Tongues: To Speak or Not to Speak

1 Corinthians 12

From its beginning at Pentecost, the gospel seed spawning the body of Christ has been spreading all across the world. However, it was not long before the old minister of confusion was up to his deceitful tricks. His weapon of choice was to confuse the true nature and purpose of the grace gifts – especially the sign-gift of tongues. If he can distort the proper understanding of this gift, he could diminish the overall effectiveness of the church in equipping believers for service.

Paul wrote a portion of one of his thirteen letters to the church to deal with this very problem. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written in 58 A.D., twelve years before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Therefore, the sign-gift of Gentile languages was still being used by God to warn Israel of His impending judgment and to inform the new church (Jew and Gentile) that He had brought in a new age.

Over and over Paul emphasized the extreme importance of the grace gifts for the growth and unity of the church (Romans 12:3-8, I Corinthians 12-14, Eph. 4:11-16). Peter echoed Paul’s emphasis as to their importance in 1 Peter 4:7-11. Paul was painstakingly clear in Ephesians 4:11-16 that the proper use of grace gifted people are God’s method for edifying (spiritually building up) and unifying (bringing together) the church. Because of their importance, a misunderstanding or misuse of gifts would be devastating to the church.

Following Pentecost, many in and around Jerusalem properly understood the nature and purpose of the sign-gift of tongues. They found their way to the local meeting of the church seeking more information. Because the graphic nature of the gift it was an immediate attention getter. It may was most likely flaunted by those who had the gift and sought by those who wished that they had it. Even more tragic, many probably falsely attempted to reproduce its manifestations by mimicking the gift in order to bring attention to themselves. This is made clear by Paul’s opening remarks to the Corinthian church.

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant (1 Corinthians 12:1). This was said because Paul anticipated that his readers did not have sufficient knowledge of the use of spiritual gifts. Paul reminded them that they were Gentiles, carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led. The new believers could have very well been involved in the use of ecstatic utterances in their worship practices. By trying to falsely reproduce the gift, some of these pretenders may have been reverting back to mindless ecstatic utterances and in the process unknowingly calling Jesus accursed. Only the ones who called Jesus Lord (deity) were properly being led by the Holy Spirit and most likely using spiritual gifts in the proper manner (1 Corinthians 12:1-3).

Rather than emphasizing and encouraging the use of all the gifts in a proper balance, the Corinthians clamored after and misused one gift – the sign gift of languages. They did so at the expense of being severely misunderstood by the rest of the body and minimizing the effectiveness of all the other gifted members.

Paul’s strategy for dealing with this sensitive subject was to make sure that everyone had a general knowledge of the purpose of grace gifts and how they were to be used. He began by teaching that just as there was diversity in the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in the design and distribution of the gifts there was also unity, one God. There was, likewise, diversity in the body of Christ (many gifts) yet unity, one body.

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

There was to be no organizational hierarchy or division in the body as a result of the misuse of gifts. And one gift was not to be emphasized above another (1 Corinthians 12:7-10).

It is God who decides what particular gift or gifts each believer receives, and God distributes the various gifted members into the body as it pleases Him, and it is God who energizes these gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 1 Corinthians 12:11, 18; Ephesians 4:11).  Nowhere does the Bible teach that a believer is to seek for any one particular gift.

When used out of proportion to the other gifts, the gift of tongues was inferior to the gift of prophecy for the spiritual edification of the church. For instance, God gave the church the gifts of administration, faith, teaching, mercy, evangelism, exhortation, giving, helps, etc. – all designed by Him to work together in perfect harmony to bring immature believers to maturity and promote unity in the body.

God by design did not give everyone the same gift, yet every gifted person is necessary and must cooperate if the church is to grow (Ephesians 4:11-16). Paul was teaching that every believer should not expect to have the gift of tongues, but should discover the gift that God has been pleased to give him or her and use it to benefit the entire body.

