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Is speaking in tongues a gift of the Holy Spirit for today?

I have heard some very persuasive arguments, based solidly in scripture, that speaking in tongues is not for today. I have heard other arguments, also solidly based in scripture that go the other way. However, they don’t entirely convince me, because of two experiences.

Once I attended a seminar that taught people how to speak in tongues. Following their directions, I spoke in tongues. They said it was a genuine manifestation of the Spirit, but I had the distinct impression that I was faking it.

Once in a church I attended, a man stood up and in great embarrassment spoke in tongues and another—to his own astonishment—stood up to interpret. That was the first and last time there had ever been tongues in that particular church. The incident edified everyone, particularly when a visitor seated in the back stood up and awkwardly announced that the first man had spoken Latin and the second had translated correctly. Neither man had ever learned Latin. The edification was not gratuitous. The congregation was in spiritual despair—up to that point.

So I have an open mind about this.

Should we as Christians speak in tongues?

Only if the Holy Spirit gives us that gift. Not everyone has the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 12). Tongues and their interpretation appears to be the least of the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:27-31), and those who speak in tongues are enjoined to seek greater gifts. So I think that whoever speaks in tongues should take it as a sign of encouragement from the Holy Spirit. But the encouragement is not to stay in a place, but to move in a direction. The proper response to this encouragement is to move on and to graduate from tongues to the greater gifts of Christian service, and finally to the greatest gift of all, which is love. Love is the key to all the gifts and to their proper application.

When should we speak in tongues?

Paul says that prophets can control their own spirits (1 Corinthians 14:32), and since he gives rules for prophesying, I think that he would also apply that to people who speak in tongues. On the other hand, Scripture tells us not to quench the Spirit. If it is possible for us to quench the Spirit, then it follows that He does not override our free will or our discretion within a given situation.

Combining these two principles, I draw these conclusions:

Now of course there are times when it is appropriate to do things urgently or even to disrupt the worship service, like the time I indirectly interrupted the priest who was celebrating the Eucharist. I did it because one of the candles was setting the flowers on fire! I admit that was not a gift of the Spirit, just the power of observation and the guts to do the right thing. But my point is that if you have to do something urgently, even when it is a spiritual gift, your excuse should be that the situation required it, not that the Spirit overwhelmed you. The Holy Spirit knows all things and can alert you in advance, so if you suddenly see an emergency, it is your own power of observation, your own slowness of response, or your own desire for notoriety, it is not God. Don’t confuse the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

If we are having a group prayer and someone starts speaking in tongues, what should we do if there is no interpreter there?

I think there are different rules for formal worship and an informal prayer group. If you are in a formal church service, the person who receives the gift of tongues should keep silent if there is no one who can interpret (1 Corinthians 14:28) and speak in tongues only to God. Just exactly how you can know if there is an interpreter present, I don’t know. Perhaps that will become clear at the time. If you are in an informal prayer circle and someone, whose turn it is to pray, begins praying quietly in tongues, I think that is okay. Someone, preferably the person who prayed in tongues, should immediately pray for an interpretation. (1 Corinthians 14:13). There is a large gray area there between ‘formal worship’ and ‘informal prayer group,’ and you have to discern each situation on its own merits. (Discernment itself is a gift of the Spirit.)

But I think the full force of what Paul is saying is that anyone who habitually speaks in tongues should pray to also have the gift of interpreting their own utterances. We must discern everything that happens to see if it is from God. If someone speaks in tongues because they subconsciously want to attract attention to themselves, even then the proper response is to love and accept that person.

The first response to any odd behavior should be love. Not that tongues are odd, but faked tongues are, and this gives me an opening to pontificate about odd behavior in general. Any person who behaves oddly—disrupting the service inappropriately, or crying out in rage—is probably crying out for love on some level or the other and your first reaction should be to meet that need. If your immediate reaction to a person’s odd or inappropriate behavior is not to reach out to them in love, then you need to criticize yourself as much as you criticize them.

You must allow for the possibility that the Holy Spirit permitted the odd behavior to test your love and to give you an occasion for virtue and obedience.

But there is no record in the Bible of Jesus speaking in tongues!

That’s not a good argument. Even if Jesus didn’t speak in tongues, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. There is no record in the Bible of Jesus getting married. Does that mean that Christians should not marry?

Jesus allowed His disciples to see the transfiguration, but He didn’t let them remain on the mountaintop in ecstasy. And while the disciples were staring into the sky where Jesus had ascended, the angels came and said the equivalent of, “Move on! Nothing to see here!” So I think that feel-good gifts do come from God, but God always intends for us to move beyond them into service.

A person who stays in church to experience tongues, and is not motivated to go outside and share the Good News, has missed the message of the Lord who sent His disciples down the mountain to serve, and the message of the angels who told the disciples to get to work and to stop staring into the sky.

So I vote with Paul. It would be nice to speak in tongues, but I would rather have the gift of love, because if I loved the world as God loved the world, I could do much useful service. I’d rather serve now and have treasures in heaven, than to have goose bumps now and have little to show for my life on the Last Day.