Jun 5 / Bill Ricksecker

The Spiritual Gift of Tongues: Understanding Its Role and Relevance Today

The spiritual gift of tongues is a topic that has fascinated and puzzled Christians for centuries. Rooted in the early days of the Church, it has been a source of inspiration, controversy, and debate. To understand what the gift of tongues truly is, what it is not, and why some Christians believe it is not necessary today, we must delve into its biblical foundation and historical context.

What is the Gift of Tongues?

The gift of tongues, also known as glossolalia, is described in the New Testament as a miraculous ability given by the Holy Spirit to speak in languages unknown to the speaker. This phenomenon is first prominently mentioned in Acts 2:1-4 during the Day of Pentecost. The apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in various languages, astonishing the diverse crowd in Jerusalem as each person heard them speaking in their native tongue.

This event had two primary purposes:

  1. Authentication of the Message: The ability to speak in different languages served as a sign to the unbelievers that the apostles' message was divinely inspired.
  2. Edification of the Church: It facilitated communication and the spread of the Gospel to people of different linguistic backgrounds.

In 1 Corinthians 12-14, the Apostle Paul discusses the gift of tongues in the context of spiritual gifts given for the common good of the Church. He emphasizes that while tongues are valuable, they must be exercised in an orderly and edifying manner, with interpretation, to benefit the congregation.

What the Gift of Tongues is Not

  1. Not Gibberish: Contrary to some modern interpretations, biblical tongues were actual languages spoken by people. The miracle was in the speaker's ability to speak a language they had not learned, and in the hearer's ability to understand it.
  2. Not a Sign of Spiritual Superiority: Paul makes it clear that no single gift, including tongues, should be seen as a marker of spiritual maturity or superiority (1 Corinthians 12:29-31). All gifts are given by the Holy Spirit for the edification of the Church and should be valued equally.
  3. Not a Private Prayer Language: While some believe that tongues can be used as a private prayer language, this interpretation is debated. Paul mentions praying in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:14-15) but also stresses the importance of understanding and edification, suggesting that corporate worship and understanding take precedence.

Why Christians Should Not Expect to use it Today?

  1. Historical Context: The primary purpose of tongues was to authenticate the apostolic message during the foundational period of the Church. As the New Testament canon was established and the Church grew, the need for such miraculous signs diminished. Hebrews 2:3-4 implies that miracles, including tongues, served to confirm the Gospel message initially preached by the apostles.
  2. Sufficiency of Scripture: With the completion of the New Testament, Christians have a full and sufficient revelation of God’s will and message. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 declares that Scripture thoroughly equips believers for every good work. The emphasis is now on understanding and applying God's Word rather than seeking additional signs.
  3. Church History: Throughout church history, the practice of speaking in tongues has not been a consistent or widespread phenomenon. Major theological figures and revivals have often not emphasized tongues, indicating that it is not an essential element of Christian life and practice.

  4. Order and Edification: Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 about orderly worship and the need for interpretation suggest that tongues without interpretation are of limited value in the corporate setting. Modern misuse or overemphasis on tongues can lead to disorder and division within the church, contrary to the scriptural emphasis on unity and edification.


The spiritual gift of tongues played a significant role in the early Church as a sign to unbelievers and a means of spreading the Gospel across linguistic barriers. However, its necessity and practice today are subjects of debate. Given the historical context, the sufficiency of Scripture, and the potential for misuse, many Christians believe that the gift of tongues is not a normative or expected experience for believers today. Instead, the focus should be on the edifying gifts of the Spirit that build up the body of Christ and promote unity within the Church.
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