In the more evangelical/pentecostal denominations of Christianity, there are occasionally churches and groups which advocate praying or speaking "in tongues". I believe that the gift of speaking in tongues is from God, but more often nowadays it is not used as the Bible intends it to be used, and if misused I believe it can be dangerous. Some of the proponents of this activity suggest that all Christians should pray and speak in tongues, and that if you don't you are somehow less of a Christian. This is not the case, and here we will examine what the Bible says about this phenomenon of tongues.
What is Speaking in Tongues?
The modern occurrence of "speaking in tongues" or in "unknown languages" usually happens in more liberal evangelical and pentecostal churches. The phenomenon I am most familiar with is when someone is very involved in prayer, and they may lapse into another "language" which is not their native one or any that they know. Some claim they are speaking "angelic" languages. This language sometimes sounds like a cross between "Lord of the Rings elvish" created by author J.R.R Tolkien, and a bit like Russian/Arabic/Hebrew. Every time I have heard it the person usually appears to be in a state of very passionate intense prayer, and they may shake, cry, and raise their hands up in the air. Most of the time what they are saying is not interpreted, so no one else knows what the person is saying, but it does make for a very impressive show.
There is another way of "speaking in tongues" which actually has a much better basis in the Bible. I have heard a story of a pastor who went to preach at a Canadian native reserve. When he arrived and began his sermon, he miraculously spoke in Cree, and delivered his full sermon in the natives' own language. Afterwards he was approached by the chief who said "I didn't know you were fluent in Cree", to which the pastor replied "I'm not". This is an example of God giving someone the temporary ability to speak another language in order to better communicate His message. There are examples of the same activity in the New Testament on the day of Pentecost, which will be discussed later.
I believe that although both of these forms of "speaking in tongues" do have a Biblical basis, the way that the first is practiced nowadays is not always useful and may be somewhat dangerous. The second I believe is much more legitimate, and serves a useful purpose. I will discuss my reasons and give Biblical evidence for both.
The Day of Pentecost
The first occasion of speaking in tongues happened on the Day of Pentecost. This day was a Jewish holiday which was 50 days after Passover. Passover is the holiday when Jesus was crucified. After Jesus' death and resurrection, Jesus preached for 40 days and then ascended to heaven, but before he left, he promised to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples to give them guidance and power to start the early church (Acts 1:4-5). This event of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit happened on the Day of Pentecost, when they were all gathered together. The Holy Spirit appeared with a whooshing of wind and appearance of fire, and all the disciples began speaking "whatever languages the Spirit let them speak" (Acts 2:4). They went outside and preached to the crowd which heard the sound of the wind. "And when they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages. They were excited and amazed and said 'Don't all those who are speaking come from Galilee? Then why do we hear them speaking our very own languages? Some of us are from Parthia, Media and, and Elam... Yet we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful news of what God has done.'. Everyone was excited and confused. Some of them even kept asking each other 'What does this mean?' Others made fun of the Lord's followers and said 'They are drunk.'" (Acts 2:6-13). Here when they spoke in tongues, they spoke actual languages that were useful to explain God's message to foreigners who may not have been fluent in Hebrew or Greek. This shows that God's message is meant for all people and all languages.
Later Biblical Evidence of speaking in Tongues
So we have established that speaking other languages is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and is useful to spread God's message to all people. But what about when speaking in strange other languages that no one understands? In fact, this is mentioned in the Bible. Here is some of the evidence for this:
- "In certain ways we are weak, but the Spirit is here to help us. For example, when we don't know what to pray for, the Spirit prays for us in ways that cannot be put into words. All of our thoughts are known to God. He can understand what is in the mind of the Spirit, as the Spirit prays for God's people." (Romans 8:26-27). Some people believe that praying in tongues is when the Holy Spirit is praying for you.
- Together you are the body of Christ. Each one of you is part of his body. First, God chose some people to be apostles and prophets and teachers for the church. But he also chose some to work miracles or heal the sick or help other or be leaders or speak different kinds of languages. Not everyone is an apostle. Not everyone is a prophet. Not everyone is a teacher. Not everyone can work miracles. Not everyone can heal the sick. Not everyone can speak different kinds of languages. Not everyone can tell what these languages mean."(1 Corinthians 12:27-30). All of these abilities are gifts from God, and not everyone has every gift. But speaking in tongues is one of them, so therefore it is a valid gift. But also notice that interpreting the unknown languages is also a gift. Sometimes this is forgotten, and is a very important part of tongues, as will be shown later.
Is it important to speak in Tongues?
As seen in 1 Corinthians 12:27-30 above, not all people are given the gift of speaking in tongues. So therefore it is not a big deal if someone cannot do it, and even more importantly - you should not fake it just because you feel it is expected of you. Having a gift of helping others is mentioned in the same sentence as the gift of speaking in tongues, and is just as important. This is emphasized in the metaphor of the body with many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-24). People are given different gifts, and the church would not function if everyone was a pastor, or everyone was a healer, or everyone only wanted to play music. Similarly, not everyone can speak in tongues. Having other gifts is just as legitimate and just as important to the Church.
There is a warning to not be overly proud of our spiritual gifts. "What if I could speak all the languages of humans and of angels? If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. What if I could prophesy and understand all secrets and all knowledge? And what if I had faith that moved mountains? I would be nothing unless I loved others." (1 Corinthians 13:1-4). Our gifts are nothing and we are useless if we do not first love God and others. This is much more important than being able to speak in tongues or anything else. So if you find Christians who speak in tongues but don't care for others, they are not behaving according to the Bible. If they insist that all Christians should speak in tongues, remind them of the parts of the body and the verses above. Everyone has different gifts, and yours are no less important just because they may be less flashy.
