Is Speaking in Tongues THE Mark of a Christian?

On a recent service trip one of our participants began “speaking in tongues” during a moment of worship-through-music with the group. For purposes of anonymity, I will refer to this person as Will or William. He began babbling incoherently and rattling loosely closed fists during the service. I tried not to be distracted by the display and said a quick prayer that he wouldn’t disturb or freakout anyone else. It worked… sorta. I was able to prevent him from stealing my focus, but one of our particularly thoughtful and curious students later approached him to ask what was up. He sat her down and spoke to her, probably for ten minutes or so. I only witnessed the conversation from afar and didn’t want to interject at first, but I could read our curious student’s body-language very well. She was appalled and shocked at what she was being subjected to. I suspected as much, as I myself have been the target of such persuasion before. Lest I add to the confusion, I did my best to wait patiently until she was done being talked at. Finally the moment came, and I approached her and offered to listen if she wanted to talk about what she had just heard. She took me up on the offer immediately. I won’t divulge the details of her and my private conversation, but suffice it to say that where there was clarity and peace in this intelligent student’s spiritual journey, the tongue-speaker had now brought confusion and frustration, and as the evening progressed, I found out to what end. Later that night, I was able to talk privately about a few of the issues with William, and I was concerned with what I heard.

Click on the “Comments” to see the rest of this post.


About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
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4 Responses to Is Speaking in Tongues THE Mark of a Christian?

  1. C_Lambeth says:

    As a disclaimer, I affirm that God can still move in whatever ways are consistent with his character and gifting, but I must also confess that I have never been given the gift of “speaking in tongues” by the Holy Spirit if we define that in terms of an incoherent prayer language or an alternate human language that I have never studied. I would be honored to receive that gift and certainly would not try to repress or deny it, and yet the Holy Spirit has given me other gifts, at least so far. And so good, as far as I am concerned. If ever I do speak in tongues other than English, it will be at his discretion, not mine, and I am very ok with that.

    For the sake of credibility, I must also admit that my position on this issue has changed. I used to believe that speaking in tongues was always forced/ faked and not a legitimate gift. While I remain convinced that it can be faked, my understanding of tongues has changed because of fidelity to the biblical text and my desire to let it direct my theological understanding rather than vice versa. The spiritual authority over my life is fourfold, based on reason, church tradition, personal experience and the Bible itself, but of these four, I want the Bible to have the preeminent position. That text has led me to the conclusion that I should neither forbid nor malign the legitimate gift of speaking in tongues even though I have never personally experienced such a gift. As such, Scriptures relating to the details of speaking in tongues have previously been somewhat of a peripheral issue offering guidance to others who have been blessed with this particular gift. However, because of the recent development it has become vital for me to articulate a deeper understanding of what this legitimate gift looks like, lest people be confused or chaos introduced (which is exactly what Will did on our recent mission trip).

    So back to William. He has come to adopt the stance that the “Gospel” has more to do with Acts 2:4 and 2:38 and the gifting of the Holy Spirit, than it does with what Jesus Christ accomplished through his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. This is a mistake, especially when we consider that the role of the Holy Spirit is not to point to himself, but to Christ. Nevertheless, Acts 2:38 occurs in the aftermath of the Day of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples in the upper room, and it reads as follows: “And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” While I affirm that this is indeed part of the good news, THE Gospel is the salvation offered by the incarnation, execution and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Making the gospel center on the Holy Spirit is to put the cart before the horse.

    But it gets worse, for not only does Will define the gospel in terms of receiving the Holy Spirit (rather than receiving grace/ salvation through Christ), he also demands that speaking in tongues is THE gift of the Holy Spirit and that anyone who is legitimately saved must, by necessity, speak in tongues as well. To be blunt, William believes that if a person has not and does not speak in tongues, he or she is not saved. Alarm bells were ringing, and when I asked him for scriptural support of his odd theological position, Will immediately referenced what the disciple, Peter, said to the crowds in the aftermath of Pentecost in Acts 2:38 (see quote above).

