Speaking in tongues

Some answers about glossolalia by Howard Culbertson

From time to time I receive e-mails with questions revolving around what our Pentecostal friends call "speaking in tongues." Here are those questions and my answers to them.

Question: Does the Nazarene Church believe in being baptized in the Holy Spirit?

     My answer: The Church of the Nazarene is one fruit of the Wesleyan revival of the 1700's. The Holy Spirit led the leaders of that revival to emphasize strongly God's call to holiness as well as His willingness to enable us to respond to that call through the cleansing and filling work of the Holy Spirit.
     Along with Biblical words like "sanctified" and "perfected in love," Nazarenes have used the phrase "baptism of the Holy Spirit" to describe God's work within a believer to bring restoration of the holiness that was part of His original design for the human race.
     So, yes, Nazarenes believe in being baptized by the Holy Spirit. We believe in being filled by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that enables us to live the life of holiness to which God calls us.

Question: Are you baptized in the Holy Spirit? Did you speak in another language when you were filled? If so, do you still use that gift? Do you believe in tongues and interpretations and is that gifting of the Holy Spirit actively practiced in the Church of the Nazarene?

     My answer: There was a long time in my spiritual life when I found myself living in the conflict described in Romans 7. But I did yield myself totally to God, asking Him to fill me with His Holy Spirit and now find my spiritual life more described by the victory of Romans 8. My need was for inner transformation and that's what God did for me. It was not a moment which included a visible outward demonstration.
     As to "tongues and interpretations," I've seen missionaries empowered to preach in ways that were far beyond their humanly acquired language skills. I think those missionaries were truly manifesting the Pentecostal gift of tongues. As a side note, I was always a bit baffled by Pentecostal missionary friends who testified to having the "gift of tongues" and yet who struggled to learn the language of the people to whom they had been sent to minister. Their language learning struggles gave me the feeling they were testifying to something they really did not have.
     As to the gift of interpretations, I've seen American denominational leaders visiting other countries listen to people speaking a language which the church leaders did not understand. Yet, they found themselves able to understand and comprehend fully what was being said. I think those denominational leaders were manifesting a Holy Spirit-given gift of interpretations.
     The gifting of the Holy Spirit is actively at work in the Church of the Nazarene even though that gifting takes on different forms than our Pentecostal friends think it should.

Question: How do you know you are baptized in the Holy Spirit if you do not speak in tongues?

     My answer: The best sign that a person enjoys the fullness of the Holy Spirit is the appearance of those fruits of the Spirit which Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23. In that passage Paul contrasts the life controlled by the sinful nature with the life controlled by the Spirit. In that list of fruits of the Spirit there's nothing about "speaking in tongues." Isn't that significant?
     For this and other reasons, I have misgivings about demanding a physical sign for God's work within us. When the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus for a "sign from heaven," He responded: "A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign" (Matthew 12:39). One reason I'm not on the bandwagon that sees "tongues" as a miraculous sign is that I don't want to be identified as part of a wicked and adulterous generation.

Question: Paul said he prayed in tongues more than any other believer. If Paul prayed in tongues, shouldn't we seek this gift too?

     My answer: Look at the context of Paul's "boast" about speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:18-19). His point is that he would rather speak five words and be understood than speak ten thousand which no one around him understands.
     Paul was likely a gifted linguist. He grew up in Tarsus and would have spoken a local dialect related to modern Turkish. As an educated Roman citizen, Paul would also have spoken Greek. He studied at Jerusalem under Gamaliel, so he spoke Hebrew as well (Acts 22:3). As Paul traveled around the Mediterranean, he likely picked up a few more local languages (since he lived in various cities for months at a time). I think he prayed and preached in several languages. I do as well (we were cross-cultural missionaries for 15 years) [ see biographical sketch ].
     I pray (and have preached) in Italian, French, Haitian Creole and Spanish. Every time I preach, whether it be in English or in one of those other languages, I pray that God will enable me to speak more clearly and forcefully than my own human understanding of that language would naturally enable me to do. When the Holy Spirit helps in that way, that's likely the genuine gift of tongues or languages.
     Paul does say we should desire the greater gifts, "especially the gift of prophecy" (1 Corinthians 14:1). To say that we should "especially" desire a gift other than tongues or languages would be contrary to the argument that a gift of tongues has some kind of special importance. In fact, Paul seems to rank the gift of languages way down on the list of importance. We also need to hear Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 12:11 where he indicates that the Holy Spirit distributes His gifts in varying ways to different people. Why would he say that if there was one particular gift which God wanted to give every believer?

