In some churches, men and women can be seen “speaking in tongues” and being “filled” by the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure what to think about the practice. Are these things consistent with the Bible’s teaching?
The question of the ability to speak in tongues is a hotly-debated issue within the church, one that often elicits strong emotions from both sides of the debate. Therefore, in settling this question, let’s endeavored to provide a comprehensive and detailed answer, based on scripture, and addressing the most common points and counterarguments. The article is quite lengthy, but I believe the controversial nature of this topic warrants an in-depth response.
The answer has been divided into three arguments: a scriptural argument, a historical argument, and a theological argument. Let’s begin with an introduction to tongues itself.
Introduction on Tongues
First, we must understand speaking in tongues is not a practice of speaking in gibberish or chanting repetitive phrases or sounds. According to scripture, the true gift of tongues will always involve speaking a truly human language complete with a syntax, vocabulary, and sentence structure.
A “tongue” is the Bible’s word for a real, understandable human language, and the gift of tongues means speaking in a foreign language that the person speaking does not know and cannot understand. If a tongue is spoken in the presence of a person who knows that language naturally, then that person will immediately understand the speech because it is natural language.
For example, if an English-speaking Christian with the gift of tongues is prompted by the Spirit to speak in Spanish, then this believer will not understand his own speech, which is the essence of the miracle. Nevertheless, the speech is truly Spanish, so though the speaker himself cannot understand his own tongue, anyone who knows Spanish will understand his speech perfectly.
So when the Bible uses the term “tongue,” it is not describing a strange, non-human utterance. On the contrary, the term tongue in the Bible simply means normal, spoken human language.
You can see this truth at work in Acts 2 when thousands began to hear the apostles speak in unknown tongues at Pentecost. In Acts 2:6-11 we see plainly that these “tongues” were normal, human languages that many foreigners in the crowd could understand naturally:
Acts 2:6-11 (NKJV)
6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”
The miracle of the moment was the way the speakers themselves couldn’t understand the words coming out of their own mouths, but this didn’t require that they speak in gibberish or “mysterious” tongues. They simply spoke in foreign languages they didn’t previously know. Truly, that was a miracle.
So, speaking in tongues is never a practice of uttering gibberish or chanting repetitive sounds. The fact that so much of what passes as “tongues” today is clearly nothing more than babbling gibberish is our first clue that the modern-day practice of having the gift of “tongues” is rife with error and false displays, rather than being a true work of the Spirit.
The Scriptural Argument
The authoritative teaching on the gift of speaking in tongues is given by the Apostle Paul as part of extended teaching from 1st Corinthians 12-14. Time does not permit a full exposition of these chapters so we will summarize the most important points in these chapters, beginning with 1st Corinthians 12:27-31:
1 Corinthians 12:27-31 (NKJV)
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. 28 And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.
In the preceding verses of Chapter 12, Paul had taught that the Church is made up of individuals each with different God-given gifts, yet the Body can only function in a healthy way if it works as a team just as the various parts of the human body work together.
The sin of the Corinthian church was that it elevated one gift (i.e., speaking in tongues) above all other gifts in importance and desirability, and the church taught all members to seek the attainment of that gift. Paul responded by teaching that this kind of thinking regarding spiritual gifts is wrong.
First, not all Christians are given the same spiritual gift nor can we acquire spiritual gifts for ourselves merely because we desire them. God alone assigns spiritual gifts by the Spirit. Simply put, not every Christian has the same gift, and, therefore, it is impossible for every Christian to possess the gift of tongues (see 1st Corinthians 12:30). Therefore, it is wrong for a church to teach believers they can (and must) acquire the gift of tongues, for this is impossible according to Scripture.
Secondly, in verses 27-31, Paul addresses a second mistake the Corinthian church made by elevating the gift of tongues above other gifts. The church assigned the gift of speaking in tongues inappropriate importance within the celebration of the body. The church made having the gift of tongues the highest priority gift, but in reality, Paul teaches that the gift of tongues is the lowest priority gift.
In verse 28, Paul gives the correct order of importance for the expression of gifts within the Body. Paul’s list in the original Greek language is presented as a hierarchical order, meaning that Paul clearly set forth an order of importance for the gifts of the Spirit. Specifically, Paul lists the gifts in diminishing order of importance moving down the list.
