Tongues according to Scripture

Growing up in church, I never heard anyone speak in tongues. Honestly, I can’t even recall my first exposure to tongues in church, whether positive or negative. I do know that the elders in the churches in which I grew up do not believe in speaking in tongues, and when they do preach about it, the message is that tongues have ceased since we have the "full canon of scripture" and that the expression of tongues by Pentecostal Christians is gibberish, at best. I am almost 40 years old now, but ever since I was a teenager, I had a habit of reading the Bible and trying to understand it for myself, regardless of what a preacher may say. The more I read and study the scriptures, the more I am realizing that many good and faithful men have been preaching and believing things that they were taught about the scriptures rather than what the scriptures actually say. So, I want to take the time to outline what I see in the scriptures in comparison to what I have been taught and what I have heard in my own church experience. I hope that you will find this to be clear, accurate and edifying.

What I have been taught in church

Before I get into what the scriptures say, I want to first give an overview of what I have been taught at church about tongues, and also my general experience and thoughts about this. The general teaching regarding tongues in the Brethren churches that I grew up in is that tongues are not for today and have ceased. They teach that tongues ceased with the arrival of the "full canon of scripture", and they quote 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 as their proof text. The basis of their argument is that in verse 10, "when that which is perfect is come" refers to the canon of scripture as the perfect word of God. This full canon of scripture refers to the 66 books of the Bible as expressed in the KJV Bible and most Protestant Bible translations.

8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. – 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 KJV

Another point that is raised regarding tongues that I have heard preached in the Brethren churches is that tongues was a sign to unbelievers at Penecost where all the believers present spoke in tongues, and the languages they speak where recognized and understood by the visitors present from various cities and nationalities. So, the idea that is expressed is that the tongues spoken at Pentecost by the first century believers are human languages understood by those present, whereas the tongues spoken by Christians today in the Pentecostal denominations are "unintelligible", and therefore does not fit a human language understood by anyone present. The teaching is that tongues spoken today is either made-up gibberish or something initiated through demonic influence, since it does not fit the account in Acts 2: 4-16.

4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? 8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? 9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, 10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. 12 And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?
13 Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine
14 But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words: 15 For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day. 16 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; – Acts 2:4-16

These two basic points make up the main teaching regarding tongues in the Brethren churches that I have grown up in. In recent years, as I have researched this topic, I have come to understand that quite a number of denominations have similar, if not the same, teachings regarding tongues in the church. Those who take to this view that tongues have ceased in modern times are widely known as cessationists. If you do an Internet search for the term "cessationism" using any search engine, you will find a whole range of articles and websites about the topic. There is even a wikipedia page about cessationism and another comparing cessationsim to continuationism. There are also quite a number of well known biblical scholars who take the cessationist viewpoint, and defend it vehemently.

My General Experience and Thoughts

Before I get into what the scripture says, I want to preface it with my own experience or exposure to tongue speaking in church. Regardless of what I was taught in church, and my lack of exposure to tongues speaking in the Brethren churches in Antigua, I have always had a mixed feeling regarding the acceptance of tongues speaking. In the Brethren churches that I grew up in, I have met many men of God who I respected and admired over the years from my childhood, and none of them had never spoken in tongues and most of them preach out against it. However, in my teenage years and early twenties, I had also met persons who have spoken in tongues, taught it in their churches and also are men and women of God who I also admired and respected. When comparing my experiences with these two general groups of people over the years, it always made me feel a strange sense mismatch. The testimonies did not match up with the realities. How can both groups claim to be right, and both groups believe the opposite teaching, while at the same time, both groups show unwavering love for God, and acceptance by God?

Although some may say that what we believe about a particular doctrine or teaching should not be influenced by personal experience, the reality is that “faith without works is dead” – James 2:20. Faith always leads to action. A tree is always known by its fruit. The reality that I saw was that both sets of persons love God, kept true to his word the best that they could, had faith in Jesus Christ, and both sets of persons still had opposite opinions on this teaching. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this is often true of various doctrines and teachings in churches and denominations of Christianity. So, for me, relying on the testimony and/or teaching of one side, solely based on the fact that I have always been taught from them and trusted them just wasn’t enough for me. I have to know for myself. Even the scripture says, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” – Romans 14:5. This is why I have sought to examine the scriptures to see what the scriptures say directly.

Do the scriptures say Tongues have ceased?

1 Corinthians 13 is a well-known passage about Love, and its absolute necessity for using any gift of the Holy Spirit effectively in the church. Those who advocate that tongues have ceased in the church would often quote verses 8 to 10 as their proof text. Their view is that the scripture says that, firstly, “tongues… shall cease” because when “that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away”, and secondly, the “perfect” that has come is the full canon of scripture, which has rendered the need for prophesy, tongues, and new knowledge to be rendered void.

