Christian Churches of God

The Tongues Question (No. 109)

(Edition 2.0 19950422-20000619)

This paper examines the full meaning of the tongues question and the historical position of the church on the matter over the centuries. The biblical texts are examined for their context and meaning. The position of the apostles in relation to the matter is demonstrated.


Christian Churches of God



(Copyright ã 1995, 2000 Wade Cox)

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The Tongues Question

In Mark 16:15-18 we find written:

15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states that:

The biblical understanding of ‘tongue’ includes (a) its function as a part of the physical make-up of man whereby he eats and drinks (Judges 7:5; Isa 41:17); (b) its employment as a term for ‘language’ and therefore ‘nation’; (c) a mode of the working of the Spirit; (d) its usage for the action and dynamic of the whole life of man; and (e) its use as a figure for that which has extension in the material sense.’

Speaking in tongues has been long misunderstood and is currently found in many churches where the members believe that without this gift you have not received the Holy Spirit. It appears that individuals in these churches often speak in tongues, sometimes at the same time, with no apparent comprehension or caring about meaning. But when we really study the passages in the Bible we find that speaking in tongues is taken very seriously and in fact Paul at 1Corinthians 14:39 states that it should not be forbidden. Therefore, there must be a place for it, but one has to ask what value is there in a form of gibberish not understood by anyone, not least the speaker? So what are we talking about and what does the Bible actually say?

First let’s look at what the encyclopaedias say. The Catholic Encyclopaedia in its article on Tongues, or Glossolalia, (Vol. xiv, pp. 776/7) states that those present at the time the disciples received this gift:

heard the disciples speaking the ‘wonderful things of God’ in his own tongue, namely, that in which he was born. ...... The Glossolalia, (which simply means the gift of speaking in tongues), thus described was historic, articulate and intelligible.

Interestingly, the article says:

that St Frances Xavier is said to have preached in tongues unknown to him and St Vincent Ferrer while using his native tongue was understood by others.

Paul commanded the Corinthians to employ none but articulate and plain speech in their use of the gift (1Cor 14:9) and to refrain from such use in Church unless even the unlearned could grasp what was said (v.16).

It was thus a sign intended for unbelievers, not for believers. The article goes on to indicate that the Church in Corinth had allowed this charisma to deteriorate into a mixture of meaningless gabble which sometimes might be construed as little short of blasphemous (1Cor. 12:3), hence Paul’s need to correct them.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia in its article on Tongues (Vol. 4, pp. 871-875) states that:

Ecstatic behaviour is found most frequently in the Shaman, the Seer and the Prophet. Generally the ecstatic state is associated with divine or spirit possession and inspiration.

It goes on to state that:

there is no evidence that the OT writers knew of ‘speaking in tongues’, although they knew of prophetic activity that was associated with a variety of ‘ecstatic behaviours, ie. the guild of singing prophets and of Saul after the spirit of Yahweh came upon him and ‘turned him into another man’ enabling him to prophesy, (1Sam 10:5-13 cf. 19:20-24).

However in Greek religion the Delphi and Pythian religion understood ecstatic behaviour and speech to be evidence of divine inspiration by Appollos. ...Uninterpreted tongues at Corinth were apparently understood by some as sufficient indication of spiritual possession, and hence of spirituality (1Cor 14:4-6).

The article goes on to state the gift’s purposes and guidelines for its use and also Luke’s and Mark’s perspectives. It also states that:

Irenaeus noted its presence among those who lived according to the precepts of the gospel. Tertullian enlisted it as an apologetic argument for the validity of orthodoxy, while Origen (Comm. on Rom. 1:13; 7.6 var.) viewed it as a bridge to cross-cultural preaching.

The phenomenon is cited in several medieval papal bulls and makes repeated appearances in a variety of monastic groups and enthusiastic sects. In modern manifestations it became prominent in the 20th century with the rise of Pentecostalism.

The article also states that:

Paul’s writings are understood to teach that speaking in tongues is a gift given only to some Christians.

The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible in its article Tongues, Gift of (Vol. 4, pp. 771/2) states that:

this phenomenon was not limited to Christianity but was found in many of the religions of the ancient world. Wherever it appeared, the common element was the belief that the spirit of the god worshipped took possession of the devotee, spoke through him, and often produced bodily movements of abnormal character. During such ecstatic states the vocal organs were affected, the tongue moved as if by the operation of a power beyond the mental control of the subject, and utterances poured forth which, to the observer, were as impressive as they were incoherent.

The story in Acts is clear. The ‘tongues’ spoken on the day of Pentecost are foreign languages, understood by a bewildered and astonished crowd. But when ‘tongues’ were spoken at Caesarea and Ephesus (Acts 10:46; 19:6), Peter equated the experience to his own, without any reference to a linguistic miracle. There is no evidence later that the apostles enjoyed the benefit of such a miracle. Nor was there any need of it, since Greek and Aramaic were sufficient to meet the needs of the church.

