Speaking in tongues is a blessing. I use this gift in my devotions and always find it uplifting—as Paul says it is meant to be.[1]

I switch off ‘rationalisation mode’ and commune with the Lord at this deeper, non-rational level, which I find opens my heart to his ‘still, small voice’ and the Holy Spirit’s encouragement. I can’t imagine my walk with God without it. Tongues-speaking  must never of course take the place of Scripture-meditation or normal prayer, but it usefully supplements them.

It is in personal devotions that we should expect to speak in tongues the most. Yes, there is also a role for it in public worship. But the abuse of the gift in Corinth, which prompted Paul’s tight guidelines in 1 Corinthians 14, tends to be repeated in public worship today, and his guidelines remain both sound and applicable.

One such guideline is that tongues should not be heard in public unless there is an interpretation so that all may benefit. This restriction, I believe, applies to the distracting babbling that sometimes passes for prayer in tongues. Somebody goes ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba…’ at high speed. They do it quietly enough for others to know it’s not a public contribution to stop and listen to, but loudly enough to be unhelpfully intrusive.

Quite frankly, I don’t think that stuff is really speaking in tongues at all. What sort of language could it possibly be, with its one repeated syllable? Little better is the repeating  of something like, ‘Cara-ma-lee, cara-ma-lo; cara-ma-lee, cara-ma-lo…’ ad infinitum. Can you blame me for thinking it sounds like a verbalised yearning for confectionery? Certainly it lacks the substance of real language. And it doesn’t bless the people of God one bit. So let’s look for church leaders with the conviction and guts to stop this sort of public nonsense in its tracks before the church becomes a laughing stock.

Some leaders, taking a sledgehammer to crack the nut, insist that gifts like speaking in tongues and prophesying don’t in fact exist today. They died out, allegedly, when the canon of the New Testament came to completion. Their exercise in any form, then, is dismissed as, at best, a psychological substitute or, at worst, a demonic one. This is the cessationist position, and it is untenable.[2] The person who tries to maintain it makes himself look as big a fool as the aforementioned babbler. Millions of Christians throughout the world today both speak in tongues and prophesy, and do so with total integrity and in line with the New Testament’s teaching, enriching their own spiritual life and that of their local churches. The answer to the abuse of such gifts is not to discourage their use but to insist on their proper use.

Proper use means that tongues, when delivered in public, need to be interpreted—and the Holy Spirit normally ensures that someone present will receive the interpretation. The message in tongues will be given first, clearly enough for all to hear and to know it is a public contribution, then the interpretation will follow, given either by the speaker in tongues himself or by someone else.[3]

Because speaking in tongues is, by definition, a form of prayer or praise, directed to God, we must reject the fallacy that ‘tongues plus interpretation equals prophecy’. Prayer is people speaking to God; prophecy is God speaking to people. The two must not be confused. And the New Testament data is solid: to speak in tongues is to pray or praise, not to prophesy, so the interpretation, too, will be in the form of prayer or praise, directed to God, not from God to the people.[4]

But I’ve been in meetings where a tongue has been followed by an interpretation in the form of a prophecy. How do we explain that?

The ‘interpreter’ probably had a valid prophecy to deliver to the congregation. But it was just that—a prophecy, with no relation to the message in tongues. Church leaders must educate their people in this matter.[5] It is easy enough to point out—especially if the tongue-speaker and interpreter have been the same person— that the tongue part served no purpose and should have been omitted.[6] Or, if two people have been involved, the leaders can make room in the meeting, after the prophecy, for someone to bring a valid, Godward interpretation of the message in tongues.

This requires a gracious manner and skilful handling of the congregation. Situations can get messy. But real church, with active participants, lots of interaction and room for the Holy Spirit to work, can cope with it. People learn fast and congregations soon mature in their exercise of such gifts.

Some argue, of course, that tongues are not always Godward. They would permit interpretations of a man-ward nature on the grounds that God himself says, ‘With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people’.[7] What are we to make of this?

For a start, if this view is valid it runs counter to every other New Testament indication as to the nature of tongues, and especially Paul’s unequivocal statement that ‘those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God’.[8] That in itself should make us wary. But a look at the original context settles the issue.

That context is Isaiah chapter 28, where God is taking a tough line with the Israelites. They had turned away from him, from his covenant and from his law time and time again, and though he had punished them they had persisted in their waywardness. Drastic action was now required, so he would speak to them in a new way. He had already spoken to them in their own language through Moses and the prophets. They had turned a deaf ear to him, so God says he will speak to them now through invaders speaking a foreign language. Those foreigners would be Assyrian soldiers, and the sound of their voices in the streets of Israel would be a terrifying ‘sign’ of God’s judgment, for those soldiers would soon be dragging them off into exile.

In quoting this passage, Paul takes up the idea of a ‘sign’. In the Israelites’ case the foreign tongues they heard were a negative sign. And that, he says, is the kind of sign that uninterpreted tongues-speaking presents to unbelievers in a Christian gathering. The message they get is off-putting. They conclude, ‘These Christians are nuts; I’m not coming here again.’ Which is why tongues in public must always be interpreted.

