Dr. Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology defines speaking in tongues as, “prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker.” Paul seems to make it clear in I Corinthians 14 that both public declaration and private devotion can be times of speaking in tongues. But is this gift of speaking in various languages for here and now? Should we curtail this gift to biblical times only, or, if used today, to certain church denominations where spiritual gifts are more emphasized?

Speaking In Tongues In The 21st Century

On the subject of speaking in tongues, it’s important to distinguish between public declaration and private devotion whether today or reflecting on the past.

The Scriptures indicate at several points that in private devotion, we may indeed use language that is more intimate or we may choose to be silent and let the Holy Spirit speak for us. Paul says in Ephesians 6:18 that we should, “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Jude tells us to build each other up, “praying in the Holy Spirit.” (Jude 1:20). Romans 8:26 gets a little closer to the Spirit’s activity in prayer. Paul says that, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”

While these references are helpful as to our posture in prayer, outside of the event of Pentecost itself, the passage that is really most helpful and most debated is I Corinthians 14.  It’s here that we see a frustrated Paul (perhaps) trying to place how speaking in tongues can be used and how it might also be abused.

The first question to ask is one of practice. Alistair Begg, pastor of Cleveland, Ohio’s Parkside Church, says that since we have a closed canon of Scripture, we must be careful that the public demonstration of speaking in tongues doesn’t allure us away from Scripture to new revelation. And, if it speaks to the same truths of Scripture, why then is it necessary? “I remain unconvinced,” he says. John Piper, longtime pastor of Bethlehem Baptist in St. Paul, Minnesota, seems to give the idea of tongues more space, but the challenge remains of what kind of edification is being presented and is there new knowledge outside Scripture being uttered. Remember that Paul says that he’d rather speak, “five intelligible words… than ten thousand words in a tongue” (I Cor. 14:19). Gerald Bray in God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology says that some manifestations can be psychologically triggered, but, he suggests, that it’s unlikely the reason for every occurrence. “If that were the case,” he says, “the charismatic movement would probably have faded away by now.”

Apart from the challenge of realizing the edifying benefit in public practice, another difficulty is a theological one. Perhaps you’ve heard questions like, “Have you been filled with the Holy Spirit?”, “Have you received the second blessing?”, or “Do you want to receive a baptism of the Holy Spirit?” These questions can be heard among Assemblies of God and other charismatic congregations. The filling of the Spirit and the second blessing it brings is gained through speaking in tongues, a sharp contrast with a Baptist stance, for instance, of believer’s baptism being the point of being filled. There’s more to unpack, but it’s sufficient to say that how you frame your theology may either inspire the necessity of tongues or dismiss the use of them altogether.

The wide disparity among congregations makes speaking in tongues a delicate subject. Does it surprise you that 41% of Southern Baptist pastors think, “that the gift of tongues passed away with the death of the apostles”, and, in contrast, the trend of speaking in tongues seems to be increasing among many congregants according to a recent article in The Atlantic?

Here’s what we can say. If speaking in tongues is a sign, among many other signs like calloused knees, that our prayer life is active and without ceasing, then speaking in tongues is certainly for today. If it’s something that is for exhibition, perhaps it’s better to think more about Matthew 6:6 – “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

About The Author

Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages workoutyourfaith.com and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects, including films and educational resources.

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