Because of the exaggerated emphasis upon glossolalia at Corinth, Paul was compelled to deal with it. He does so by recognising it as:

(a) a genuine gift of the Spirit, not to be forbidden, and acknowledges that he shares the gift himself (1Cor 14:5, 18, 39);

(b) an aid to private devotion, a means of personal communion with God, an opportunity to express thoughts and feelings which could find no outlet through ordinary channels (1Cor 14:4: cf. Rom 8:26-27);

(c) a sign to unbelievers (1Cor 14:22); and evidence of divine power which, like the ‘sign of Jonah’ (Matt 12:39), though genuine enough, was yet unrecognised by the hardhearted and unbelieving scoffers and critics.

Paul saw the dangers in the practice even more clearly than its values. He gave it no precedence or encouragement in public worship (1Cor 14:19, 28).

He indicates methods of control:

(a) By applying regulatory principle. The use of spiritual gifts must be determined by their worth in building up the church ‘in love’ (1Cor 13; 14:4-5,17-19; Col 3:14; c/f Eph 4:16). Tongues are too individualistic, encourage self-centeredness and self-importance, and are detrimental to the solidarity of the Christian fellowship (Rom 12:3; 1Cor 13:5; Phil 2:3-4).

(b) By maintaining orderly worship. the edification of the church is primary. The glossolalist must restrain himself and keep silent unless interpreted (1Cor 14:27-28). When worship is not understood, or repels seekers after truth, it fails. Order and decency are of first importance (1Cor 14:13-19, 23-33, 40).

(c) By exercising the gift of interpretation. The capacity to interpret tongues was the special gift of some (1Cor 12:10,30; 14:28) - the ability to convey a supposedly rational account of what was said, possibly by thought transference effective through spiritual rapport. The ecstatic lacking this gift should pray for it, since he has a responsibility both to himself and to the church (1Cor 14:13-14).

These are only some of the points which have been made by scholars but they show that this gift is liable to misinterpretation and misuse and must be treated with great care. There appears to be a degree of speculation involved and, generally speaking, it appears that it is not yet fully understood.

Now let’s look at the Bible (RSV throughout).

Acts 2:3-4 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

It was at this time that the disciples became converted and they started to preach to all the people. It was Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, and the Jews in Jerusalem were of many nationalities speaking in many different languages, so you can imagine their amazement when they heard the Scriptures taught in their own language or tongue. The Catholic Encyclopaedia states that there were in fact fifteen nationalities there.

Acts 2:5-11 5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. 7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? 8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? 9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, 10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.

The significant point here is that the Bible says that the Jews heard the Scriptures taught in their own language. Acts 10:46 reinforces this.

Acts 10:46 For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.

So they were astonished but others mocked and said the disciples must be drunk. But Peter defended them quoting from Joel and reminded them of the prophesies and preached to them (Acts 2:12-47) with many repenting and being baptised.

It is worth noting that Acts 10 deals with Peter’s vision of the unclean foods, followed by the baptism of Cornelius and his family and close friends and they also spoke in tongues on receiving the Holy Spirit (see Acts 10:44-47). This was to show that God was also working with Gentiles. The next mention of speaking in tongues is at Acts 19:6.

Acts 19:6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.

It is clear that this is a gift given with the Holy Spirit following the laying on of hands, although not given to everyone. 1Corinthians 7:7 states:

7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another

Paul in 1Corinthians 12 explains that different gifts are given to different people according to God's will.

1Corinthians 12:1-31 1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit. 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

Reference should be made also to Romans 12:6-8:

6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (RSV)

1Corinthians 12 continues:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single organ, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, 25 that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

In Chapter 13 Paul goes on to explain that all these gifts must be accompanied by Godly love or they are worthless.

1Corinthians 13:1-13 1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, 8 Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 10 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. 13 So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Chapter 14 continues:

1Corinthians 14:1-18 1 Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, he who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless some one interprets, so that the church may be edified.

At 1Corinthians 14:6 Paul then explains the importance of proper use of the gift of speaking in tongues. Where one is speaking in gibberish it is of no spiritual value to any hearer. However, it would seem that Paul is not talking about gibberish but of specific languages which can be understood by the speakers of that language and for which interpreters can be found.

Even if such is not the case, Paul emphasises the need for teaching to be for the edification of the brethren. Without understanding there can be no edification.

6 Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will any one know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves; if you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will any one know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning; 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves; since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. 13 Therefore, he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all;

It is clear here that this gift has been given to Paul so he can speak in languages he has not learnt in order to preach the Gospel to those who would not otherwise be able to understand. There is here another aspect that Paul has brought in and that is its place in prayer. This is noted in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible as mentioned previously in (b) an aid to private devotion 1Corinthians 14:4 cf. Romans 8:26-28 which says:

Romans 8:26-28 26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. 27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

1Corinthians 14:19-33 continues:

19 nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. 20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature. 21 In the law it is written, "By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord." 22 Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

Specifically, the unordered use of tongues is seen as a sign of instability here. The most useful tool of conversion is clear prophecy. Paul goes on to explain the rules for the use of tongues or foreign language.

26 What then, brethren? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

1Corinthians 14:39:40:

39 Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. 40 Let all things be done decently and in order.

