First, let's do that irritating thing of making sure we are discussing the same issue. Wikipedia defines Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, this way:
Glossolalia or speaking in tongues, according to linguists, is the fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any readily comprehended meaning, in some cases as part of religious practice in which it is believed to be a divine language unknown to the speaker. The term derives from glossais lalo, a Greek phrase used in the New Testament meaning "speak in, with, or by tongues [i.e., other languages] (instances in the Bible are seen in Acts 2:4, 1 Corinthians 14:18). The related term "xenolalia" or "xenoglossy" is used to describe the phenomenon when the language being spoken is a natural language previously unknown to the speaker. Glossolalia is practiced in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity as well as in other religions.
Without being too dogmatic or getting too specific, do you remember when the first recorded episode of this happened and what happened at this event that defined the term "speaking in tongues"? The answer in every case, whether you believe in it or not, is the Day of Pentecost that came shortly after Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven.
Where did it start?
O.K. We are talking about Acts 2:4, the first scripture listed in the definition:
4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now, right here is where everyone just nods their head and walks away feeling justified in spouting gobbledygook that no one understands (don't shoot me, just going according to the definition above), including the one who spoke it. Notice that the definition in the first box above does not directly speak to the issue of the hearer, only the speaker. But, hold on a minute, that's not all that we are told in the complete passages around those scriptures listed in the definition itself. When most people refer to speaking in tongues, you also hear that in order to be effective, someone must interpret or there is no message delivered. Look at the entire event of Acts 2:1-12 in context:
1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: "Aren't all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs - we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"
What "speaking in tongues" really means
Well now, we have a little different view of what happened. It's not just someone speaking gobbledygook. In the big steps we see that some obviously supernatural-seeming tongues of fire appeared over the ones affected by the Holy Spirit, then they began speaking in "other tongues", then the tongues were actually interpreted by the audience (remember, the Holy Spirit was involved here as well) so that there was a message delivered by the event. Now, that is what I call speaking in tongues. God speaks through His people and other people get the message.
What does Paul say about tongues? Looking at only the verse listed in 1 Cor 14:18, as listed in the definition above:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.
Reading just this verse, you would walk away thinking that he feels that everyone should get in on the act, championing the fact that he is better at it than anyone else and he does it all the time. Right? This seems to be the impression that is very common among those who believe that you must speak in tongues to be saved. But what about the very next verse? As in the first instance we show above, if you read what he actually said in the passage surrounding the verse given in the definition, a new concept emerges. In 1 Cor 14:15-25, he does not necessarily disparage the act, but admonishes people to use it correctly:
15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. (emphasis mine)
20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written:
"With other tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people, (emphasis mine)
but even then they will not listen to me,
says the Lord"
22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"
God will speak to His people through other tongues "and through the lips of foreigners", not mumblings and hissings with no meaning. Sometimes it takes someone from another culture to let you see what is really going on in yours. The message coming through here is that tongues do have a place in the Christian life, but you can't just make stuff up and say it is from God (or that it only means something to God), if no one can confirm that. Tongues are for the unbeliever who can hear the word of God and attach meaning to it because he understands that meaning and because it pertains to his life.
"Not saved" without it?
Now, let's compare that with what a lot of people think about tongues. We had some friends over one night some time ago to play pinochle. Yes, a card game that gets people together to talk to each other. This couple happened to be members of a Pentecostal church, with the obvious reference to Pentecost. During the course of the evening, the subject of speaking in tongues arose.
My wife and said that we did not speak in tongues, and I popped up with the blasphemous statement that it was not necessary for salvation. You'd have thought I had pulled out a gun and threatened them with it! We were told in no uncertain terms that if we did not speak in tongues then we did not have the Holy Spirit in us, and therefore had no chance to be saved. Period. When asked for a reference to that effect in the Bible, they used 1 Cor 14:18
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.
above. (At the time, I had not studied the matter enough to know about the very next verse. Now I know.)
"Dear God, 'xprbblratturxtblnestuvi', Amen."
When I then asked her to demonstrate what she meant, she gave me a sample of tongues. "xprbblratturxtblnestuvi", which may not be a direct quote, but it's close enough for this discussion. What does that mean? She said to me, "I don't know, I am speaking to God through the Holy Spirit." Yeah, but what did you say to God? She said that she did not have to know, God would get the message. When we brought up the need for someone to interpret, she said that is not necessary when you are speaking your personal prayer language. Huh.
What is going on?
Since that time, we have been in churches where, while the pastor was giving the sermon, some people in the pews around us would start making hissing and mumbling sounds with sharp intakes of breath. This was not one at a time, it was 10 or 20 at a time in a crowd of several hundred. No one stood up to interpret or explain in any way what was happening. After the pastor ended his sermon, there was still no explanation. This is not making any type of judgment here, but this did not seem to be what the passages in the Bible (including those above) advocate about speaking in tongues.
Off track somewhere...
Comparing these two events with the first Pentecost experience, there is no comparison. In the first event at Pentecost, there was no "translation" necessary as each understood the words spoken in tongues in his own language. Also, there was no confusion, as each one there knew what was spoken and knew that it was the Holy Spirit declaring the wonders of God (Acts 2:7-11
7 Utterly amazed, they asked: "Aren't all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs - we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!"
)! Somewhere between this first experience and today, the meaning of "speaking in tongues" has taken on a whole new meaning.
In fact, according to our new "freedom", each person feels that they can pretty much do and say what he or she feels and no one can question it without offending someone or being shouted down as unsaved or being a blasphemer. Experience with those who feel that "speaking in tongues" is necessary to salvation suggests that they feel that they are immune to criticism on this issue. However, it cannot be shown that Paul spoke to that concept, or that Jesus that even mentioned this issue.
Don't force it
If we cannot discern the meaning of a passage or word, it cannot help us. If we then don't even understand, how are we supposed to explain it to someone else? It's almost like many feel that "we want to do what we want and we are the only ones that matter, so we will do it our way". This concept seems to apply to all things people would rather believe than the simple truth in God's word.
To put the words of Paul in 1 Cor 14:20
20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.
into more modern language, we need to "Grow up!"
Disagree? Find an error? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and give us your view.