Is the Gift of Tongues Part of True Christianity?
“I FELT, as I listened to him praying in tongues, as if there were an electrifying charge in the air,” said Bill after he and six others had gathered before the preacher near the church altar. Do such experiences repeat the first-century operation of the holy spirit? Do they identify the religion of the Bible? We can find satisfying answers by carefully examining the Scriptures.
The Bible record reveals that when any miraculous gift of the spirit was transmitted, at least one of the 12 apostles or the apostle Paul was present. The first of three recorded instances of speaking in tongues occurred among 120 of Jesus’ disciples gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost 33 C.E. (Acts 2:1-4) Three and a half years later, while a group of uncircumcised Italians were listening to Peter preach, they received the spirit and began “speaking with tongues and magnifying God.” (Acts 10:44-48) And 19 years after Pentecost, about 52 C.E., Paul spoke to a group in Ephesus and laid his hands upon 12 disciples. They too “began speaking with tongues and prophesying.”—Acts 19:6.
Why the Gift of Tongues?
Just before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told his followers: “You will receive power when the holy spirit arrives upon you, and you will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and . . . to the most distant part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Notice that he thus gave indication of just how this monumental witness work would be accomplished—with the assistance of the holy spirit.
Modern communication technology that enables us to send messages earth wide in many languages did not exist back then. The good news had to be spread primarily by word of mouth, and in this the miraculous gift of speaking in foreign tongues would prove very helpful. Such was the case as first-century Christians preached to Jews and proselytes in Jerusalem at Pentecost 33 C.E. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cretans, Arabians, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, and the district of Asia, as well as sojourners from Rome, heard “the magnificent things of God” in their own language and understood what was said. Three thousand quickly became believers.—Acts 2:5-11, 41.
An oft-overlooked fact is that speaking in tongues was just one of the nine operations of the holy spirit that the apostle Paul mentioned in his letter to the Christians in Corinth. Although Paul viewed speaking in tongues as a lesser gift, it was valuable to the early congregation in spreading the good news about the heavenly Kingdom of God. It was one of the “gifts” that contributed to the numerical growth and upbuilding of the infant congregation of Christians.—1 Corinthians 12:7-11; 14:24-26.
The various operations of the holy spirit in the first century, including speaking in tongues, were also a visible evidence that God was no longer using the 1,500-year-old congregation of Israel as his special people. Unquestionably, his approval now rested with the new Christian congregation, established by his only-begotten Son.—Compare Hebrews 2:2-4.
These manifestations of the spirit were key building blocks in establishing the young Christian congregation and helping it to grow to adulthood. Paul explained that after having served their purpose, these miraculous gifts would cease: “Whether there are gifts of prophesying, they will be done away with; whether there are tongues, they will cease.”—1 Corinthians 13:8.
Yes, the Bible is clear that the gift of tongues would cease. But when? Acts 8:18 reveals that the gifts of the spirit were received “through the laying on of the hands of the apostles.” Evidently, then, with the death of the last apostle, the passing on of the gifts of the spirit would stop—including speaking in tongues. Hence, when those who had received these gifts from the apostles also passed off the earthly scene, the miraculous gift would cease. By then the Christian congregation would have had time to become well established and would have spread to many lands.
“Unknown Tongues” and Their Interpretation
The present-day resurgence of speaking in tongues has been “regarded by some as the emotional extravagance of unstable exhibitionists, while others regard it as identical with the phenomenon of speaking with tongues of Apostolic times.” In modern-day church gatherings where speaking in “unknown tongues” occurs, it usually involves an ecstatic outburst of unintelligible sounds. Accordingly, one person confessed: “I use my gift of tongues mostly in private for my own meditation. . . . I feel a little embarrassed in front of other people.” Another related: “I hear my own words, I don’t understand them, but I keep feeling my tongue pushed to talk.”
What information of real value is conveyed by such unknown tongues, and what about an interpretation? Those who claim to interpret this speech have offered different explanations of the same unintelligible utterances. Why different? They explain away such a disparity by saying that “God gave to one person one interpretation of the speech and to another person another interpretation.” One individual acknowledged: “I have noted occasions where the interpretation was not of the accurate type.” D. A. Hayes, in his book The Gift of Tongues, referred to an instance where a man refused to interpret the speech of a woman who spoke in an unknown tongue because “the language was the vilest of the vile.” What a contrast that is to the speaking in tongues that existed in the first century and that was actually for building up the congregation!—1 Corinthians 14:4-6, 12, 18.
