OF RELIGION Field Guide to the

The Claims

The word tongues in the King James Version of the Bible indicates a language. Thus, speaking in tongues is a phenomenon in which individuals find themselves uttering sounds that they do not understand, which they identify as an "unknown tongue" or an "unknown language," and which they attribute to the influence of the Holy Spirit.

According to some, this is a manifestation of the same phenomenon recorded in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. It is viewed as evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit, and is often called the baptism in the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit). By some it is viewed as the absolutely necessary outward evidence of conversion. By others it is viewed as a special empowerment subsequent to conversion which fits the person for greater spiritual service.

In some Pentecostal and Charismatic groups, after the initial experience with tongues, most tongues-speakers only use the ability as a private "prayer language." In other circles, many participants regularly use what they believe to be the "gift" of speaking in an unknown tongue in group settings to deliver "a message in tongues" which is then interpreted into the common language of the group by themselves or someone else in attendance.

The experience of speaking in tongues has occasionally come unexpectedly to some individuals outside any fellowship setting. However, it is most typically the result of an extended period of anywhere from hours to years of "seeking" to receive this particular "gift" under the encouragement of others who claim to have received the gift themselves.



The Allure   

1. Physical confirmation of conversion: Many who profess Christianity are uncomfortable with a belief system that insists they take the fact of their relationship to God on faith. Having an "outward sign" may make it seem more "real" to them.

2. Confidence in spiritual standing: Many who profess Christianity find it appealing to have a "sign" to themselves and others that they are part of an elite class of spiritual individuals.

3. Confirmation of scripture: The Bible can seem like just an ancient history book at times. If current circumstances can be shown to be a repetition of the more "miraculous" of Biblical stories, it may make the Bible "come alive" for some believers.

4. Excitement: Daily Christian living, guiding one's life by the principles and admonitions of the Bible, can seem mundane and boring. Thus the possibility of actual supernatural manifestations such as speaking in tongues can break the sense of monotony that some may feel.




1. The phenomenon of glossolalia ("ecstatic speaking of words unintelligible to speaker and audience") is not limited to just Christian settings. It has been recorded among many religious groups and in occult settings. Studies have shown such manifestations can be created just by the human subconscious without any need for "supernatural" intervention at all. Therefore to take it, on the face, as a "proof" of one's relationship with God, or proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is not wise. If modern tongues speakers all spoke fluently in a foreign language they had never learned, confirmed by native speakers of those languages, it would be another matter—but this is just not the case.

2. Many Charismatics believe those who speak in tongues are in a more spiritual category than non-tongues speakers. Yet Paul, when writing to the Corinthians about their use of spiritual gifts, which seemed to include a special emphasis by them of speaking in tongues, chastised them for their utter carnality and childishness, not for any spiritual superiority.

3. If we were seeing in modern times clear incidents of people miraculously speaking unlearned foreign languages in settings where their words would glorify God to those who speak those languages, it might be a confirmation of the events of Acts 2. But we do not see this at all in Charismatic and Pentecostal circles. There have been a few claims that such incidents did occur, but documentation even of those is scarce. And in any case, these were extremely isolated instances, and are not representative of the normal experience of those who claim to "speak in tongues."

4. There is no doubt that this life, even at its best, is not exciting all of the time. The cares of this world loom great for many people, and understandably particularly so with sickness or poverty. But the excitement that can be engendered by the questionable phenomenon of speaking in tongues is not a lasting excitement. And when the newness has worn off, life will still be hard—or boring.

Unfortunately, this has led many professing Christians to continually seek new and different "supernatural experiences"—which can easily set them up to be attracted to false "signs and wonders." (For the fruit of this quest, check other sections of this website.) God never promised that the Christian life would be either continually exciting or continually pleasant. He only promises that He will be with us no matter the circumstances, and that we can have peace of mind and quiet joy in Him. Seeking external supernatural manifestations in order to feel "closer to God" or to feel more "excited" about one's relationship to God is not a quest that is recommended in the Bible.


