Messages in tongues

  • Question 138, from Julie (UK)

    My ex-fiance felt that he could receive messages in tongues from God for his own personal information and use. I could not see this in the Bible and felt uncomfortable about it. Can you elaborate?

    ‘Speaking in tongues’ – which can be defined as prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker [1] – is a Christian practice that can be quite divisive. Some Christians would regard it as an essential part of Christian experience, while there are many church streams that regard ‘tongues’ and other ‘charismatic’ practices to be redundant. The word ‘tongues’ can be confusing; in this sense it means speaking in another, unknown, language.

    However this practice is now viewed, ‘tongues’ were certainly part of church life as recorded in the New Testament. 1 Corinthians, which Paul is generally assumed to have written, contains a number of specific instructions relating to how ‘tongues’ should be used in corporate worship. Interestingly, many of the experiences seen in current Pentecostal churches, including practices like ‘singing in the Spirit’, are not mentioned.

    One often overlooked aspect of the use of ‘tongues’ is that Paul expected it to be a ‘controlled gift’, only used in public where it was accompanied by an ‘interpretation’ (see 1 Corinthians chapter 14, verses 27-28). When ‘tongues’ were used privately, it was as ‘assisted prayer’, with the believer expressing praise to God in languages they do not understand – and perhaps enabling the believer’s spirit to connect directly with God (see 1 Corinthians chapter 14, verses 14-15). This isn’t always the case – the ‘tongues’ spoken at Pentecost were clearly foreign languages which were intelligible to the native speakers (Acts chapter 2, verses 7-12).

    Following the New Testament model, then, it would appear that ‘tongues’ spoken or sung in private are directed towards God, and are not the way God ‘speaks’ to people. ‘Tongues’ spoken or sung in a public setting must, according to Paul, be accompanied with an interpretation for them to have any value. The message in ‘tongues’ is therefore like a ‘prophecy’ and, like prophecies or ‘words of wisdom’ must be “carefully weighed” by the rest of the believing community (1 Corinthians chapter 14, verse 29).

    In terms of the specific case raised in this question, there are some key points to be made in comparison with Paul’s discussion of ‘tongues’. Firstly, it may be possible, according to Paul, for a person to receive some kind of message in an unknown language which they subsequently translate to encourage or enlighten the rest of the believing community.

    Secondly, and it’s important to note this, such a ‘message’ is not above questioning – in fact it should be thought about, discussed, and ‘weighed carefully’. Thirdly, and finally, ‘tongues’ as an activity is usually directed towards God, and any interpretation that seems otherwise is perhaps one that should be carefully weighed!

    [1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, p.1070

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