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Is praying in tongues biblical?


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Everyone seems to be talking about speaking in tongues these days. Though that is not the same as everyone talking in tongues, there is no doubt that there is great interest in this topic. There are many facets to the subject of tongues. Is it the initial evidence of Spirit baptism? Should all Christians speak in tongues? Was speaking in tongues only intended for the New Testament era? Is it actual language or only “ecstatic utterance”? Those are all important questions that beg our attention, but in this article I am only going to address directly the question of tongues as prayer language. Dealing with that topic will require that I open the door on a couple of these other issues, but I will not be able to investigate them with any thoroughness at all.

The phrase “prayer language” no where occurs in the Bible, but some interpreters have taken Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:2 to refer to such: “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God.” The context of this statement is tongues speech in public worship. The Corinthians were speaking in tongues in public worship and Paul writes to exhort them to the correct use of tongues in a public context. The entire chapter is about the public use of tongues and prophecy in corporate worship, not about the private use of spiritual gifts in an individual setting.

So, what does Paul mean when he says that one who speaks in a tongue speaks to God? The next verse makes that very clear: “One who prophesies speaks to men for edification.” In other words, if someone prophesies in public worship, people will be able to understand that and they will benefit by it since they are able to understand it. But one who speaks in an un-interpreted tongue does not speak to men. They do not understand what he is saying, and so the only one who does hear that word (and who also presumably understands it) is God. In other words, 1 Corinthians 14:2 does not endorse private tongues in any sense at all.

One thing that makes this obvious is that the whole chapter deals with the topic of edification. Everything in this section of the letter points to the truth that God gives gifts and ministries to the church so that members can use them for the benefit of others. In this way, the entire body is built up. One thing that may help us to understand that fact is that the gifts listed in these chapters (and also in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4) are, in effect, ministries. These gifts are not like trinkets that we can utilize either for our own purposes or the purposes of other people. They are given solely that we might mutually build up the body of Christ.

Even when Paul says that one who speaks in a tongue “edifies himself” (1 Cor. 14:4), he does not mean that as a good thing, since he then states that one who prophesies edifies the church. That is what we are supposed to be doing—edifying the body, and not ourselves. Self-edification and self-promotion were exactly what was wrong with the Corinthians church, among other things. So, there is really no justification for a private prayer language from this text in 1 Corinthians.

Of course, many people do “have” such a language. So, what is it, and how should we understand it?

First, we must note that such a thing is not the same as the NT gift of tongues. That gift was the miraculous ability to speak in a language one had never learned. This is clear from Acts 2:1-13 which states that the disciples in the upper room were filled with the Spirit and spoke in tongues, and that the people there for the festival who lived in other lands heard them speak in their languages. These were actual languages, and the miracle was just that—the ability to speak in an unlearned language. There is every reason to believe that the same thing happened at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10, since Peter later reported that the same miracle had happed to the Gentiles as had happened to the Jews. If at Cornelius’s house they had only spoken in a series of non-linguistic sounds, there would have been no miracle.

There is also no reason whatsoever to think that what Paul talks about in Corinthians is any different from the experience in Acts. Why would it be? If the one is languages, why would we think that what was once seen as a mighty act of God has now been replaced by people only making a series of sounds in their mouths? That would seem cheap and tawdry after what happened in Acts. Tongues in the NT, then, is languages.

Prayer languages, though, are not real languages. What are they?

Psychologists have long known that humans have the capacity to become adept at making sounds which can become spontaneous, and even a series of such sounds that can be spoken as a sort of monologue. This series of sounds, however, does not constitute a language, but only a series of syllables. They refer to this as linguistic-free discourse. It is discourse in a series of syllables, but it is not a language. Further, it can be learned (and taught), persons can become adept at it, and it can provide a certain kind of pleasant stimulation. It is also something that anyone can learn to do.

Having been a student of this phenomenon (tongues speech) for some time and having listened to many examples of people so speaking, I am convinced that the vast majority of speaking in tongues in our time is Christian people practicing what we might call “Christian linguistic-free discourse.”

What do we take from all this?

• First, what happens in the vast majority of cases both in corporate tongues speech in churches and in private prayer languages is not the same thing as the NT gift of tongues. That was a miracle; what happens today is, generally, not.

• Second, what happens in such situations may not necessarily be a bad thing. I was once told that speaking in tongues is either of the Lord, of the flesh, or of the devil. There is another option, however. It might just be innocuous.

• Third, though it may be innocuous, we must always be aware of the potential danger. When we are saying things we do not understand there is always the threat that we might open ourselves up to malignant spiritual forces that could do us real spiritual harm.

I am not “afraid” of anything the Lord may want to do in my life. But I do seek to pattern my spiritual life after what I find in Scripture. If I can’t find justification for some kind of spiritual practice in the Bible, I am probably going to be leery of it. I only want what God wants. At the same time, I am sympathetic to those who have sought and found a “prayer language.” Most of them genuinely love the Lord and want to know Him better. I applaud that.

But I also know that Scripture extols the virtue of understanding, and not merely experience for experience’s sake. The knowledge of God itself is satisfying, but it is knowledge gained through language—the words of Scripture. We ought to return to Him with the same. Hosea said that when we go to God, we should take words with us (Hos. 14:2). That is a beautiful piece of advice.

Unspecified prayer is sometimes all we can do in times of suffering (Rom. 8:26-27), but even that is not the same as prayer in words that are not really words. We must always act toward one another in charity, especially in matters that are not essentials of the faith. But at the same time, I believe we ought to have a faith and an experience of God that is clear and articulate. We ought always to seek to understand, insofar as that is possible.

Chad Brand is professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and associate dean for Biblical and Theological Studies of Boyce College in Louisville, Ky.