A time to speak tongues, a time to keep tongue in mouth.

Speaking in Tongues

as a Gift, a Sign, a Practice

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If you speak in tongues, you'd better mean what you say.

Speaking In Strange Tongues

One of the things least talked about among the churches that see tongues as the definitive evidence of the indwelling of the Spirit is this simple fact that students of religions know by heart :

Non-Christians speak in tongues, too.

The Oracle at Delphi, for instance, started in the 400s BC, when Greece was at its strongest. It continued into the Roman era as if it was a parody of its former self, so the members of the churches of Greece and Asia Minor would have been very familiar with how Delphi worked. It was a shrine of the Greek god Apollo. In response to someone's questions, a priestess would go into a frenzy and start babbling. An attendant priest would then 'translate' the babble into some glittering generalities that could in some way be understood as an answer. Some of the best-known features of Greek philosophy streamed out from the Oracle's early years (for instance, it bred the saying "Know Yourself"); the great Greek philosophers were very good at finding jewels in waste water. The cult of Dionysis used rhythmic music, whirling dances, alcohol and/or herbal drugs, and magic spells to send peoples' souls out of their body (Greek ek stasis ) and into the presence of whatever deity or sub-deity was involved; this too sometimes caused strange sounds.

African animists, too, have long had ecstatic speech in their religions. But, just as glossolalia among Jews marked one as a prophet, glossolalia caused most African animists to foist onto the speaker the role of religious leader or priest, a heavy spiritual and cultural responsibility to lay upon an unprepared person. Wherever they have happened in the past, glossolalia and other extraordinary 'spiritual' happenings have not been, and have not really been allowed to be, a thing 'of the people', which could be a part of the otherwise-normal life of otherwise-ordinary people.

Deep in the gnostic book-hoard at Nag Hammadi, archaeologists discovered what may be the earliest, and perhaps one of the strangest, written instances of glossolalia. (Gnosticism arose at the same time as Christianity, and Gnostics were skilled at melding Christian devotions and spirituality to the un-Christian Gnostic framework -- to use a modern term, they tried to 'co-opt' Christianity.) While modern theologians give the unusual contents at Nag Hammadi much more attention than they deserve, a prayer introduction in *The Gospel Of the Egyptians* is a true attention-grabber. It reads roughly (very roughly) like this :

Ié ieus éó ou éó óua! O Jesus, bond of Yah's righteousness, O Living Water, O Child of Child, O glorious Name! Really truly, O Eon that is, iiii éééé eeee oo uuuu óóóó aaaaa, really truly éi aaaa óó óó! O One That Is, Seer Of the Ages! Really truly, aee ééé iiii uuuuuu óóóóóóóó, You who are eternally eternal, really truly iéa aió, in the heart, You who Are, You are what You are, ei o ei eios ei!

Even the translatable words are very iffy and full of vowels and mixed languages. Like modern glossolalia, it's got a lot of almost-words, divine titles, and even 'really truly'. It's almost like a parody, it's so garbled, but it was serious in its intent. The ecstatic speech did not make the book's bizarre beliefs the slightest bit more true.


Early Christian leaders such as Irenaeus and Tertullian apparently valued the signs and miracles in their communities, or at least the wonders that were in keeping with those of the apostles. (This clearly included speaking in tongues.) But by Augustine's time, there was a growing opinion that these signs were just for apostolic times. Augustine was one of the earliest Christians of note to hold that opinion, and he did so despite his own report that such things were still happening in his own diocese.

In the 17th century, the Camisards in southern France were fainting and breaking out into ecstatic speech. King Louis XIV did what French kings always did to people who stepped out of line -- he stamped them out, forcing them into exile. (John Wesley met what was left of them a century later.)


Sometimes, the tongues spoken are reported to be real, known tongues of today. Most often, it's of unusual tongues such as Basque, Berber, Albanian, or one of the Caucasus Mountain or Bushman languages, though Finnish is also common. When this happens, it's sometimes called 'xenolalia', and the activity is called 'xenoglossic' (well, maybe if you're a college professor...).

