What is "speaking in tongues"?

Thoughts on what the Bible says about speaking in tongues

"They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages as the Spirit gave them power to proclaim his message." -- Acts 2:4, The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips

Occasionally, I receive emails with questions revolving around what our Pentecostal and charismatic friends call "speaking in tongues." Here are some of those questions and my answers to questions I've received about glossolalia.

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 1700s. The Holy Spirit led the leaders of that revival to strongly emphasize God's call to holiness and 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. The work of the Holy Spirit 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 lived in the conflict described in Romans 7. But there came a time when I asked God to fill me with His Holy Spirit. As a result, I 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 that 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. Those missionaries were manifesting the true 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 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 Nazarene leaders visiting other countries listen to people speaking a language that the church leaders did not understand. Yet, they could understand and fully comprehend what was being said. I think those Nazarene 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 the fruit of the Spirit that Paul explains 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 what the fruit of the Spirit involves, there is nothing about "speaking in tongues." Isn't that significant? If ecstatic utterances are the telltale sign that one has been baptized in the Holy Spirit, shouldn't it be on that list in Galatians 5?

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 words that no one around him understands.

How many languages did the Apostle Paul speak? Well, he was a polyglot, a speaker of several languages. He grew up in Tarsus and may have spoken a now-extinct language used "on the street" by locals (much as happens in modern-day Italy where everyone speaks Italian plus a localized regional language from the area where they grew up). As an educated Roman citizen, Paul would also have spoken Greek. He studied at Jerusalem under Gamaliel, a famous and well-respected First-Century teacher. Those studies uSonder Gamaliel would have ensured that Paul spoke Hebrew (Acts 22:3). As he spent time planting churches in various cities around the Mediterranean basin, Paul likely picked up a few more local languages. Since he lived in those cities for months at a time, I think Paul may have learned to preach and pray in some of those local languages. I identify with Paul on those issues since we were cross-cultural missionaries for 15 years [ 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. We need to remember that Paul ranks the gift of languages -- regardless of how we interpret what that gift was -- way down on the list of importance. Remember 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 today utter sounds that no one hearing them identifies as their mother tongue.

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 must "speak in tongues" in order to be filled with the Holy 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 signify God's judgment on sinful humanity. On the day of Pentecost, various 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 1900s. If this belief and practice are genuinely biblical, why has it not been at the heart of 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. However, we believe that seeking the Giver is far more important than seeking a particular way of manifesting one gift when the expected manifestation of that gift is based on a debatable interpretation of Scripture.

Question: A friend told me that God gives people the gift of tongues so that they can pray "in the spirit" without Satan being able to understand what they are saying. 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 that 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 one can point to supporting that idea. Shouldn't such an important idea appear over and over again in Scripture as 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 the Bible describes Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and others having with God.

A third problem is that no heavenly language is ever mentioned in the prayers of Jesus recorded in Scripture. 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" comes from the in-depth research 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 communication occurs even when words aren't 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 speaking of someone who is fluent in a language that no one else present in that church service 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, someday, overcome in worship and praise, those parents would 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 Ghost2"? 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. Nothing in that verse or the surrounding context 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 anyone who takes the Galatians 5 passages to mean there is a strange locomotion method called "walking in the Spirit." Instead, "in the Spirit" in Galatians means that we are to live our lives with boldness, purity, and gentleness.

I would thus understand "prayer in the Holy Spirit" to be 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 rather than trying to assert that Jude is talking about "unknown tongues"?

1Over the years there have been several linguistic studies done that looked at the phenomenon of tongues-speaking. Those are reported in such publications as Robert Mapes Anderson's Vision of the Disinherited (Oxford University Press, pp. 16-19 Felecitas D. Goodman's Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study in Glossolalia (University of Chicago Press) and John P. Kildahl's The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues (HarperCollins ). 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) and "Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia," a chapter in Language in Society, ed. Dell Haymes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) pgs. 121-130.

2"Holy Ghost" was the title used for the third person of the Trinity in the classic King James Version of the English Bible. It is simply an older way of saying "Holy Spirit" which is what modern English versions use.

Discussion questions

  1. How does what the Bible describes as "speaking in tongues" differ from the practices commonly associated with "speaking in tongues" today?
  2. How can the presence of the Holy Spirit be recognized through the fruit of the Spirit?
  3. On what grounds can it be said that any one specific gift, such as speaking in tongues (however we interpret that), is "the evidence" for the fullness of the Holy Spirit in a person's life?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

"Your explanation on Nazarenes and tongues was about the best overall explanation that I've read. It was simple and to the point. I will pass it on." -- a pastor in Oregon

Speaking im Tongues in Other Religions

The practice of speaking in tongues, also known as glossolalia, is not exclusive to Christianity. It is found in several other religions and spiritual traditions around the world. Examples of that would include:

It must also be noted that the significance, interpretation, and cultural contexts of glossolalia vary widely across different religious and spiritual traditions.

The Gentile Pentecost

Acts 10: 44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 Some Jewish believers had come with Peter. They were amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 They heard them speaking in languages they had not known before. They also heard them praising God.

Then Peter said, 47 'Surely no one can keep these people from being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have."
-- New International Reader's Version (more on The Gentile Pentecost)

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