This is the third part in a series about speaking in “tongues”, a practice I engaged in personally for several years prior to my marriage to a devout Adventist woman. Obviously, I did not discontinue this custom of using “tongues” as part of my prayer life immediately. But as I made a sincere effort to understand why my wife’s church did not participate in what was to me a heaven-sent form of communication, I began to see the spiritual gift from a totally different perspective.
Over the years, it became apparent to me that, although my Pentecostal friends were sincere in their beliefs, there were discrepancies in what the Bible revealed about the gift of tongues and how it was being practiced in churches today.
The following is a continuation of notes and observations I have made by studying thoughtfully and prayerfully the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. This is the hallmark chapter Pentecostals use to confirm their gift of tongues. When seen in the backdrop of the first century Christian world, and compared with other verses scattered throughout scripture, it was obvious that my previous beliefs were not as solid as I had hoped.
At this point, you may have noticed that I use quotations marks around “tongues” to refer to that which is practiced in modern Pentecostal churches.
Otherwise, tongues, without quotation marks, indicates the spiritual gift of languages, such as in Paul’s day when “every man heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6).
“Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine.” 1 Corinthians 14:6
“And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?” 1 Corinthians 14:7
“For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” 1 Corinthians 14:8
“So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.” 1 Corinthians 14:9
These verses are best taken as a whole. Paul questions the use of languages (called tongues), music, or even a call to battle, if it is not given in a way that people understand the intended message.
Without that understanding, the messages are just going out into the air, and no one is profited by the noise.
The purpose of the gift of spoken languages or tongues, as used by God, is identified in verse 6 as that which edifies us with revelation, knowledge, prophecy, or teaching (doctrine). Nothing is mentioned here of a euphoric feeling of ecstasy, as I experienced in my own “prayer language” experience of “tongues”. And besides, as verse 9 declares, these words will be easy to understand, which doesn’t exactly fit a description of the gift of “tongues” either, as now practiced in Pentecostal churches.
“There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification (or significance).” I Corinthians 14:10
“Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian (or foreigner), and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian (or foreigner) unto me.” 1 Corinthians 14:11
Although the identity of a voice is important, the message that is conveyed is just as important. And when it is not understood, as with foreigners who speak different languages, there is no value, because no one understands what is being said.
This is why Christians first experienced the gift of tongues at the time of Pentecost in Jerusalem. God used the gift then so those present could understand the gospel message in their own language.
We find here that the identity of a voice, but also the understanding of the message is what is important. I began to see that both of these were being lost in the context of speaking in “tongues” as it’s now done in Pentecostal churches. They concentrate on the gift, rather than the Giver of the gift, or even the gospel it is supposed to communicate.
“Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:12
“Where let him that speaketh in an [unknown] tongue pray that he may interpret.” 1 Corinthians 14:13
It seems to be appropriate to be excited and even to seek after a spiritual gift, if it is needed by the church. But if one is merely seeking after a gift to benefit him or herself, there is something amiss in that desire. The gift of tongues, as with all spiritual gifts, is evidently meant to be an interactive activity that benefits the church as a whole.
According to this verse, if someone comes to church, who speaks another language, a foreign language, every effort should be made to find someone to interpret the message, so all are uplifted by the gospel being presented. This, at times, has been done in a miraculous fashion, when foreign languages are involved, when other means are not available.
With so many foreign language interpreters and even technological advances today that let us hear translations almost instantaneously, there would seem to be less need for the gift of tongues in our day and age. One would not think so, however, from the standpoint of a Pentecostal believer. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is needed more in these last days, but the authentic gift of tongues must certainly be a declining need in our modern world.
I hope you will continue to join me in my Biblical search for answers about an experience that I once cherished. My surprising discoveries have made me anxious to share what I’ve learned over the years. I pray you will consider them and share them with your Pentecostal friends. These faithful Christians, as many of them are, deserve to hear the whole story from a different angle.