What’s the Point of Public Tongues?

Jeremy Pierce raised some interesting questions in his comments on my recent post. He confesses to not understanding how speaking in tongues might edify the speaker. I agree that there is some mystery to it, perhaps in a similar way to the way that partaking of the Lord’s supper and water baptism can be means of grace to us. From personal testimony though, I would say that speaking in tongues for a few minutes is very helpful in putting me into a more prayerful attitude when I am finding it hard to pray, and afterwards I find a surprising liberty and passion in my prayers in English.

However, the point I want to address here is why would we want tongues in a public meeting? If it only edifies the hearer (1 Cor 14:4), as Paul says, then why not speak in your natural language? It would seem that in Corinth that some people were quite self-centred about their use of this gift – wanting to show themselves as spiritual, rather than desiring to edify others. But ego-centric motives are not exclusively tied to speaking in tongues – prophets and even preachers could just as easily fall into the same trap.

As a general rule (and here I may go against the views of some of my charismatic friends), people with the gift of tongues would not normally expect to use it in a public meeting. But on occasion, they may feel that the Spirit is stirring them to speak out in tongues in much the same way that a person with the gift of prophecy does. In this case, they should be open to the possibility that God intends them to bring this contribution, and that the church will be edified through its interpretation.

Which brings us on to the question of how you know if “an interpreter” is present (1 Cor 14:28). In charismatic churches, there are often a few people known to exercise this gift. But if you are not sure they are there, then you should pray that you yourself would be given the interpretation (1 Cor 14:13), as your desire should be for the church to be blessed which cannot happen if the tongue goes uninterpreted.

So how is it that a tongue followed by an interpretation might edify a congregation in a way that a contribution in a natural language wouldn’t? Let me suggest two ways.

First, tongues is an exalted prayer language, in which we speak mysteries to God (1 Cor 14:2). In my experience the interpretation is a prayer that really lifts the spirits of all who hear, often with greater fervency and eloquence than is normally seen in public prayers in church. Thus everyone is encouraged and drawn in to worship more wholeheartedly as they see the Spirit moving someone to pray in such a way.

Second, tongues are described as a ‘sign’ for unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22). This is by no means a simple verse to understand, but I take it to mean that the gift of tongues is a powerful witness to visiting unbelievers that they are outsiders. There is a power present that they know nothing of, and this may stir a hunger within them to know it for themselves.

In conclusion, let me quote 1 Cor 14:39: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” It seems clear to me that Paul considered prophecy far more immediately useful than tongues in meetings, but to forbid speaking in tongues publicly could also rob people of a blessing God wanted to bring. In other words, if Paul was judging a meeting, he wouldn’t be asking “were there three prayers in tongues?” but “were people edified?” and “was there evidence of the Spirit’s moving?”.

15 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Public Tongues?

  1. Maybe my problem is more general, because I have trouble with the examples you’re comparing it to. I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about how the Lord’s supper and baptism are means of grace. The Lord’s supper is a time for remembering our Lord’s sacrifice for us and our proclamation of his death, resurrection, and coming return. Baptism is a public statement of our belonging to God and a sign to us that we are in the covenant. None of that is very mystical.

  2. I chose the Lord’s supper and baptism as examples of activities that don’t necessarily make sense on their own. We could easily remember Jesus’ death in other ways, and proclaim our belonging to God with a different ceremony. True, part of the reason we do it the way we do is simply trying to follow the Scriptural pattern, but I would also say that there is an element of faith involved – we believe that God will take our humble obedience to these commands and bless us through it, whether or not we fully understand why it has to be done this way.

    By the way, I am appreciating your interaction with my posts. It helps me to think things throuh more clearly when someone challenges my ideas. I would also be interested in hearing you elaborate slightly on baptism being “a sign to us that we are in the covenant”.

  3. When speaking in tongues one generally has a sense of what they are speaking. They may not know what exactly they are praying but have a general sense as to whether its intercession, adoration, etc. and sometimes as to what subject/object. So if know one provides an interprettation, which is generally a prophetic utterance, then if we are following the guidelines of Paul well the individual should provide a general statement of something as to what they felt when praying.

    Anyhow a random comment from a random guy.

  4. OK thanks Sven, I’ll read and respond later.
    Unfortunately I have had to turn off trackback support on my blog thanks to getting over 100 spam trackbacks a day that were getting too time consuming to manage.

