Praying in Tongues

There are four primary scripture passages that are cited as evidence for praying in tongues: Romans 8:26; 1 Corinthians 14:4-17; Ephesians 6:18; and Jude verse 20. Ephesians 6:18 and Jude 20 mention “praying in the Spirit.” However, tongues as a prayer language is not a likely interpretation of “praying in the Spirit.”

Romans 8:26 “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

Two key points make it highly unlikely that Romans 8:26 is referring to tongues as a prayer language. First, Romans 8:26 states that it is the Spirit who “groans,” not believers. Second, Romans 8:26 states that the “groans” of the Spirit “cannot be expressed.” The very essence of speaking in tongues is uttering words.

That leaves us with 1 Corinthians 14:4-17 and verse 14 especially: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” First Corinthians 14:14 distinctly mentions “praying in tongues.” What does this mean? First, studying the context is immensely valuable. First Corinthians chapter 14 is primarily a comparison/contrast of the gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of prophecy. Verses 2-5 make it clear that Paul views prophecy as a gift superior to tongues. At the same time, Paul exclaims the value of tongues and declares that he is glad that he speaks in tongues more than anyone (verse 18).

Foreign Language

Acts chapter 2 describes the first occurrence of the gift of tongues. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles spoke in tongues. Acts chapter 2 makes it clear that the apostles were speaking in a human language (Acts 2:6-8). The word translated “tongues” in both Acts chapter 2 and 1 Corinthians chapter 14 is glossa which means “language.” It is the word from which we get our modern English word “glossary.” Speaking in tongues was the ability to speak in a language the speaker does not know, in order to communicate the gospel to someone who does speak that language. In the multicultural area of Corinth, it seems that the gift of tongues was especially valuable and prominent. The Corinthians believers were able to better communicate the gospel and God’s Word as a result of the gift of tongues. However, Paul made it abundantly clear that even in this usage of tongues, it was to be interpreted or “translated” (1 Corinthians 14:13, 27). A Corinthian believer would speak in tongues, proclaiming God’s truth to someone who spoke that language, and then that believer, or another believer in the church, was to interpret what was spoken so that the entire assembly could understand what was said.

What, then, is praying in tongues, and how is it different than the gift of speaking in tongues? First Corinthians 14:13-17 indicates that praying in tongues is also to be interpreted. As a result, it seems that praying in tongues was offering a prayer to God.

This prayer would minister to someone who spoke that spiritual language, but would also need to be interpreted so that the entire body could be edified.

This interpretation does not agree with those who view praying in tongues as a personal prayer language. This alternate understanding can be summarized as follows: praying in tongues is a personal prayer language between a believer and God (1 Corinthians 13:1) that a believer uses to edify himself (1 Corinthians 14:4). If this belief is to be held the following questions need to be considered:

1) How could praying in tongues be a private prayer language if it is to be interpreted (1 Corinthians 14:13-17)?

2) How could praying in tongues be for self-edification when scripture says that the spiritual gifts are for the edification of the church, not the self (1 Corinthians 12:7)

3) How can praying in tongues be a private prayer language if the gift of tongues is a “sign to unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22)?

4) The Bible makes it clear that not everyone possesses the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:11, 28-30). How could tongues be a gift for self-edification if not every believer can possess it? Do we not all need to be edified

5) It is often seen as the sign of the infilling of the Holy Spirit and Salvation. If not everyone receives the gift of tongues then wouldn’t many feel like they haven’t been saved and don’t have the Holy Spirit?

What do we say, then, about the many Christians who have experienced praying in tongues and find it to be very personally edifying? We must view our experiences in light of Scripture, not interpret Scripture in light of our experiences. With this in mind can we understand some of the scriptures references as examples of ecstatic utterances?

Ecstatic utterances

The following Scriptures suggest that some of the tongue-speaking at Corinth was in the form of unintelligible ecstatic utterances, and not foreign languages. For example:

1 Cor. 14:2 – Paul says “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.” Describing these utterances as “mysteries” may indicate that such speech was unintelligible. This type of tongue was also spoken to God, and not to men, which means that the tongue did not have to be in any particular language (God would understand the utterances in the Spirit). This may be similar to the divine “tongues of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1).

