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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Speaking in Tongues

Don Stewart :: Didn't Paul Have a Number of Good Things to Say about the Gift on Tongues?

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Didn’t Paul Have a Number of Good Things to Say about the Gift of Tongues?

The Gift of Speaking in Tongues – Question 22

The gift of tongues may, or may not, still be a valid spiritual gift for believers today. It certainly was a supernatural gift that God gave to the church. Therefore, the gift should never be looked down upon. The question is how much emphasis or importance should be attached to the gift. What does the Bible have to say?

What Did Paul Say about the Gift of Tongues?

It has been argued that Paul had a number of good things to say about the gift of speaking in tongues. These statements should be considered when weighing the importance of the gift. Paul’s statement concerning speaking in tongues includes the following.

Those Who Speak in Tongues Speak to God

First, those who speak in tongues speak directly to God. He put it this way.

For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:2 NRSV)

Their speech is directed at God not to other humans.

Paul Wanted Everyone to Speak in Tongues

Paul told the Corinthians that he wanted everyone to speak in tongues. He wrote the following words to the Corinthians.

Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:5 NRSV).

He would not have said this if speaking in tongues was not an important spiritual gift. From this statement, some would say that speaking in tongues was more than important – it was vital.

Tongues Can Build up the Individual

Paul said that those who speak in tongues build up themselves. He gave this explanation when discussing the gift.

He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church (1 Corinthians 14:4 NKJV).

This is seen by some as being beneficial. It has been contended that we can only build up others to the extent that God has built us up. Therefore, speaking in tongues builds up the believer so that they, in turn, can build up others.

Paul Spoke in Tongues More than Anyone

Paul emphasized that he himself spoke in tongues. We read his words to the Corinthians.

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you (1 Corinthians 14:18 NLT).

Although the Bible does not record when Paul received the gift of tongues, or when he exercised it, Paul said he was thankful for the fact that he spoke in tongues.

Tongue Speaking Should Not Be Forbidden

Paul made it clear that tongue speaking should not be forbidden. He gave the following command to the Corinthians.

So, dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39 NLT).

Consequently, these statements by the Apostle Paul indicate the value of the gift of tongues. He wanted everyone to speak with tongues, he said that tongue-speaking builds up the believer, Paul was thankful that he spoke with tongues more than anyone, and he commanded that no one forbid the exercise of the gift.

Response to This Position

There is another point of view with respect to these statements of Paul. Without meaning to look down upon the gift of tongues, these statements must be understood in their context. When this occurs the importance of the gift will not seem so great. We can make the following observations.

The Statements Are Always Qualified

The first thing that should be noted is that every time Paul says something positive about the gift of tongues he always qualifies it. Never do we find him making an unqualified statement about the value of tongue. This is important to understand.

Speaking to God Is Not Beneficial in the Church

When Paul said tongue speakers were speaking to God, and not to people, he was not advocating this in the church. To the contrary he was emphasizing how unhelpful this was. He encouraged people to prophesy.

On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation (1 Corinthians 14:3 NRSV).

Paul wanted the church to be built up, not the individual who was exercising the gift.

Paul Was Not Advocating Tongues for Everyone

Paul was not attempting to say that everyone should speak in tongues. He does not phrase the sentence as a command but more of a wish or desire on his part. He uses the same type of thing elsewhere in first Corinthians.

I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that (1 Corinthians 7:7 NIV).

Therefore, this is more of a desire on Paul’s part than a command from God. In fact, Paul knew that everyone did not speak in tongues. Indeed, he himself emphasized this.

Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! (1 Corinthians 12:29-30 NLT).

Consequently, Paul could not be advocating everyone to speak in tongues.

God Gives the Gifts That He Desires

There are other reasons to believe that Paul was not serious about wanting everyone to speak with tongues.

First, God gives every spiritual gift as He alone desires to give it. Paul wrote.

It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have (1 Corinthians 12:11 NLT).

Furthermore, believers are never told to ask in prayer to receive any spiritual gift. God simply gives them.

Tongues Is the Least of the Gifts

In addition, speaking in tongues seems to be the least of all of the spiritual gifts. While God gave tongues as a valid spiritual gift with a specific purpose for its use, Paul’s emphasis is always on the greater gifts. Speaking in tongues was not one of them.