In verse 28, Paul begins with the most important gift in the church: the gift of apostleship. The gift of apostleship was a unique and rare gift given within the body of Christ, and only a few men met the strict test required for apostleship (i.e., having been appointed by Christ and having the power of miracles to prove the office). Since Jesus is no longer making personal appearances to commission new apostles in the church, the gift of apostleship is no longer available in the church, though it did exist in Paul’s day.
The second highest priority gift in Paul’s list is the gift of prophecy. Prophecy involves the revealing of divinely-inspired knowledge of God and His plans. Scriptures tell us in Hebrews and Revelation that the canon is now closed, and no new divinely-inspired knowledge of God will be provided. Therefore, this gift (in the sense of giving scripture) has likewise become dormant in the church.
Prophecy in a lesser form (i.e., foretelling of future events) may still be available in the church today, but in our experience, this gift is frequently counterfeited and abused. Therefore we advise caution and discernment before accepting any person’s claims to possessing the gift of “prophecy” in the church body. As with the prophets of old, we must apply a 100% accuracy test to any claim of prophecy. If a person claiming to have the gift of prophecy is wrong in their prediction even once, then that person was never a true prophet of God (see Deuteronomy 18:18-22).
The third most important gift is the gift of teaching (e.g., the ability to communicate spiritual truth). Today in the church, the gift of teaching takes top priority within the Body, according to Paul’s hierarchical list. From there, the list continues in decreasing priority from teaching to the gifts of miracles, healing, helps, administration, and various tongues (e.g., speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, & other speaking or exhortation gifts).
According to Paul, the highest priority spiritual gift within the Body today is the gift of prophecy (where it is truly operating) and then the gift of teaching. The church should seek this gift first. Ironically, the gift to speak in tongues is to be given the lowest priority in the body of Christ. This is the exact opposite of what many modern-day movements are teaching!
Remember, according to Paul a Christian cannot obtain a certain spiritual gift that God has not already given, nor can a Christian be “coached” or taught a spiritual gift. Only God appoints spiritual gifts, and, therefore, we will only have the gifts God grants us according to His will at the time of our salvation.
Consequently, Paul’s prioritized list of gifts cannot be a “wish list” for an individual Christian, who seeks to acquire new gifts. Instead, Paul’s list teaches the church the proper priority for the expression of gifts within the gathering. The church gathering should emphasize the use of higher priority gifts (e.g., prophecy & teaching) over lesser spiritual gifts (e.g., speaking in tongues) because the greater gifts are more important to the spiritual health and maturity of the Christian.
Based on Paul’s teaching in this chapter, we learn the Corinthian church had focused their gather entirely (or at least mostly) on obtaining the gift to speak in tongues rather than on teaching or other higher-priority spiritual activities. Furthermore, the church developed false teaching that every member of the body could obtain the gift of tongues and should be expected to use it in unison. To correct this error, Paul writes that gifts can’t be acquired; tongues may only be used under certain conditions, and in general, the church should seek for greater things than to see speaking in tongues exercised at all.
This brings us to verse 31, where Paul says the church should “earnestly desire the greater gifts.” The Greek word translated “earnestly desire” is zeloo, which can also be translated “to seek zealously.” To understand Paul’s statement, we must ask who is to do this seeking, and what should they seek specifically?
Understanding who should seek begins with recognizing that Paul’s statement in verse 31 is written in the second person plural in the Greek language. In Texas, we say “you all” to indicate second person plural. In other words, Paul’s command to seek is directed to the collective church body (i.e., second person plural), not to individuals within the body (i.e., second person singular). So as a group, the church body should do the seeking.
Secondly, to answer the question what should they seek, remember that the church in Corinth was giving too much attention to the exercise of the gift of tongues at the expense of time spent on other, more important gifts like teaching. The church body was neglecting the expression of teaching, miracles, helps, etc. within the gathering, while spending excessive time seeking to experience speaking in tongues.
Therefore, Paul says in verse 31 that the church body should earnestly desire to receive more of the greater gifts. The church should desire for more teaching, more miracles (like healing), more prayer, more service gifts, etc. in place of seeking lesser gifts like being able to speak in tongues. Paul is telling the church to seek earnestly for more nutrition and less junk food.
Paul supports his point with a proof text taken from the Old Testament in Chapter 14:
1 Corinthians 14:20-22 (NKJV)
Tongues a Sign to Unbelievers
20 Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.
21 In the law it is written:
“With men of other tongues and other lips
I will speak to this people;
And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,”
says the Lord.
22 Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.
