A topic that is of much unspoken debate is the act of speaking in tongues. Going to school in the South, I’ve been around a good amount of people who claim they grew up in the pentecostal church and actively practice speaking in tongues. It’s so confusing to me because the church I grew up in on the West Coast, has taught me that this topic is not applicable to the present day and age. This mind set that I’ve grown up with has given me new found speculation when I meet someone who says they actively practice it. So I want to take a second to go over the biblical circumstances of this topic and how it can be more accurately applicable to today.
In Biblical context, I think a lot of people in the church have misconstrued the meaning of speaking in tongues. The first time this topic is mentioned in the Bible is in Acts, where the Apostles are given the abilities to speak other languages which are not native to them. Acts 2:4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The Apostles are then ordered to fulfill the whole purpose of Jesus’ ministry, to travel throughout the world and preach the Gospel to nonbelievers. The purpose of this occurrence of “speaking in tongues” was for the Apostles to be able to communicate and spread the Gospel to those who did not speak Greek or Hebrew. Somehow in the last 2000 years, the meaning behind this has been completely misconstrued. Nowadays, the average pentecostal believer believes that to speak in tongues is code for being so overcome with the Holy Spirit that you lose all control of your speech and begin speaking gibberish.
I think God knew this would happen eventually because this type of situation is actually addressed in Scripture. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:6, 10-11, “Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If I then do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.” In this, Paul is saying that speaking in tongues is useless if no one understands the speaker. How then is speaking in tongues beneficial to anyone except the person speaking in tongues? It becomes pointless and a waste of a voice.
Pentecostals have become professionals at proof texting. Proof texting is where one verse is taken and held as authoritative, without looking at the context of that scripture. 1 Corinthians 14:2 says, “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.” This can be confusing reading this verse compared to the other verses above. But when looking at the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul spends the next 38 verses in the chapter explaining his meaning behind verse 2. In his explanation, verses 27-28 say, “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.” In recognition of his statement in verse 2, Paul reiterates that if someone speaks in a tongue, it is beneficial to that person because they may speak personally to God in privacy of their words, but when in a church, that multilingual person must speak in the native tongue out of respect to the audience of people around them.
The end of chapter 14 emphasizes the importance in the ability of speaking in tongues and encouraging it in the Church. But, again, it is not the ability to speak in tongues in terms of its definition today. The act is not to lose all control of yourself and know that God sees your good work of losing yourself in his name and in his Spirit. On the contrary, Jesus Christ’s ministry emphasized control over your body and taking responsibility in your actions. In this sense, the act known as speaking in tongues today is quite selfish compared to its context in the Bible. As Paul said, there are no benefits to the church and to other believers when you act reckless and without meaning. The sole purpose of Paul’s ministry was to tell the mature believer how to act on common sense.