Speaking in tongues today – is it Biblical ?

Grant Swart

This is a subject which has once again risen to the forefront of discussions between Christians and professing Christians today, particularly since the modern Charismatic Pentecostal movement has gained much international popularity. Speaking in tongues has become a powerful tool used by some televangelists and so-called preachers in mega-churches, those for whom I find the tag “rock star evangelists” particularly descriptive, to deceive those congregants who lack discernment.

I recently heard one of the charismatic preachers at the forefront of the movement in our country, accuse those in his congregation who do not speak in tongues, of being simply and willfully ignorant. Subsequently, he has instituted classes where those, who have not been able to overcome their ignorance of the spiritual gift of tongues, to learn the skill. This, of course, is an addition to the already existing and well attended schools of prophecy and healing at his church, where for a tidy sum, one can learn to channel the Holy Spirit and do the work expected by God of every devoted Christian. I suppose none of this is new or unexpected. I mention it simply to sketch part of the reason for placing this article.

It is important for the Christian to determine the truth regarding this matter, particularly those who do not necessarily consult Scripture to test what is being fed to them from the Charismatic pulpit. Often, for those who are being deceived by the over-dressed, eloquent and financially successful businessmen who moonlight as Charismatic preachers, it is unthinkable that what is being taught as Biblical truth by their heroes, can be perceived as a lie or not from God.

Of course, to suggest to these deceived beloved that the tongues which they have encountered could be of the devil, is sometimes the cause of irreparable damage to friendships and could slam the door on any further evangelization, particularly where the Gospel needs to be given first priority. The issue of tongues, which has been made to seem essential doctrine by the Charismatic leaders, is often in need of being approached with much sensitivity, before one can adopt a firmer stance, such as indicating to demonic possibilities.

This calls attention to the fact that some Christians may talk in tongues, but so do some Mormons, some demon-possessed spiritists, some witch doctors in Africa and Asia and also some members of heathen religions. Therefore, speaking in tongues is not of itself necessarily of God. We have to be careful and prayerful on this.

Dr Merrill Unger wrote:

That tongues can be and are counterfeited by demon spirits is evidenced by the fact that spiritistic mediums, Muslim dervishes, and Indian fakirs speak in tongues. It must be remembered by those who try to make tongues a badge of spirituality or a status symbol of saints who have attained the height of spiritual experience, that speaking in tongues and their interpretation are not peculiar to the Christian church but are common in ancient pagan religions and in spiritism both ancient and modern.
The very phrase “to speak with tongues” (Greek glosais lalein, Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19-6; 1st Cor. 12-14; cf. Mark 16:17) was not invented by New Testament writers, but borrowed from the ordinary speech of pagans. Plato’s attitude toward the enthusiastic ecstasies of the ancient soothsayer (mantis, diviner,) recalls the Apostle Paul’s attitude toward glossolalia among the Corinthian believers.
Virgil graphically describes the ancient pagan prophetess “speaking with tongues.” He depicts her disheveled hair, her panting breast, her change of color, and her apparent increase in stature at the god (demon) came upon her and filled her with this supernatural afflatus. Then her voice loses its mortal ring as the god (demon) speaks through her, as in ancient and modern necromancy (spiritism).
Phenomena of this type are common among savages and pagan peoples of lower culture. Ecstatic utterances interpreted by a person in a sane state of mind have been verified, In the Sandwich Islands, for example, the god Oro gave his oracles through a priest who “ceased to act or speak as a voluntary agent, but with his limbs convulsed, his features distorted and terrific, his eyes wild and strained, would roll on the ground foaming at the moth, and reveal the will of the god in shrill cries and sounds violent and indistinct, which the attending priests duly interpreted to the people.”

So, intelligent and concerned people will want to find out what is of God and what is of evil spirits. The matter is important, so I refer to the professor in Grace Theological Seminary, Dr. Charles R. Smith, to further our understanding on the various occurances of speaking in tongues as understood by proponents thereof in the Charismatic movement.

Regarding NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS:

Tongues occupied a significant place in ancient Greek religion. The seeress at Delphi, not far fromCorinth, spoke in tongues. According to Plutarch (A.D. 44-117), interpreters were kept in attendance to explain her incoherent utterances. Many scholars have stated that tongues were experienced in the mystery religions (Osirius, Mithra, Eleusinian, Dionsyian, and Orphic cults). Some have concluded that the unintelligible lists of “words” in the “magical papyri” and in certain Gnostic “prayers” are records of ecstatic utterances. About A.D. 180 Celsus reported ecstatic utterances among the Gnostics. Lucian of Samosata (A.D. 120-198) described tongues speaking as it was practiced by the devotees of the Syrian goddess, Juno.