The first time I heard this teaching it was always accompanied by the admonition to not allow tongues speaking in church, and that any such expression of tongues speaking was against the sound teaching of the word of God. The interesting thing about this is that as a teenager, I read the Bible for myself every day. I remember reading later in 1 Corinthians, at chapter 14 verse 39, which says, “Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.” When I read this verse in the next chapter, I realized that something is truly wrong about this teaching against tongues. The apostle Paul himself never tells any of us to forbid speaking in tongues, yet these men of God in the churches are readily giving that admonition. That was directly contrary to the scriptures.

This made me take a second, fresh look at the passage in chapter 13. The first thing I realized was that nowhere in the chapter does it talk about the “canon of scripture”. What it does talk about is “when that which is perfect is come”. So, I decided to work back from that point. The scripture says, “when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away”. So, I realized that the scripture is defining the conditions for “that which is in part” to be done away when the perfect is come. The next question that should be asked is what is “that which is in part”? What is “in part” is defined in verse 9, which says, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part”. When I re-read this, I had to read it again. What I noticed was that although the scripture compares Love to Prophesy, Tongues, and Knowledge in verse 8, in verse 9, the scripture is clear that only Prophesy and Knowledge is defined as “in part”. Tongues is never defined as being “in part”. In truth, if we look at the Koine Greek for “in part” it is transliterated as ek meros and gives the idea that something is a constituent part of a whole. However, what shocked me is that Tongues was never defined in scripture as being “in part”. So, the scripture is not even referring to Tongues at all in verse 10. Tongues do not even apply to when that which is perfect is come. If it did, then the scripture would say so, and it does not say so at all in verse 9.

After coming to that realization I then proceeded to look at verse 8 more deeply. I decided to compare verse 8 in the KJV English translation with the Koine Greek, and what I found confirmed my realization that Tongues was never defined in part. Looking at the following table, you will see what I mean:

KJV English Transliterated Koine Greek Lexical meaning
Charity agape Love
never oudepote never
faileth ekpipto to lose; become inefficient; to be without effect; to fall down; to fail
but de but
whether eite whether
there be prophesies propheteia prophesy; prophesying
they shall fail katargeo to render idle (or useless), unemployed, inactive, inoperative; to make of none effect; to cease, pass away, be done away
whether eite whether
there be tongues glossa tongue
they shall cease pauo to pause; to stop; to make to cease, desist, refrain, quit
whether eite whether
there be knowledge gnosis knowledge
it shall vanish away katargeo to render idle (or useless), unemployed, inactive, inoperative; to make of none effect; to cease, pass away, be done away

The primary thing I noticed was that verse 8 was not giving an absolute, standalone teaching regarding Prophesy, Tongues or Knowledge. Rather, this verse is a comparative statement about the effectiveness of Love verses the three most popular gifts of the Spirit in use by the members of the Corinthian church. If we look at the lexical meaning of the Greek (from any Lexicon), you will see that it first says that Love will never become ineffective. Love will never lose or fail to work. Then it goes on to compare Love to Prophesy. It says that prophesy can be rendered useless or have no effect. The KJV says “prophesies… shall fail”. If you take it by itself, you can interpret it as saying that prophesy will one day not manifest itself, but it is not saying that. It is saying that compared to Love, Prophesy can fail to accomplish its goal. People don’t always listen or respond to prophesy, but they almost always respond to love.

The next interesting thing that I noticed is that Knowledge is described using the same verb as Prophesy. It is the same exact verb in the Greek. The KJV English translation hides this important fact, because it uses “vanish away” instead of “fail”. It really shocked me to see this, because knowing that the Greek used the same verb confirmed to me that Prophesy and Knowledge are both expressed in the same sense, which is why in verse 9 they are both seen as being “in part”. Both of them are given “in part” until the perfect is come and both of them can be made ineffective to the hearts of people in comparison to Love.

Tongues is stuck right in the middle, between Prophesy and Knowledge. This does not mean we can bundle it together with Prophesy and Knowledge as so many scholars and preachers have done throughout recent times. It is separate and distinct from both, and we see this with the verb used to describe it in relation to Love. The scripture says that Tongues can pause, or stop or cease. This is not a foretelling of the Holy Spirit not giving the gift of tongues any more in the future. It is, once again, a comparative statement regarding the effectiveness of Tongues on the hearts of people as compared to Love. In other words, Love will always be effective. One act of Love will always work on the hearts of people. However, Tongues do not linger. They do not go on forever. They have to stop or cease. You speak it and then you stop. What you say may or may not impact the heart of a person, but love will never stop.

So, the more I study the scripture, the more I am convinced that it is not declaring that the Holy Spirit will ceased giving the gift of tongues to believers, but rather that compared to someone’ expression of Love, which will never fail to stop, the speaking of tongues will stop and thus have no effect because there is nothing to hear. Further, Tongues was never stated to be “in part”. And the scripture clearly says, “that what is in part shall be done away”. So, even if the perfect has already come, the only things that will be done away would be Prophesy and Knowledge, not Tongues. To me, this is just honestly what the scripture says, without being tainted by any denominational doctrine. Yet, I have never heard of anyone making this direct point. Whether it is the opponents or proponents of Tongues, they all seem to bundle Tongues with Prophesy and Knowledge. This, I believe, is wrong to do and falsely represents what God’s word says. Based on these scriptures, Tongues have not ceased.

