Speaking in Tongues: What Does the Bible Say?

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The One Degree Podcast



Digital library of theological trainings with guided notes

Exegetical Bible reading plans and studies with daily videos going deeper

Monthly Theology Couch Chat discussing a theological hot topic


In this episode, we’re talking about a pretty hot topic: speaking in tongues.

What exactly are tongues? What are spiritual gifts? Are tongues required for all believers? If not, what is their purpose?

It’s a fun topic that’s been highly requested, so let’s jump in!

Before We Dive In

Before we begin: we have close friends who probably differ from our perspective on this topic. If you are one of those close friends and are reading this (you know who you are), just know this wasn’t directed “at you” or anything. This is genuinely one of the most common questions we get and we’d love to talk more in person. 

Another caveat: this is clearly a spiritual gift. Some people think it has ceased, some people think it’s required for believers and the mark of a true believer. The Bible does not offer a ton of clarity, but we will do our best to humbly analyze and speak from the Scripture. 

Spiritual Gifts

Before we talk specifically about speaking in tongues, let’s talk about what spiritual gifts are.

Spiritual gifts are gifts imparted to believers by the Holy Spirit. 

In order to properly address speaking in tongues, we need to talk about why we have spiritual gifts. What is their purpose? Spiritual gifts are given for the common good of believers- aka. for building up the church (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). They are given to glorify God and serve one another (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Ultimately spiritual gifts are to glorify God, to build each other up, and to benefit the church. 

Additionally, different people are given different gifts (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). This is important to remember, especially for the conversation around speaking in tongues.

The spiritual gifts are not meant to be used to build up yourself but must be done in love. 1 Corinthians 13 does a great job of telling us that we could have all of these spiritual gifts, but if we don’t have love, it means nothing.  

Various passages in Scripture give us this list of spiritual gifts:

  • tongues
  • interpretation of tongues
  • prophecy
  • teaching
  • serving
  • giving
  • leadership
  • mercy
  • wisdom
  • faith
  • healing
  • the ability to do miracles
  • gift of help

Got Questions has a good breakdown of these if you want to look into them.

One of the most controversial is the gift of tongues.

Manifestations of Speaking in Tongues

Manifestation #1: Interpersonal Language

Speaking in a human or angelic language that the speaker does not understand for the sake of spreading the gospel, teaching about God, etc… essentially, the building up of others. We argue this is the primary manifestation of tongues.

This is what we see at Pentecost in Acts 2

The Greek word translated as “tongues” is glossai (“glow-sai”), which is directly translated to “languages” in English. 

Basically, this is being able to speak in a language that the speaker has never learned in order to minister to or share the gospel with someone who speaks that language.

This can be very valuable to the person who hears the Gospel in their native language but is useless to everyone else if it’s not interpreted. 

This leads to an important clarification: if someone is speaking in tongues in the church, there must be an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:27-28). Otherwise, people are called not to speak.

Another important note: spiritual gifts are able to be controlled. If you have ever interacted with someone who says they were just unable to control themselves because they were so full of the Holy Spirit… that’s not biblical. One of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is self-control. Here in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul instructs believers to control themselves and not speak in tongues if there is not an interpreter.

This does not mean there can’t be excitement, exuberance, energy, etc. But at the end of the day, there is still control over bodily functions.

Manifestation #2: Private Utterance

This manifestation of tongues is some sort of utterance between you and God that you don’t understand but is still either a human or angelic language. Your mind doesn’t understand what you are saying. We would argue that this is rare, not normative, and is not necessary to be a believer, but nonetheless exists. It is a gift that the Lord has given, so it still glorifies God.

In 1 Corinthians 14:18-19, Paul says he speaks in tongues more than all of them. But when in church, he would rather speak words of instruction rather than words of tongues without interpretation. This implies that he speaks in tongues outside of church. We don’t know what that looked like and honestly, Scripture doesn’t give us much information. 

Regardless, praying in tongues does not make you more spiritual. In fact, Paul says that you should desire to interpret your tongues because if not your spirit prays, but your mind is unfruitful (1 Corinthians 14: 13-15).

Important Truths About Tongues

Now that we have that foundation down, let’s lay down some other important truths about tongues. We’re going to address our more charismatic crowd first, and then the less charismatic people.

