What is “speaking in tongues?” The Scriptures teach that speaking in tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit which allows someone to speak in a foreign language that one does not actually know (in Greek, xenolalia). The Scriptures also indicate that the gift of tongues could mean making ecstatic utterances that are intelligible to God and others who have the gift of interpreting tongues (in Greek, glossalalia). This page provides some biblical information about “tongues-speaking.”
Mark 16:17 – right before Jesus ascended into heaven, He prophesied “they will speak in new tongues.”
There are only four instances in the New Testament where people speak in tongues:
1 – Acts 2:3 – when the Holy Spirit descended upon the twelve apostles on Pentecost Sunday, they began to speak in tongues. Acts 2:6 says that men from fifteen different nations each heard the apostles speaking in their own language.
2 – Acts 10:44-46 – after Peter preached the gospel, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word, and they (including the Gentiles) began to speak in tongues.
3 – Acts 19:5-6 – after Paul baptized and confirmed about twelve Ephesians, they spoke with tongues.
4 – 1 Cor. 12-14 – Paul teaches that members of the Corinthian church had the gift of speaking in tongues.
In each instance in the book of Acts, tongue speaking is heard as if it is a foreign language. This gift of the Holy Spirit was for the purpose of spreading the gospel to all peoples of the world. Peter supports this view when he equates the Gentile tongue-speaking with the tongue-speaking at Pentecost (which was heard as foreign languages) when he says “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15).
The Gift of Tongues in the Corinthian Church
The type of tongues spoken in the Corinthian church is not as clear. The following Scriptures suggest that the tongue-speaking at Corinth was also heard as foreign languages, just like the tongue-speaking in the book of Acts:
1 Cor. 14:21 – when Paul instructs the Corinthians about speaking in tongues, he quotes from Isaiah 28:11 which is about the “alien tongue” of foreign invaders, which means a foreign language. For Paul to quote Isaiah without any other explanation suggests that the tongue-speaking at Corinth was in the form of foreign languages.
In fact, no where in 1 Cor. 12-14 does Paul make any distinction between the tongue-speaking in Acts and the tongue-speaking at Corinth (and this is important because the Ephesians’ tongue-speaking in Acts 19:5-6 chronologically occurred around the same time as the Corinthian tongue-speaking). If there would have been a significant difference between the two (foreign languages versus ecstatic utterances), Paul would have likely acknowledged this distinction as he gave the Corinthians instructions about speaking in tongues.
1 Cor. 14:5 – when Paul says “unless someone interprets,” the word for interprets (in Greek, diermhneuvh) always refers to the interpretation of a foreign language (see John 1:42; 9:7; Heb. 7:2).
The following Scriptures, however, suggest that the tongue-speaking at Corinth was in the form of unintelligible ecstatic utterances, and not foreign languages. For example:
1 Cor. 14:2 – Paul says “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” Describing these utterances as “mysteries” may indicate that such speech was unintelligible. This type of tongue was also spoken to God, and not to men, which means that the tongue did not have to be in any particular language (God would understand the utterances in the Spirit). This may be similar to the divine “tongues of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1).
1 Cor. 14:4 – Paul says “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” If the person is speaking a foreign language he cannot understand, then he would not be edifying himself, unless the language would be interpreted for him. But this may be why Paul required someone to interpret the tongues at Corinth (see 1 Cor. 14:13,27-28). This, however, does not absolutely mean the tongues were foreign languages. The gift of interpretation could have been for interpreting unintelligible divine utterances as well.
1 Cor. 14:10-11 – Paul describes the tongues at Corinth as “sound” (in Greek, phonon). While foreign languages are heard as sounds, this seems different from the tongues which were described in the book of Acts as “language” (in Greek, dialektos). However, Luke also describes the tongue-speaking of Acts 2:6 as “sound,” even though it was heard as “language.”
1 Cor. 14:16-17 – Paul says that the tongues at Corinth were spoken to give thanks to God. While speaking the gospel in a foreign language does indeed give thanks to God, this type of speech may be private communication between God and the speaker, which would not require the use of a foreign language.