Tongues are often uninterpretable without someone receiving a gift for interpretation. Tongues can sound like babble, yet at other times have coherence like a real language. Many charismatics call these 'angelic' or 'heavenly' tongues. How they'd know that is anyone's guess. I always thought that angels worked without language except when being a messenger to humans: sort of like telepathy, only without the sci-fi implications. (But then, I've never eavesdropped on angels, and I doubt they'd like it if I did.) Paul speaks of the 'tongues of angels', but he uses that as a grand over-the-top overstatement which he sets up, then (in his usual way) rips down by saying that such super hyper grand stuff is utterly worthless without love.
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What happened in Acts 2 was not the first time anyone ever spoke in any kind of tongues. There's reason to believe that some of the Jewish prophets did. Some of the great civilizations of old had instances of it. But in the past, such speech itself had no purpose, except to show that the speaker was being overcome by something or someone, and that something understandable would follow. They were thought to be either prophets or wackos, and sometimes both. Its short-term impact was small: a changed decision or two by some leader, a few heads rolled. Nothing much that changed the course of other lives, no changed direction in society, and no lasting effects at all.

What happened at that house on Pentecost as recounted in Acts 2 was something very different. It would be trite to say it changed the course of history; even the most vigorous atheist would acknowledge that. More importantly, it would miss the point. Acts 2 marked the beginning of a community of living witness, a community which would be the only way that people from then on could come to know of Jesus.

The event itself was quite something -- according to the Acts report, it seemed almost as momentous as it really was. Something special happened to a bunch of people sitting around in a room hanging out together. (It's inferred that the room had the full group of believers that existed at the time, the 120 or so men and women mentioned in the first chapter, but some commentators think it was just the apostles and perhaps their closest associates.) Those in the room started acting - and looking, and sounding - like they were on fire. And it flowed out into the streets.

Once in the open, a large crowd quickly gathered. Those in the crowd not only heard all sorts of languages -- they each heard their own language. For some of them, that must have been especially weird, knowing how few were there from their land. And for someone to think 'that's my language', it not only would have had to be their language, but often their own village or city's dialect. That was especially so back then, when it was easy to tell someone's home town and social class by the way they spoke. Getting all those languages and dialects right would be tough even for the most expert modern speakers of language. Picture someone from Bay Ridge being there: they would have heard not just English, not just US English, not just New York English, but Brooklynese. Language just like they speak it -- their own! God cared enough to get the gospel message to them in each person's own language! This could not have been done by those who spoke. This was the work of the Spirit on each of the speakers and on each of those in the crowd that were open enough to let the Spirit work, undoing Babel so that others would know Christ.

It's like the "tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them". Each of the those present in the room got their own individual 'flame'. Yet all the 'flames' were from a common source and were sent for a common purpose. The language each person heard was their own, their response to it was their own, but the message was the same for all, and the life-changing power came from the same source. Diversity yet also unity; variety yet from a common base; individuality yet with a common purpose.

In Acts 2, the point about the tongues was not what was said, but what was understood by those who heard it -- namely, the Gospel of Christ, for the first time ever. The Spirit was interpreting whatever it was that the apostles spoke. It's like at those United Nations events where the speaker gives a speech in their own language or language of their choice, and the ambassadors and guests hear through earphones an (hopefully) accurate translation of what is being said. The Spirit was an earphone translator for those who were there. But more : the Spirit was helping the more open folks in the crowd take it to heart. The Spirit was causing not just miraculous hearing, but miraculous listening.

There are some Christians who hold that the speakers in Acts 2 must have been speaking in some miraculous 'heavenly tongue'. It's a game question. There had to be a reason why some people thought they were drunk, even at that early hour. But the fact that people were hearing their own tongues out of a bunch of so-called 'hicks' may have been more than shocking enough. Besides, the whole scene was one which was 'aflame', full of agitation and buzz and excitement and noise. Perhaps the people were not just hearing their own language, but hearing it spoken with zest, passion, and energy -- what in most languages is described with images of fire. One does not need to propose a 'heavenly tongue' to account for what happened; human language with parahuman power would be enough. Meanwhile, the less-open ones would just hear lots of indistinguishable talking, like in an overly-gabby party or restaurant.