Nuggets of Truth


Although Biblical justification cannot be established for a claim that speaking in tongues is the evidence of the Holy Spirit, this does not negate the validity of some of the concerns that have led many to embrace the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.


1. There is no evidence in the New Testament that gatherings of Christian believers for fellowship and worship and edification were intended to be dry, boring, lifeless activities. It is true that the format and content of "services" of the average Protestant or Catholic Church may be viewed as sterile or even dead with good reason. It may be that those who have sought a supernatural manifestation such as speaking in tongues in order to bring life back to Christian gatherings have had the wrong solution, but the right perspective that there is, indeed, a problem.

2. The historical Protestant and Catholic worship service has tended to be a spectator event, with only a few people in active participation. This usually includes one head figure, labeled the "pastor" or the "priest," who provides almost all teaching, exhortation and inspiration. The example given in I Corinthians of the common fellowship gathering of Christians in the first century does not reflect this sort of pattern at all. Although Paul needed to exhort those in Corinth to be more careful to maintain decency and order in their gatherings, he did not at all eliminate the enthusiastic participation of many in providing the content of the meeting.

3. One of the most common complaints of many about the nature of Christian worship is that it is all too often almost devoid of any emotion. A departure from this norm is often what is most appealing to those who embrace a Pentecostal or Charismatic fellowship of believers. Since speaking in tongues is an integral part of this experience in such settings, those seeking more emotion in worship may believe that it is available only in those settings. But expression of emotion is not a "supernatural" manifestation … it is entirely natural. And thus it is possible to gather together for Christian worship which is full of emotion, especially in the music, without the requirement that anyone in attendance manifest an ability to "speak in tongues."



The Bible mentions a phenomenon called tongues in only two books, Acts and I Corinthians.

In Acts 2, it is said that the disciples "spoke in other tongues" when they received the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost after the Resurrection. However, it is very clear from that passage that what are described as "tongues" are actual languages.

Acts 2:7-11

7 Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?

8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own 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!"

Likewise, the reference to "tongues" in both Acts 10 and Acts 19 could be logically assumed to have been the same kind of manifestation, since the disciples compare what happened in these instances to what happened on Pentecost.

Acts 10:44-47

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.

45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.

46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said,

47 "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have."


Acts 19:4-6

4 Paul said, "John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus."

5 On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.


In all of these instances, the people speaking in tongues are not described as "praying" but as "declaring the wonders of God," "praising God," or "prophesying." In other words, at least in the instances of "declaring" and "prophesying," they are communicating to others.

1 Corinthians 12-14 is the only other passage that speaks of the phenomenon of tongues. Throughout this passage, Paul is usually using the term in the same public sense, of someone speaking to others about God, rather than someone praying privately and personally to God.

The significant sections are:

1 Cor 14:6-17

6 Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?

7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes?

8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?

9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.

10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.

11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.

12 So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.

13 For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.

14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.

15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.

16 If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying?

17 You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.


1 Cor 14:27-28

27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two-- or at the most three-- should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.

28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.


Note that Paul only mentions "praying in tongues" once, in verse 14, and "praying with my spirit" once, evidently referring to the same idea, in verse 15. He also mentions in passing in verse 28 someone who speaks in tongues to "himself and God."


That's it. Period. All the Bible has to say on the matter. And out of this, whole denominations have been built!


Although there had been vague references in religious history throughout the past 2000 years to some individuals manifesting something they called speaking in tongues, the documentation is very scanty. The first commonly-accepted documentation of a major outbreak of what was claimed to be speaking in tongues happened around the turn of the century in Topeka, Kansas. A group of Bible students and their teacher had decided to specifically ask for a supernatural manifestation from God that was "the same as" the disciples received on Pentecost. They eventually claimed to have received such manifestations including, especially, speaking in tongues, and thus began what is commonly called the modern Pentecostal movement.

Did they really receive "the same" manifestation as that at the Pentecost in Acts? There is no documentation available establishing that these folks all spoke in intelligible languages that were understood by bystanders. What most of them spoke, from the evidence, is glossolalia, a term that means "ecstatic, unintelligible speech"—usually unintelligible to anyone including the speaker.

