Tongues, Part 4

By Phillip G. Kayser · Acts 2:4-13, Part 4 · 2005-7-10

We are going to spend one more day on the subject of tongues. And I have really been nervous about giving such detailed, heavy material. On the one hand I recognize that this is not a minor issue – entire churches have been split over the subject. And so I realized that I dare not lightly pass over the issue. On the other hand, those who have never had charismatics fiercely arguing with them, might wonder why we are spending so much time on something that is so obvious. Well, it's not obvious to everyone. So I have really appreciated the thanks I have received of how the details have been helpful. And I am grateful that they have been.

And today I want to look at nine rules that Paul established which were designed to regulate the use of multiple languages in a worship service. Whether the Lord ever grants miraculous abilities to use other tongues is totally irrelevant to how practical these rules are in our church. These rules apply any time more than one language is used in a congregation. And with international ministries being one of our emphases, I think that those rules need to be understood.

But those rules do bring up some points of contrast between Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14. For example, where 1 Corinthians 14 forbids more than three people speaking in another language, and made each one speak at the same time, verse 4 seems to indicate that all 120 people were speaking in tongues at the same time. You may remember that in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul said that he spoke in tongues outside the church far more than any of the Corinthians, and Paul said that the whole purpose of the miracle was to make evangelism easier among unbelievers. He said, "Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers." That was it's primary purpose. But that was not the primary use that the Corinthians were putting it to. They were showing off in the worshp services by speaking in various languages even though no one in the congregation spoke those languages. Paul said that this showing off had to stop. Secondly, they had to stop speaking in other languages even when there were people who needed to hear it, if there was no translation. Paul did affirm that speaking in multiple languages did have its place in worship if there was careful following of nine rules. But outside the worship service Paul did not lay down any rules.

Acts 2 takes place outside the church worship service in an evangelistic context. We have already seen that Paul states this to be the primary purpose of tongues in Corinth as well, but since God gave many of those people a permanent ability to speak in foreign languages, they were using it and abusing it within the services.

And let's start with verse 5: "And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven." Josephus points out that there were Jews and proselytes from every city and nation under heaven. There are only a few loose ends in Acts 2 that we need to pull together, but I do want to give you the rules governing tongues in the church. Though we have already demonstrated that the tongues of Acts 2 are identical in nature to the tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, there is one point of contrast between the two: This outlines tongues as a means of reaching out to non-Christians who later in this chapter are called to repentance and join the church, whereas 1 Corinthians 14 is discussing the use of tongues within the church.

We've spent the last two Sundays digging rather deeply into the meaning and purpose of tongues. And the reason that we spent so much time is that this is a highly controversial subject, and I wanted to make sure that we spent plenty of time demonstrating every single point from the Bible.

And so far we have seen that tongues had an evangelistic purpose; it was a true language; it was not the gift of hearing, but was the gift of tongues. We saw that it is identical to the tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. We saw that when the Spirit gave tongues, He did not bypass the minds of the speakers, but rather, that the speakers knew exactly what they were saying. Where before the apostles only knew Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, now they knew many languages and were able to preach in those languages and dialogue with the Jews and proselytes who were in the temple.

The rules for tongues in the church. Just because God has given you the ability to speak in Swahili or some other language, does not give you permission to speak that language in the church (whether you have a miraculous or non-miraculous ability to so speak). Such tongues ability would be welcomed if we had a foreigner who did not understand English in our midst. But even then, translation would be needed to make sure that the church itself understood what was being said. While speaking in a foreign language would be a tremendous asset while engaging in personal evangelism, it could be easily abused (by way of showing off) within a church that did not speak that language. So the following rules were laid down by Paul.

In the church worship service we are to do only that which is profitable to the whole congregation (1 Cor. 12:7; 14:6,9,12,16,17,19,26). This is not the time to show off your ability to speak a foreign language, nor is it a time to engage in private devotions. While it is obvious to those who know several languages that some languages can convey ideas that others do not, and while it would be tempting to edify myself by being able to communicate beautifully in another language (see 1 Cor. 14:4), Paul consistently argues that self-edification is not enough reason to speak in a foreign language.

In my paper I have a pile more points of comparison between Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians, but let me end with the rules Paul lays out. I think everything can be boiled down to nine rules. The last rule of course is, "Do not forbid to speak in tongues." But let's look at the first eight. If these eight rules are kept in place, we wouldn't want to forbid anyone from translating, whether translating by spiritual gift or translating by learned language.