    To be fair, I agree with Will’s understanding that when people legitimately respond to Jesus’ invitation and repent, they are given the Holy Spirit who is God’s advocate to/for us. If we want to be technical about it, Acts 2 doesn’t mention the disciples’ repenting or asking to receive the Holy Spirit, but we can properly assume that these men were indeed Jesus-followers and open to where God was leading them. The problem, however, is Will’s subsequent belief that receiving the Holy Spirit necessitates that the recipient speaks “in tongues” without exception and that if a person does not engage in that behavior, then she or he has not received the Holy Spirit and is not forgiven or “saved.”

    This is troublesome for several reasons, not the least of which is that the idea is completely unsupported by the Bible. There simply are no Scriptures anywhere in the Bible that state all people at all times in all situations will always speak in tongues upon reception of the Holy Spirit. I mentioned this to Will, and much to his credit, he acknowledged that he knew of no verses that made the case he was presenting. But this is a far bigger problem than he may realize, for William has made speaking in tongues THE defining issue for who is saved and who is not in the complete absence of biblical teaching. If this was actually the case, it begs the question as to why the Bible (THE source of Christian belief and practice) never mentions it. In fact, the Bible teaches quite the opposite. For just one example, in 1Corinthians 12:29-30, Paul addresses a body of believers and asks the rhetorical questions: “29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” In light of the context, clearly the answer to these questions is “No.”

    Yet despite the fact that William acknowledged his position has no Scriptural support, he immediately moved to a questioning tactic in light of Acts 2:38: “If God’s initial pouring out of the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost meant that the recipients spoke in tongues, why would he not give that same gift to all Christ followers?” As Will has been taught, he seeks to teach others, but the answer to his question, of course, is that God is not beholden to static formulas or rules when it comes to his moving in and through the lives of his followers. The Holy Spirit can do whatever is consistent with his character at any time and place in whatever ways seem best to him. Period.

    So, perhaps a better question to ask Will (and those who think like him) is: “Why would we try and shut down and systematize what gifts the Holy Spirit can pour into people?” Or asked another way, “Why would we presume to tell the Holy Spirit/God what he must and must not do?” To be clear, my argument is not that “speaking in tongues” will never follow an indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but rather that he can fill Christ-followers with a wide variety of gifts in addition to (or instead of) speaking in tongues. A biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit’s gifts allows God to be God in his administration of them, rather than his creatures trying to hand him his hat on the issue (See also Hebrews 2:4 for support of this position). This is also why efforts at constructing systematic theologies rubs me the wrong way, but that’s a different topic for a different day. The fact remains that when we become followers of Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit, but the gifts he gives us are varied according to his will, not ours.

    So a next logical question might be: What other gifts does the Holy Spirit bless God’s people with? Since the Bible is my authority as a Christian, it is vital that we look at what it says. While I will only be able to address a few Scriptures here, I affirm that all of the Bible is God’s inspired word, and I welcome discussion on any passages that are not mentioned here. As an additional acknowledgment/ disclaimer, I understand that taking verses out of context to prove a point is generally a poor way to go about using the Bible. I accept that criticism. Nevertheless, topical approaches oftentimes dictate that the full context is not explored for the sake of brevity, and that is the case here. I apologize in advance.

    So here are some examples that indicate the Holy Spirit’s different gifts:

    1) 1Corinthians 12:4-10 This is a non-exhaustive list of Spirit-gifts of which “speaking in tongues” is only one. More on this below, but let’s cut right to the chase about “tongues.”

    2) Speaking in Tongues:
    Acts 2:4 “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

    This is the Day of Pentecost, and clearly the Holy Spirit enabled these Jesus-followers to speak in tongues (alternate human languages which they had not studied and did not know in this case), so that people close by could hear the Gospel of Jesus in their native languages. Since this is the verse that my friend Will has used to establish his theology, there are two additional things that must be said about it.

