Is Speaking in Tongues a Lesser Gift?

Is Speaking in Tongues a Lesser Gift? September 22, 2022

You may have heard it said that the gift of tongues is a lesser gift. That’s because it can be a blessing or a distraction in church. In private prayer life, it can be a benefit or an obsession.

Photo by Edward Cisneros on Unsplash

My experience of the gift of tongues has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’ve witnessed first-hand cases of Christians showboating in church. Tongues-speaking in worship services calls attention to the individual and removes the focus from Jesus himself. Perhaps this is why Paul offers so many guidelines to the practice in his first letter to the Corinthians. The apostle knew that if it were not managed correctly, the gift could be divisive and even abusive in a church gathering.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen devoted believers pouring their genuine emotions out to God through the gift of tongues. In my own life, glossolalia has allowed me to forego the need for intelligible language in the throes of enthusiastic prayer. It has been a blessing in desperate times when I don’t know what or how to pray. But it has also faded into the background, in favor of what I believe to be a better practice that I’ll discuss in this series’ next installment.

In my last article, “A Second Blessing?” I discussed the mistaken doctrine that the gift of tongues is the initial evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I also shared a bit of my own experience of the gift. I mentioned that glossolalia is not unique to Christianity, but that mystics from other religions. And I also identified myself as a former Pentecostal minister (in case you think I need credentials for these articles).


Tongues as a Lesser Gift

The apostle Paul respected glossolalia, and did not condemn its practice, stating, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you (1 Cor 14.8*).” Nevertheless, he believed it to be one of the lesser gifts of the Holy Spirit, because “Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves (14.4).” In other words, the Spirit gives tongues to build up the faith of someone whose faith is young, immature, weak, or faltering. Tongues are a shot in the arm, so to speak.

Paul also says that tongues are “a sign not for believers but for unbelievers (14.22).” In his mind, they are an act of God that can be seen by unbelieving visitors to the church, as proof that the Spirit is moving. Guests who witness the gift are to say, “Now here’s a supernatural event that’s convincing proof!” But he also says that the gift is limited, as its words are unintelligible and mindless (14.4). At its worst, tongues could actually work against God’s purposes as a sign for unbelievers, convincing visitors that people are out of their heads (14.23)! So, he says that prophecy is better than tongues.


Prophecy Better Than Tongues

Paul says that in the church, prophecy (declaration of God’s word in an intelligible way) is better than tongues (14.3, 5). When people come to church, they should be prepared to hear from God—and they can only do this if they understand what they’re hearing. Paul also says that prayer should not always be in tongues, but that it should be understandable. “What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also (14.15).” In this way, everyone can benefit. “In church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue (14.19).”


Tongues in the Church

Paul lays out some guidelines for tongues-speaking in the church. Bear in mind that these rules apply to church gatherings, not private prayer or small groups.

  • “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret (14.13).” Paul believes that intelligible prayer is better than tongues, so if one can interpret one’s own speech, so much the better. This way, you can understand what you’re saying to God, and how God might be responding.
  • “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up (14.26).” Paul wants believers to keep the main thing the main thing. Instead of tongues glorifying the individual doing the speaking, the gift should glorify God and benefit others.
  • “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three and each in turn…(14.27a).” Churches where everyone is praying in tongues at the same time, or even where it’s one at a time but it goes on and on ad nauseam, are out of order and do not glorify God.
  • “…and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God (14.27b-28).” Either the person speaking in tongues themselves should interpret, or another should interpret. (Notice it says interpret, not More on this in the next installment.) If there is no interpretation, it is out of order, and not from God.

Paul does not want tongues-speaking in the church to be a source of confusion. Instead, he hopes it will build people up if their faith is weak. If tongues-speaking is disturbing to orderly worship, or if it makes visitors think that church people are crazy, then it’s gotten out of hand.

Many charismatic churches and Pentecostal denominations have instituted similar guidelines. They have gone to great lengths to differentiate between tongues-speaking in the local congregation, and in private situations. The best practice is to limit tongues-speaking to private moments. Those who say they can’t control it would do well to listen to Paul’s words in 14.32-33a, “…The spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.” To claim that you can’t help yourself is a cop-out. The Holy Spirit never overrides your free will. To pray with your mind and spirit means discerning when tongues-speaking is appropriate and when it isn’t.


Tongues-Speaking in Private or Small Groups

In private moments, and in small groups, tongues-speaking is an entirely different matter. The rules don’t apply when you’re by yourself or when you’re among a small group of like-minded people. If praying in tongues helps you feel closer to God, then go for it! If it helps you to let go and not worry about the restrictions of intelligible speech, then tongues can be a great way to express pure emotion in prayer. Paul’s rules in 1 Corinthians 14 are for the larger church congregation, and not for private practice.

But as “mindless” or “unintelligible” as Paul says it is, let’s not do it unintelligently. In my next article in this series, I’ll deconstruct the gift and ask what it truly is, from a linguistic perspective. And then I’ll suggest a perhaps better way to achieve a similar result—one of connecting with God on a level of pure spirit, without the encumbrance of words. I hope you’ll join me.


*Scripture quotations are from the NRSVUE.



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