I was just thinking about speaking in tongues. I was asked recently if I thought that churches that speak in tongues or private prayer language are being sinful? Is it a false teaching or is it a matter of different interpretations?
First, let me say that we should make some distinction between churches practicing speaking in tongues and private prayer language. While both involve supposedly speaking in an unknown “language,” the former is a very public display while the latter is supposedly, as the name implies, done privately in one’s prayer time with the Lord.
In regards to churches that speak in tongues I give the answer I first gave when asked this question, no, I do not think churches that practice speaking in tongues are being sinful. I don’t think they are being biblical (I’ll explain that in a moment,) but I wouldn’t classify the modern idea of speaking in tongues as sin, unless a person is knowingly being deceitful about their use of this “gift.”
When I say I do not believe a church that speaks in tongues is being biblical what I mean is there is simply no biblical evidence of anything like what is practiced in tongues speaking churches today.
The word for “tongues” in the Greek is “Glossa,” which means, “language.” The New Testament experience was the supernatural ability given to some to speak in a language that was not naturally known to them. Acts 2 is the first and best example we find. As people came from all over the known world to Jerusalem for the Passover and then Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the Apostles the ability to speak in different languages so that the Gospel could be understood in the ears of all those gathered. The end result was three-thousand were saved that day and they took the message of Jesus back to their own countries in their own language.
The Apostle Paul said that tongues was a sign to unbelievers. (1 Cor 14:22) The only way it would be a sign to unbelievers is if those given that gift spoke in the language of the unbeliever because it demonstrated the power of God. Otherwise the unbelievers would think the same thing the Jews thought in Acts 2 when they heard the Apostles speaking other languages, “These men are drunk!”
1 Corinthians 14 is often cited as biblical justification for what is practiced in tongues speaking churches today, but a careful reading of the text reveals that Paul is doing everything he can to discourage the Corinthians practice of tongues. Paul believed in tongues, he spoke in tongues, (1 Cor 14:18a) but it was biblical tongues; the ability to speak in another language that he wouldn’t normally have known so that he could present the message of Jesus to those who had not yet heard.
While I confess I do not have a great deal of experience being in churches that practice tongues, what times I have been exposed to it and what I have been told it is a person or persons who begin “speaking” in nonsensical sounds, usually in some kind of cadence or rhythm, but without any grammatical coherence. The Apostle Paul makes his Spirit led feeling known on that subject, “I thank God I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor 14:18-19)
As to the matter of private prayer language along with 1 Cor 14, the primary proof text used is Rom 8:26, “In the same way the Spirit also joins to help in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings.” (Rom 8:26 HCSB)
I see two problems with claiming that verse as justification for speaking to God in some unknown language. One, the text clearly indicates that it is the Holy Spirit praying not us. The text simply says in the times when we don’t even know what to pray the Spirit does, and He intercedes on our behalf to the Father. There is nothing about Him speaking through us.
The second problem is the phrase “unspoken groanings” or “groanings too deep for words” as the NAS puts it. Those who advocate for a private prayer language seem to zero in on the word “groanings,” but completely ignore the fact that the text says it is “unspoken” or “without words,” meaning there is no sound. And why would there need to be since it is God the Holy Spirit who is praying to God the Father?
The question of whether speaking in tongues as it is practiced in some churches today is valid or not or private prayer language is a matter of different interpretations, but remember, that doesn’t mean that everybody’s interpretation is correct. There is absolute truth and it’s important to rightly divide God’s word.
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