Talking in Tongues: A Skeptic’s View

I will concede that it is a possibility that my vehemently anti-tongues stance was born out of a couple of negative experiences with charismatic churches. I certainly would be loath to tar all such churches with the same brush or to insinuate that all or even most members of such churches are in any way lacking integrity or common sense. That is not my intention at all. I have many very dear friends in such churches, whose sole desire is to know God and live in His grace, but that does not alter my deep suspicion whenever I find myself in such a congregation. As I said, I concede that this may simply be my prejudice, but my upsetting experiences have tainted the way I respond to much charismatic theology.

My first encounter with spirituality outside of the traditional Protestant experience was when I was 16 or 17, and was invited to attend a youth group at a school friend’s church.  A youth leader there insisted that it was necessary that I be “baptised in the Spirit” (another concept I find deeply problematic, but that is for another time). He and a few other leaders at the church laid hands on me and prayed. When they were done, they prompted me to open my mouth and just speak, and suggested that if I had enough faith I would speak in tongues. The ability to speak in tongues, they said, would be an indication that I was Spirit-filled. I couldn’t. They encouraged me for a while, and then moved on to the next person (who did), advising me to pray and try again in the morning. I did, and for a while I tried to persuade myself that I was but I knew I was just babbling. I soon gave that up.

Since then, I have had very few positive experiences at charismatic churches – I have been pushed during prayer and admonished for not falling over under the power of the Spirit; I have been accused of not having enough faith when promised healing for a friend never materialised; I have been singled out by a minister for not opening my mouth and “prophesying” when everybody else was (because I hold that ‘prophesying’ in the New Testament, as in all the Bible, means expository preaching that brings the light of God’s word to people’s individual circumstances, not seeing the future). So you will understand that when I criticise the practice of speaking in tongues, it is entirely possible that past insults have coloured my perceptions. I will say this again: I am not attempting to insult anybody. Consider this post – if you are prepared to engage with me – my attempt to understand a phenomenon in the modern church that I find completely alien and the theology of which eludes me. Consider it, if you will, my turning to face the ways in which I have been hurt by the church, and my attempt to understand why I think the way I do.

I have since reflected a lot on the question of tongues. One cannot deny that the apostles make reference to the practice, and Paul numbers it among the various Spiritual gifts, so it cannot be written off. The question is, then, what does Paul mean when he writes about it in his letters? Let me offer some thoughts.

First, every explicit Biblical reference to speaking in tongues uses it in a corporate context. Unless one is to engage in semantic gymnastics and interpretive acrobatics, cherry-picking verses at the expense of the argument as a whole, one cannot get around Paul’s instruction that the purpose behind the exercising of any spiritual gift is not one’s own edification, but “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12: 7), and  – referring particularly to the gift of tongues – “so that the church may be edified” (1 Corinthians 14:5). Now if you read this particular section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as a carefully constructed argument – as it was intended – and not as verses in isolation (remember that the chapters and verses were added later. We need to read Paul’s thoughts more holistically), you will see that his argument can be summarised like this: because we are all members of one body, and we all have a common goal – helping the world to come to know God – we have all been given individually different but complementary gifts that, when used together in love, will provide powerful testimony to the power of God’s love and grace. It is also prudent to bear in mind the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in the first place: he was writing to them to admonish them for their self-serving and unruly worship practices and asking them, in a spiritual sense, to grow up (see 1 Corinthians 14: 20, which is a very odd verse to be depositing in the middle of a discussion about tongues otherwise). If an interpretation of any individual verse does not make sense in the context of this argument, its validity must be questioned.

So the purpose in exercising the gift of tongues, according to Paul, is never about the self. Tongues are “a sign not for believers, but for unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22). Paul even goes on to suggest that if people in the church are speaking in tongues and nobody interprets them, outsiders would be justly critical of the church, thinking them “mad”,  and would not encounter God (verse 23). Lives are only changed, he contends, when people hear the word of God spoken in a language that they understand, which they find reasonable, and which speaks truth into their human condition (verses 24 and 25).

