Speaking in tongues was a dramatic miracle that helped the Christian church begin (Acts 2). The book of Acts records two other occasions on which the Holy Spirit caused people to speak in tongues, and in his letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul gave instructions about speaking in tongues.
Some churches emphasize the practice of speaking in tongues. They teach that every Christian should speak in tongues as evidence of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Some of these churches are among the fastest-growing segments of Christianity.
Other churches allow the practice of speaking in tongues, but do not encourage it. In these churches, tongue-speakers may form charismatic fellowship groups within the larger congregation. (Charismatic is defined in the glossary at the end of this series of articles.) Still other churches forbid their members from speaking in tongues.
Speaking in tongues has been vigorously debated during the past century. The major questions are these:
Does every Christian who receives the Holy Spirit speak in tongues?
Does speaking in tongues prove that the Holy Spirit has come to a person?
Are those who speak in tongues more spiritual or closer to God than those who do not?
What role should tongue-speaking have in church meetings?
To answer these questions, we need to consult the Bible. First, let’s see what Jesus said about tongues.
Giving his disciples their commission, Jesus said: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-18). Then Jesus predicted what would happen: “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (verses 17-18).
These verses do not predict how often these signs would occur, or whether every believer would be involved in each of these signs, or whether believers should make special efforts to display these miracles. To answer such questions, we need to look at other scriptures.
The book of Acts describes incidents of casting out demons, healings and supernatural protection against deadly things. However, believers did not go out of their way to find demons or to be exposed to deadly things. In the case of healing, we know that there were times when it did not happen (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, for example).
Mark 16:17-18 simply lists a few of the many types of miracles that God’s church would experience. This list is neither a command nor a promise for every Christian. To answer our questions about speaking in tongues, we must examine other scriptures.
Shortly after Christ had risen into heaven, his disciples were observing the annual festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (verses 2-4).