1 Cor. 14:23 – Paul says that unbelievers who hear the Corinthians speaking in tongues will conclude that they “are mad.” This suggests that the Corinthians were speaking in unintelligible utterances, although outsiders would also be tempted to call those “mad” who were speaking foreign languages they did not know (perhaps implying that they were possessed by demons).
Ecstatic utterances that were heard as foreign languages
It is also possible that the Corinthians were making unintelligible ecstatic utterances that were then understood by gifted hearers as intelligible foreign languages (which would be both inspired and interpreted by the power of the Holy Spirit). For example:
Acts 2:6 – the Pentecost tongue-speaking is described as a “sound,” and yet it was heard as the specific foreign “language” by men of fifteen different nations. This type of tongue-speaking appears to be a translation of sound into language. Moreover, Acts 2:4 suggests that the apostles began to speak at one time, and yet their many voices are described as one “sound” in Acts 2:6. This suggests that the tongue-speaking was in the form of one sound, but was heard as many languages (in fact, you have only twelve apostles speaking, but fifteen different languages being heard).
1 Cor. 14:5 – the fact that the Corinthians’ utterances were actually being translated into language by the Holy Spirit for certain people may be the reason why Paul required the Corinthians to have gifted interpreters when they spoke in tongues. Again, the word “interprets” refers to the interpretation of foreign languages.
1 Cor. 14:10-11 – Paul’s use of “sound” to describe the tongues of the Corinthian church is the same word “sound” (from the Greek, phonee) that Luke uses to describe the tongues in Acts 2:6, which were heard as foreign languages.
Paul’s Teachings on Speaking in Tongues
Paul teaches that tongue-speaking is a gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4,10-11). Paul therefore does not prohibit tongue-speaking (1 Cor. 14:39) and even encourages it (1 Cor. 14:5) when received according to his parameters.
However, Paul warns us that tongue-speaking is not always a gift of the Spirit, but may originate out of spiritual pride and immaturity. This is why Paul called the Corinthians immature (1 Cor. 3:1-3; 14:20), and said they were seeking the wisdom of men and not God (1 Cor. 2:5,13; 3:18). Many people in the Corinthian church claimed to have the gift of tongues, but were actually mimicking the divine gift in order to gain ascendancy in the church. This caused arrogance, dissensions and jealousies among them (1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:3; 4:6-7,18; 5:2; 11:17-22).
Tongue-speaking can also have demonic origins. When people are unfaithful and motivated by pride and not love for God, God can allow demons to enter the church to punish the unfaithful. These demons can appear holy and good, and inspire tongue-speaking and other speech, but they are really deceivers who wish to confuse the faithful and lead them away from the truth (cf. Ezek. 14:6-11; 1 Kings 22:22-23). Paul warns that some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Tim. 4:1). This is why John tells us to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1).
Therefore, tongue-speaking can be a gift of the Holy Spirit, or may be of human or demonic origin. Paul makes several important points regarding the gift of tongues:
1 – The gift of tongues is a lesser gift from God. While speaking in tongues is a gift of the Spirit, Paul teaches that it is a lesser gift on the continuum of divine gifts from God (1 Cor. 12:10,28,30). For example, Paul says that tongues is a much lesser gift than the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1-5,19,22). In fact, the gift of tongues is not even mentioned among the gifts of the Spirit in the latter books of the New Testament (Rom. 12:4-8; Eph. 4:11-12; Gal. 5:22; 1 Peter 4:7-11; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6).
2 – The gift of tongues will cease. Paul says “as for tongues, they will cease” (1 Cor. 13:8). The Greek word for “cease” (pauomai) means that the gift of tongues will end abruptly, on its own, and will not be replaced by another gift. The gift of tongues is the only gift of the Holy Spirit that is said to “cease” in this way. When Paul says that prophecies and knowledge will “pass away” (1 Cor. 13:8), the phrase “pass away” (in Greek, katargeo) indicates that these gifts will be replaced by a superior power. This appears to take place when we begin our life in eternity (1 Cor. 13:10-12). Not so with tongues.
