I have been a Christian long enough to see the 'speaking in tongues' idea sweep through the church with the Pentecostal movement and now for many be seen as an acceptable practice for Christians. While I agree that it is somewhat confusing to adequately address all the verses that seem to focus on this topic as there appears to be some contradiction, I take a broader perspective and consider how the practice fits with Biblical teaching in general and what we know about God and the church. Upfront, I DO NOT think that the practice of a 'special prayer language' is Biblical. However, I do see that there may be times when someone is gifted with the capacity to speak in another tongue – a real language, in order to advance the gospel; i.e., in an evangelistic situation. This is consistent with the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost when the apostles spoke in new languages, and the ethnically diverse crowd all heard the gospel message IN THEIR OWN TONGUE (i.e., known languages), and many were saved. This is what I believe the gift of 'tongues' is – not a gibberish so-called prayer language. Below I outline my reasons for this position:
- Languages have a structure, form, syntax, etc. You know when you hear a language, even if you do not understand it. However, 'tongues' as a prayer language lacks the characteristics of a language. Now I have to admit that I do not associate with people who engage in this practice (are you surprised), but I have heard it quite a few times in both church-type events and on television, and it seems to me to primarily be a repetitive sort of noise with no form, structure, or complexity of sounds. As such, it is NOT a language, and because the words 'tongue' and 'language' are the same, it is NOT a tongue.
- Given the point above, then it is not able to be interpreted, because only a language can be interpreted. Also, if the so called tongue that is 'uncomplex' and is made up of a few simple noises that are repeated, then the translation or interpretation should also be a few simple words that repeated mantra-style.
- From all the explanations I have had of 'tongues as a prayer language', it seems that God is just talking to himself, using the prayers vocal chords but by-passing their brain. So God says stuff to himself through a vessel that has no idea what they are saying. This seems quite bizarre to me and non-sensical. Now I do not want to limit God, but I don't think He does things just for a special trick or as a purposeless activity. I see no other such activity in what I read and know of God from the Bible.
- If you look at the spiritual gifts, they are clearly given to the church, through individuals. They are not for the edification of the individual, they are ALL for the building up of the church. Again, 'tongues as some sort of prayer language' is different and stands apart from the overall Biblical teaching on spiritual gifts. If it is so different, then it seems to me that this interpretation of 'the gift of tongues' is wrong.
- Also, if you look at the spiritual gifts, all believers, to a greater or lesser extent, have them all. But again, the view of 'tongues as a prayer language' does not fit.
- Given the clear interpretation of the gift of 'tongues' in most Biblical passages is as outlined in the opening paragraph (i.e., a known language for evangelistic purposes), it seems likely that this is what the gift actually is. There are not 2 different forms of 'speaking in tongues', so the prayer language version must be incorrect.
- A practice much like the 'ecstatic utterances' version of 'speaking in tongues' is not a new phenomenon and it recent history it did not begin with the church. It has been commonly practiced in various pagan and occultist ceremonies as a sort of mantra and/or mind altering activity. I am no expert here, but it seems that in all these cases (including the so-called church version) it is primarily a psychological tool to make the speaker feel like they are closer to God, even though in reality it is nothing more that mindless gibberish.
- While this is really more personal than a sound argument, but have yet to meet a Christian that 'has the fragrance of Christ' and is widely respected and Godly that engages in the 'ecstatic version of speaking in tongues'. I readily admit that there may be many Godly believers who may be involved in this erroneous practice; just I haven't met them yet!
I could continue, but perhaps this post is now long enough. While the practice of 'tongues as a special prayer language' is probably in many respects a harmless, if somewhat frivolous and silly activity, my main concern is that it misrepresents the nature and character of God. It makes Him look foolish, and of course there is no hint of foolishness in God. God is wise, purposeful, and passionately concerned with His church – my desire is that we, as the church, reflect His nature and His character.