 Today shamans (witch doctors, priests, or medicine men) in Haiti, Greenland, Micronesia, and countries of Africa, Australia, Asia, and North and South America speak in tongues. Several groups use drugs to aid in inducing the ecstatic state and utterances. Voodoo practitioners speak in tongues. Buddhist and Shinto priest have been heard speaking in tongues. Moslems have spoken in tongues, and an ancient tradition even reports that Mohammed himself spoke in tongues. According to his own account, after his ecstatic experiences  he found it difficult to return to “logical and intelligible speech” (Kelsey, p. 143).

Regarding MENTAL ILLNESS:

The fact hat nonreligious tongues speaking often occurs in association with certain mental illnesses is well documented. Psychiatrists have reported it in association with schizophrenia, neurosis, and psychosis. Probably all psychiatrists and psychologists are aware of the possibility of psychic damage resulting from tongues speaking (Kelsey, p.227). It was reported that following the extended tongues meeting held by Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, mental institutions in the area of her meeting were overburdened. The Episcopalian church financed a study commission which concluded that tongues are “not per se a religious phenomenon” and may appear among those “who are suffering from mental disorders as schizophrenia and hysteria” (Jennings, p.11)

 Regarding SPIRITISM:

Tongues speaking occurs among anti-Christian spiritistic mediums. Contrary to popular belief among tongues speakers, a few years ago the European Pentecostal Conference admitted that “tongues might occur apart from the Spirit’s action” (Brown, p.151)

 Regarding THE DEMON POSSESSED:

 Even Pentecostal authors grant that there are cases where demonic influence is apparently responsible for tongues utterances. Some feel that this is why “the gift of discernment of spirits” is necessary.

In addition Dr. Smith says:

In extra biblical literature this word was used to describe the “inspired” utterances of diviners. Moulton and Milligan cite three occurrences of the word in Vettius Valens where it designates irrational or unintelligible speech. It is stated that the speakers’ minds had “fallen away,” they were overcome with “madness,” and they spoke in “ecstasy” (p. 72). Apoptheggomai was almost a technical term for describing the speech of the oracle-givers, diviners, prophets, exorcists, ecstatics, and other “inspired” persons (Kittel, I, 447; Arndt and Gingrich, p. 101). The basic idea is “an unusual utterance by virtue of inspiration.” Though the word obviously cannot be limited to unintelligible speech, it is certainly appropriate for such. Its usage in Greek literature, in fact, definitely suggests a connection with ecstatic, often unintelligible, utterances.

  intelligent and concerned people will want to find out what is of God and what is of evil spirits.  The matter is so important, call to the witness stand again the assistant professor in Grace Theological Seminary, r. Charles R. Smith. He says on ages 20-22 of his book, Tongues in Biblical Perspective

Further adaptation and summary from the writing and teaching of Dr Merrill Unger:

The first occurrence of speaking in tongues occurred on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4. The apostles went out and shared the gospel with the crowds, speaking to them in their own languages: “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11). The Greek word translated tongues literally means “languages.” Therefore, the gift of tongues is speaking in a language a person does not know in order to minister to someone who does speak that language. In 1 Corinthians chapters 12–14, Paul discusses miraculous gifts, saying, “Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?” (1 Cor 14:6). According to the apostle Paul, and in agreement with the tongues described in Acts, speaking in tongues is valuable to the one hearing God’s message in his or her own language, but it is useless to everyone else unless it is interpreted/translated.

A person with the gift of interpreting tongues (1 Cor 12:30) could understand what a tongues-speaker was saying even though he did not know the language that was being spoken. The tongues interpreter would then communicate the message of the tongues speaker to everyone else, so all could understand. “For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says” (1 Cor 14:13). Paul’s conclusion regarding tongues that were not interpreted is powerful: “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19).

Is the gift of tongues for today? 1 Cor 13:8 mentions the gift of tongues ceasing, although it connects the ceasing with the arrival of the “perfect” in 1 Cor 13:10. Some point to a difference in the tense of the Greek verbs referring to prophecy and knowledge “ceasing” and that of tongues “being ceased” as evidence for tongues ceasing before the arrival of the “perfect.” While possible, this is not explicitly clear from the text. Some also point to passages such as Isaiah 28:11 and Joel 2:28-29 as evidence that speaking in tongues was a sign of God’s oncoming judgment. 1 Cor 14:22 describes tongues as a “sign to unbelievers.” According to this argument, the gift of tongues was a warning to the Jews that God was going to judge Israel for rejecting Jesus Christ as Messiah. Therefore, when God did in fact judge Israel (with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70), the gift of tongues would no longer serve its intended purpose. While this view is possible, the primary purpose of tongues being fulfilled does not necessarily demand its cessation. Scripture does not conclusively assert that the gift of speaking in tongues has ceased.

