There are two views on what speaking of tongues in the Bible actually is. One view is that everywhere ‘tongue’ just means ‘language’. If that view is correct, speaking in tongues (or foreign languages) is a gift of the Holy Spirit to further the spread of the Gospel among new peoples (see e.g. Acts 2). At the same time it is a warning and announcement of judgment to the unbelieving Jews (1 Corinthians 14:21-22). Some theologians even understand all mentions of the gift of tongues or languages in the Bible like this: as references to non-miraculous speaking in languages that the speaker once learnt. Just like ‘helping’ and ‘administrating’ are non-miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28). These views are defensible. Both imply that almost all ‘speaking in tongues’ that is happening today is nonsense. There are very few reports, and even less credible reports, of people who are speaking in foreign languages while speaking in tongues.
Speaking in tongues is not speaking a heavenly language
However, most Bible scholars believe that when the Bible is mentioning ‘tongues’ these are unknown languages, probably not even human languages. Often these are called languages of angels, based on 1 Corinthians 13:1: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels”. However, if you compare this verse with the next two verses, it is very unlikely that Paul means that he can actually speak the language of angels. Just like he does not understand all knowledge (1 Corinthians 13:2) and delivers up his body to be burnt (1 Corinthians 13:3). So there is no indication in the Bible at all that speaking in tongues is speaking a heavenly language.
Purposes of speaking in tongues
But we can still find the purpose of speaking in tongues, as it is stated clearly in the text. The first purpose is to teach the church through it. That is only possible if the tongue is interpreted. If there is no interpreter for the tongue available, the tongue speaker should be silent (1 Corinthians 14:28). The second purpose it to pray or sing with the spirit without the mind taking part. It is an extra way to connect with God: “I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15).
If this second interpretation is correct, this could be the importance of speaking in tongues even today. Even then though you should realize that speaking in tongues is not for every Christian. “Do all speak with tongues?”, Paul asks rhetorically in 1 Corinthians 12:30. The answer clearly is ‘no’. And that is okay, because we all have our own gifts – though we are encouraged to seek God for more gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31).
Importance of speaking in tongues
However, I am hesitant to confirm this importance of speaking in tongues for the following reasons:
- There is no clear teaching in the Bible that some spiritual gifts will stop. However, neither is there a promise that they will continue. Apostleship is called a spiritual gift to the church (1 Corinthians 12:28), and the time of the apostles has passed. So it is not sure that the gifts of tongues is still in operation as it was when Paul wrote to the Corinthians.
- In history, after the time of the apostles speaking in tongues has been extremely rare until the modern day revival of the practice.
- Speaking in tongues happens in many other religions. Speaking in tongues therefore cannot be taken as proof of being baptized with the Holy Spirit.
- People learn it as easily as riding a bicycle. So if you hear people speaking in tongues, it is impossible to know whether it is a gift they received from the Holy Spirit or a trick they have learned.
- The reason speaking in tongues is not hard, is that the structure of what is said, is much simpler than that of real language. It is quite literally babbling. I find it hard to believe that God would inspire us to speak to Him, and would teach His church, through babbling.
- Many people who speak in tongues are not displaying a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit.
Leave judgment to God
For all these reasons, there is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of speaking in tongues today is a learned behavior that has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, I cannot say from the Bible that genuine speaking in tongues cannot happen today. So this is one area it is wise not to judge our brothers and sisters for speaking or not speaking in tongues, but to leave the judgment to God.