As we have walked through 1 Corinthians in our services over the past 6 months, we have seen the Apostle Paul address the sign gifts, and specifically speaking in tongues. This is an area of controversy and confusion among Christians in the world today. While I don’t believe that every question can be answered in a brief article, I want to take some time to address what Scripture says about speaking in tongues.

What is it?

When Paul writes about people who speak in tongues, he is referring to a Spirit-led activity in which a believer in Jesus praises God by speaking in a language that he or she had never been taught. The clearest case that we see of this is in Acts 2:1-13. In this passage, the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles and they speak in tongues. In response to this miraculous act, foreigners all hear their native language being spoken by these apostles. Other passages in Acts are less detailed, but they refer to spontaneous, Spirit-led praise that someone speaks in a language they never learned.

What is its purpose?

At its most basic level, speaking in tongues provided a miraculous way for people to praise God. Others not only could stand amazed at the power of God, but they also occasionally could hear their own native language being spoken, so that they could understand what was being said. Speaking in tongues appears to be more connected to praise than to instruction (Acts 2:11, 1 Corinthians 14:16).

Is this gift still around today?

At LBF Church we believe that Scripture nowhere states that any of the gifts of the Spirit has ceased. Because of this, we believe that speaking in tongues is a gift that the Holy Spirit still gives as He sees fit. In 1 Corinthians 14:39 Paul says, “do not forbid speaking in tongues.” Because of this, we don’t intend to forbid this gift or to go beyond Scripture and say that it has ceased. It is possible that the gift is used more frequently by God when the gospel is first bring proclaimed in a culture. This certainly happened in the book of Acts, and there are many stories of this happening in frontier missions settings. That said, we don’t believe that Scripture has placed limitations on how the Spirit could use this gift.

Is it connected to a second blessing or a baptism of the Holy Spirit?

At LBF Church we absolutely reject the teaching that speaking in tongues is a sign of Christian maturity or that it is an indispensable sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the life of a believer. Paul is explicit in 1 Corinthians 12:30 that not everyone speaks in tongues. The Spirit gives the gift as He sees fit. We see no evidence of a “second blessing,” at which time a believer receives a fuller measure of the Holy Spirit and evidence this through speaking in tongues. We understand the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” as simply a reference to believers receiving the Holy Spirit, and not as a reference to believers receiving a fuller experience of maturity or the Spirit’s presence. Those who claim that speaking in tongues is an indispensable characteristic of Christian maturity fall into the same trap of pride and one-upmanship that led to Paul rebuking the Corinthians in chapters 12-14.

When is it meant to be practiced?

In Scripture we see believers speaking in tongues both in public (Acts 2) and also in meetings of the church (1 Corinthians 14). While at LBF Church we don’t specifically set aside time in our church services for people to speak in a tongue to the congregation, we would not forbid it. There are many occasions when people speak in tongues in more informal, open-ended gatherings, or even in much smaller groups. While we don’t forbid speaking in tongues at any gathering, our leadership would encourage anyone who believes that they have this gift to look for opportunities to use it in more open-ended settings. That said, we know that the Spirit is open to use this gift whenever and wherever He pleases, and we welcome that!

What is the proper use of this gift?

Paul is explicit in 1 Corinthians 14 that tongues are not helpful unless they are interpreted. The idea, then, is that someone would be led by the Spirit to speak praise to God in a language that they were never taught. Then someone else would be led by the Spirit to give an interpretation (or translation) of what was said. The interpretation allows everyone to benefit from what was spoken. If anyone speaks in tongues in a gathering of LBF Church, our first response would be to ask for an interpretation. If one is given, then we could praise and thank God together and be built up by what was said. If none is given, then we would simply move forward. The purpose of speaking in tongues is not to draw attention to the speaker’s giftedness, but to show God’s power and to share in His praises.

Is it a private prayer language?

Christians debate about whether one aspect of speaking in tongues is for a person to pray to God on their own in a private prayer language. Many of those who practice this find it to be a meaningful way of connecting with God when their words elude them. While this is certainly something that God can do, I personally do not believe this is what is referred to in Scripture. Instead, Scripture refers to people being led by the Spirit to speak a real known language (“tongues” simply means “languages”) in a setting that allows others to hear and benefit from it. On top of this, all gifts are given for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7), in order to build up the body of Christ. This is not accomplished through someone practicing a gift in private. That said, I don’t discourage people from this practice if they have found it meaningful. While I don’t see the practice being taught in Scripture, I certainly don’t see it forbidden in Scripture.

How important is it?

A proper understanding of speaking in tongues is important because we want to (a) value every gift that the Spirit gives and (b) avoid abuses or misuses of any gift that the Spirit gives. On the whole, however, Christians who differ in their beliefs about speaking in tongues don’t need to divide over these differences. These are secondary matters. At LBF Church, we seek to major on the majors. This means that we hold tightly to the divinity of Jesus, to the Triune nature of God, to salvation through Christ alone, and to the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. We hold much more loosely to our opinions and interpretations of secondary matters like the sign gifts. So, as you consider this gift, be sure to show value and charity to those who disagree with you.