So it would appear that speaking in tongues is an acceptable part of preaching the Gospel, but it is given to individuals for specific purpose as are all of God's spiritual gifts. In a church area where all speak or at least understand to sufficient degree the language being spoken there is no need for this occurrence.

We know that in the Church in Transcarpathia they are reported to speak in tongues. We understand that they speak in an ancient form of dialect in Church. Such a miracle may be necessary, or of importance there where it is not here.

Paul placed it as a gift of lesser value and indicated that it could be misused and misunderstood by observers. It should only be used under the guidelines laid down by him for the edification of the church. Romans 12:6-9 states:

Romans 12:6-9 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

Is it then hearing or speaking, or is it both? It must be both. Its place, when correctly applied in Godly love, must be in the preaching of the Gospel to all nations.

A secondary point emerges from the Tongues question and that is of the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. Most Bibles do not include the end section of Mark in their texts or include it with notations. The text does not appear in most ancient manuscripts.

Most modern critics are agreed that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are not an integral; part of his Gospel (Companion Bible, Appendix 168, p. 190).

The verses are contained in the Syriac or Aramaic version, the Peshitto dating from as early as perhaps 170 CE and the Curetonian Syriac of the third century. The verses were referred to by many authorities or ancient writers. According to the Companion Bible Appendix:

Papius (ca. 100 AD) refers to verse 18 (according to Eusebius, Hist. Ecc. iii 39).

Justin Martyr (AD 151) quotes v 20 (Apol. I. c. 45).

Irenaeus (AD 180) quotes and remarks on v 19 (Adv. Her. lib. iii. c.x.).

Hippolytus (AD 190-227) quotes vv. 17-19 (Lagarde’s ed. 1858, p. 74).

Vincentius (AD 256) quoted two verses at the seventh Council of Carthage held under Cyprian.

The ACTA PILATI (cent. 2) quotes vv 15, 16, 17, 18 (Tischendorf’s ed. 1853, pp. 243, 351). The Apostolical Constitution (cent. 3 or 4) quotes vv 16,17,18.

Eusebius (AD 325.) discusses these verses, as quoted by Marinus from a lost part of his History.

Aphraartes (AD 337) a Syrian bishop, quoted vv 16-18 in his first Homily (Dr Wright’s ed., 1869, I., p. 21).

Ambrose (AD 374-97) Archbishop of Milan, freely quotes vv. 15 (four times), 16, 17, 18 (three times). and v. 20 (once).

Chrysostom (AD 400) refers to v.9; and states that vv. 19, 20 are "the end of the Gospel". Jerome (b. 331, d.420) includes these twelve verses in his Latin translation, besides quoting vv. 9 and 14 in his other writings.

Augustine (fl. AD 395-430) more than quotes them. He discusses them as being the work of the Evangelist MARK, and says that they were publicly read in the churches.

Nestorius (cent. 5) quotes v.20; and,

Cyril of Alexandria (AD 430) accepts the quotation.

Victor of Antioch (AD 425) confutes the opinion of Eusebius, by referring to very many MSS which he had seen, and so had satisfied himself that the last twelve verses were recorded in them.

The Companion Bible defends the last twelve verses on the grounds that it was present in the Syriac and was practised in the early church therefore the verses must have been removed by later authorities because the fruits were not evident in their day as they were in the time of the apostles and the early Church. Such argument would also be true of the miracles of the apostles and prophets.

Another defence of the verses has been mounted by the modern charismatic churches. Reliance is also placed upon the work of Ivan Panin (The Last Twelve Verses of Mark..., The Association of the Covenant People). The texts were subjected by Panin to mathematical analysis which establishes a numeric value of the verses of the text. The text appears based on sevens and there is an extensive analysis by Panin which seeks to assert that the texts are inspired because of this underlying numerical basis. There seems to be an underlying web of values in some Old Testament texts from recent work in Israel on the Pentateuch but no extensive analysis of the New Testament has been made to date. Moreover, the text in Mark should be of a uniform proof. Thus if the last twelve verses were part of the original Gospel then they must be capable of exhibiting the same proof structure as the Gospel and the reverse is equally true. Some work has been done, but not extensive and of conclusive authority. Panin’s work attempts to show that the entire text has been examined and shown to be uniform. Panin’s work would be more persuasive if the entire text were examined. Were there no uniform code shown to exist it can only lead to the conclusion that the text was prepared in that manner for addition to the Gospel for some purpose supported by the texts. This quite obviously is the matter of speaking in tongues. Until conclusive evidence to the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 is provided it can only be assumed that the last twelve verses exhibit the distinct possibility that they were prepared some time at the end of the first century to support a form of worship that involved speaking in tongues and for which no biblical authority existed and which had to be produced to counter the very real direction on the matter that had been given by Paul. Thus, the last twelve verses added to Mark, namely verses 9-20, must be treated with caution and not be used for the establishment of any doctrine. The doctrine concerning speaking in tongues is nevertheless clear from the texts used in this work and the gift concerned is of languages to be used only for the instruction of the brethren when language is required to instruct and for the conversion of unbelievers. The result is the disciplined display of the Holy Spirit in power, decently and in order.