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Analysis of The Gift of Tongues

Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, a baptist church in Jessup, MD. B.A. in Bible, B.S. English Ed., M.S. in Educational Leadership.


Juan Bautista Mayno, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Juan Bautista Mayno, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

From 1 Corinthians 7:1, we can infer that the Apostle Paul addressed spiritual gifts in his epistle because the Corinthian church had asked him about this topic in a letter they had previously written to him.

“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (1 Corinthians 7:1, ESV).

Unfortunately, we do not know what the Corinthians had asked Paul—the letter they wrote to him has not been preserved for us. Therefore, we need to read Acts and 1 Corinthians very carefully to understand what the Bible teaches about the gift of tongues.

Some Problems to Notice

Readers should keep in mind that Paul may have been very concerned about the spiritual manifestations the Corinthians were experiencing.

Paul saw a need to reminded them that no one speaking by God’s Spirit can ever call Jesus accursed (1 Co. 12:1-3).

Paul saw a need for them to test the messages delivered to them through their spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:27, 29)

Moreover, Paul made several comments that hint an unhealthy situation.

It appears Paul felt the need to clarify that not everyone has the same gift (1 Co. 12:29-30).

It appears Paul thought that they didn’t understand the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 14:20).

It appears the Corinthians may have been overemphasizing the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 14:5, 18-19, 23)

Paul expected his teaching to be challenged by some in the church (1 Corinthians 14:37)

What The Bible Says about The Gift of Tongues

The Gift of Tongues in 1 Corinthians Is The Same Gift of Tongues As in Acts

Some interpreters believe that Acts and 1 Corinthians discuss two different gifts of tongues. However, I think this situation is unlikely.

Paul was well acquainted with the doctrine of the twelve apostles (1 Corinthians 15), who received the gift of tongues in Acts 2.

The gift of tongues in Acts was given to Jews, gentiles, Samaritans, and disciples of John the Baptist after they believed the gospel.

Therefore, it makes sense that the Corinthians believed in the gift of tongues mentioned in Acts, that they experienced it, and that Paul was teaching about it.

Think again about this: if the apostles in Acts are also the apostles in 1 Corinthians, and if the gift of prophecy in Acts is the same gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians, why then would the gift of tongues in Acts be a different gift than the gift in 1 Corinthians?

The Gift of Tongues Consists on Speaking Human Languages Previously Unknown to the Speaker

Acts 2 makes it clear that the gift of tongues consisted in the disciples speaking languages that could be understood by speakers of foreign languages.

Several verses in 1 Corinthians also make it clear that, in general, neither the speaker nor the audience understood what was being said: only those who had the gift of interpretation and who spoke foreign languages could understand them (1 Corinthians 14:2, 9, 11, 16)

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The different kinds of tongues that were given are more likely different families or races of human languages, not private languages or non-human languages, since there isn’t a clear reference to these kinds of languages in the immediate context (1 Corinthians 12:10, 14:10)

Speaking in the tongues of angels was only a theoretical situation (1 Corinthians 13:1). The Bible does not teach that tongues of angels were actually given to anyone. Otherwise, it would teach that Paul also had all knowledge, all mysteries, all the faith, and no love (1 Corinthians 13:2)

The Gift of Tongues Was Not Given to Every Believer

The New Testament clearly teaches that the various gifts are distributed among the many members of the church (1 Corinthians 12:7-10), and therefore not everyone has the same gifts (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).

Christians should not expect everyone to have the gift of tongues.

Like The Other Spiritual Gifts, the Purpose of The Gift of Tongues Is to Edify the Body (the Church)

All spiritual gifts are given for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). God appointed in the church those with the gift of tongues as he appointed those with other gifts (1 Corinthians 12:28): that is, for the edification of the church.

It is because the gift of tongues by itself does not edify the church that Paul instructs those who speak in tongues to pray that they may be able to interpret their own tongues (1 Corinthians 14:12-13).

Tongues for Personal Edification

It is debatable whether Paul is teaching the Corinthians to use the gift of tongues for personal edification (1 Corinthians 14:4). Paul exhorts the Corinthians to pursue the gift of prophecy over tongues because prophecy edifies the body more readily (1 Corinthians 14:1, 5); he also instructs them to pray for the interpretation of tongues so both gifts can work together to edify the church (1 Corinthians 14:13); and he also instructs them to do all things for the edification of the church (1 Corinthians 14:12).

Therefore, when Paul states that the one who speaks in tongues edifies himself, Paul is likely pointing out a limitation of the gift of tongues.

Tongues for Talking to God

Those who speak in tongues speak to God (1 Corinthians 14:2). This speaking to God is likely expressed as praying, singing, and giving thanks (1 Corinthians 14:14-16).

Nevertheless, the problem is still the same: neither the speaker nor the listener are edified unless someone interprets their tongues (1 Corinthians 14:9, 13-15). Therefore, using the gift of tongues to speak to God is inferior since Paul emphasizes that they should seek to edify the church through the interpretation of their tongues.

