The spiritual gift of “speaking in various kinds of tongues” is either fully embraced or completely ignored. Depending on our belief set, we either think we need this gift (or we’re not really anointed by the Spirit), or we think it doesn’t matter. There is little room in the center. But embracing this gift properly involves embracing the center.
Spiritual offices and spiritual gifts are discussed in 1 Corinthians 12:27–31.
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts
of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues
. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:27–31
Tongues, in the context of 1 Corinthians, are something that have to be interpreted (1 Corinthians 12:10). Paul talks about two types of tongues: those of people and those of angels (1 Corinthians 13:1). When someone speaks in the tongues of angels, they are speaking to God (1 Corinthians 14:2)—no one understands them. They need an interpreter for people to understand them (1 Corinthians 14:28). When someone speaks in the tongues of angels, they are meant to be dialoguing with God, not trying to impress their friends. When someone speaks in the tongues of people, they are miraculously speaking to someone in their own language, without training (Acts 2:3–4, 11).
But it doesn’t matter if we speak in tongues if we don’t love (1 Corinthians 13:8)—without love, tongues become noise.
Paul also contrasts prophesy with speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues helps the individual speaking, but prophesying builds up the church (1 Corinthians 14:4). Paul desires for every Christian to speak in tongues, but helping people grow in their relationship with Christ is more important (1 Corinthians 14:5–6).
“So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.” (1 Corinthians 14:9–13 ESV).
Based on this passage, it seems that those who are constantly expecting people to speak in tongues are actually striving for “manifestations of the Spirit,” not focusing on what’s most important: helping other Christians grow in their relationship with Christ.
We are meant to primarily focus on the church “outsider” (1 Corinthians 14:16). We can’t forget the real purpose of spiritual gifts: “in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19 ESV). “Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers” (1 Corinthians 14:22 ESV). Tongues are a sign for those who don't believe in Christ, but we have to be cautious.
Incredibly, the problems with people who speak in tongues today were addressed by Paul in the first century AD:
“If ... the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:23–25).
Paul then goes on to offer some further guidance for speaking in tongues:
“What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:26–33 ESV).
For Paul, everything comes down to “order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). This is also his reason for asking women to be silent in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 14:34–35). Paul makes this request, which is not applicable today, because that’s what the Law says (1 Corinthians 14:34). There was a large (and likely influential) Jewish population in Corinth, as evidenced by the synagogues unearthed there. Paul desired for the Corinthian church to minister to the Jewish population, not ostracize them. Women speaking in church services in the first century would be ostracizing for Jewish men, and perhaps even Jewish women. (Of course, women not speaking in churches today would be ostracizing for most people. So the opposite is true today: women should speak in our services.) Although Paul’s request about women certainly does not apply today, what he says about tongues fits precisely with what churches are dealing with now.
In our church services, we need to have balance and order, even when using spiritual gifts. We need to let the Holy Spirit be reincorporated, and we need to use our spiritual gifts, but we cannot do so at the cost of ostracizing people. (God wouldn't want us to ostracize people.) Our goals are clear: help people come closer to Christ, and help those who don’t know Christ. Speaking in tongues is important, but we need a centrist approach about when and how to do so.
How do you plan to reincorporate (or better incorporate) the gift of speaking in tongues into your church?