Many Christian Churches embrace the idea of the gift of tongues, which is one of several supernatural gifts recognized by the Christian Church that come from the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. These gifts are used to fulfill the mission of the Church, and are described in several books of the New Testament.
But as a churchgoer, have you ever been made to feel like a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God because you don’t have this particular gift? Perhaps you’ve been encouraged to utter sounds and moanings, to “fake it till you make it.” But deep down, do you feel woefully inadequate and unworthy because it just never feels real? And worst of all, do you wonder if this lack means that your salvation hangs in the balance?
You are not alone. And there is nothing wrong with you. The problem, rather, is with your church.
The first Biblical occurrence of this gift took place on the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2:1-4. Here, people from “every nation in heaven” came to hear the apostles speak, and were astonished to each hear the sermon in their own native tongue. It was a linguistic miracle—the Greek word that we translate as “tongues” simply means “languages”.
And so, therefore, the gift of tongues is the gift of speaking in a foreign language in order to better minister to someone who speaks that language.
But this is where the problem begins. Some churches—particularly in the charismatic tradition—have interpreted the gift of tongues to mean something very different, and whether they know it or not, it is alienating a large portion of their attendees.
The Spiritual Proletariat
Rather than interpreting the events of Acts as a linguistic gift, some churches teach that the gift of tongues is a supernatural language that allows a worshiper to communicate with God in a superior way. Worshipers are encouraged to allow non-linguistic sounds to freely flow from their mouths in what is known as a “private prayer language”.
Those who are successfully able to communicate with God in this way are considered to be able to do so because they have been filled with the Holy Spirit. They have been good enough, have sacrificed enough, have fasted long enough, and have been pious enough, to have this gifting.
But therein lies the first part of the problem with this interpretation of the gift of tongues. If those who are capable of speaking in tongues are filled with the Holy Spirit, what does this mean for those who are not?
They are the spiritual lower class. They are less. They are the spiritual proletariat to the gifted church aristocracy.
These spiritual have-nots are, at best, encouraged to grow closer to God. At the worst, they are condemned. And in some churches, this borders on abuse, with pastors proclaiming that those who are saved, that those who are good will always manifest this gift. The subtext here is that if someone is valued by God, they will be able to speak in tongues.
This leaves many questioning their connection with God, His love for them, and sometimes, their very salvation. Over time, this pain can become unbearable. And because of the social pressures of the church environment, this pain is also often silent.
But, fortunately, the solution to this spiritual Marxism can be found in scripture.
An Erroneous Interpretation
In Acts 2, as we’ve learned, the gift of tongues is, in essence, the gift of interpretation. It is a supernatural event in which someone understands what you’re saying, regardless of language barriers. What is spoken is not gibberish, but real language with meaning and syntax.
Nowhere in the Bible is the case for a private, unintelligible prayer language made. That can be easily cast aside—from here on, “tongues” will be referred to as “languages”.
But to go even further, 1 Corinthians, Paul discusses the gift of languages, writing the following insightful passage.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
Here, in chapter 12, Paul is reprimanding the Corinthian church for doing the very thing we’ve discussed—placing undue emphasis on the interpretative gift of languages.
Furthermore, Paul asserts that a Christian cannot obtain a certain gift that God has not already given, nor can anyone be coached, encouraged, or threatened into having these gifts. Scripturally, it is impossible for every believer to have the gift of languages, and it is wrong for a church to teach this.