Q: What is “speaking in tongues”?

No matter what language Christians are speaking, this is a lively debate! Whole denominations hold to varying theological views on the question of what Paul means in the Bible about the spiritual gift of “tongues.”

There are two fundamental and varying schools of thought. Some believe that this gift of tongues is the ability to miraculously speak a new language you didn’t speak before, sometimes referred to as xenoglossy. There have been documented cases of this throughout the history of the church, and in Acts 2 vast crowds were amazed that each person – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, visitors from Rome , Cretans and Arabs – could suddenly hear the preaching of the apostles in their native language. One Bible scholar observed: “This is more like the gift of ‘ears’ than the gift of tongues!”

The second interpretation is that tongues are a mystical means of praising God in an unknown, heavenly language provided by the Spirit. This is sometimes referred to as an “ecstatic utterance,” and is largely practiced in charismatic churches. One troubling reality today is that some groups feel all believers should receive this gift, and that it is the one distinctive proof that a person has received the presence of the Holy Spirit. Readers of the wonderful old book, The Cross and the Switchblade, will recall that the gang ministry, Teen Challenge, was founded upon the idea that freedom from heroin addiction largely came through the baptism of the Spirit and subsequent speaking in tongues.

In the pertinent Bible passage, I Corinthians 12-14, Paul describes “tongues” as one of the spiritual gifts, and declares that he himself has this gift (14:8). In the context of chapter 14, it does appear that he is referring, at least in some degree, to the phenomenon of a Christian speaking in an unknown tongue or glossolalia right during a church service. No one present can understand it, not even the person himself: he utters mysteries with his spirit (v. 2). That should only happen, Paul counsels, if someone else in the church has the divine gift (12:10) of interpreting for the common good of the congregation.

He goes on to describe this gift of tongues – whichever way it is manifested – as one of the lesser gifts, and not one that every Christian is going to receive. Gifts like tongues and prophecies are only given by God under circumstances where the entire church body can be strengthened and built up.

The reality is that this question of tongues has been thoroughly debated within the Body of Christ, and continues to be an unresolved question. It’s left, then, to all believers to respect the convictions of others while continuing to study and seek God’s guidance for a deeper understanding.