Shouting with his pen that no one gift is to be emphasized at the expense of any of the others, Paul reminded the Corinthians (and us) that the gift of tongues was not superior in any way to the other gifts (1 Corinthians 12:14-26). As a matter of fact, because of the way it was misused, the church was experiencing confusion and disunity rather than growth.

1 Corinthians 14

“Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts but especially in order that you may prophecy. For he who speaks in a language does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.” (1 Corinthians 14:1-2)

The gift of tongues alone because of its nature and unique purpose of being a sign to warn unbelieving Jews of judgment and that Gentiles were to be included in the church, was an inferior gift for building up the body of Christ. It was inferior in communicating truth because, unlike the gift of prophecy, it needed an accompanying translator.

Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 14:2 was meant to be an encouragement but was accompanied by a small criticism.

He was not suggesting that tongues was to be used as some sort of secret prayer language to God, but was stressing the inferiority of tongues as an edifying gift without the use of the gift of interpretation. Spiritual gifts were not given by God to be used for the personal benefit of any particular individual, but for the spiritual profit of the whole church. Paul then added to his argument.

“He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” (1 Corinthians 4:4)

For the edification of the church the sign-gift of tongues was simply inferior. The gift itself, when used according to its purpose, was not inferior. But when wrongly used (and it was being wrongly used), it was not the best gift for edification.

“I wish that you all spoke with languages.” (1 Corinthians 14:5)

This is not a command but a personal wish or desire on the part of Paul. Paul used the same phrase in 2 Corinthians 7:7 when he said that he wished that everyone at Corinth had the gift of celibacy like him. Obviously, they all did not! It would be wonderful if all had the supernatural sign-gift of languages, but they all did not. But it would have been even more wonderful if all worked together to communicate spiritual truth in order that the church might grow.

Paul then pled with those Corinthians who insisted on using the gift of languages for the purpose of edification to always interpret them. Please understand that many in the church were not cooperating with Paul at all. This is why he found it necessary to write this portion of his letter to the Corinthians.

Paul said that he spoke with tongues more than them all (1 Corinthians 14:18). Paul evidently used many languages! He never seemed to have a language barrier as he preached the gospel to the Jews, the Iconians, the Greeks, or the Romans.

He closed his argument against using the sign gift of tongues for edification with a final plea for the use of gifts that communicate clear, understandable truth. The result would be more knowledge and unity in the church, which would help to bring about the spiritual growth of all.

“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” (1 Corinthians 14:26-33)

This passage is simply not heeded by those who claim the gift of languages is for today. Not at all! Those whom God has evidently not been pleased to give the gift of tongues often become second classed citizens in groups that practice them. They are privately or publicly prodded and given the impression that they are not really seeking the gift as they should or they are simply not “spiritual enough.”  This attitude is divisive to the body of Christ.

There are many sincere believers that will disagree with this article and many who teach that the gift is still being used by God today. A host of them preach a clear gospel of grace. With this there is agreement. But there are other views of the nature and purpose of the gift of tongues and believers should understand this.

There is evidence from Scripture, as well as from history, that the gift of tongues as a sign to Israel and to the church has ceased (1 Corinthians 13:8). Paul wrote at least 12 other books in the New Testament. He never mentioned tongues again. He wrote about the nature and purpose of spiritual gifts in two of his later books, but he did not mention tongues (Romans 12:3-6; Ephesians 4:11-16). Peter never mentioned tongues. James never mentioned tongues. John never mentioned tongues nor did Jude. Jesus Christ never mentioned the gift of tongues. The gift appeared briefly in Acts and 1 Corinthians. Once the predicted judgment of God came upon Israel in 70 A.D. and the body of Christ began to grow, the sign diminished.

The confusion over them has not! We should recognize that this misunderstanding has taken much needed attention from other gifts and gifted members of the body at the expense of church maturity and unity. Shouldn’t we rekindle our desire to know and use the supernatural abilities that God has given us by His grace? Shouldn’t we commit ourselves to make a much-needed spiritual contribution to His body?

“As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (1 Pet. 4:10)



New American Standard Bible

John MacArthur

Robert Gromacki