What is speaking in tongues?


We are often afraid of what we can't explain, and speaking in tongues is mysterious to many of us.


1 Corinthians 12-14

What is speaking in tongues?  Does one need to speak in tongues to show they are saved?

Speaking in tongues is among the most hotly debated spiritual gifts in scripture.  Furthermore, the varying teachings on this topic have led to divisions within churches and denominations, as well as the divide between (what we call) ‘charismatic’ and ‘non-charismatic’ churches.   This is sad, since Paul himself describes this gift as among the least of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit.

The most extensive teaching on speaking in tongues is found in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14.  It is important to read all three chapters because of the context they provide as one tries to understand the gifts of the Spirit.  In this particular letter, Paul is addressing the church in Corinth among whom had risen debate, pride, and disorder in worship as a result of their misuse of the spiritual gifts.  In these passages Paul emphasizes that above all the gifts given by the spirit are faith, hope, and love.  And the greatest of those three is love.  Usually we read that at weddings, but the background of Paul’s writing was the abuse of spiritual gifts in the church, not marriage relationships.  That’s why Paul says in 1 Cor 13:1, “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Some of the people in the Corinthian church had become so enamored with themselves because of their ability to speak in tongues, that they had neglected to love and care for each other.

The reason that Paul calls the gift of tongues the least of the spiritual gifts is because it does not edify the entire body of believers.  It only edifies the spirit of those who pray in tongues (1 Cor 14:4), unless there is an interpretation for what is spoken in tongues (1 Cor 14:5), which is another gift given by the spirit (1 Cor 12:10).  When someone speaks in tongues, usually they do not even know what they are saying (1 Cor. 14:14), unless they have received the gift of interpretation (1 Cor. 14:13).  The NLT, I believe, rightly interprets the idea of “speaking in tongues” as “speaking unknown languages”.  When one speaks in tongues they are not speaking in a known language, it is a spiritual language.  That is why Paul says, “if you have the ability to speak in tongues, you will be talking only to God, since people won’t be able to understand you. You will be speaking by the power of the Spirit, but it will all be mysterious” (1 Cor 14:2).

On pentecost all the believers were recieved a strange gift to speak in other languages. Stranger yet was the fact that the other people understood them.


It is believed by some that the gift poured out on Pentecost in Acts 2, was not only the gift of tongues, but it was also the gift of interpretation.  Luke records that everyone present in the upper room “was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability, (Acts 2:4), AND Luke writes in the next two verses, that “Jews from every nation…heard their own languages being spoken by the believers” (Acts 2:5,6).  As the Spirit was gifted on that day in a powerful way, people were not only gifted to speak a spiritual language, but others were gifted to hear it as if it was their own language.  Some just heard it as the babblings of drunk people (Acts 2:13).

The blessing of speaking in tongues is that it engages your spirit with the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 14:14).  It can be a rich blessing in one’s prayer life as they seek to center themselves and allow themselves to connect with God.  But it does not engage your mind, nor does it bless the body of believers around you.  That is why Paul gives such strict guidelines for the Corinthian church concerning tongues, because their worship services were getting out of hand with people trying to out-shout each other in tongues.  This still goes on today in many churches which is surprising considering how clear Paul is about NOT doing that.   He even goes so far as to say that if an unbeliever comes in and sees you shouting in unknown languages they will think you are crazy (1 Cor. 14:23).  And in 1 Corinthians 14:26-28 Paul clearly says that we should only speak in tongues in worship in an orderly way.   If there is someone there to interpret what has been said, and this should be kept to a minimum (2 or 3 at most).

Is speaking in tongues a sign that you are saved?

The idea that you must speak in tongues as the sign of salvation (or as a sign of having the Holy Spirit) comes from the Pentecostal church, but not all ‘charismatics’ believe this.  Speaking in tongues can be one sign that someone has the Holy Spirit, but it is not THE sign.  The most visible sign that the Spirit of God lives in someone should be in the FRUITS of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) rather than in the GIFTS of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:1-11).  The sign that some one has the Holy Spirit is not limited to any one gift, rather the presence of the Spirit is seen in the FRUITS of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Furthermore, the Spirit is given upon our belief in the saving work of Jesus and our repentance of sin.  The Spirit is gifted when we put our faith in Jesus, not at a later time.