First rule is, In the church worship service we are to do only that which is profitable to the whole congregation. You can see that spelled out in chapter 12:7, in chapter 14 verses 6,9,12,16,17,19 and 26. 12:7 says, "But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all." Chapter 14:12 says, "Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel." Etc., etc. This is not the time to show off your ability to speak a foreign language, nor is it a time to engage in private devotions. While it is obvious to those who know several languages that some languages can convey ideas that others do not, and while it would be tempting to edify myself by being able to communicate beautifully in another language (see 1 Cor. 14:4), Paul consistently argues that self-edification is not enough reason to speak in a foreign language.

Never speak in another language in the congregation unless there is a person in that congregation who understands that language. This is a logical deduction from the following evidence. Paul says that it is never right to "be speaking into the air" (1 Cor. 14:9). Even with a translator, you would be speaking into the air while speaking the foreign language if no one in the congregation knew the foreign language. But if there was a foreigner and an interpreter, someone would at all times be understanding what is said. Paul says that every word we utter must be understood by someone (1 Cor. 14:16-17 with 26b). If "no one understands him" except for God (1 Cor. 14:2), it is pointless to even pray in the foreign language and Paul commands us, "let him keep silent in the church, and let him speak to himself and to God" (1 Cor. 14:28). Speaking to oneself is not mumbling quietly, but is speaking in one's head silently ("keep silent") where only God can hear. God's goal is for people to always be able to "say ‘Amen' to your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say?" Finally, 1 Corinthians 14:6 says that speaking in tongues does not profit unless the tongues communicates "either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching". This indicates that tongues must always communicate something to someone.

Second rule, Never speak in another language in the congregation unless there is a person in that congregation who understands that language. That's the whole point of talking in a foreign language – it is to benefit foreigners. This is a logical deduction from the following evidence. Paul says that it is never right to "be speaking into the air" (1 Cor. 14:9). Even with a translator, you would be speaking into the air while speaking the foreign language if no one in the congregation knew the foreign language. But if there was a foreigner and an interpreter, someone would at all times be understanding what is said. Paul says that every word we utter must be understood by someone, and you can see that in verses 16-17 and in the second part of verse 26. If "no one understands him" except for God (1 Cor. 14:2), it is pointless to even pray in the foreign language and Paul commands us, "let him keep silent in the church, and let him speak to himself and to God" (1 Cor. 14:28). Speaking to oneself is not mumbling quietly, but is speaking in one's head silently ("keep silent") where only God can hear. God's goal is for people to always be able to "say ‘Amen' to your giving of thanks, (verse 16). Finally, 1 Corinthians 14:6 says that speaking in tongues does not profit unless the tongues communicates "either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching". That means that the purpose of those tongues was to teach or otherwise benefit someone who needed to hear it in that language.

No more than two or three people are allowed to speak in any given service (1 Cor. 14:27,29). This rule for speaking in foreign languages also applied to prophecy (1 Cor. 14:29) and to other areas of worship (1 Cor. 14:26 – see below). This kept the worship service formal and prevented it from turning into a circus. Some have objected that 1 Corinthians 14:26 contradicts this rule since it allows all to speak in tongues and all to prophecy. But Paul is rebuking them in that verse[1] for violating the rule that few should lead. Paul is quite clear that "if anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret" (1 Cor. 14:27). This means that churches that take verse 26 to mean that all can bring a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation and an interpretation are unbiblical. Having the ability does not give the right to speak in church.

Rule, 3: No more than two or three people are allowed to speak in tongues in any given service, (1 Cor. 14:27,29). This rule alone would cramp the style of 99% of charismatic churches, but it is so clear. Look at verse 27. "If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret." This rule for speaking in foreign languages also applied to prophecy (in 1 Cor. 14:29) and to other areas of worship (1 Cor. 14:26 – see below). And what this rule was doing was to keep the worship service formal and prevented it from turning into a circus. Some have objected that 1 Corinthians 14:26 contradicts this rule because they claim that it allows absolutely everyone to speak in tongues and all to prophecy. But Paul is rebuking them in that verse[2] for violating the rule that few should lead. He is saying, "What is going on here!? Everyone thinks he can bring his psalm, his teaching, his tongue and his revelation that it is causing disorder and the church is not being edified." Paul is quite clear that "if anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret" (1 Cor. 14:27). This means that churches that take verse 26 as normative rather than descriptive are unbiblical. Paul wants worship services led, not happening as the Spirit moves people. Having the ability does not give the right to speak in church. So two or at the most three.