In verse 20, Paul chastises the church for being spiritually immature in their thinking. Their inappropriate desire for the gift of other tongues was evidence of their spiritual immaturity. In fact, Paul goes further and says that if they must be ignorant of something (i.e., if they must be “infants”), then be ignorant of evil rather than being ignorant of the proper place for speaking in tongues, which was their situation.
The Corinthian church was ignorant because they were not observing what had been written in the Torah concerning the purpose of speaking in other tongues. Paul reminds them that in Deuteronomy 28:49 (later repeated in Isaiah 28:11-12) God foretold how one day the Jewish nation would witness a “strange people” (i.e., the Gentiles) speaking to God in unfamiliar languages. This event would be a sign to the Jewish people that their Messiah has come, yet God says the Jewish nation wouldn’t heed this sign (i.e., the Jewish people would not receive their Messiah).
Paul uses this text to explain the purpose of speaking in other tongues in the Gentile church: it is a sign from the Lord to the unbelieving Jewish people. In verse 22, Paul says speaking in tongues was intended to be a sign to the unbelieving Jew to show that the prophecy in Deuteronomy and Isaiah was being fulfilled in their day. They were being shown in this unique way that the Messiah had come as promised!
On the other hand, tongues was not a gift given to the Church for the edification of believers (1st Corinthians 14:12). On the contrary, the sign to believers was to be the fulfillment of this prophecy (i.e., the fulfillment of God’s prediction that the Jews would not receive their Messiah).
Therefore, the church in Corinth was acting in ignorance when they overlooked the true purpose of tongues while inventing a different purpose for the gift. Sadly, this church was too preoccupied with their unhealthy fascination with the gift of tongues to take notice of God’s fulfillment of this important scripture.
Based on Paul’s teaching in 1st Corinthians 12-14, we learn that the gift of tongues served its prophetic purpose in the first century in fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy, and the gift of speaking in tongues was to diminish in practice except for occasions when an interpreter was present. As Paul wrote, the Spirit will only permit the gift of tongues to be expressed en masse within the church in the presence of unbelieving Jews (which would be very rare today).
Any other mass expression of tongues simply is not a work of the Spirit, since it contradicts scripture. Furthermore, a Christian may express the gift of tongues individually, but they may do so only in private. If they feel led to share their gift in the gathering, they may only do so when an interpreter is present (see 1st Corinthians 14:27-28).
Once a statement in tongues has been spoken, the church body is to wait for interpretation so they may understand the meaning of the word. If no interpretation is offered, then the one speaking in tongues must remain silent since his expression of tongues has failed the Bible’s test and must be considered a false expression (similar to the way all gifts of prophecy must stand a test of accuracy according to 1st Corinthians 14:29).
Knowing that this is God’s purpose in the expression of the gift of tongues, we should take a critical view of any congregation that encourages or allows the routine expression of a (supposed) gift of tongues en masse. If such experiences occur outside the presence of unbelieving Jews (as Paul explained), it is not a true demonstration of tongues. Instead, it is a false, contrived work of the flesh, and it should be avoided by every Christian.
Furthermore, if this experience occurs without an interpreter present, it is further evidence that this expression of tongues is not a work of the Spirit. Lastly, if the church teaches that all Christians can and should speak in tongues, this teaching is false and is not working in the Spirit. Sadly, these mistakes in Corinth continue to occur in many churches worldwide, leading to many fleshly and false rituals without basis in God’s word and at the expense of greater gifts like teaching.
Under these circumstances, we must conclude that any mass expression of speaking in tongues (or an individual expression absent interpretation) is a counterfeit display of faked utterances that have been contrived to create the impression of a gift of tongues. Such demonstrations result from willing participants, motivated by peer pressure, deceived by false teaching and ignorant of the biblical truth, trying to acquire something God has not granted. They force themselves to create meaningless chants, which lack true spiritual power and only serve to impress the flesh.
Before the rise of the charismatic movement in the early 20th century, the practice of speaking in tongues was unknown in the church. There is no mention of it in any authoritative church literature after the end of the first century, and no respected church leaders after the Apostolic age ever taught on the continuing use or appearance of this gift. Based on this silence in church literature, it seems the gift disappeared from the body of Christ around the end of the first century (as Paul’s teaching in 1Corinthians 12-14 would anticipate).
