A Brief Look at the Practice of Speaking in Tongues

“Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.” – The Apostle Paul[1]

“Pretension to possession and use of miraculous powers in a permanent endowment are a specialty of Roman Catholicism”
– B. B. Warfield[2]


There is much speculation and debate about the glossolalia. This is the gift of speaking in tongues. The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms defines glossolalia like this:


“A compound Greek word meaning “to speak in tongues” (from λαλέω, “to speak” and γλῶσσα, “tongue”). Glossolalia, the supernatural ability to speak in languages not previously learned, is first recorded in Scripture as happening on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The Apostle Paul later makes reference to glossolalia as a special gift of the Spirit given to some Christians and to be practiced for the edification of the church.”[3]

In this paper, I will attempt to show information from 2 of the leading sides of the tongues debate. I will show information from those who argue that tongues ceased a long time ago, and I will show information from those who argue that tongues is still practiced today on a regular basis.


Key Verses to Consider When Dealing With the Tongues Debate

Before I get to the main point of this paper, I would like to point out some key texts used by people for and against the practice of speaking in tongues. This is by far not an exhaustive list, but these are some of the most important ones that I have gathered from my reading on the topic. I will here show 2 texts used in the argument for the practice of tongues as done in the modern Charismatic movement and 2 texts used to refute that practice.

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will speak in new tongues;” (Mark 16:17 NRSV)

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:1-4 NRSV)

“Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.” (1 Corinthians 14:4-5 NRSV)

“If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.” (1 Corinthians 14:27-28 NRSV)


Church History and the Practice of Speaking in Tongues[4]

Charismatic writers don’t normally pull from the annals of church history to back up their practice of speaking in tongues. “…it is rather remarkable that very few, if any, of the writers of this movement refer to the grand stream of church history from apostolic times until our present day for proof of God’s plan to perpetuate this unusual occurrence and to use it in the entirety of gospel outreach” says George W. Dollar.

In fact, when most writers refer back to history, they refer back to that one Azusa Street Revival. [5] This revival took place in 1906 and, “according to the Los Angeles Times, a bizarre new religious sect had started with people ‘breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.’ Furthermore, ‘Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories, and work themselves into a state of mad excitement.’” The leader of this revival was a preacher by the name of William Seymour. “Seymour immediately encountered resistance when, just 2 days after arriving [in Los Angeles], he began preaching to his new congregation that speaking in tongues was the Bible evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. On the following Sunday, March 4, he returned to the mission and found that [Julia] Hutchinson had padlocked the door. Condemnation also came from the Holiness Church Association of Southern California with which the church had affiliation. Not everyone in the congregation, however, was troubled by Seymour’s teaching. Undaunted, Seymour, staying at the home of church member Edward S. Lee, accepted Lee’s invitation hold Bible studies and prayer meetings there. After this, he went to the home of Richard and Ruth Asburry at 214 North Bonnie Street. Five Weeks later, Lee became the first to speak in tongues. Seymour then shared Lee’s testimony at a gathering on North Bonnie Brae and soon many began to speak in tongues.

“Word of these events traveled quickly in both the African-American and white communities. For several nights, speakers preached on the porch to the crowds on the street below. Believers from Hutchinson’s mission, First New Testament Church, and various holiness congregations began to pray for the Pentecostal baptism. (Hutchinson herself was eventually baptized in the Spirit as was Seymour himself.) Finally, after the front porch collapsed, the group rented the former Stevens African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church at 312 Azusa Street in early April.” This is where the revival took place.

A contemporary of Dr. George B. Cutten, Justin Martyr, “heard of prophetic gifts, but he does not specifically mention tongues.”

When one looks at the Reformation, he will notice that “tongues played no part in [it]. This should give us cause to pause and reflect. Thousands of earnest Christians all over Europe sought to re-establish earnestly and completely New Testament doctrine and holy living. Scriptures were searched diligently by some of the finest minds that the church has known. Excellent treatises were produced, outstanding creedal statements were formulated, and men set themselves to discover again the full-orbed teaching of the New Testament. Not one of these even intimated that the doctrine of speaking in tongues had a part in the continuing stream of God’s work or in the present-day activity in which the Holy Spirit directs.”

It seems as though, when appealing to church history, that it is quite silent on the matter. There is mention of the practice as we get into modern history (modern being 1900 and beyond), but before that history seems silent.


Those Who Argue for the Practice of Speaking in Tongues

Those individuals who see fit to argue that tongues still happen today do not seem to appeal to Scripture as their final authority. They appeal to their experience. Tom Brown comments,

“I was baptized in the Holy Spirit at the First Assembly of God church in Montana. The preacher asked for those wishing to dedicate themselves to the ministry to come forward for prayer. The first to come forward was a tall, slender fellow named Timmy. I thought, ‘If Timmy can go forward, I can too’. So I followed him down to the front of the podium.

“Without notice, something invisible hit Timmy, and down he went on the floor. Almost immediately, something hit me too. Down I went, prostrate on the ground. I began to weep uncontrollably. God’s presence was all over me. This went on for several minutes.

