How Does Speaking In Tongues Work?

For this batch of The 700 Club questions, Gordon Robertson is back again to answer a question on the gift of tongues. What he doesn’t acknowledge, though, is that speaking in tongues is something that is open to a lot of different interpretation. Click here and skip to the 1:50 mark if you want to get into the somewhat perfunctory way the question was answered. 

I have asked God to fill me with the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues, but it has not happened to me. I am save, and I have faith. Why is this not happening for me? I am getting frustrated and feeling “less than” spiritually, especially as my husband speaks in tongues and says I need to. I agree with him and want it dearly. Please help! -Tracey


We’re going to hit this in three parts. The first part I’m going to address more personally to you, and start by asking why your husband feels the need to tell you what you need. Not knowing how your relationship is, or how he conveyed the idea that you need to speak in tongues, I won’t dive in too deeply, but no spouse should be dictating the terms of your relationships, whether they be personal or spiritual.

If a relationship appears to be crossing the line in some way or harming your marriage, bringing up and talking over concerns is one thing — there may be problems that need to be talked out — but making demands is not the way to handle it. But we’re not talking about flirting with a co-worker here, we’re talking about your relationship with God. That’s something to think about that The 700 Club didn’t bring up.

The second and third parts are a bit longer, and they’re to give you some more background into speaking in tongues. What Robertson says isn’t bad, but we’re essentially getting back to the question of why the folks at The 700 Club don’t encourage you to read scripture more. It’s easier to tell you what is and isn’t okay based on their own interpretations, rather than helping you to better understand the phenomena to make up your own mind.

Because, to be honest, it doesn’t sound like your husband really understands it. And, to be even more honest, there’s no true consensus out there as to what speaking in tongues is or should be.

What Is Speaking In Tongues, According To The Bible?

For those who completely believe that this is a true gift of the spirit, attainable today, it’s probably a good idea to turn to 1 Corinthians 12 – 14. The three chapters talk at length about the spiritual gifts, which, of course, includes speaking in tongues.

(The official term for speaking in tongues is “glossolalia”, from the Greek λῶσσα (glossa) “tongue” and λαλέω (laleō) “talk”. Not terribly important, but it doesn’t hurt to know what it was called as it was used in the oldest Bibles available to us, as in Acts 2:4 or Acts 10:46, where the original Greek word used to describe the tongues spoken when being filled with the Holy Spirit is γλώσσαις (glōssais).)

As for 1 Corinthians 12, 13 and 14, it might help to read the whole chapters to hear what the Apostle Paul thinks about speaking in tongues, so if you’d like to click on each number, I’ve provided links to a variety of translations.

In chapter 12 Paul is speaking about the spiritual gifts and writes that “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.,” and then goes on to describe different people getting different gifts.

A manifestation of being baptized in the Spirit is a part of the Spirit, not it in its entirety. It isn’t getting all the spiritual gifts at once. Everyone is given different parts of the gift, which they should then “συμφέρον (sympheron)” or bear together. 

Paul goes farther than this, though, to say that each person is like a different part of the body of the whole, with each person being important to the functioning of the body. The weak parts, the parts we think are dishonorable, the parts we find embarrassing — they’re all equally as important, strong and honorable. The emphasis here isn’t on who gets the glory of the gifts but on how they’re used to make life better for mankind. 

(While Paul is talking specifically about the church, the idea really applies to everyone. We all have our unique gifts, so rather than squander them to make ourselves feel better, why not use them to help everyone regardless of their beliefs? Love is more important than any miraculous gift, as written in 1 Corinthians 13: “1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.)

So, according to Paul, some get a word of wisdom, some get a word of knowledge. Others speak in tongues, while others still are given the understanding how to interpret those tongues. I’ll stop there because that last part seems to be forgotten quite a bit. Your husband speaks in tongues, but let me ask you: How is that helping his fellow man? What is he saying?

Why Would You Want To Speak In Tongues?

While Paul does say in chapter 14 that you should seek after the spiritual gifts, he puts greater importance on the gift of prophecy, as that can better help people. (Of course, that, in itself, is problematic, as we got into with the previous question about psychics and prophets.)

Speaking in tongues is great and all, but all you’re really doing is showing off how great you are, rather than how great the church is — especially if no one understands just what it is you’re saying. From 1 Corinthians 14:

Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.

9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.

If everyone started speaking in tongues in the church, no one would ever understand anything, unbelievers would think you crazy and neither you, nor anyone else would understand what God wanted. So no, every believer doesn’t need to speak in tongues, nor is it really all that desirable. It would just be mass confusion.

Of course, with all of that said, Paul goes on to conclude the chapter with this:

33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace–as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.

