What is the gift of speaking in tongues?

While speaking in tongues is no longer the "hot topic" it once was, there is still a significant amount of disagreement over its nature and purpose. Thankfully, the two extreme positions — (1) that you must speak in tongues in order to be saved, and (2) that anyone who speaks in tongues is demon-possessed—have been soundly rejected by the vast majority of believers in Christ. The debate today, interestingly enough, is over the core of the issue: what is the gift of speaking in tongues, and what is its purpose?

In Acts chapter 2, the first occurrence of speaking in tongues, the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak to the crowds in Jerusalem in languages the apostles did not know. The crowds responded, "We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own languages!" (Acts 2:11). It is clear, then, that the tongues in Acts 2 were literal and understandable human languages. The gift of speaking in tongues in Acts 2 was the miraculous ability to speak a language you do not know in order to minister to a person who does speak that language. Generally speaking, this understanding of tongues in Acts 2 is accepted.

The disagreement arises when we get to 1 Corinthians chapters 12—14. Some believe the tongues in 1 Corinthians 12—14 is the same as the tongues in Acts 2. Others believe the tongues in 1 Corinthians 12—14 is related, but different, to the tongues in Acts 2. They interpret the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12—14 as being a private prayer language between a believer and God and/or the miraculous ability to speak an unknown language in order to minister to other believers (not unbelievers and not people who can understand the language as in Acts 2). While I definitely do not agree with this interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12—14, I can at least see how people arrive at it, and I admit that it is a possible understanding of the texts.

Shortly after I came to faith in Christ, I began attending a strongly charismatic church. I really enjoyed the gusto of the worship and the seemingly undeniable evidences of God working in people's lives. However, fairly quickly, after several failed attempts by church leadership to give me the gift of tongues, I started to feel like an outcast, like a lower-class Christian. What was wrong with me? Why wouldn't God give me the gift of tongues like He seemed to have given to everyone else in the church? The extreme over-emphasis of the gift of tongues as evidence of the Holy Spirit led me to question the validity of my faith, and even worse, to question God's love for me.

When I got sick of feeling like an outcast, I began attending a different church. And this church was definitely on the extreme edge of the cessationist movement (which believes all the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased). At this church, I was basically taught that charismatics were influenced (or possessed) by demons. I was taught that tongues had absolutely ceased and that God never gave the gift of speaking in tongues to believers today. Therefore, if anyone was speaking in tongues, since the gift was not from God, it had to be from Satan. This led me to be hostile towards charismatic Christians, even questioning/doubting the faith of some close family members who were charismatic Christians.

Thankfully, many years later, I am, for the most part, recovered. A pastor-friend recently told me that I have my feet planted firmly in mid-air on this issue. Both charismatics and cessationists seem to want to argue with me, which I have learned sometimes means you are in the right place. Ultimately, here is where I have landed on the gift of speaking in tongues. There is nothing that prevents God from giving any spiritual gift. If God gives a spiritual gift, He expects that it will be used in submission to what the Bible teaches. Gifts being systematically abused does not necessarily mean that the gifts are not truly present. The completion and sufficiency of the Word of God has an impact on how the gift of tongues functions today. I guess you could say I consider myself a weak cessationist with an "open but cautious" mindset.

All that to say, avoid the extremes. Recognize that both charismatics and cessationists are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Argue for and defend your beliefs, but do so in love, gentleness, and respect (Ephesians 4:15; 1 Peter 3:15). Don't limit what God can do, but recognize that everything God does is absolutely in agreement with His Word.

S. Michael Houdmann

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What is the gift of speaking in tongues?