    First, While “speaking in tongues” can include human languages whose content is co-directed by the Holy Spirit, there are other instances in the text that indicate the “gift of tongues” can include prayer languages not intelligible to any human ear without interpretation in a human language (See 1Cor. 14). All fine and good, but Will’s argument is that since this first instance of the Holy Spirit’s action resulted in speaking in tongues, all legitimately redeemed Jesus-followers must manifest this exact same gift. Therein lies one more inconsistency of Will’s position, for when he related his own first instance of speaking in tongues to me, it was not a human language at all, but rather one unintelligible to human ears. But this was not the experience of the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, so for him to insist that all recipients of the Holy Spirit in all times and places will have the exact same gift manifested in their lives as on the Day of Pentecost is at odds not just with the whole of the biblical text, but also with William’s theology and even his experience as a tongue-speaker.

    Defenders of Will’s position are likely to say that the precise nature of speaking in tongues is not what will always be poured out by the Spirit, but rather just some form of the gift. But to make that argument implicitly acknowledges that the Spirit does not always enable people in the exact same way as he did on the Day of Pentecost, which ironically enough is to agree with critics of Will’s dogma. We just can’t have it both ways.

    A second argument people like Will might try to make is that in Acts 2:4, there was allegedly a moment of speaking in tongues just within the immediate proximity of the upper room in which incoherent prayer languages were first manifested, and only after this moment did the gift of speaking in other languages spill out onto the streets where foreigners heard the Gospel of Christ in their native languages. I suppose one can believe that if she or he chooses, but it goes beyond the text and has more to do with a specific sect’s theology imposed on the Bible rather than letting the Bible speak on its own terms. In this case, the gift of tongues and the people on the street hearing the Gospel in their native languages appears to be a seamless event. And yet, even if there was a dual-stage tongue-speaking event on the Day of Pentecost, Will’s argument suffers the same problem as the first argument explored in the previous paragraph, for if this dual-stage pouring out was how God did it then, the argument dictates that this is precisely how God must do it in every other repentant believer in all times and places.

    Thirdly, the passage itself (Acts 2:4) distinguishes between the Holy Spirit and the gift he gave these people to enable them to speak in alternate human languages. Legitimately speaking in tongues is contingent upon the gifting of the Spirit, but it (the gift) is not the same as the Holy Spirit himself. Stated another way, we can have the Holy Spirit without legitimately speaking in tongues, but we cannot have the latter without the former. Although I am convinced that some people are compelled to fake speaking in tongues (usually to satisfy misguided human requirements), the point to be made is that speaking in tongues and the Holy Spirit are not the same. To suggest otherwise is to ignore Scripture.

    If Acts 2:4 (and 2:38 by extension) is the foundational verse for Will’s position, it is insufficient to establish that “speaking in tongues” is always synonymous with receiving the Holy Spirit in all times, places, and cultures for all Christians everywhere. Furthermore, in light of the rest of what the New Testament says about gifts given by the Holy Spirit, there is no reason to limit his action to just speaking in tongues. I want to look at just two more texts that deal with this issue, both of which are found in 1st Corinthians.

    2) Back to 1Corinthians 12:4-10. There are many different kinds of gifts given by the Holy Spirit.

    1Corinthians 12:4-10: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. 6 And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. 7 But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.”

    This isn’t that complicated of a passage, and what I hear Paul saying is that while there is only one Holy Spirit, the gifts he has at his disposal are varied and given according not to a rigid formula, but by what is best for the common good of various ministries. Those gifts include wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, gifts of miracles, prophecy, discerning lesser spirits, and interpreting “tongues” in addition to the gift of speaking in tongues itself. This passage completely undercuts the idea that the Holy Spirit always gives the gift of tongues first, to all people in all situations at all times everywhere.

    1Cor. 12.28 (NASB) “And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.”

    Once again, the passage is not exceptionally complex. It indicates that God gives different gifts to his church (ostensibly via the Holy Spirit), and also that the gift of speaking in various kinds of tongues is last and least in this particular list. The idea that speaking in tongues is a lesser gift and not always given to all believers everywhere is also corroborated by 1 Corinthians chapter 14, verse 5 in particular. I encourage interested parties to read that entire chapter if they are interested in the topic.

    There are two extremes that serve to polarize popular conceptions of speaking in tongues. One extreme is to say that “tongues have been stilled” (based on 1Corinthians 13:8). The other extreme is to assert that if people are legitimately saved, they must speak in tongues or they are not recipients of the Holy Spirit (based on ???). Yet neither of these positions are supported by the Bible when taken as a whole, and indeed they run counter to it. To build our theology around either position is a mistake.