Paul does not say when the gift of tongues would cease, and whether the gift would return intermittently after its cessation. However, Augustine wrote that the gift of tongues had ceased by the time of his day. Augustine explained that this was because the Catholic Church now spoke the language of the nations, and tongue-speaking was only for purposes of evangelization (Aquinas agreed). The fact that the gift of tongues is not recorded in later books of the New Testament suggest that the gift may have even been ceasing during the biblical period.
Nevertheless, there are a few recorded instances of saints speaking in tongues over the centuries (Sts. Dominic, Anthony of Padua, Francis Xavier, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola). This demonstrates that the gift of tongues is very rare, and given to the holiest of people.
3 – Tongue-speaking has strict parameters. Finally, Paul prescribed strict parameters for those who would receive the gift of tongues:
(a) The person who speaks in tongues should pray for the power to interpret his own tongue (1 Cor. 14:13), or have someone who has the gift of interpretation present to interpret the tongue (1 Cor. 14:27). If the tongue cannot be interpreted, the person is to remain silent (1 Cor. 14:28). Therefore, tongues should not be unintelligible utterances, but should be understood (1 Cor. 14:6-12).
(b) In a congregation, only two or three people at most should speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14:27), and each must speak in turn. This is the case even though there may be hundreds or even thousands of people in a church. The many Protestant churches that call upon many people, even hundreds during a service, to speak in tongues contravenes Paul’s divine mandate, and raises doubts about its authenticity.
(c) The tongue-speaking must be done for the edification of the Church (1 Cor. 14:5,26). Paul says that a person who speaks in tongues edifies himself (1 Cor. 14:4) which is good, but Paul also says tongues must edify the Church. This is why Paul requires one to interpret the tongue, and why Paul says only two or three at the most should speak in tongues during an assembly. A mass proliferation of tongue-speaking in an assembly would lead to confusion. This would not be of divine origin because Paul says, in connection with tongue-speaking, that God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33).
(d) After setting the parameters of tongue-speaking and warning against avoiding confusion, Paul says that “women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, even as the law says” (1 Cor. 14:34). This means that women are not allowed to speak in tongues in church. Paul is underscoring that this is a divine command from God when he ends his statement with “even as the law says.” Again, many Protestant churches contravene this divine command by allowing women to speak “in tongues” in their assemblies.
(e) Paul teaches that a proliferation of tongue-speaking in a church may actually be a sign of unbelief and God’s ensuing judgment upon them. When Paul teaches the Corinthians about the proper use of tongues (1 Cor. 14:21), he quotes from Isaiah 28:11-12: “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Paul’s use of Isaiah is significant because he is referring to the apostate Jews of the 8th century right before they were destroyed by the Assyrians. To punish the Jews, God first allowed the Assyrians to speak in foreign tongues to them to confuse them before they were ultimately destroyed. God’s judgment being revealed in the form of foreign tongues was first prophesied to Israel in the 15th century, B.C. (see Deut. 28:49-50). Remember also how God sent unintelligible tongues to punish His people for their lack of faith at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11).
Therefore, Paul is warning the Corinthians that their abuse of tongue-speaking is a sign of God’s judgment against them. These abuses included many people speaking in tongues, out of turn, without an interpreter, and for pride and not the edification of the church. This is why Paul says that “tongues are a sign…for unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14:22). This is the same “sign” that God gave the unbelieving Jews before they were punished.
This is also why Paul says that unbelievers look at the whole Corinthian church speaking in tongues and conclude that they “are mad” (1 Cor. 14:23). Paul is telling the Corinthians that their abuse of tongues makes them look insane, and this is a sign of their unbelief (that is why tongues are a “sign for unbelievers”; the “unbelievers” were the Corinthians themselves). This is the same reason why Jesus spoke in parables, to further harden the hearts of those who did not believe in Him, as a punishment for their lack of faith (Matt. 13:13-15).