“The thought occurred to me, ‘This must be what my church has been talking about all these years. What is happening to me must be the baptism of the Holy Spirit.’ No sooner did I think that when I heard this scripture in my mind, ‘And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.’

“If I’m filled with the Holy Spirit, then I’ll speak in other tongues, I reasoned in my mind. Right then, I began speaking in other tongues – and I haven’t stopped yet!

“You see, the physical proof of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is the same evidence that the disciples had: speaking in tongues. You may have other evidences as well, but the one evidence you should have is speaking in tongues.”[6]

Brown also states that “there are five examples of people receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:4; 8:17; 9:17; 10:44; 19:6). In three out of the five examples we are told that specific signs took place. In the other two examples, the manifestation of physical signs taking place are implied, but not mentioned. Based on these two cases we cannot build any solid evidence as to what should happen when someone is baptized in the Holy Spirit. However, based on the other three examples we can build a good, solid case as to what should happen when someone is baptized in the Spirit.

“We are told in these three examples that certain physical manifestations too place. In each case, more than one physical sign took place, which teaches us that there are usually more than one sign taking place when people are baptized in the Holy Spirit. Yet, there is one sign – and only one sign – that is common to all three examples. The identical sign was speaking in tongues. Based on this observation we can conclude that the standard sign of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues.”[7]

While I do not think Brown is an “expert” on the topic, his statements mirror that which is stated by most, if not all, Charismatic writers when dealing with the subject of tongues.


Those Who Argue Against the Practice of Speaking in Tongues

There is much more scholarly information refuting the practice of speaking in tongues than there is defending it. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t somewhere exist, but it is very hard to find if it does. In doing my research for this paper, I found nothing scholarly. And this plays right into the hands of those people who argue against the practice of speaking in tongues.

Those who argue against speaking in tongues rarely argue on the basis of personal experience. The majority of the time, they appeal to the Bible first and last.

They also appeal to scholars and professors who have studied the phenomenon. William Samarin, the professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, states,

“Over a period of five years I have taken part in meetings in Italy, Holland, Jamaica, and the United States. I have observed old-fashioned Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals; I have been in small meetings at private homes as well as in mammoth public meetings; I have seen such different cultural settings as are found among Puerto Ricans of the Bronx, the snake handlers of the Appalachians [and] Russian Molakans in Los Angeles…Glossolalia is indeed like language in some ways, but this is only because the speaker (unconsciously) wants it to be like language. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia is fundamentally not language.”[8]

The appeals to Scripture that those people who refute the practice of tongues make are sometimes offensive, but they are not usually based on experience. More times than not, they are based on a plain reading of the Bible. Robin Arnaud states, when speaking about what the Bible teaches about tongues,

“Whenever we see tongues mentioned in the Bible, it ALWAYS takes the form of a structured foreign language – never ‘ecstatic gibberish’…Tongues was a REVELATIONAL gift – a vehicle of revelation of God to man. Tongues brought revelation from God as surely as the gift of prophecy brought revelation from God to the prophets and apostles of old. Thus, tongues must be understood in scripture to have brought inspired, inerrant, and authoritative communication from God to man…etc.”[9]



The tongues debate is far from over. There are people on both sides of this debate who are passionate for the truth of the Bible. Some of them are more concerned with the reputation they have among their contemporaries or pushing some kind of agenda than they are about handling the word of God properly, of course. And this happens on both sides.

Those who are pro-tongues seem to heavily emphasize their personal experience. They emphasize what happened to them and they seem to be saying that because it happened to them that it is the norm for everybody or that it is of God because it happened in church. This experience-driven religion has permeated all of Christianity and has had positive and negative effects.

Those who argue against speaking in tongues seem at times to be stifling the Spirit. They argue so much from logic and the books that they forget that people in the world learn by looking at what has happened to other people. This has had positive and negative effects on Christianity as well.

Where one stands on this issue is a matter between them and God, of course, but it is also a matter of the authority of the Bible. Does the Bible contain the complete revelation of God or is there still more to be given? Is the Bible infallible or are there corrections to be made that God will reveal to individuals through some special form of revelation? These are questions that one needs to ask when dealing with the matter of tongues. Ultimately, the tongues debate is a debate over the authority and sufficiency of the Bible. I pray that God guide us all into the truth of His Holy Word rather than us ignoring His leading and falling into the trap of conformity and slavery to a particular denominational statement or theological leaning.

[1] 1 Corinthians 14:5 NRSV

[2] http://www.the-highway.com/tongues_Dollar.html

[3] Stanley J. Grenz, The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Intervarsity Press. 1999 Pp. 55-56

[4] Unless otherwise indicated, information for this section taken from http://www.the-highway.com/tongues_Dollar.html

[5] This paragraph and quote gets its information from http://www.ag.org/enrichmentjournal/199904/026_azusa_3.cfm

[6] http://tbm.org/tongues.htm

[7] ibid

[8] John MacArthur, Jr. Charismatic Chaos. 1992. Zondervan. Pg. 278

[9] http://the-highway.com/tongues_Arnaud.html

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