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What does God say about tongues?

Speaking in tongues is a controversial spiritual gift in Christianity. Those who believe in modern day tongues say it is evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Others argue that tongues was only for the early church. What does the Bible actually teach about tongues? Let’s explore some key questions.

What are the tongues mentioned in the Bible?

There are two main types of tongues mentioned in the Bible:

  1. Speaking in foreign human languages – This happened on the day of Pentecost when the apostles spoke in the native languages of people from all over the Roman Empire (Acts 2:1-13). The crowd was amazed because Galileans would not have known so many foreign languages naturally.
  2. Speaking in a heavenly or angelic language – This seems to be the most common biblical understanding of tongues. It is a Holy Spirit-given ability to pray or praise God in an unknown language (1 Cor 14:2). The speaker does not understand what they are saying, but God does (1 Cor 14:2).

Why did speaking in tongues happen at Pentecost?

On the day of Pentecost, tongues signified a reversal of the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). At Babel, God confused the languages to scatter humanity. At Pentecost, He brought unity through enabling people to understand one another. Tongues also fulfilled Jesus’ promise to baptize His followers with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). It demonstrated that God’s power was now accessible to all believers, not just the apostles (Acts 2:17-18).

What does Paul say about speaking in tongues?

Paul addresses tongues extensively in 1 Corinthians 14. He does not reject tongues altogether but regulates their use in public worship. His main points are:

  • Tongues are a genuine spiritual gift, but prophesy is superior because it edifies the whole church (14:1-5)
  • Tongues must be interpreted to be useful in public worship (14:5, 13, 27-28)
  • Praying in tongues privately can strengthen the believer’s intimacy with God (14:2, 4, 14-15, 18-19)
  • Everything must be done decently and in order (14:26-33, 40)

For Paul, love must govern the use of tongues and all gifts (1 Cor 13). Without love, even tongues are just meaningless noise.

What did tongues sound like?

Descriptions of tongues in Acts and 1 Corinthians suggest they sounded like coherent human languages. The tongues at Pentecost were recognized as foreign languages (Acts 2:6-11). Paul implies that tongues function as languages – albeit languages not understood by humans – because they can be interpreted from one language to another (1 Cor 14:10-13). However, the speakers did not understand what they were saying (1 Cor 14:2), so the sounds were not just gibberish but Spirit-given utterance.

Are tongues for today?

There are three main views on whether tongues are still valid for today:

  1. Cessationist – Tongues and other miraculous gifts ceased with the closing of the New Testament canon or the end of the apostolic age. They served to validate the message of the first generation of apostles and are no longer needed.
  2. Continuationist – Tongues and other gifts continue, but their frequency, form and function may look different today than in the early church.
  3. Pentecostal/Charismatic – Like continuationists, they believe tongues are still valid. But they also emphasize tongues as physical evidence of Spirit baptism.

All three views can make biblical arguments. Cessationists say tongues were intended to be temporary sign gifts. Continuationists say tongues can still function as prayer languages. In practice, contemporary tongues are often unrelated to evangelism as they were in Acts.

Are tongues the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit?

Many Pentecostals and Charismatics believe that speaking in tongues is the initial physical evidence of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They cite accounts in Acts where believers spoke in tongues shortly after conversion or receiving the Spirit (Acts 2:4; 10:44-46; 19:6). However, these narratives are descriptive, not prescriptive. Nowhere does Jesus or the Bible command believers to speak in tongues as definitive proof of Spirit baptism.

Paul states that not all believers speak in tongues (1 Cor 12:30). The gift is distributed as the Spirit determines (1 Cor 12:11). The consistent sign of the Spirit’s abiding presence is lifelong fruit, not any particular gift (Galatians 5:22-23).

Should every Christian speak in tongues?

Paul is clear that not every Christian will or can speak in tongues (1 Cor 12:30). Tongues must be practiced in orderly, loving ways, or not at all. He seems to discourage private prayer tongues unless the tongue can be interpreted (1 Cor 14:28). Nowhere does the New Testament command or expect all believers to speak in tongues.

At the same time, Paul is positive about tongues as a private prayer language (1 Cor 14:2, 4, 14-15, 18-19, 39). He probably engaged in it himself (1 Cor 14:18). For those who have the gift, tongues can be beneficial for personal edification.

Is speaking in tongues dangerous?

Some argue that tongues open practitioners up to demonic influence. However, there is no evidence that Spirit-led use of tongues is dangerous:

  • Speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit does not allow demonic influence (Luke 11:14-15)
  • Paul sees tongues as a genuine gift of the Spirit, not a counterfeit (1 Cor 12, 14)
  • The early church practiced tongues under the apostles’ guidance
  • Millions today attest to its personal value with no negative effects

Of course, laying aside self-control or orderly worship for any spiritual gift can be unwise. But tongues themselves are not spiritually dangerous if used in faith.

How are tongues interpreted?

Paul says that tongues must be interpreted for public edification (1 Cor 14:1-5). Two gifts are at work – tongues and interpretation:

  • Tongues are Spirit-given prayer or praise directed to God, not man
  • Interpretation is when the Spirit enables someone to communicate the meaning of the tongues aloud for others to understand

Interpretation may be given to the tongues speaker or another member of the church (1 Cor 14:13-14). Proper interpretation will be consistent with Scripture.

Can tongues be learned?

Opinions differ on whether tongues can be self-taught. Can believers “learn” a private prayer language by speaking syllables they don’t understand?

Arguments against learning tongues:

  • No one in the Bible “learned” tongues – it was spontaneous Holy Spirit gifting
  • Self-taught syllables may not be true spiritual tongues
  • Jesus said the Spirit must lead believers into all truth (John 14:17; 16:13)

Arguments for learning tongues:

  • No one perfectly understands how to use any gift at first – all require learning and practice
  • Paul implies tongues can be used at will (1 Cor 14:15)
  • There are examples today of the Spirit filling “learned” tongues with power

There are good reasons for caution with self-taught tongues. However, it’s also evident God sometimes blesses sincere steps of faith.


The Bible shows that tongues is a controversial but biblically valid gift when used in an orderly, loving way. Not all believers have the gift, but it can be beneficial as a private prayer language. The focus should remain on the Giver and fruits of the Spirit, not debating tongues themselves. Like all spiritual gifts, tongues require wisdom and grace to build up the church.