35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

That kind of ties back into my concerns at the beginning of this answer. But the point is, after getting into all the theology in Corinthians above, remember to take everything with a grain of salt and a dose of understanding of the times in which this was all written.

Those last two lines have been abandoned in modern times as archaic and sexist (at least in most churches), but why? Why abandon that but take the rest to heart? Because social norms have changed? Sure, it’s as good a reason as any.

Because whether you realize it or not, that’s pretty much the way glossolalia has been approached over time too — it’s gone through quite a bit of change.

Everyone Has A Different Interpretation

Everything that I had to say above sounds great, right? Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Some people believe that’s how it should be interpreted, rather than that everyone filled by the Spirit should be able to speak unintelligible tongues.

As Robertson himself says, he “disagrees theologically with those who say the prime evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues.” And, as I mentioned with the last question about worship, there are a lot of different beliefs out there and a lot of variation in theological interpretation.

It changes over time more than you might think. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there’s only one eternal and “right” way to approach things.

Among Christians, speaking in tongues is fairly unique to Pentecostals, which, as a religion only began about a century ago. Before Agnes Ozman began speaking in tongues, it wasn’t of high importance much of anywhere within Christianity, and was never really one of the backbones of faith. There were, of course, exceptions.

In the 2nd century, for instance, Montanus claimed that he and his followers had the gift of prophecy and glossolalia, but he soon became a threat to the church, so he was officially excommunicated and Montanism and glossolalia fell out of fashion. In early Mormonism in the 19th century, glossolalia was one of the more important spiritual gifts, only to be de-emphasized over time.

In modern times, there are those who may believe that glossolalia once occurred, but no longer does. A great many Christians would likely fall under this category as “cessationists,” who believe that events in the Bible occurred as written, but there’s no historical proof that these spiritual gifts continued after that age of the apostles in the New Testament, whether it’s speaking in tongues, healing, or prophecy.

What If It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means?

Then there are those who believe that speaking in tongues has been misinterpreted in the Bible as simply referring to speaking and interpreting other languages and modern glossolalia is people teaching themselves (perhaps without even realizing it) how to speak in their own made-up language. If you carefully read the passages in the Bible about speaking in tongues, they never actually say anything about them being a non-existent or heavenly language of any kind.

In this last case, then, the miracle of the Day of Pentecost was actually people hearing the Apostles preaching in their own language. The Apostles spoke the tongues of everyone person in attendance.

And as some thought they were drunk, it seems like they may have spoken each language in turn, so that to those who didn’t speak the language currently being voiced, their words sounded like drunken gibberish. If it was a case of the same word being miraculously and simultaneously heard by everyone as their own native language, no one would have thought they were speaking gibberish or accused them of being drunk.

And that same word we discussed above,  γλώσσαις (glōssais), that was used in Acts 2:4 and 2:11 to describe the Pentecost miracle is used in all Biblical references to speaking in tongues. If applied to Corinthians above, it completely changes everything we talked about.

Instead, Paul would be saying that miraculously speaking another man-made language was great, but not if everyone was doing it and speaking a different language and not if people coming in off the street couldn’t understand what you were saying. That would just be… confusion.

An Anthropological View

If you venture even further afield, you’ll find that speaking in tongues isn’t confined to Christianity. Shamans of various peoples all over the world speak in a “spirit” tongue to talk with the spirits or simply speaking an unknown language during a special ritual. Are these people doing something learned, or is it a genuinely supernatural power as they communing with their spirits? Or are they somehow being filled with the Spirit of God, unbeknownst to them?

Linguists have found that the syllables and speech patterns spoken in modern times when speaking in tongues vary with group to group, but have similar sounds within whatever base language the person speaking it belongs to.

People speaking in tongues within the same church, for instance, may sound similar, but they’ll sound different from their Pentecostal brethren down in Mexico. And the same applies to non-Christians, like those speaking in tongues in rituals in Borneo.

After her cross-cultural observational study, anthropologist Felictitas Goodman believed speaking in tongues to be a dissociative state. Brain scans have found a decrease in blood flow in certain areas of the brain, indicating that those who speak in tongues do, indeed, enter a trance-like dissociative state.

Think of it as akin to when your body goes on autopilot, like when you’re driving home from work, thinking of other things and not paying attention until you realize that you’re pulling into your driveway. This state also leads to a quantifiable decrease in stress, so it make sense that Robertson refers to speaking in tongues as “refreshing.”

And all of that is just touching on a few of the varying beliefs. There’s plenty more out there to learn. Of course, if you knew all this already — great! Now the question is: Why do you want so desperately to speak in tongues? To prove yourself? To demonstrate how holy you are? To feel more connected to God? Because you’ve been told that you need to do it?

Everyone has her own gifts. It’s not what you have that matters, but how you use it.


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