However, Paul does not forbid the Corinthians using tongues privately without an interpreter; instead, he says that a person who speaks tongues when there is no interpreter should speak to himself and to God, as opposed to speaking to the church (1 Corinthians 14:28).

The Content of The Gift of Tongues

When the gift of tongues was used in the church together with the gift of interpretation, both gifts edified the church (1 Corinthians 14:13, 27). The New Testament tells us that the content of this speech was declaring the works of God (Acts 2:11), speaking to God (1 Corinthians 14:2), uttering mysteries in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:2). This content came in at least five forms: telling, praying, singing, giving thanks, speaking (Acts 2:11, 1 Corinthians 14:14-16, 21)

The Gift of Tongues Doesn’t Necessarily Preach the Gospel

It is often argued that the gift of tongues was used for evangelism. However, in Acts 2, the people who spoke in tongues are not said to be preaching the gospel, but to be declaring the works of God. To evangelize and to declare God’s works aren’t necessarily the same thing.

In Acts 2, the unbelievers first heard the great wind, then they rushed to the place where the disciples were, and there they heard the disciples proclaim the mighty works of God in foreign languages, which languages (tongues) the unbelievers understood. In this way, the unbelievers knew something important was happening—although some thought the disciples were drunk. This entire situation then gave Peter the opportunity to both explain what was happening and to proclaim the gospel to the unbelievers. When the unbelievers then put one and two together (the speaking in tongues and the message of the gospel), they then believed—for God was obviously speaking through the disciples. It is in this way that God used the gift of tongues as a sign to unbelievers, to get their attention so Peter could preach the gospel to them.

In The Church, Tongues Must Be Used in Order

In the church, tongues must be interpreted (1 Corinthians 14:27). It is likely that the reason for this instruction is twofold: interpreting the tongues edifies the church (1 Corinthians 14:12), and it assures listeners that they are witnessing a true gift from God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Moreover, those who speak in tongues must do so by turns (1 Corinthians 14:27), presumably for everyone to hear and understand what is said. In other words, not everyone is supposed to speak in tongues at once.

Also, only two or three should speak in tongues per church service (1 Corinthians 14:27). Paul does not explain why this must be so, but there must have been many practical reasons for churches to apply this instruction: for example, making time for teaching the Bible and exercising the gift of prophecy.

The gift of tongues was as controversial in the first century church as it is now because the Corinthian believers were misusing it and overemphasizing. To address this problem, Paul gives them instructions that will help them to properly use the gift according to God's character of peace, decency, and order (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40).

In other words, the Spirit was giving them a gift, but it was up to them to put it to good use according to orderly, spiritual, and wise principles.

Tongues Are Sometimes Ridiculed When They Are Not Understood

In Acts, some of the people who heard the disciples speak in tongues mocked them, thinking they were drunk (Acts 2:13). Perhaps the disciples were speaking different languages at once, and obviously no communication was taking place among them; or perhaps they didn't understand the tongues. Nevertheless, those who understood what was said realized something different was taking place (Acts 2:7).

Similarly, the Apostle Paul instruct the Corinthians that they should not all speak in tongues at once, otherwise the unbelievers visiting their churches will think they are crazy (1 Corinthians 14:23).

In this way, the gift of tongues is a sign of judgment on unbelievers: it offers them rest, but they fail to believe because of how the gift is manifested (1 Corinthians 14:21-22, Isaiah 28:11-12).

It is intringuing that, according to 1 Corinthians 14:23, the gift can be manifested before unbelievers and visitors to the church and still not be understood by them. After reading Acts 2, we would expect the tongues to be understood in particular by unbelievers and visitors, but 1 Corinthians 14:23 shows that isn't always the case.

Biblical Uses of The Gift of Tongues

It is important to note that the biblical gift of tongues can be used legitimately under different circumstances:

  • In Acts 2:5-13, the gift was spoken and outsiders were able to understand it.
  • In 1 Corinthians 14:23, outsiders cannot understand it.
  • The gift can be used in the church if there is an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:27)
  • The gift of tongues can be used privately (1 Corinthians 14:28)

Moreover, it is important to note that the content of the gift of tongues and the ways in which the gift of tongues is used can vary:

  • To tell others about God's works (Acts 2:11)
  • To pray (1 Corinthians 14:15)
  • To sing (1 Corinthians 14:15)
  • To give God thanks (1 Corinthians 14:16)
  • To communicate God's message (1 Corinthians 14:21)

Although Paul mentions some of these points while criticizing the Corinthians, he nonetheless teaches these points. For example, he tells them that if there is no one in the church who can interpret the tongues, the one who speaks in tongues should speak to himself and to God (1 Corinthians 14:28). Had it been wrong for the Corinthians to use the gift privately, it is more likely that Paul would have said something along the lines of "let him be quiet"—but, instead, he says that they should speak to themselves and to God. If we believe that the Bible is God's word, we must believe that Paul didn't make a mistake, but that these statements are inspired by God.

What Is The Gift of Tongues?

© 2021 Marcelo Carcach

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