Question: Do you think it is morally wrong to speak in tongues? Is it against the will of God that we speak in tongues? Is it against the rules of the Nazarene Church? Why do people speak in tongues?

     My answer: The speaking-in-tongues experiences of my Pentecostal friends are meaningful worship events for them. However, what I see them doing is not what happened on the Day of Pentecost. On that day, believers were empowered by the Holy Spirit to communicate the Gospel across language barriers. When those 120 people spilled out of the Upper Room, they miraculously spoke the native languages of various peoples gathered in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival (Acts 2:4-11). Clearly, my Pentecostal friends aren't really being Pentecostal when they utter sounds that no one around them identifies as their native language.
     Then, as to whether it is morally wrong for believers to speak in ecstatic utterances: No. It's not any more morally wrong than having robed choirs (which the Early Church didn't) or inviting people to come forward to accept Christ (a type of response not used in the First Century).
     I don't think it is against the will of God to "speak in tongues." However, I do not think it is His will that we should preach and teach that a person has to "speak in tongues" in order to be filled with the Spirit. Furthermore, what I see practiced in Pentecostal and charismatic circles is not what happened at Pentecost. Nor does it seem to be what Paul was trying to bring under control in Corinth.
     It is God's will that the gospel be communicated to all peoples, as it was in an extraordinary way on the Day of Pentecost. In fact, the happenings on the Day of Pentecost are a startling reversal of the tower of Babel. At Babel, languages become a sign of God's judgment on sinful humanity. On the day of Pentecost, a variety of languages were used to communicate God's Good News. That's true Pentecostalism!
     It is God's will that His people live life in the fullness of His Spirit, manifesting His presence in ways that Paul describes in Galatians 5.
     Believing that ecstatic utterances called "speaking in tongues" is a divinely-given sign of the baptism with the Holy Spirit only dates back to the early 1900's. If this belief and practice is genuinely biblical, why has it not been at the heart of historic Christianity through the centuries (as has, for instance, been the belief in the Trinity, in the Virgin Birth, in the inspiration of Scripture, and in Christ's saving work on the cross)?
     It is not against the rules of the Church of the Nazarene to seek the sanctifying fullness of God's Holy Spirit. It is not against the rules of the Church of the Nazarene to ask the Holy Spirit's help in communicating the Gospel across language barriers. We do, however, believe that seeking the Giver is far more important than seeking a particular way of manifesting one gift when that manifestation is based on a debatable interpretation of Scripture.

Question: A friend told me that God gives people the gift of tongues so that they could pray to God in the spirit without Satan being able to understand them. What do you think of this statement?

     My answer: I'm not sure where your friend gets his belief from. I don't see the Bible promoting a special prayer language as a defense against Satan. Clearly, on the day of Pentecost, the gift of languages (or tongues as some call it) was given to communicate the gospel. That's very clear in Acts 2. There, the gift was given to facilitate clear communication. Not only could hungry hearts hear and understand what they were saying, but Satan probably could too!
     The other place in Scripture where the gift of languages is dealt with at some length is in 1 Corinthians where, among other things, Paul writes: "I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand in a tongue. Brothers, stop thinking like children." Does that sound like an encouragement for believers to speak some language they themselves do not understand?
     Of course, another thing to be said is that the gifts of the Spirit were to be used publicly for the edification or building up of the church (see Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12). That seems far different from the kind of magical "protection from evil spirits" that your friend is talking about.
     If we need a special language to use in prayer so Satan couldn't understand us, why did Jesus give the "Lord's Prayer" in plain wording when his disciples asked Him: "Teach us to pray"? In His response, why didn't Jesus warn his disciples that they needed to use some kind of ecstatic utterance?

Question: Don't 1 Corinthians 13:1 and 14:2 indicate the existence of a heavenly language which believers can use to speak with God?