What about the canon as the perfect?

Although I have shown that the Tongues is not “in part”, there still remains the teaching that “that which is perfect” refers to the full canon of scripture. From a plain reading of 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, there is no word in the Greek or any English translation that would even suggest the meaning of “full canon of scripture”. So, how did this teaching even come about?

Well, it seems that this teaching surrounds what a single Greek word refers to. This word is the Koine Greek word, teleios, which is used in verse 10 and translated into the phrase “that which is perfect”. The word teleios means “free from any deficiency, omission, or corruption; complete; perfect” according to BDAG lexicon, and the older Thayer’s Lexicon gives the meaning “brought to its end, finished; lacking nothing necessary to completeness; perfect”. Apparently, there are multiple views on what teleios really refers to. However, according to the late Dr. Rodney Decker in his 1994 paper on the History of Interpretation of ‘that which is perfect’ with special attention to the origin of the canon view, the canon view was a recent interpretation that originated in the nineteenth century, and was the weakest of the three main views that he presented. The earliest writing that interprets teleios as the completed canon of Scripture is Robert Govett (1813-1901), and it was made popular by Vine (1951) through his expository dictionary.

Although exploring the canon interpretation of teleios deeply is not the purpose of this article, it is interesting to note that even if teleios truly refers to the completed canon of Scripture, it would mean that knowledge has ceased. It is obvious that knowledge has not ceased in any way. I don’t think there is anyone who would say that we know everything perfectly. We still know “in part”.

Are tongues human languages or something else?

One of the biggest criticisms that I have heard regarding tongues spoken in churches that believe in the manifestation of the gift of Tongues is that no one understands what is being said, and that it sounds like gibberish. Further to that, persons who do not accept tongues will quote Acts 2:6 – 12, which explains how on the day of Pentecost the believers present spoke in tongues, and the visitors present from 16 different nations all heard persons speaking their own native language. This is used as proof to say that tongues is only speaking human languages foreign to the native language of the believer speaking, but understandable by the visitor from a different background. Indeed, the text does say that they spoke languages understood by humans present. However, verses 13 and 15 reveal something very interesting. It seems that to some of the listeners the speakers of tongues sounded like they were drunk. A really drunk person will say things that don’t make sense or can’t be understood. So, it would almost appear that some indeed were speaking tongues that were not understood by persons present.

For argument’s sake, even if we were to ignore verses 13 and 15 regarding the drunkenness statements as a hint that some tongues speaking were not understood in human language, we cannot ignore other passages of scripture. In 1 Corinthians 14, the apostle Paul talks extensively about Tongues speaking and how it should be expressed in a meeting of believers. In verses 1 to 4, he says the following:

1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.
2 For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.
3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.
4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

In this short passage, the apostle explains that speaking in a tongue is really speaking to God, while expressing mysteries in the spirit. It is interesting to note that in the Greek word, mysterion, means a secret or mystery or a hidden thing or that which awaits disclosure or interpretation. So, it is speaking secrets to God, which will need interpretation for others to understand. Additionally, the speakers are only building up their own selves, and as a result, what they say is only relevant or only benefits themselves. He goes on to say in verse 14, “For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.” So, he explains that even the speaker does not understand the things that he is saying. To further solidify the concept that tongues is not always a human language relevant to a listener who must be present, the apostle goes on to express in verse 27-28, “If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”

So, we see that speaking in tongues has the following properties according to 1 Corinthians 14:

  1. The purpose is to speak to God, not to people
  2. Spoken tongues is an expression of spiritual mysteries or secrets
  3. The speakers of tongues do not understand what they are saying
  4. However, by speaking in tongues, the speaker benefits
  5. For others to benefit, an interpreter must be present to interpret the spoken tongues
  6. Without an interpreter, the tongues speaker should only speak to himself and God

Should tongues be categorized as gibberish? According to the testimony of the apostle Paul in scripture, the answer is no. It is clear from scripture that spoken tongues can be understood by others, as in the account in Acts 2, but for the most part, the gift of Tongues from the Holy Spirit is designed to be unrecognizable by most listeners apart from those who an empowered by the Holy Spirit to interpret. It is even typically unrecognizable by the speaker of the tongue, yet that person is built up through speaking in the tongues that he does not understand, as he is speaking spiritual mysteries with God.

My final thoughts

Ultimately, no matter how you may look at it, according to scripture, tongues is a real thing, and there is nothing in scripture itself that says otherwise. These few comments on the topic, although quite precise are not exhaustive. But for me, they provide a good foundation to build on the truth of God’s word. I just love to say what the scripture says. I believe the words of the apostle Paul, regardless of what anyone else says. Church leaders should never forbid to speak in tongues, and should not preach that tongues have ceased unless they have scripture to back it up. Unfortunately, not having scripture hasn’t stopped anyone for preaching their convictions on a subject. I can only hope that others will be open to consider and prioritize what the scriptures say over what their tradition or denominational doctrine or theology says.