Paul is also very clear in saying that not everyone will have the gift of tongues (1 Co 12:29-30).  So how could that be THE sign of salvation OR of having received the Holy Spirit.  The emphasis on making tongues THE sign in the Pentecostal church has made for unhealthy environments where people feel pressured to fake it.  It is pretty easy to fake speaking in tongues if you’ve heard it enough (though some people may be onto you if they have the spiritual gift of discernment – 1 Cor. 12:10).  However, it is a lot more difficult to fake things like love, patience, and the other fruits of the Spirit.  That is where the spiritual barometer should be.  None of us will have all of the spiritual gifts, but we should each bear all the fruit of the Spirit.   And we should eagerly seek gifts that edify the body, not the gifts like tongues that just edify yourself.  Seek gifts like healing, prophesying, or teaching, don’t get hung up on the need to speak in tongues.

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6 Responses to “What is speaking in tongues?”

  1. Thomas Says:

    “The sign that some one has the Holy Spirit is not limited to any one gift, rather the presence of the Spirit is seen in the FRUITS of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” I totally agree with this statement. I also agree “the varying teachings on this topic have led to divisions within churches and denominations, as well as the divide between (what we call) ‘charismatic’ and ‘non-charismatic’ churches. ” Do you see the divisions within Metro Community Church surrounding this issue?, if speak in tongue is truly by holy spirit, why is there so much divisiveness surrounding this issue?
    if it is not from spirit of God then whose is it?

    • MetroBibleBlog Says:

      @ Thomas.
      No, I don’t think that this is a point of division in Metro at all. There are some people at Metro who come from traditions that use tongues frequently and there are people at Metro who have never given tongues a second thought. What a great mix! As we say many times, we are a 3rd culture community, that means embracing painful adaptation. Sometimes it can be painful for us to rub shoulders in our church community with people who have different practices in their faith, but it can be such a blessing for everyone when we can learn from each other and ultimately see and understand God better.

      I think that the reason that there is so much divisiveness in the church about the issue is because people forget that we need to love above all. Some people become jealous of those who receive the gift of tongues so they try to discredit it or separate themselves from those ‘charasmaticish’ people. This is such a silly reaction since since Paul himself said we should instead pursue gifts like prophesy. Sometimes, people who do begin to speak in tongues might gain a sense of spiritual superiority, which can be quite a turn off to those around them. Again, this is just silly, since there are other more important things that we could and should focus on.

      If you find yourself in a prayer group where people are quietly praying in tongues this should not be a threat at all. It is a blessing and shouldn’t be a distraction either. If that praying becomes loud and invasive, then someone should lovingly share their concern. It is important to be well informed about what scripture says about spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor 12-14), BUT it is much more important to love than to try to be right. As Paul says, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). If we continue to love each other through our differences, then we will grow and learn from each other instead of experiencing division. I have great confidence that this will be the case at Metro.

    • MetroBibleBlog Says:

      @ Thomas “if it is not from spirit of God then whose is it?”

      Just because something is from God does not mean that sinful humans can’t mess it up. We do it all the time.

      That said, we live in a spiritual world that we can’t see and very often cannot explain. Sometimes people may speak in tongues or prophesy via spirits that are not the Holy Spirit. That is why the Holy Spirit gifts some people in the body with the gift of discerning between Spirits.

  2. kathydedrama Says:

    I just received the gift of tongues which is a big suprise to me since I was raised Catholic! I want to speak out for anyone else who feels that this gift DOES edify and encourage the BODY of Christ. Here’s how: When I pray for Metro in the Sunday morning prayer group, I know that the enemy tries to attack us. I’ve never had more attacks than since I started praying for Metro. It often feels like I am on the frontlines of a vicious spiritual battle and when I pray in tongues, the voice and presence of the enemy leaves and I am able to pray clearly and powerfully in the authority Christ has graciously bestowed upon us. So, I find tongues a gift to be used in the battles in the spiritual realm, which are many! When I pray for the pastors and various ministries at Metro, I am praying in the Spirit. There is a big difference when my flesh prays and when the Holy Spirit in me prays for me! Believe me, this is all new and strange to me too! Anyway, I just wanted to represent those who use tongues to advance God’s Kingdom with much LOVE LOVE LOVE!!! Amen!