    As a final note, on the evening during our recent mission trip when Will stated that he felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to tell our curious student about the gift of tongues, English was the language of choice. If anything at all, I think this would prove to Will that English is a “tongue” that the Spirit can use to communicate profound truths about Christ. While I think that remains a valid point, because William was preaching a doctrine unsupported by and even contrary to Scripture, I am confident that Will was not listening to (or speaking for) the Holy Spirit at all, but rather the specific religious community that he has given his allegiance to. I don’t necessarily doubt Will’s experience, his sincerity or his salvation. He is a good man who wants more of God, not less. Nevertheless, the idea that the Holy Spirit is the same thing (not person) as speaking in tongues and that if a human has never spoken in tongues, then she or he has not been saved is completely false and thereby divisive and destructive for the body of Christ. It simply has no place in the Christian community.

    Thanks for reading me,
    -Corbin Lambeth

  2. Katie L. says:

    Hey, Corbin, just checking in on the blog–thought provoking as usual. It seems to be the historical position of the Church that one who has the gift of glossolalia ought not to display this gift publicly without working in unison with someone who had been given the gift to interpret, and even so with great caution, and never without the guidance and blessing of one’s spiritual father (this term refers to one’s mentor or guide, usually a priest), and certainly never with a sense of vanity or pride at having received such a gift. I think it is also important to remember that when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles at Pentecost, the result was not confusion but understanding. The view that Will holds regarding this gift is not the traditional view of the Church; in fact, it has only been around since the 1800s, and developed outside of apostolic tradition.

    Many Orthodox consider the modern movements which emphasize “speaking in tongues” to actually be inviting demonic delusion and/or possession. Some have noted the similarities between what happens in those churches and the kinds of dissociative states that can be observed in pagan religions such as voodoo. It seems prudent to remember that not every spirit in this world is the Holy Spirit, and to be cautious about what kinds of spiritual experience we are seeking and whom we are inviting to speak through us.

    Because of the pride in his words, and the confusion which resulted in the mind of the young woman he spoke to, I am inclined to conclude that what Will’s “gift” does not proceed from the Holy Spirit, however great his conviction to the contrary.

    Here are a few links written from an Orthodox perspective:

    • C_Lambeth says:

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting on the blog! I deeply appreciate your perspective and the (Eastern) Orthodox tradition that you represent. Your comments are always welcome.

      And thank you for reminding us of the cautious historical nature of glossolalia in community faith gatherings. As per Scripture (1Corinthians 14:27-28 in particular) it is pretty clear that interpreting tongues should operate in tandem with the speaking of them, or else the speaker should simply remain silent. Unlike parts of the text that require women to remain silent in church in certain contexts, cultures and situations (1Tim 2:12 & 1Cor 14:34), I see nothing in 1Cor. 14:27 that would lead readers to believe that the necessity of tongues-interpretation was only for the specific people of Corinth. Which is to say that requiring an interpreter of legitimate glossolalia would seem to be a lasting stipulation. I am open to another possibility, but only on the basis of the text itself. I am still waiting for Will to address this issue.

      I also appreciate your reminder that the God we serve is not a god of chaos but of order and edification for his people. The Holy Spirit always points to Christ. His is always a cogent message of understanding, not disorder or confusion. As you have pointed out, because Will’s interjection brought confusion rather than clarity (and because it operates unhinged from the biblical text), I also suspected that he related a message that was not from the Holy Spirit at all. My initial suspicion was not necessarily that William was speaking from demonic influence, but rather that he was simply ignorant of Scripture and church history, and was merely regurgitating what his mislead church has indoctrinated its people with. Unfortunately, there is no middle ground here. As much as I may want to posit an alternate explanation, the fact is that if we are not leading towards the truth, then we are leading away from it. Since one of our enemy’s greatest tricks is subtlety, I deeply hope that someday Will can see the danger of the forces and teachings he has invited into his life.

      Thanks for the Orthodox links, Katie!


  3. Pingback: Spend Quality Time Speaking in Tongues | bummyla

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