Instructions for Speaking in Tongues
In chapter 14 of Corinthians, there is a very detailed discussion of speaking in tongues and how it should be done. I will summarize some of the more important points here, as a guide to be sure that when tongues are spoken in church, it is being done according to the Bible.
The Importance of Interpretation
"When you meet to worship, you must do everything for the good of everyone there. Thats how it should be when someone sings or teaches or tells what God has said or speaks in an unknown language or explains what an unknown language means. No more than two or three of you should speak unknown languages during the meeting. You must take turns, and someone should always be there to explain what you mean. If no one can explain, you must keep silent in church and speak only to yourself and to God." (1 Corinthians 14:26-28). This shows clearly that when speaking in tongues in public, there must be someone who has the gift of interpretation to explain it. Otherwise it is useless, and will not help anyone. This also shows that it should be done in an orderly way. People should not just break out speaking in tongues all together, or it may scare away visitors and unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:16, 14:23).
In most of the cases I have seen, there is no one who can interpret what is being said. However, I don't know how someone would know that someone in the audience has the ability to interpret what is said. I suspect that perhaps that if the person speaking in tongues is meaning to do it for the benefit of the church and those around, God will tell their heart that it is ok to speak in tongues or not to. If you really feel the Holy Spirit is pushing you to speak in tongues, and are not just doing it to get attention or to feel superior to other Christians, there is a good chance that someone may be able to interpret what you are saying.
Other Advice related to Speaking in Tongues
"If you speak languages that others don't know, God will understand what you are saying, though no one else will know what you mean. You will be talking about mysteries that only the Spirit understands." (1 Cor. 14:2) So praying in tongues is a Biblical method of prayer, but it may not be useful to others. This is why it may be best to save it for private prayer, as Paul suggested: "In church I had rather speak five words that make sense than to speak ten thousand words in a language that others don't know."(1 Cor. 14:19). Paul also said that when one speaks in tongues, it is suggested to pray for interpretation. Also, not all prayers should be done in tongues, because it is just as important to pray with your mind and know what you are asking for: "When we speak languages that others don't know, we should pray for the power to explain what we mean. For example, if I use an unknown language in my prayers, my spirit prays but my mind is useless. Then what should I do? There are times when I should pray with my spirit and times when I should pray with my mind." (1 Cor. 14:13-15).
The danger of misusing the gift of Tongues
There have been cases, most notably the case of the "Toronto Airport Blessing"  where people didn't just speak in tongues, but also laughed uncontrollably, made animal noises, fell over, and claimed it was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Other strange effects such as people being "knocked over" and "pinned to the floor" are quite disturbing . I do not believe this was legitimately from the Holy Spirit, as this sort of show does not benefit anyone, and would definitely scare away many people. One of the fruits of the Spirit (i.e. one of the side-effects of being a Christian who is filled with the Holy Spirit) is self control (Galatians 6:22-23). Doing anything "uncontrollably" is not a sign of the Holy Spirit, and brings this event much closer to demonic activity, or perhaps just group hysteria. One commentator suggests it was closer to "people being worked into altered states of consciousness where they obscure reality and enshrine absurdity" . The examples of people falling over, shaking, and being pinned to the floor remind me of the story of the boy with the demon in Luke 9:39, where the demon made the boy scream, shook him until he foamed at the mouth, and completely exhausted him.
Whether or not the Toronto airport blessing was legitimately from God or not, it does illustrate the problem with too many crazy disorderly things going on at once in a church service. Speaking in tongues is one activity which needs to be done orderly and with interpretation, or it may appear as if it is not from God - especially if a whole ton of people do it at once. It might also encourage others to try to imitate it just to feel special or to pretend they are being filled with the Holy Spirit. This is why I believe that we need to be careful about when and where the gift of tongues is used.
How does one speak in Tongues?
I'm sure that after reading this, some people will ask "So how can I speak in tongues?". I don't have much advice. I have never spoken in tongues, and I don't have the gift of interpreting them. Whenever I have seen it, it seems to be a subconscious thing, where the person doesn't realize they are doing it. I believe that if you try to force it, and just start making random strange words, that's probably trying too hard. Sometimes I have seen people who try to use speaking in tongues as a show of how supposedly "holy" they are, and this is wrong. I don't really have any advice on this gift - if you are legitimately interested in how to use your gift of tongues in service to God, perhaps ask your pastor or another Christian you know who has this gift.
So after looking at what the Bible says about speaking in Tongues, we see that it does indeed have a Biblical basis. Speaking in other human languages is one way this gift is displayed, and can be useful when spreading the Gospel to foreigners. There are also times when people will pray in languages that nobody knows. In this case, there are specific rules to make sure it is done in an orderly way and with interpretation so that others can benefit. If people are speaking in tongues just for their own benefit, it is better to keep it in private. Since speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift, not everyone can do it, and not everyone has to do it. If someone says "Now we will all pray in tongues", this is a ridiculous statement -it would be the same as saying "Now we will all have blue eyes.". Having the spiritual gift of tongues is special, but so are all the other spiritual gifts, and we should be pleased with what we are given. And it is most important to remember that using your gifts is meaningless if you don't first love God and others. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toronto_Blessing