The Corinthian church overemphasized the gift of tongues

This is why Paul was writing to them about this. Paul wrote to them to highlight that different people are given different gifts, and that other gifts were in fact more desirable than being able to speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12, specifically verse 28).

He also emphasizes throughout 1 Corinthians 14 that they should focus on building up the church (verse 12), especially when it comes to tongues. And again, if there was no interpreter they were to control themselves and not speak.

Praying in the Holy Spirit or with the Power of the Holy Spirit does not mean praying in tongues.

Some people will quote Jude verse 20 (praying in the Holy Spirit) and Romans 8:26 (when we don’t know what to say the Spirit intercedes for us with wordless groans) as speaking in tongues. But that’s not what these verses are referring to.

These passages refer to either the Spirit giving us the words to say (similar to Luke 12:11-12 or Stephen’s speech in Acts 7) or the Spirit interceding on our behalf even when we do not know what to say.

John Piper specifically advocates that the Romans 8 passage refers to the Spirit advocating for us when weaknesses, struggles, trials, and persecution leave us not knowing what to say. The groanings aren’t tongues. They are “the Spirit powerfully in our hearts to create groanings – his groanings experienced as our groanings – which are based on two things: 1) a deep desire and ache of heart that Christ be magnified in our lives, and 2) a weakness that leaves us baffled and unknowing as to how this is going to happen or should happen. So we are not sure how we are to pray, but we are sure that we want Christ to be magnified in our bodies.” Piper is so wise when he talks bout tongues; we highly recommend watching this 7-minute video of him discussing this topic.

Teaching that speaking in tongues is necessary for all believers that have been baptized in the Spirit, or is necessary for pastors is unbiblical.

Some charismatic/pentecostal churches do teach this. These denominations fall into the same trap as the church at Corinth.

Paul clearly says in 1 Corinthians 12 that everyone is given different gifts (we are not all given the same gift) and that tongues are actually lower on the totem pole of gifts we should desire! 

1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 lays out the qualifications for elders/pastors, and tongues aren’t included on that list. The qualifications listed are all character based, except for the gift of teaching. Based on scripture, pastors must have outstanding character and the ability to teach. Not the gift of tongues.

We cannot elevate any gift, including tongues, to be more than scripture says it is. Not all people possess this gift. The ones who don’t are not missing out, they should be encouraged to pray for and develop the gifts that the Spirit has given them, not try to force or fake the gift of tongues. 

John Piper talks about how he has prayed for and asked for the gift of tongues but never received it. However, he recognizes others have been given that gift.

Tongues exist, but they are not normative or to be expected of the majority of believers.  

Now to the Other Side

We must be careful about limiting God and His gifts.

Too often we dismiss God and His miraculous providence because we haven’t seen it for ourselves (we find ourselves very similar to Thomas in that regard!). Yes, God operates in different ways throughout time, but that does not mean He is not still imparting gifts to believers. You cannot base your beliefs only on experience. Experience does not override Scripture.

Have you asked for the gift of tongues (and even other gifts)?

Have you asked more than once?

James 4 talks about not having because we do not ask, and not receiving because we ask with wrong motives. Just because you ask for something does not mean it will be given to you. (See Paul with his thorn in the flesh, see John Piper with tongues…). But that shouldn’t stop us from asking and being persistent!

Do not allow your skepticism to prevent you from seeking the face of God, and humbly asking Him for His Spirit and His gifts. You will never know unless you ask.

The Bible is full of supernatural activity, and sometimes we can be afraid of that. So, we allow the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction. We often see people fake or wrongly attempt to manifest the gifts, so we then deny them. 

One Degree Shift

For those with a Pentecostal bent:

  • Ask yourself if you truly speak in tongues or have gotten caught up in emotion. If you do have the gift of speaking in tongues, ask yourself how you can use that gift to glorify God and build up the church and other believers. Pray and ask God that you would be able to interpret your own tongues.

If you are on the opposite side of the fence:

  • Humbly, and with a genuine heart, ask God if He would give you the gift of tongues (or other gifts). Do this with a humble heart, seeking to glorify Him and not yourself. Do not ask Him just once, but regularly return to Him with your request. 

Both sides:

  • Continue to search the scriptures, read the scriptures in context, and aim to develop a truly biblical view of the gift of tongues (and other gifts.) Hold your view with an open hand. 
  • Remember that this is a secondary issue and does not affect our standing as brothers and sisters in Christ!

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