Mysteriously, on April 14, 1906, in Southern California, something resembling the practice of speaking in tongues re-emerged. Most church historians trace the origins of this practice to a revival meeting led by William J. Seymour in the African Methodist Anglican Church. The unorthodox practices of this group included claims of extreme manifestations of the Spirit among the faithful, which continued for several years and were roundly criticized by many respected Christian authorities as unbiblical. Central to these manifestations was an emphasis on speaking in “tongues.”
Seymour’s movement, which he linked to the holiness movement and Pentecostalism of the 19th century, was roundly rejected by his Los Angeles church, which subsequently barred him from further preaching in response to his teaching that true salvation must be accompanied by speaking in other tongues. This claim was correctly labeled heresy by his church, and they wisely distanced themselves from his movement.
Despite losing his church, Seymour eventually found a new audience for his false teaching, and this new movement grew by peddling a captivating style of emotional, experiential religion united with works-based salvation. Under the influence of Seymour’s preaching (and those who followed after him), the new movement made speaking in other tongues an essential requirement for salvation.
The Bible clearly teaches that salvation comes by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, and, therefore, speaking in tongues is not a requirement of salvation.
Romans 10:9-10 (NKJV)
9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation.
Moreover, if God intended the gift of speaking in other tongues to accompany the salvation experience, then how can we explain the fact that speaking in tongues was not practiced in the Church for over 1,900 years before it suddenly re-emerged under the teaching of a shady California preacher? This history defies common sense, and it contradicts scripture concerning the establishment of the church and the end of all prophecy.
Therefore, the origins of speaking in other tongues in the modern church give a compelling reason to conclude that this behavior is man-made and was triggered by poor teaching rather than by a true movement of the Holy Spirit.
While the charismatic movement traces its roots to Seymour, Pentecostal churches today hold to a variety of doctrinal views and worship practices, and most Pentecostal churches reject Seymour’s works-based theology and related unbiblical teaching. In fact, today it’s common to find Pentecostal churches teaching salvation by grace through faith alone (i.e., the Gospel) while placing little or no emphasis on speaking in tongues.
Therefore, Christians should not assume that all charismatic churches today follow Seymour’s teaching or even hold to a single, uniform set of beliefs and practices. We must be careful to evaluate each charismatic church, in the same way, we examine every other church body: according to what they believe and teach. As believers, we oppose any teaching that distorts the word of God or preaches a Gospel other than the one the Bible presents.
The charismatic emphasis on speaking in tongues runs counter to scripture in the way it elevates the role of the Holy Spirit in our Christian experience above experience with Christ Himself. The charismatic experience is centered on the work of the Holy Spirit. His presence is emphasized, His power is featured, and His glory is sought after. In this “Spirit-centered” environment, Christ’s role in His Church is inevitably diminished.
This is exactly opposite to scripture’s teaching concerning the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the Godhead. Scripture teaches that the principal role of the Spirit in the Godhead is to testify of Christ and bring Him glory. It is never to bring glory nor attention to Himself (i.e., John 15:26; 16:13-14). Consequently, the Holy Spirit never produces nor participates in any outward manifestation within the Body of Christ which seeks to glorify Himself over Christ. Instead, the primary way we come to know of the work of the Holy Spirit among men is to witness the conviction of sin and a confession of Christ (Acts 2:37-38).
Unfortunately, the charismatic culture places this Biblical principle on its head. Implicit in the teaching and practices of this movement is a view that the Spirit should be honored and sought after for His own glory (i.e., leading believers to call upon the Spirit and request His “filling”). In such an environment, Christ receives glory only peripherally by association with His Spirit. The Bible, however, teaches that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to be a background role visible only by the way He draws men to the Lord (e.g., John 3:8). In other words, the Spirit’s role is to work invisibly to ensure we glorify Christ.
This pattern is best exemplified in the story of Abraham finding a bride for his son, Isaac in Genesis 24. The Godhead is represented in the story, where Abraham represents the Father, Isaac is the Son, and Rebekka is the Bride of the Son (i.e., the Church). But where is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is pictured by the nameless servant of Abraham, who travels to Abraham’s ancestral home to select a Bride. The key feature of the story is that the Spirit is never named. His identity remains in the shadows of the story to emphasize how the Spirit works behind the scenes on behalf of the Father and to the glory of the Son.
Based on our Biblical understanding of the Spirit’s role and manner, we can safely say that the Spirit would never participate in any process that resulted in bringing glory to Himself, including speaking in tongues (apart from the narrowly-defined purpose presented in Scripture) or other such manifestations. Rather, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to draw men to Christ and equip the saints to spread the Gospel. As Paul stated, “Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.” (1st Corinthians 1:22-23).