So because it is important that the church does not lose credibility in the eyes of unbelievers, Paul urges believers who want to speak in tongues rather to keep quiet, unless somebody can interpret for them (verses 26 -28). So clearly tongues – like all spiritual gifts – are not for personal gain (reread 1 Corinthians 12 if you are still questioning this), but for the good of the church as a whole, so that those outside of the church may be drawn to God, and moreover can be interpreted. Like any gift, not everybody possesses it, and it is to be exercised in love for it to have any value (it is no coincidence that the much-loved 1 Corinthians 13 falls in the middle of this discussion).

So it makes sense to me, in the light of this, that all the other explicit Biblical accounts of the use of tongues, like Acts 2, refer to their being used so that outsiders were drawn to the church because they heard the disciples “declaring the wonders of God in [their] own tongues” (Acts 2:11), “their own native languages” (Acts 2:8). The exercise of speaking in tongues was always about helping outsiders to know God, and never about personal spiritual experiences.

As an aside, I would argue that the modern notion of doing anything at church for the sole purpose of personal spiritual growth is contrary to the Scriptures. As far as I can tell, all spiritual growth of people in the Bible takes place in a broader context of social transformation. It is never spiritual growth for spiritual growth’s sake,

That is why I cannot see that speaking in tongues,  as it is practised in so many modern churches, has any solid Scriptural basis. In fact, I would maintain that the Scriptural guidelines for speaking in tongues actively preclude unintelligible babble and refer specifically to existing languages unlearnt by the speaker, for the purpose of bringing outsiders into the church and to facilitate the spread of the early church. I agree with Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who was convinced that tongues were human languages and that the reason that they no longer exist was that the church now speaks all languages.

Indeed, even if you do not agree with him, Thomas Aquinas’ conclusion alludes to the question I think all current practitioners of tongues need to ask: why did the practice essentially disappear from church records between the early apostolic church and the beginning of the 20th Century? And why is the current practice not common to all denominations, but practised almost exclusively by charismatic churches, if the mark of the Spirit’s work is unity (Ephesians 4:1-16)?

It is not sufficient to suggest that the work of the Holy Spirit was stifled by Calvinistic dogma in mainstream churches. I am as critical of Calvin as any, but the work of the Spirit is not that easily stifled. Anyway, the silence predates Calvin. Any basic understanding of the Scriptures will reveal a) that tongues is only one of many gifts, and not one that Paul regards as particularly important at that, and b) that true evidence of the work of the Spirit is in the manifestation of the fruits – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, humility and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), not the gifts. These have remained constants in Christian experience over the centuries. Tongues have not. What are we to conclude?

Since it is doctrinally impossible for Christians to be “out of touch” with the Spirit (and really, any basic understanding of the New Testament will support me here), I see only two possible explanations: either a) a new need for tongues has arisen and God has revived that gift, or b) the current practice is not Spirit-related. If some new Kingdom concern has arisen – like the rapid growth of the early church in the face of persecution –that necessitates the use of tongues, why is God’s gifting of tongues not a universal Christian experience, but limited to only a small segment of the church as a whole?

For me the answer is to be found in the origins of the current ‘Pentecostal’ movement. Do yourself a favour and look up Charles Parham (, for example), who is largely credited with the revival of the practice of speaking in tongues. You will find a man who has based much of his theology on dangerously subjective personal experience and very narrow interpretations of Scripture, manipulated to suit his own personal convictions. He is the kind of figure most modern theologians would regard with a great deal of skepticism. And coincidentally, all of the negative personal experiences with charismatic churches that I documented earlier find their origins with him, not the Bible.

I am not suggesting that all charismatics are cultish, nor that everything that happens in those churches is suspicious, although I do think they have got the issue of tongues wrong. What I am saying is that Christians of all denominations need to be careful of doing things simply because that is what they have always done. Many questionable practices have become normalised over time. We need to be discerning about our practices, asking where they originated, what Kingdom purpose they fulfil, how they measure up against Scriptural guidelines, and importantly, whether they find expression in love and for the common good. I don’t think the practice of speaking in tongues ticks any of the boxes. What do you think?

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