This verse, then, has no relevance at all to the issue of whether the interpretation of tongues is Godward or man-ward. It is making a different point altogether: that tongues-speaking without interpretation tends to put visitors off. So our argument holds solid: when we speak in tongues we are addressing God, not other people.

Such details aside, you may find the whole subject slightly embarrassing. That probably means you don’t exercise the gift of tongues yourself. Stay open to it as a wonderful means of building yourself up in faith. Like prophesying, this is, I believe, a gift available to all God’s people, not just to a select few,[9] but you will need to open your mouth and speak; God won’t do for you what you can do for yourself.

So speak—or sing, because there’s a place for singing in tongues as well.[10] How does that variation fit our conclusions so far?

It depends, first, on whether we have an individual singing out in tongues or everyone doing it together. An individual doing it is the equivalent of someone speaking out loud in tongues, so there needs to be an interpretation, and this will normally be sung as well. The primary requirement, however, must surely be that the individual be able to sing. I’ve more than once joined in the congregational wince as some corncrake voice has struck up. It’s agony. Whatever the opposite of ‘edify’ is, this achieves it. And it won’t do for the corncrake to insist that ‘the Holy Spirit prompted me to sing it rather than speak it.’ The Spirit credits us with the sense to decide how best to express what he puts into our hearts,[11] including crediting the corncrake with enough sense to speak, not sing. Insensitive corncrakes may need a quiet word in their ear from the leaders.

Is there a place for corporate singing in tongues? Paul has nothing to say on this, so we can only proceed to a judgment on pragmatic grounds, bearing in mind his general principles.

The obvious difference is that corporate singing introduces an element absent from corporate speaking: music. Scripture provides ample evidence that instrumental music and singing are both valid means of praising God.[12] If you can ‘praise God with the harp and lyre’, instruments that produce no words but just sounds, then maybe the musical aspect alone of singing in tongues makes it an acceptable form of worship. I'm inclined towards that view, but I would never want corporate singing in tongues—which can be very beautiful, and certainly edifying—to dominate our worship to the point where the propositional statements of hymns and songs in our own language get squeezed out. It's great as an adjunct to worship, but not as its essence.

If you are still uncomfortable with the tongues phenomenon as a whole, I understand your doubts. I was brought up in the shadow of that grim story of a church where someone spoke in a tongue and a Chinese visitor told the leaders at the end of the meeting that the speaker had been cursing God in fluent Mandarin. A dear older brother in the Lord and popular itinerant teacher frequently told this cautionary tale. In his old age he confessed to me that he had never checked the story out and seriously doubted its validity, especially as by that time he had joyfully begun speaking in tongues himself. So stay open—your condition is curable.

In staying open you don’t have to bow to the Pentecostal party line that speaking in tongues is the ‘initial evidence’ of baptism in the Spirit. We dare not put the Holy Spirit in a box, and I don’t accept that view myself. My own approach is a little different. James teaches that if we have mastered our tongue we have mastered every part of our body.[13] In the light of that I look on tongues-speaking as an indicator to myself that, in some deep and vital sense, since I have yielded my tongue to the Holy Spirit, he likely has the rest of me, too.

I have never spoken in tongues in church, though I have quite often interpreted a tongue brought by someone else. That might change, or it might not; I don’t know. I do know, however, that such gifts have a valuable part to play in the wholeness and health of the body and I’m glad my local church remains open to them.

Stay open yourself.

Copyright © David Matthew 2010

1. 1 Corinthians 14:4

3. Interpretation is not the same as translation. The message in tongues may well be short and the interpretation a good deal longer. This was certainly the case in Daniel 5:25-28.

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Speaking in tongues

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4. 1 Corinthians 14 is clear on this: ‘Those who speak in a tongue…speak…to God’ (v2); ‘If I pray in a tongue…’ (v14); ‘I will pray with my spirit…’ (v15); ‘When you are praising God in the Spirit…how can the others say “Amen” to your thanksgiving?’ (v16); ‘You are giving thanks…’ (v17).

5. The spiritual gifts, like other public contributions such as prayers or sermons, are a combination of human and divine activity. Recognising the human aspect, we will graciously correct someone who includes a misleading or unhelpful element when praying or preaching; we must also correct, and re-educate, those who mishandle their tongues-speaking or interpretation.

6. Omitted or at least made non-public by being spoken silently or under the person’s breath, i.e. so that the speaker complies with Paul’s injunction to ‘speak to himself and to God’ (1 Corinthians 14:28).

7. 1 Corinthians 14:21, quoting Isaiah 28:11

8. 1 Corinthians 14:2

9. 1 Corinthians 14:5, 24, 31

13. James 3:2-5

2. See Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts in the New Testament Church and Today, Paternoster, 1996

10. 1 Corinthians 14:14-15

11. 1 Corinthians 14:32

12. E.g. Psalm 150

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