Some today do claim to have heard wonderful interpretations, and they may sincerely believe that God uses this gift when he “wishes to give a direct message to the people.” But what message from God do we need today that Jesus Christ and the apostles did not supply for us? Paul, who was himself gifted with holy spirit, said: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.”—2 Timothy 3:16, 17.
The fact is, the Christian congregation is no longer in its infancy, and thus divine revelations or miraculous gifts of the spirit are no longer needed to confirm its role. The Bible cautions: “Even if we or an angel out of heaven were to declare to you as good news something beyond [“at variance with,” The New English Bible] what we declared to you as good news, let him be accursed.”—Galatians 1:8.
Miraculously speaking in tongues is no longer necessary, and there is no Biblical basis for believing that it is part of true Christianity today. Now that the Bible is complete and widely available, we have what we need in the Word of God. It allows us to gain an accurate knowledge of Jehovah and his Son that leads to everlasting life.—John 17:3; Revelation 22:18, 19.
Even in the first century, the apostle Paul was compelled to write the congregation in Corinth to correct their view of why the gift of tongues was given to early Christians. Seemingly, some had become fascinated with the gift of tongues, and they were acting like little children, spiritually immature. Too much importance was being attached to “tongues.” (1 Corinthians 14:1-39) Paul emphasized that not all Christians in the first century spoke in miraculous tongues. It was not necessary to their salvation. Even back then when it existed, the gift of tongues was secondary to miraculous prophesying. Speaking in tongues was not, and is not, a requirement for Christians to gain everlasting life.—1 Corinthians 12:29, 30; 14:4, 5.
The Force Behind Unknown Tongues Today
Some believe that the driving force behind today’s tongue-speakers is charismatic church leaders who prompt members of their flock to acquire this ability. In some cases it is brought on by emotionalism and imbalance. Cyril G. Williams, in Tongues of the Spirit, says it has become “in many instances a badge of elitism within the group” and gives a person “stature and authority in the sight of the group and also in their own eyes.” The motivation, therefore, could be a desire to belong to the superior unknown-tongue group.
Then Loyola University president Donald P. Merrifield noted that “tongues could be a hysterical experience, or, according to some, a diabolical one.” Clergyman Todd H. Fast said: “Tongues is controversial. The devil has many ways of working at us.” The Bible itself warns that Satan and his demons are able to influence people and control their speech. (Acts 16:17, 18) Jesus acted against a demonic spirit that had moved a man to shout and fall to the floor. (Luke 4:33-35) Paul warned that ‘Satan would transform himself into an angel of light.’ (2 Corinthians 11:14) Those today who seek the gift of tongues that God no longer bestows on his people are really opening themselves to deception by Satan, who, we are warned, would use “every powerful work and lying signs and portents.”—2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10.
Tongues—And True Christianity
The first-century Christians who received the gift of speaking in tongues used it to explain the magnificent things of God. Stress was laid on the need to interpret clearly the message conveyed in tongues so that it could be understood by all and result in the edification of many. (1 Corinthians 14:26-33) Paul admonished: “Unless you through the tongue utter speech easily understood, how will it be known what is being spoken? You will, in fact, be speaking into the air.”—1 Corinthians 14:9.
While the spirit of God granted early Christians the gift of tongues, it did not cause them to speak unintelligible or untranslatable gibberish. In harmony with Paul’s counsel, the holy spirit provided speech that resulted in the good news being more quickly “preached in all creation that is under heaven.”—Colossians 1:23.
Concerning these last days of the present system, Jesus Christ commanded: “In all the nations the good news [of the established Kingdom] has to be preached first.” (Mark 13:10) As in the first century, all creation must hear the message of the Kingdom. This is possible because the Bible has now been translated, in whole or in part, into almost 2,000 languages. The same spirit that infused early Christians to speak boldly and courageously is now supporting the great and wondrous preaching work of the present-day congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. By word of mouth and by using modern printing technology to make available Scriptural truth by the printed page, they speak the “pure language.” This message is going out to over 200 countries and islands of the sea. Jehovah’s Witnesses stand alone as the people that are moved by God’s spirit to make known to all the magnificent things of God.—Zephaniah 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:13.
[Pictures on page 7]
Door-to-door witnessing in Japan
Ship-to-ship witnessing in Colombia
Below: Bible study in Guatemala
Bottom: Rural witnessing in the Netherlands