At the same time, if the gift of speaking in tongues were active in the church today, it would be performed in agreement with Scripture. It would be a real and intelligible language (1 Cor 14:10). It would be for the purpose of communicating God’s Word with a person of another language (Acts 2:6-12). It would be in agreement with the command God gave through the apostle Paul, “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God” (1 Cor 14:27-28). It would also be in accordance with 1 Cor 14:33, “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”

God most definitely can give a person the gift of speaking in tongues to enable him or her to communicate with a person who speaks another language. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in the dispersion of the spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:11). Just imagine how much more productive missionaries could be if they did not have to go to language school, and were instantly able to speak to people in their own language. However, God does not seem to be doing this. Tongues does not seem to occur today in the manner it did in the New Testament, despite the fact that it would be immensely useful. The vast majority of believers who claim to practice the gift of speaking in tongues do not do so in agreement with the Scriptures mentioned above. These facts lead to the conclusion that the gift of tongues has ceased or is at least an extreme rarity in God’s plan for the church today.

We must consider in that glossolalia (speaking in unintelligible “tongues”) is, actually, a learned behavior, learned either unawarely or, sometimes consciously. Earlier I pointed to the fact that direct instruction is given on how to “speak in tongues,” ie. how to engage in glossolalia.

In fact, it has been found that the “speaking in tongues” practiced in Christian churches and by individual Christians is often identical to the chanting language of those who practice voodoo on the darkest continents of this world.

Great numbers of those who speak in tongues are also becoming involved in “holy laughter” – laughing uncontrollably, falling down on the ground, rolling around, having seizure-like activity, being struck dumb, or being “slain in the spirit.”

Jesus NEVER behaved that way, nor did He heal that way. In fact, He came to DELIVER us from those activities. The demoniacs He delivered were out of control, writhing on the ground. When Jesus cast out the demons and delivered them, they sat quietly with dignity.

True believers must act and speak on this matter with much love and understanding. As at all times, we must seek prayerful guidance from our Father God on how to deal with each individual who is being deceived by the error of glossolalia (gibberish tongues) by false preachers today. It is no less than our our duty to lead those in error into the light of the Truth which will free them from the bondage being placed on them by false and unbiblical expectations.

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2 thoughts on “Speaking in tongues today – is it Biblical ?

  1. This article is easy to agree with if One has never experienced the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. The gift of Tongues is different than the “prayer language”. The author doesn’t seem to know the difference. I agree that there is some “strange fire” out there, but that doesn’t mean that the whole thing is wrong.

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    • Baptism “in” the Holy Spirit is a term which was coined by the Charismatic movement. The correct Christian terminology is gained from Scripture, which makes it exceedingly clear that spiritual regeneration, when one comes to Christ, is baptism with the Holy Spirit in the name of the Lord Jesus and into the Lord Jesus Christ. You can test this in Scripture, rather than in the teachings of men: Mark 1:8, Mark 10:38, Mark 10:39, Luke 12:50, Acts 1:5, Acts 11:16, Romans 6:3, Galatians 3:27, and so on… therefore the author does seem to know what the difference is.

      If one is baptized “in” the Holy Spirit, it probably indicates something other than baptism with the Holy Spirit, which is why one may be confused by this issue. It is impossible that God does not understand plain English, or any other earthly language which we speak and in which we can pray. Jesus and the disciples prayed to God in their own language. Where in Scripture do you find a different “prayer language” described?

      “Strange fire” is another term used by Charismatics to more tenderly describe the harsh and deadly reality of the existence of demonic participation in the life of those who may be influenced by such spirits, and the abomination of following such error before a Holy God. They seem to have borrowed the term “strange fire” from the teaching in Leviticus 8 – 9. There is no “strange fire” in the linguistic abilities of the saved Christian. The “strange fire” was profane, foreign and unauthorized and it was so offensive to God that He consumed those who displayed it, with destroying fire!

      In order to be obedient to God, we need to follow the prescription of His Word and not those of men and their affected adaptations of the Truth. John 8:31-32 tells us: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

      Jesus Christ said that the true test of discipleship is whether or not you obey Him. You might insist that you love Him. You might be wonderfully touched by worship services and what you perceive to be from God, which you incorrectly discern. Satan has the most elusive and subtle means of portraying himself and his demons as angels of light, do not lose sight of that. You might even fulfill many duties in your church, you might know a lot about the Bible, you might be a helpful person by nature.

      But finally the conclusive question that you must ask is: “Am I obedient to the voice of Jesus?” Perhaps the question carries more weight if you put it like this” “Am I willing to obey Jesus if it will cost something of myself and disregard the error of others?” To obey Christ you need to challenge the evil of the world and test everything, all things, all the time, in the Scripture. Tongue speaking as displayed today, strange fire and prayer language fails that test dismally.

      That does not mean that love for one another also fails, and such love for one another includes pointing out false belief, false spirits, erroneous doctrine and practices that cannot impress God, but only mildly entertain some wandering sheep.

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