  5. Ben, I think that you do often get a sense of broadly what you are praying about, but 1 Cor 14:14 suggests that this won’t necessarily be the case.

    I do know of some people who interpret tongues who go up to the person who spoke in tongues after the meeting to ask whether they felt it was a genuine interpretation. I think this is probably a good practise, but I’m not sure it needs to be done publicly – the tongues speaker would feel under pressure to confirm the interpretation to save embarrassment for the interpreter.

    I’m not sure why you think an interpretation would be a “prophetic utterance”. I think that it would be a prayer.

  6. Got a great quote by Gordon Fee from his commentary on 1 Corinthians that I thought I might throw into the whole fascinating discussion;

    “Contrary to the opinion of many, spiritual edification can take place in ways other than through the cortex of the brain”.

    I did pop it on my latest post, but thought I’d post it here for those who stay well away from a heretic like me!! It’s a useful comment I think especially for those of us who like to use our minds a lot in the true Greek fashion. Let’s not forget we have spirit’s (and maybe souls too – if you’re a tri-person).

    D x

  7. As I have been discussing with Sven on his blog, I believe that both the tongues in 1 Cor and Acts 2 are addressed primarily to God (Acts 2:4,11 – they started speaking in tongues before there was an audience to hear them, and were heard to be declaring the works of God; 1 Cor 14:2 explicitly says that tongues are not addressed to men but to God, 1 Cor 14:14 sugests again that tongues are for prayer).

    Most charismatic churches I have been in teach this, and expect interpretations of tongues to be in the form of prayer, not prophecy.

    If Paul does see tongues and prophecy as “parallel”, it is because when tongues are interpreted, they too can build up the body.

  8. I have to disagree. While there are surface elements to baptism and eucharist that are quite easily understood, there is something mysterious in them as well. It is at the level of interacting with symbols that this occurs. The best scriptural example of this is the Lukan Emmaus Road experience. Something about the recognition of Jesus was so profoundly moving that these fed up disciples who had travelled all day already, packed up everything and were heading back to Jerusalem within an hour.

  9. Just one thing I would like to comment out on this is for someone to read 1 cor 15:26 and on and explains the whole toungues in a public meeting thing, so the answer is in the bible people just over look it. Even before in 1 cor 13 is when Paul adresses the Corinths speaking in toungues as gibberish because of the fact they did not have the knowledge to lets say wield it. But for this question of public tonques please read further on 1cor. expecially 15 vs. 26-28..

  10. Hello, new here.

    I personally received the Holy Spirit about a month or so ago with evidence of speaking in tongues. Now, I have not ever done so in a public setting where there would be interpretation. But I do so just in praying. Edifying myself as 1 cor. 14:4 says. Now… my problem is there is nowhere in the Bible, at least I can’t find where this is done. Whenever tongues is spoken , it is always in a group setting. Is there anywhere in the Bible, where one person is praying in tongues without an interpretation? If so, where? and I do this, pray in tongues.. only a few words/sylables. But, Im trying to give a good reson as to why i do it to someone. and What is the benefit, and how do I know it is from God? Why pray in tongues instead of praying in English?? What’s the point, if you can just pray in English? Thanks!!

  11. Hi Steve,
    Its a good question. Praying privately in tongues isn’t mentioned explicitly in the Bible, but I believe it is implied. In 1 Cor 14:18,19 Paul says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

    In other words, “I speak in tongues loads, but not often in church”. The implication is that he is praying in toungues privately.

    Also, in 1 Cor 14:14, Paul calls speaking in tongues “praying with my spirit”. There is therefore a possibility that other passages refering to “pray in the Spirit” refer to, or include, speaking in tongues. See Jude 1:20, Eph 6:18

    As for your final question, “why not just pray in English”. The answer may come in Romans 8:26 – “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

    Many Christians struggle with praying – we find the words do not “flow” very easily. Tongues can help us to express the worship in our spirits to God without having the vocabulary to do so. When I pray privately in tongues, I often find that afterwards I experience a greater liberty to pray in English. Maybe that is the “interpretation” coming, or maybe speaking in tongues is helpful for me to come into an attitude of prayer and worship and be filled with the Spirit so that I am more able to pray in English.

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