The events of Acts 2 stand out, and stand by themselves. The tongues that Paul writes of in Corinthians, and that other church sources have reported over the years, are something different which spun off from this event. Indeed, all churchly acts, practices, and happenings spun off from this event. This was the start of something big.
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Where Does It Start?

The general public's typical image of the first moment someone speaks in tongues is that they go into this big tent, some preacher whips everyone into a frenzy, and starts going into the crowd, laying hands on peoples' foreheads, and each one drops to the floor in a frenzy or a faint, and they come up babbling like a year-old baby.

If it were only that exciting!

Many people who have long been involved with charismatic renewal report that the scenarios for the first time speakers are quite different than the image. They report that about one-fourth of first-time tongues experiences happen when the person is alone, usually in private prayer or in moments of private struggle with God. (This observation is supported by a study by Gerlach and Hine which reported a rate of 23% when alone.) Another one-fourth to one-third first speak tongues in a small-group setting such as a prayer circle, Bible study or cell/house meeting. This leaves about half who started speaking in tongues in a public setting. Most of even these folk first speak tongues in the setting of a regularly-scheduled worship service by the church's regular pastors. This doesn't leave us with many who started at special events or with guest preachers. It should be noted that in the period of 1994 through 1998, these proportions were different due to the major impact of the Toronto Blessing, which spread largely through special events. However, it's apparent that since then the earlier pattern has come back.


Some churches refuse to allow speaking in tongues because it causes fights. Of course it does! Any time there are strongly pro- and strongly anti- camps on any matter, they'll start fighting about it. It's as true of church as it is of anything else; it's how human beings are. It will not be avoided by ducking the tough issues; the urge to do battle will find something else to hitch itself to. The secrets to holding together in the face of such differences are praying, listening, making sure that the parties each have a stake in whatever happens, and making sure to take actions that spring from what the factions hold in common. (No guarantees. But it usually works.)

Speaking in tongues often triggers divisiveness in a congregation. One of the big problems is that many tongues-speakers come to believe that those who have not spoken in tongues are somehow lesser Christians. Even many of those who do not come out and say it will often act as if they believe it. Treating one's brothers and sisters in Christ as 'lesser' is at its root a denial of the Gospel, a rejection of oneness in Christ and of how we all stand the same as forgiven sinners before God. It's a worm hole that Satan uses to crawl throughout the Body, infecting its parts with spiritual pride and mean-spiritedness. In short, it is not the way of the Spirit to see any superiority in being a tongues-speaker; that is not (to use Paul's terms) a fruit of the Spirit, nor a ministry of reconciliation.

A lesser problem is in the reaction to the tongues. Many people are put off by the speaking of tongues. They find it disturbs their worship experience. It's messy, disorderly, loud, and unpredictable, and thus they reject it out-of-hand. Yet, isn't there something wrong about being so insistent on 'order' and 'place', predictability, and fussy neatness? If style or order is the sole question, the best answer for most congregations would be 'so what? Get used to it.' (Also, after years of seeing hot Pentecostalists in action, I find that they're not as unpredictable as everyone thinks they are. They have their patterns, habits, and unspoken rules, some of which are becoming as much of a spiritual trap as anyone else's forms.)

Some people are really worried about the theologies that are brought in by tongues-speakers. Much of the time, their worries are based on a lot of misunderstandings and rumors about what is and isn't believed or done by various sorts of tongues-speakers. When I look back on what I was taught about "holy rollers" in Sunday School, I can only laugh at how much of a parody it was: animalistic snake-handlers and elixir-peddlers, howling in the woods! But you don't have to believe the stereotypes to know there are many beliefs circulating among tongues-speakers that have no root in the Bible or sound theology. Tongue-speaking believers have trouble dealing with these questions. They've been trained to think that thinking about God draws them away from reaching out to others with the Gospel. Wiser people realize that if we don't think about God and the faith, we can't know that what we talk about and live is the real gospel of Christ. It's how Christians stay true to the course. Scripture itself says to test all things. The main way God gave us to test things is to think. We dare not ignore this warning. If we do, we get taken captive by whatever happens to blow our way, no matter what spirit it's from. Too much attention to speaking in tongues (and other unusual signs, gifts, and works) takes attention away from more important matters at hand, matters of racism and poverty, of evangelism and teaching, of worship and the fellowship, as well as sacrament -- the kind of matters that are the "main and plain" things of the Scriptures and the work of the Church.
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Speaking In Tongues Not a Rule

