The gift of tongues is fairly common in the African Church. It’s likely that there are more people who speak in tongues than those who prophesy. This is because praying or speaking in tongues has come to be understood as a sign of greater spirituality or faith. In my previous post I challenged this association. Yet tongues is widely considered a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence and power.

The desire to speak in tongues is a desire to experience the Holy Spirit.

To support the extensive use of tongues, people often cite Jesus’ words in John 4:24. There Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit”. Others appeal to Paul’s statement, “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Corinthians 14:14). Thus the Holy Spirit and tongues are deemed inseparable. The desire to speak in tongues is a desire to experience the Holy Spirit and worship God.

Are Tongues Nothing But Hot Air?

Paul says that this desire is commendable. However, like prophecy, he says the gift of tongues should be pursued in a way that will build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:1-3, 12). Paul was addressing a very similar problem in Corinth to the one we’re seeing throughout our continent today. There is an excess of tongues without interpretation. But this is in no way beneficial to other believers (1 Corinthians 14:6). This is problematic, since the fundamental reason for gifts of the Spirit is serving others (1 Corinthians 12:7). So Paul asks, “If with your tongues you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air” (1 Corinthians 14:9).

Tongues without interpretation is in no way beneficial to other believers.

Now, many of us can attest that it is not uncommon to hear people speaking in tongues in our gatherings. In fact we are encouraged to do this, and mostly those tongues follow the expression that Paul is writing against in 1 Corinthians. There is very little desire or attempt to understand what is being said. We are satisfied with tongues that we do not understand. But Paul says that because the church does not understand what is being said, the church does not benefit from these tongues (1 Corinthians 14:2, 5, 16-17). Therefore we can say the only way tongues can benefit the church is if they are understood by the hearers.

The Gift of Tongues Requires Interpretation

Paul sets a standard for the continued use of tongues among God’s people. The congregation must understand the tongues, through the work of an interpreter. Anything short of this is not beneficial to the church. Therefore tongues, in whatever form, without interpretation fail to achieve God’s purpose for them. They are inconsistent with the Spirit’s work, to build up the church.

Tongues without interpretation are inconsistent with the Spirit’s work.

Paul writes: “Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret” (1 Corinthians 14:6, 12-13). 

The only way the congregational use of tongues can benefit the church is if there is someone to interpret them. As long as there is no interpretation, the gift of tongues does not benefit anyone, except for the person speaking them who appears powerfully spiritual.

Does Paul Forbid Tongues?

No. Paul says, “Earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39). He can say this, in conclusion to a lengthy section on the gifts of the Spirit, because he shows how tongues can be used to build up the church.

Paul prohibits their use in the absence of an interpreter.

This is consistent with what he says earlier. “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God” (1 Corinthians 14:27-28). Thus while Paul does not forbid tongues he does prohibit their use in the absence of an interpreter. This was Paul’s standard for the continued use of tongues in the church. Therefore this is how tongues should be used in our gatherings today.

What About Praying In Tongues?

Some might say, as I used to, the reason we pray in tongues in our gatherings is to confuse the enemy. For when we pray in tongues the enemy does not understand our requests. As Paul says, “For one who speaks in tongues speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2).

While Paul acknowledges the mystery of praying in tongues he does not promote it.

This is a good argument. But while Paul acknowledges the mystery of praying in tongues he does not promote it. Rather, he is making the point that because people do not understand tongues, they are not edified or encouraged when tongues are used without interpretation. This is why he contrasts the gift of tongues with prophecy. “On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:3). “For this reason the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up” (1 Corinthians 14:5).

Paul requires that people understand both what is being said and prayed when the church gathers (1 Corinthians 14:13-17). He writes, “Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up” (1 Corinthians 14:16-17). Though public prayers in tongues address God, they are potentially discouraging and confusing for hearers. For we’ve already seen that the purpose of tongues is always that God’s people benefit through understanding.

The Goal of Gathering and the Gift of Tongues

Whenever we are gathered in our local churches, the goal should be to edify one other. But the only way that we can do that is if we all understand what is being said. This principle must be applied to the gift of tongues today. God requires that there be an interpreter. This is so that the congregation can understand what is being said. Anything short of this does not benefit the church or honour God’s purposes for the spiritual gifts. The Spirit works towards building up and maturing the church. Tongues without interpretation is an immature abuse of the gift, which cannot edify believers.