Therefore, we believe based on scripture, history, and theology that speaking in tongues or similar manifestations are almost always false and man-initiated. In fact, we believe that in many cases such displays are likely the work of the demonic realm, knowing Satan desires to blind unbelievers with false signs and weaken believers by emphasizing personal experience over sound Biblical doctrine.
The Error of the “Filling” of the Holy Spirit
The secondary “filling” of the Holy Spirit is another false teaching arriving out of the charismatic movement. In general two kinds of interpretive errors are responsible for this incorrect teaching.
First, those who teach of a secondary filling by the Spirit commit a logical error in concluding that what is recorded in the scripture concerning the experiences of the early Church are expected to continue for the church indefinitely. The error is in assuming that these early experiences are prescriptive rather than merely descriptive.
The misunderstanding comes primarily from various passages in Acts that describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit during the early Church. In the earliest days of the Church, men occasionally came to saving faith in Christ without an immediate indwelling of the Spirit. When the Spirit arrived at a later, appointed time, these believers experienced an outward manifestation of the Spirit’s indwelling (i.e., speaking in tongues or other supernatural manifestation).
This experience was uncommon in the early church. It happens in only three occurrences for specific reasons, which are described in detail in Acts. Apart from these three examples, all other believers receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of faith. Scripture never teaches that all believers should expect a subsequent “filling” experience by the Holy Spirit.
Today as then, a believer is indwelled by the Holy Spirit at the point of faith, and there is no expectation for an additional “filling” or manifestation of the Spirit to follow. Instead, the normative experience for Christians since the first century has been to see the Holy Spirit manifest His presence only through the fruit of the Spirit and the giving of spiritual gifts (Gal 5:22).
Those who teach a secondary filling of the Spirit after conversion is making a false assumption – built on faulty logic and without support in scripture – that happened in a few limited cases must be the norm for every believer. They make the mistake of taking descriptions of events in scripture and applying them prescriptively for all believers.
As believers, we can’t arrive at our doctrinal beliefs by presuming what God may do apart from what His word says He will do. For example, using the same logic employed by those who teach a secondary filling of the Spirit, we could assert that because God once caused a donkey to speak in Numbers 22 that we should expect the Lord to make donkeys speak routinely. Obviously, such a conclusion is nonsense, and yet it follows naturally from the same logic that concluded all Christians must experience what happened to a few believers in the early church.
In reality, the early church experienced many unique practices. It had the benefit of the apostles’ testimony and leadership, and it had the burden of establishing the truth of the Gospel among a skeptical population that had never experienced the New Testament faith. The apostles had to win over their first converts from three different groups (Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles) that each had some prior (and incorrect) understanding of God’s plan of redemption.
These challenges led God to make special accommodations for the Church using supernatural manifestations. The supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit were powerful and essential tools to validate the message of the Gospel and the authority of the apostles during the establishment of the early church. The supernatural manifestations also validated and distinguished the true church and true apostles from those who might try to counterfeit or distort the Gospel during its early days.
Secondly, this erroneous teaching comes from an error in the interpretation of the Greek word pleroo. When used in scripture, the word means to be made full or amply supplied. It does not usually mean to “fill up.” As an example, Paul says in Phil 4:18 “And my God will supply (pleroo) all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” As the word implies in this verse, God isn’t “filling up” our needs but rather He is meeting our needs fully. This is the proper understanding of the word.
Unfortunately, those teaching the necessity of a secondary filling of the Spirit have misappropriated this word to suit their own purposes by claiming that the word describes a greater giving of the Holy Spirit, particularly in often-quoted passages like:
Ephesians 5:18 (NKJV)
18 And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit,
As with the earlier verse from Philippians, the “filling” here refers not to a greater measure of the Spirit but a greater reliance on the Spirit as He already lives in us. To suggest that there is “more” of the Spirit available to any believer defies the Biblical portrayal of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a single entity, without division or measure.
Consequently, all Christians receive the entire Holy Spirit. There is nothing less than the whole Spirit available to all believers from the moment of faith.
On the other hand, a believer can be more or less in submission to the Spirit in their daily walk. This is the purpose of the command that we “be filled by the Holy Spirit.” Paul meant that the believer should be completely reliant upon and obedient to the Spirit. He was not teaching that believers need some additional “filling” of the Spirit