It would be easy for me to slip into the typical establishment-church routine. You've heard it, maybe even said it yourself : "Oh, I'm aware of signs such as speaking in tongues. They might even be real. But I haven't spoken in tongues, so it just isn't for me." Well, I am aware of such signs and gifts as speaking in tongues. And my approach is that whatever God puts forth, God puts forth, so whatever God gives to me is what is for me. Yet I still haven't spoken in tongues. I've prayed over the matter. I've been with the hottest of Pentecostalists. I've even tried to 'practice' it (at the behest of several people who use tongues devotionally). No go.

I know of some Pentecostalists who would say that there's something missing from my salvation. No, there's not; nowhere in Scripture does Jesus half-save anyone. (That would take a half-crucifixion and a half-resurrection. And picture the Acts 2 heads being flame-broiled on one side, with the other side staying cool.) I am fully, Scripturally confident in my Savior and in my Savior's saving work. It's possible that something is missing from my Christian life in this world, but it's impossible that something is missing from my salvation or my place among His followers. Jesus did it, and that is that. (Live with it!) When someone says that a person is not 'truly' reborn unless that person has spoken in tongues, it is this half-baked 'half-saved' idea, one which gives a lot of space for spiritual pride and 'us vs. them' attitudes. Scripture warns us about passing judgement that way. It is something only God really knows.

Studies show that a large proportion of Charismatics and Pentecostalists do not speak in tongues. The best estimates: three-fourths of those who attend events, about half of Pentecostalist church members, one-fourth of their elders, and around one-sixth of their pastors have never spoken in tongues. Many of these are incredible Christians with a deep and infectious love for the Lord. If you're a pentecostalist, you probably know and respect many of them, in your own congregation, though you don't know they're not speaking in tongues. What about them? Has God rejected them? Then how can you reject another's salvation on that basis?
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marriage is a more important gift than tongues

Marital Conflict Over Speaking In Tongues

>> I am a brand new born-again, I was saved 2 years ago,
>> Me and my husband both differ on tongues. I was
>> curious and prayed for the gift. My husband does not believe
>> in it, and thinks I'm deceived. He thinks that
>> tongues were just different languages. I don't want to
>> be deceived, and Satan can copy the gifts. Can you give
>> me a little info on the gift?

There are lots of things that can make people babble (including Satan, subcultural pressure, suggestion, mental problems, drugs). But the Spirit gives tongues to some (apparently not most) of us as a way to access that which we cannot reach through words. Sometimes that's joy, praise, awe, fun; sometimes that's sadness, pain, confusion, emptiness. The purpose is to help you choose to lay it out before God, so that its release can free you. If it is not doing that, and if you are not growing in the faith from there, then it is not the Spirit's; if it is doing that, it's quite welcome.

When there's a difference between you and your husband, be careful. Jesus calls on us to love each other as He does, and there's no more important (and difficult) place for that than in marriage. It would be better never to speak a tongue ever again than to let this difference between you spread into other things and run the marriage aground. I hope that you don't have to go that far.

Don't hold your tongue. Speak the Word!

Study Questions

Many churches permit (and even teach) their members how to use the skill of speaking in tongues as a devotional practice, but do not allow their members to use them in public worship.

In many circles, the ridiculing of tongues-speaking has been replaced by simple dismissal of it. They ask, what good does it do you? Is there an answer to that?

Speaking In Quotes

"The gift of languages is given with the commission, 'Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel'".
-------- William J. Seymour

"Speaking in tongues is a way to communicate through the mouth what is in our spirit when we may not have the cognitive resources to do it..... The issue is ... being able to communicate without pretension of adequate understanding. This is a significant breakthrough for many because if we had to completely understand the matters of the Spirit before we could pray, many of us would be cut off from communicating with the Lord."
-------- James Forbes, *The Holy Spirit and Preaching* (Abingdon, 1989), p.96

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ver.: 12 July 2011
Speaking In Tongues. Copyright © 1997-2011 by Robert Longman.