This phenomenon is not uncommon in non-Christian religious movements, and is thought by some psychologists to be caused by a mis-firing in the brain connected to intense religious excitement and expectations ... both Christian and heathen. Is this what happened in Topeka? It would be foolish to make a dogmatic statement that it was. But there is at the same time no evidence that it was an actual manifestation of the power of God.

From that small Kansas group, the phenomenon spread to Los Angeles, to a little congregation meeting in a building on Azusa Street. And from there the news spread across the country and around the world. It is often referred to as the Azusa Street Revival.   





But just what spread? Over the intervening century there have been only very scattered claims that anyone speaking in tongues has spoken in a real language that someone recognized. This is so in spite of the fact that almost all adherents claim that they are experiencing "what happened at Pentecost."

Since they are unable, however, to really come up with the genuine Pentecostal article—speaking in a language they have never learned but which their audience understands—they have thus turned to connecting the manifestation to the obscure passage in 1 Corinthians. And they have emphasized that when someone is "baptized in the Holy Spirit and speaks in another tongue"... it is actually their own individual "prayer language" which they can use from then on. Yet Paul makes no such connection between some alleged "baptism in the Spirit" and an "individual prayer language."

The only passage in the Bible that speaks of "praying in tongues" or "praying in the spirit" is the one noted above. In these verses, Paul does indeed speak about a phenomenon done privately that he refers to as "tongues." It is distinctly possible that he is not referring to the same sort of phenomenon as that which occurred at Pentecost, as the wording is quite obscure.

However, we are at a disadvantage in understanding how we might apply what he is saying to our contemporary experience as he does not, at all, give any sort of introduction or explanation to exactly what he was talking about to the Corinthians. We can make assumptions, but we have nothing else in the scriptures about this phenomenon to clarify for us what Paul had in mind. And, as noted above, he certainly doesn't connect this phenomenon to a "baptism in the spirit" nor indicate that having a "prayer language" is "the" evidence... nor even "an" evidence of some "spirit baptism."

But this is what is claimed by most Pentecostal and Charismatic teachers these days. It would appear that they have not developed this doctrine from the scriptures, but have rather attempted to fit a contemporary subjective experience back into the scriptures.



Personal note from the webauthor


I would not presume to cavalierly try to dissuade someone who claims to have received such a "gift" from their personal conviction. Personal experience is a powerful persuader. This is especially true when it is connected to powerful emotions.

I have a number of Charismatic friends who claim to have a prayer language, which is to them the evidence that they have "received the Baptism of the Holy Ghost." I have heard them speak in their "language" (all have been just a very few unintelligible and extremely repetitious syllables) ... and have seen the fruit in their lives. Neither of these things convinces me of the Biblical validity of their experiences.

I have also heard a number deliver what they claimed to be "messages in tongues" at worship services, which were dutifully "interpreted" by someone else claiming the "gift of interpretation." None were anything but nebulous words of admonishment or encouragement couched often in King James English, and mostly Biblical phraseology. It made no sense to me why they couldn't just read the passage from the Bible that said the same thing and just comment they felt it applied to a current situation. The use of tongues and interpretation seemed very forced to me, appearing as an attempt to have "the supernatural" come into a situation that didn't seem to require it ... except for heightening emotional excitement.

Thus while I would not ridicule their convictions, neither would I advise anyone to "seek" a similar experience.

There was no "seeking" of whatever happened to the disciples in Acts 2, 10 and 19.

It was just a sovereign move of God.   



Unless otherwise noted, all original material on this Field Guide website
is © 2001-2011 by Pamela Starr Dewey.

Careful effort has been made to give credit as clearly as possible to any specific material quoted or ideas extensively adapted from any one resource. Corrections and clarifications regarding citations for any source material are welcome, and will be promptly added to any sections which are found to be inadequately documented as to source.


Return to Top of Page and the Navigation Bar




Speaking in Tongues:
Overview of a Phenomenon