The Bible’s View
Is “Speaking in Tongues” for Today’s Christians?
THE practice of “speaking in tongues” is a growing religious phenomenon. “Pentecostal” religious groups have long prayed in a babble of sound that others cannot understand. Now Lutheran, Episcopalian and Presbyterian clergymen, and even Roman Catholic priests, have taken up this practice, and encourage it.
The “Catholic Pentecostal” movement arose in the American Midwest a few years ago. In 1967 a handful of “Catholic Pentecostals” gathered at America’s Notre Dame University. By 1973 some 20,000 persons assembled for an annual “Pentecostal” meeting there. A few weeks later “Catholic Pentecostals,” young and old, priests and nuns, came to Los Angeles’ Loyola University for a similar conference.
Why this interest in tongues? Jeffrey Schiffmayer, acting rector of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston, Texas, said, as reported in Newsweek of June 25, 1973, that one reason is that “Episcopalians have now reached the point where they are absolutely starving for some public Christianity.” This magazine suggested that for many Catholics tongues have become a substitute for the “miraculous medals,” novenas and other devotions to Mary which, before the holding of the Church’s Vatican Council II, were major aspects of popular Catholicism. A similar interest in “tongues” and other “gifts” is being shown in Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia and other parts of the world.
Among Protestant “Pentecostal” groups, the excited speech of the pastor may be echoed by shouts of agreement from the audience. Pianos rock with hard-beat rhythm. Drums and rhythmically clapping hands add to the din. The audience rocks, sways and moans, while a small child in the back may beat time with a tambourine. Prayer is an unintelligible wailing, which Time magazine called “a mighty babble of moans, groans and cries.” At such meetings converts are called on to “accept Jesus,” and to pray to receive the holy spirit, which they believe will permit them to pray in “tongues” unknown to men.
The Day of Pentecost
This is called “Pentecostalism” because people mistakenly believe it is what happened on the day of Pentecost, in the year 33 C.E. That day about 120 of Christ’s faithful followers were filled with holy spirit, as Jesus had promised. (John 14:26) They received the miraculous ability to teach foreigners in their own languages. This gift of “tongues” allowed them to be understood by people from at least 15 different lands, who had come to Jerusalem for the festival. People had come from three continents—from as far as Mesopotamia on the east, to Rome on the west and to Libya and Egypt on the south. Each was able to hear, in his own language, “about the magnificent things of God.” Hearing and accepting these things, many later took the thrilling message back to their homes, to spread it quickly over a very wide area.—Acts 2:5-11.
Those early Christians were not speaking in “unknown tongues,” nor “angels’ tongues,” nor were they using unintelligible speech as a form of prayer to God, as “Pentecostals” do today. Instead, they were speaking foreign languages. Thus, Vigouroux’ famed French Dictionnaire de la Bible (Dictionary of the Bible) correctly says about what happened on the day of Pentecost: “It was not a question of made-up languages, nor just of inarticulate cries, nor of rapturous exclamations, nor of figurative and enthusiastic expressions, but of languages known and spoken by other men, the use of which the Holy Spirit temporarily communicated to certain faithful ones.”—Volume IV, column 80.
“Tongues” Were to Cease
Is speaking in “tongues” a part of Christianity today? The answer is important whether we view the “tongues” as being foreign languages, as they were on the day of Pentecost, or as an aid to praying, as modern “Pentecostals” do. Those who think Christians should speak in “tongues” might be very surprised to read in the Bibles that many of them carry that the apostle Paul specifically said that miraculous speaking in tongues would not always continue. He wrote: “Whether there are tongues, they will cease.”—1 Cor. 13:8.
It might also surprise many “Pentecostals” to learn that not all early Christians spoke in “tongues.” Paul wrote to the Christian congregation in Corinth: “Not all speak in tongues, do they?”—1 Cor. 12:30.
In fact, it seems that the congregation in Corinth was actually attaching too much importance to the matter of tongues. Paul wrote to them not to do so. He asked: “Brothers, if I should come speaking to you in tongues, what good would I do you . . . ?” unless he explained what he said in tongues in language they could understand. He said that, like musical instruments, the voice should not give “indistinct” sounds. We should not speak “into the air.” Speech should be “easily understood,” he said, so that those present would know “what is being spoken.”—1 Cor. 14:6-9.