1 Cor. 14:4 – Paul says “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” If the person is speaking a foreign language he cannot understand, then he would not be edifying himself, unless the language would be interpreted for him. But this may be why Paul required someone to interpret the tongues at Corinth (see 1 Cor. 14:13,27-28). This, however, does not absolutely mean the tongues were foreign languages. The gift of interpretation could have been for interpreting unintelligible divine utterances as well.

1 Cor. 14:23 – Paul says that unbelievers who hear the Corinthians speaking in tongues will conclude that they “are mad.” This suggests that the Corinthians were speaking in unintelligible utterances, although outsiders would also be tempted to call those “mad” who were speaking foreign languages they did not know (perhaps implying that they were possessed by demons).

Strict Parameters

If we actually do see two types of tongues in the scriptures, foreign languages and ecstatic utterances, Paul still strongly prescribed strict parameters for those who would receive the gift of tongues:

The person who speaks in tongues should pray for the power to interpret his own tongue (1 Cor. 14:13), or have someone who has the gift of interpretation present to interpret the tongue (1 Cor. 14:27). If the tongue cannot be interpreted, the person is to remain silent (1 Cor. 14:28). Therefore, tongues should not be unintelligible utterances, but should be understood (1 Cor. 14:6-12).

In a congregation, only two or three people at most should speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14:27), and each must speak in turn. This is the case even though there may be hundreds or even thousands of people in a church. The many Protestant churches that call upon many people, even hundreds during a service, to speak in tongues contravenes Paul’s divine mandate, and raises doubts about its authenticity.

The tongue-speaking must be done for the edification of the Church (1 Cor. 14:5,26). Paul says that a person who speaks in tongues edifies himself (1 Cor. 14:4) which is good, but Paul also says tongues must edify the Church. This is why Paul requires one to interpret the tongue, and why Paul says only two or three at the most should speak in tongues during an assembly. A mass proliferation of tongue-speaking in an assembly would lead to confusion. This would not be of divine origin because Paul says, in connection with tongue-speaking, that God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33).

Sign of Unbelief?

Paul teaches that a proliferation of tongue-speaking in a church may actually be a sign of unbelief and God’s ensuing judgment upon them. When Paul teaches the Corinthians about the proper use of tongues (1 Cor. 14:21), he quotes from Isaiah 28:11-12: “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.” Paul’s use of Isaiah is significant because he is referring to the apostate Jews of the 8th century, B.C. right before they were destroyed by the Assyrians. To punish the Jews, God first allowed the Assyrians to speak in foreign tongues to them to confuse them before they were ultimately destroyed. God’s judgment being revealed in the form of foreign tongues was first prophesied to Israel in the 15th century, B.C. (see Deut. 28:49-50). Remember also how God sent unintelligible tongues to punish His people for their lack of faith at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11).

Therefore, Paul is warning the Corinthians that their abuse of tongue-speaking is a sign of God’s judgment against them. These abuses included many people speaking in tongues, out of turn, without an interpreter, and for pride and not the edification of the church. This is why Paul says that “tongues are a sign…for unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14:22). This is the same “sign” that God gave the unbelieving Jews before they were punished.

This is also why Paul says that unbelievers look at the whole Corinthian church speaking in tongues and conclude that they “are mad” (1 Cor. 14:23). Paul is telling the Corinthians that their abuse of tongues makes them look insane, and this is a sign of their unbelief (that is why tongues are a “sign for unbelievers”; the “unbelievers” were the Corinthians themselves).

Love and Respect

Praying in tongues is most definitely an issue on which Christians can respectfully and lovingly agree to disagree. Praying in tongues is not what determines salvation. Praying in tongues is not what separates a mature Christian from an immature Christian. Whether or not there is such a thing as praying in tongues as a personal prayer language is not a fundamental of our Catholic faith. So, while the idea of a private prayer language for personal edification may or may not be supported by scripture, we recognize that many who practice such are our brothers and sisters in Christ and are worthy of our love and respect.

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About Rob Brock

A Catholic convert with a fire for discipleship, catechesis, and formation that leads to transformed lives in Christ. View all posts by Rob Brock

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