In addition, we must read Paul’s entire sentence about the value of 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 (1 Corinthians 14:5 NRSV).

Paul is contrasting the gift of tongues to prophecy. He says prophecy is the greater gift unless the gift of tongues is interpreted. Therefore, the exercise of the gift of tongues is of greater benefit to the body of Christ only when there is interpretation. Otherwise the gift of prophecy is of superior worth.

The Church Needs to Be Build Up: Not the Individual

Paul also said that tongue speaking builds up the speaker, not the believers who had gathered together. He wrote.

He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church (1 Corinthians 14:4 NKJV)

The Bible never indicates that self-edification is something good. It is not correct to assume that believers can only build up others to the degree in which they have been built up. Love is not self-seeking as Paul emphasized.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV).

The church, the body of Christ, is what needs to be built up.

Paul Nowhere Writes about His Own Speaking in Tongues

While Paul was thankful that he spoke with tongues more than anyone, the Scripture is strangely silent as to when Paul received the gift. Neither does it give us any record of Paul exercising the gift. If the gift were so vital, then we would expect the Scripture to record Paul using the gift. However there is nothing of this sort. The absence of any account of Paul speaking in tongues seems to undervalue the gift.

Paul made it clear what he preferred in the church meeting. He wrote the following words to the Corinthians.

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue (1 Corinthians 14:18, 19 ESV).

The teaching of the Word of God is what was required when believers gather together rather than someone speaking in an unknown tongue or language.

Prophecy Was More Profitable than Speaking in Tongues

Even when Paul did not forbid speaking in tongues he still qualified the statement.

So, dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39 NLT).

Prophecy should be preferred to speaking in tongues for it is a more valuable gift.

With all of these qualifications, it is clear that Paul was not encouraging everyone to speak in tongues. Indeed, as he himself clearly taught, not everyone has the gift.

Summary – Question 22
Didn’t Paul Have a Number of Good Things to Say about the Gift on Tongues?

Those who presently practice the gift of speaking in tongues argue that the Apostle Paul had a number of positive things to say about this particular spiritual gift. They point out that Paul said the following things about tongues.

First, whoever spoke in tongues spoke only to God. This is interpreted to mean that the person was in direct communion with God.

The apostle also said that he wanted everyone to speak in tongues. To make a statement such as this shows that he highly valued the gift.

In addition, Paul wrote that tongues built up the individual. This is interpreted to mean that a believer will mature in their Christian experience by exercising the gift of tongues.

Paul wrote that he was thankful that he spoke in tongues more than any of them. A statement like this is further indication as to how much he valued the gift.

Paul concluded his teaching on the subject by saying that tongue speaking should not be forbidden.

These facts have caused many people to place a high value on this particular spiritual gift.

There are other Bible-believers who do not see it the same way. They respond to the above points by stressing that Paul’s words must be understood in their context. Indeed, when these statements are read in context it will be noted that the apostle does not place that much value upon the gift as some have claimed.

First, we find that some type of warning qualifies every seemingly good thing that Paul says about speaking in tongues. In other words, whenever he says something positive about the gift there is always a qualifying statement.

In fact, when read in context, we find that Paul was not advocating people speak in tongues in church where they would address God and Him alone. To the contrary, he was warning against such practices.

Indeed, he said that he would rather people prophesy than speak in tongues. Consequently he saw the gift of prophecy of greater value than the gift of speaking in tongues.

Furthermore, he was not advocating self-edification. In a church service, all things should be done to build up the body of Christ, not any single individual.

Paul additionally said he would rather speak five clear words in church than ten thousand in tongues. Again, the emphasis is on the plain teaching of the Word of God rather than the practice of speaking in tongues.

Finally, even though he said tongue speaking was not to be forbidden, in that same sentence, he encouraged people to prophesy.

In sum, it is important that we do have a balanced view of what the Bible says about the gift of tongues. Thus, we should neither undervalue it nor overrate it.

If Certain Tongue Speaking Does Not Come from God, Where Does It Come From? ← Prior Section
What Is the Gift of Interpretation of Tongues? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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