In the Christian congregation’s beginning such miraculous gifts were needed to confirm, in a spectacular way, that God’s favor had shifted from the Jewish nation, and that it now rested on this new Christian congregation. (Heb. 2:2-4) Miracles had occurred at Mount Sinai, more than 1,500 years earlier, to prove that God really did have a hand in the establishment of the Jewish Law covenant through Moses. Once that fact was established, those miracles ceased. (Ex. 19:16-19) Now, similar miracles marked the transferal of God’s favor to the new Christian system. And once that fact had been established, these miracles, too, would cease.
After the day of Pentecost, there is no record in the Scriptures of anyone’s receiving this gift, except when one or more of the apostles directly chosen by Jesus were present.* Thus, when the last person who had received the miraculous gifts of the spirit from the apostles died, such special gifts, as Paul had foretold, ‘passed away.’
Which of the spirit’s gifts remained? What the inspired apostle Paul had said would remain. He did not say tongues would, but he said: “Now, however, there remain faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”—1 Cor. 13:8-13.
Source of “Pentecostal” Tongues
But what about modern “Pentecostal” speaking in tongues, as practiced in Christendom? Unlike the preaching that was done on the day of Pentecost, these modern groups consider speaking in tongues (glossolalia) to be a kind of prayer. They explain that in man’s speech you can say “God is good,” “God is love,” “God is kind.” But they believe that when they give themselves over to uttering unknown words (“Vowels and consonants, vowels and consonants, let it flow,” one Protestant preacher told people who could not find this “gift”), they are letting the spirit “place with you a perfect prayer,” which, in the absence of tongues, might not be possible.
Donald P. Merrifield, the Jesuit president of Loyola University, who prays this way, says tongues are “a good form of prayer and praise for God.”
However, since the inspired apostle said that this gift would pass away, the modern practice of speaking in tongues could not come from the same source that the early Christians’ tongues did. Not all miraculous works done in Jesus’ name come from him. He foretold: “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and expel demons in your name, and perform many powerful works in your name?’ And yet then I will confess to them: I never knew you!”—Matt. 7:22, 23.
The Loyola University president, Merrifield, who has spoken in tongues for years, says: “Tongues could be a hysterical experience, or, according to some, a diabolical one.”
Todd H. Fast, rector of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, in Huntington Park, California, who has been speaking in tongues since 1969, said: “Tongues is controversial. The devil has many ways of working at us. When we come into the baptism of the Holy Spirit [of which Pentecostals consider speaking in tongues to be a sign] he really attacks.” Can we suppose, then, that Jesus Christ would “know” or recognize those engaging in this practice?
The Scriptures warn of “the operation of Satan with every powerful work and lying signs and portents.”—2 Thess. 2:9.
Intelligent Speech, Not Mere Babbling, Required of Christians
That “speaking in tongues” as employed by “Pentecostal” groups today is unscriptural was acknowledged by Nazarene clergyman Timothy Smith, renowned Johns Hopkins historian, at the fifth annual meeting of the Society of Pentecostal Studies, held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in December 1975. He admitted that tongue-speaking is attractive “because of its mystery” and because it “transcends the rational.” He declared, nevertheless, that the modern use of tongues is a “mistaken bypass” based on a misunderstanding of Scripture. Smith maintained that “tongues” in the “New Testament” refers to known dialects, not unknown tongues. He argued that the entire thrust of Scripture is “reasonableness and clarity,” and that unknown glossolalia (speaking in tongues) would defeat understanding. Concluding that there is “no evidence of such religious glossolalia in the New Testament, the early Church, or in history,” Smith called on Pentecostal leaders to “use intellectual honesty responsibly to face this misuse.”—Christianity Today, January 2, 1976.
Yes, honesty should be employed also in presenting what the Scriptures say. Moreover, true followers of Jesus Christ should speak from their hearts and minds, not with babbling that they or others do not understand. Christians will use speech that will reach the mind and heart, so that those hearing will be able to say, not because of sensationalism or from mere emotion, but intelligently, “God is really among you.”—1 Cor. 14:24, 25.