    • MetroBibleBlog Says:

      @ kathydedrama
      It is such a blessing that you have received this gift. It will serve you well as you seek to engage with God, center yourself, and engage in prayer for all kinds of things. So yes, in that regard it can definitely be a blessing to the body of Christ, because it is a blessing to you and you are a part of the body.

      I don’t want to turn this into a discussion of semantics, but a distinction should be made between two things that you said in your comment. In your disagreement with the original post you said the gift of tongues “DOES edify and encourage the BODY of Christ,” then at the end of the comment you said the gift of tongues helps “advance God’s Kingdom.” I simply want to make a distinction because you have made these two things sound synonymous when in fact there is a difference in the meaning of the words. I would not argue that praying in tongues helps advance the Kingdom of God, if for no other reason than the fact that it is prayer, and as you said there is a spiritual battle around us that needs to be fought. However, Paul is not saying that speaking in tongues does not advance the Kingdom of God. He doesn’t bring the kingdom up at all in his discussion of the gifts. What he says is that that tongues do not edify the body (1 Cor. 14:4), that is to say they do not directly lift up the group of believers in the same way teaching would, or prophesy would, or healing would. That is why Paul continues to say, we SHOULD be seeking gifts that DO edify the body, like prophesy (same verse).

      It sounds like you’re trying to defend the gift of tongues from the perspective of someone who has experienced that gift. There’s no need to do so. It is a beautiful gift that the Holy Spirit gives to us, and Paul himself says that he wishes we could all speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14:5). I myself have been praying in tongues for most of my life, so like you, I too use this gift and it is a blessing to me. But if you want to take a stand that the gift of tongues directly edifies the body of Christ, then your argument is not with the MetroBibleBlog, it is with the Apostle Paul himself. I am so glad that you have received this gift, but don’t take lightly the words of Paul that we should eagerly seek the gift of prophesy instead. It is not without reason that Paul says, “I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language” (1 Cor. 14:19). He says so because he wants the body to be built up, and speaking tongues is not the way to accomplish this. I say this not in an effort to diminish the gift, but it should be used in its proper place, and it sounds like you are doing that already. Remember that Paul is speaking not to you, but to a group of people whose times of worship and prayer have become wild and disorderly.

      Speaking in tongues can be a real blessing to our prayer lives. The beauty of speaking in tongues is that one is interceding in a spiritual language that is not complicated and confused by our own want and desires (I think this is what you meant when you used the phrase “when my flesh prays”). However, we should still pray in a language we understand, so that we can engage our minds, and engage with others who are praying with us. Also, a brief caution about the phrase “praying in the spirit.” The phrase “praying in the spirit” does not mean “praying in tongues.” In fact Paul says that we should “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph 6:18). Obviously Paul is not suggesting that we speaking in tongues all the time, but prayer is spiritual always and we should pray as a people living in and surrendered to the Spirit. There is no hierarchy of prayer, all prayer should be prayed with the enabling and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, as we yield ourselves to him. Whether we are praying in tongues or praying in a language we understand.

      I encourage you to reread 1 Corinthians 12-14 again so that you can see just how explicit Paul is about the gifts, and the gift of tongues. He is speaking to an ancient church, but the words bear weight and significance for us today.

  3. kathydedrama Says:

    Thank you so much for this informative response! This is the exactly the guidance and encouragement I needed. I know God is using you to teach me much here. I will re-read these verses and talk to God about how He would like me to use this gift. I get it about it not edifying the body directly but indirectly in my own prayer time. Also, just to clarify, when I say praying in the flesh, I mean when I’m talking the talk not walking the walk, rather than when I’m not speaking in tongues. My prayer time when the Holy Spirit is guiding me includes singing, praying, tongues, sometimes laughing and crying! Again, thank you for your response : )

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