those who spoke in tongues had the ability to speak and equally, the ability to not speak - that is, this was not some overpowering force of the Spirit that compelled or forced them to speak. So this passage would also be consistent with speaking in different human languages, in the same way that occurred on Pentecost.
Many Christians however, would not agree with this viewpoint, and they see the speaking in tongues as it occurs today as being a biblical truth. It is interesting to note however, that on Pentecost, there was a cyclonic wind and tongues of fire were visible over the apostles' heads. When Christians speak in tongues today, I've never heard of this happening. If speaking in tongues today is a representation of speaking in tongues from the Bible, then why is this lacking?
One story I found on the internet haunts me. I don't know if it's true. I've not heard anything like it anywhere else. I'll leave you to to ponder it
A Chinese laundryman visited a charismatic church in which the members were speaking in tongues. One of the elders of the church recognized the Chinese man and visited his laundry business the following week. When he asked the Chinese man how he liked the church service, the man shook his head in disapproval.
The elder said, "What was wrong? I thought I heard a lady speak in tongues that sounded like Chinese."
The Chinese man said, "She did speak in Chinese, and she was cursing God the whole time."
My search to understand speaking in tongues has left my thirst unquenched. I don't know the answer. I have come to believe that the Bible is telling us about the Holy Spirit giving Christians the ability to speak and understand a foreign language so that they can proclaim the of gospel. I know that this is probably not the mainstream Christian belief, but I have a gut feeling that much of the speaking in tongues that usually occurs in today's churches is simply human emotion and not the Holy Spirit. But perhaps that is just because I haven't experienced it?
However, I do know that if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal
What do different denomination teach?
Many Protestant, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians - Speaking in tongues occurs for a few Christians today (mostly in the Pentecostal denominations) as it did in the New Testament as an experience of the Holy Spirit
Many Protestant Christians - Speaking in tongues as it occurred in the New Testament is different from its apparent manifestation in churches today - today's manifestation probably represents human emotion rather than the Holy Spirit
Many Pentecostal Christians - Speaking in tongues is the evidence of being baptized by the Holy Spirit, however it is not necessary for salvation
Some Pentecostals - Speaking in tongues is the evidence of being baptized by the Holy Spirit and is evidence of being saved
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