     My answer: Good question. I can see how those two passages in First Corinthians have led some to think there is a kind of heavenly language.
     Several things make me leery of that conclusion, however. One is the context in which those passages appear. Corinth was a church with major spiritual problems. Paul wrote that letter to address those problems; he didn't write that letter to give them an essay on prayer. For teaching on what prayer should be, shouldn't we go to Jesus' sermon on the mount and other passages where prayer is the focal point? The Sermon on the Mount doesn't point to any kind of heavenly language. Indeed, the model prayer that Jesus gives there in Matthew is in ordinary, everyday human language.
     A second problem with accepting the idea of a heavenly language is that there are so few passages that one can point to in support of that idea. Shouldn't such an important idea appear over and over again in Scripture like other major doctrines do? There is no mention of a heavenly language in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve walking and talking with God. There is no mention of a heavenly language in the encounters which Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and others had with God.
     A third problem is that in none of the actual prayers of Jesus recorded in Scripture is a heavenly language ever mentioned. All of those prayers are recorded by the gospel authors as though they were in the vernacular spoken in that day. Jesus seems to have been able to express all that He needed to express in prayer to the Father in the language spoken by His contemporaries.
     Another problem I have with saying there is a "heavenly language" are the studies which some linguists have done of "other tongues" utterances. After recording and analyzing prayers and sayings of people supposedly speaking in "other tongues," linguists say those other tongues are collections of sounds that are unique to each speaker's mother language.1 That is, people who speak Spanish use the sounds of the Spanish language when they are supposedly speaking in "tongues." The Japanese use the sounds of their language when they are supposedly speaking that heavenly language while the Germans use a totally different set of sounds when they are supposedly speaking in "tongues." It is not the same set of sounds spoken with different accents; they are using different sets of sounds. Doesn't that seem to imply that these ecstatic utterances do not constitute another language?
     I agree that there are times when it's difficult to express deep emotions and feelings. That's sometimes true with human beings deeply in love with each other who simply sit or walk together holding hands or with arms around each other. A lot of communicating is going on even when words aren't being spoken. The same things happen in the loss of a loved one. Friends come and stand and put an arm on our shoulders. They don't need to say much in order to communicate a lot. Isn't that true in our relationship with the Lord as well? Aren't there times when we communicate a lot of things to Him even when we don't speak words?
     So, what do I make of those phrases in First Corinthians? Well, in chapter 13, I think he's simply using hyperbole to say, "Even if I could speak in the most wonderful way possible . . ." In chapter 14 I think he is most likely speaking of someone who speaks a human language in church which no one else in that congregation understands. We have, for instance, some Vietnamese kids who attend our church occasionally. Let's suppose their parents would come to faith and start attending church. Then, some day overcome in worship and praise, they stand and start to pray or testify in Vietnamese. No one would understand them . . . except God.

Question: How would you explain Jude 20: "Building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost"? I have been told that this refers to a prayer language that is an unknown tongue.

     My answer: We all have our own lenses through which we read passages of Scripture. Sometimes that can lead us to say things that aren't there. There's nothing in that verse or the surrounding context that speaks of an unknown tongue.
     If we take Jude 20 to mean there is a special prayer language, then what do we do with Galatians 5:16 and 5:25 which both speak of "walking in the Spirit"? If "praying in the Spirit" means using a language no one else knows, would "walking in the Spirit" mean there is a strange way to walk (on our heads, with one foot, on all fours?)? I don't know of anyone who takes the Galatians' passages to mean there is a strange method of locomotion that is "walking in the Spirit." "In the Spirit" in Galatians means that we are to live our lives with boldness, with purity and gentleness.
     I would thus understand "prayer in the Holy Spirit" to be prayer that is fervent, unwavering, sensitive, humble, loving, full of faith and wisdom! Take a look at the context of Jude 20. Doesn't an explanation built on the parallel wording in Galatians fit better with the context than saying that Jude is talking about unknown tongues?


1Over the years there have been were several linguistic studies done of the phenomenon of tongues-speaking. Those are reported in such publications as: Robert Mapes Anderson's Vision of the Disinherited (Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 16-19), Felecitas D. Goodman's Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study in Glossolalia (University of Chicago Press, 1972) and John P. Kildahl's The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues (HarperCollins, 1972). There are also explanations of such studies in two works by William Samarin: Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism (MacMillan Publishing Company, 1972) and "Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia," a chapter in Language in Society, ed. Dell Haymes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972) pgs. 121-130.

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