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).
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.