Only one person may speak at a time - "each in turn" (1 Cor. 14:27,31). It doesn't matter how important you think what you have to say might be, wait till others are finished speaking. And even if someone else interrupts what you are saying, stop speaking for the sake of church etiquette (1 Cor. 14:30). This rules out not only the common practice of everyone "speaking in tongues" at the same time in many charismatic churches, but it also rules out the Korean practice of everyone praying at the same time in their own language. Only one person may speak at a time.

Rule four, Only one person may speak at a time (1 Cor. 14:27,31). And you can see that in the phrase, "each in turn." He didn't want two or three talking at the same time. It doesn't matter how important you think what you have to say might be, wait till others are finished speaking. And even if someone else interrupts what you are saying, stop speaking for the sake of church etiquette. Look at verse 30. "But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent." This rules out not only the common practice of everyone "speaking in tongues" at the same time in many charismatic churches, but it also rules out the Korean practice of everyone praying at the same time in their own language. Only one person may speak at a time in church. Well, 99% of charismatic churches flunk that rule too.

No one is ever to speak in tongues (a foreign language) unless there is an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:12-17,27,28), since what cannot be understood is of no value to anyone (1 Cor. 14:6-12,15-17,19,20,28) and may lead to a bad testimony to unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:11,23).

Rule 5: No one is ever to speak in tongues (a foreign language) unless there is an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:12-17,27,28), since what cannot be understood is of no value to anyone (1 Cor. 14:6-12,15-17,19,20,28) and may lead to a bad testimony to unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:11,23). And I'll let you look up the verses yourself. Again, 99% of so-called tongues that goes on in most churches violates this rule. It makes you question whether it truly is of the Spirit, because the Spirit would not move people to violate His own rules.

Women must not speak in church (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Paul is not ambiguous in the least. He says, "Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for women to speak in church."[3] This rules out tongues, interpretation of tongues or anything else that is done "solo."

Rule six is one that close to 100% of charismatic churches flunk out on. Women must not speak in church (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Paul is not ambiguous in the least. He says, "Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for women to speak in church."[4] This rules out tongues, interpretation of tongues or anything else that is done "solo." Gordon Fee in his commentary is embarrassed by this verse. He can't get around it. So he says that it isn't Scripture. It must have been inserted by a scribe. And we would say, "No. It is an inspired rule."

"Let all things be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40). People who claim that they can't help their excesses since the Spirit is moving them to the strange behavior, need to realize that Paul holds individuals responsible to control their gifts (1 Cor. 14:32) and holds leader responsible for maintaining order.

Rule 7 can be taken verbatim from verse 40 "Let all things be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40). People who claim that they can't help their excesses since the Spirit is moving them to the strange behavior, need to realize that Paul holds individuals responsible to control their gifts. And that is true even of prophets. Verse 32 says, "the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets." All of his rules presuppose that tongues speakers can control their tongues. They speak when they need to speak and can keep silent when they need to keep silent. And the elders are responsible to make sure that these rules are followed.

Everyone who has the gift of tongues should be willing to be used (and should be used) in some capacity or another, whether inside or outside the church worship (1 Cor. 12:21).

Eighth rule: Everyone who has the gift of tongues should be willing to be used (and should be used) in some capacity or another, whether inside or outside the church worship. 1 Corinthians 12:21 says, "And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you.""

If all the above rules are kept, "do not forbid to speak with tongues" (1 Cor. 14:39). We would welcome a person who could translate for us to so translate our sermons, prayers and other portions of the sermon when foreigners are present. That would be a tremendous blessing.

And that leads naturally to the last rule. If all the above rules are kept, "do not forbid to speak with tongues" (1 Cor. 14:39). We would welcome a person who could translate for us to so translate our sermons, prayers and other portions of the service when foreigners are present. That would be a tremendous blessing.

And you might wonder, "Why is all this important?" Well, it is important first of all so that when charismatics accuse you of violating the Scripture, you can gently show them that it is they who are out of accord with the Bible. And when they accuse you of limiting God's hand by denying tongues, you can say, "I don't deny tongues. I know missionaries who have been given true tongues. We delight in God's gift of tongues. But what the charismatics experience is not true tongues." In fact, virtually every religion in the world has experiences like charismatic tongues speaking. And I'm not talking just about the demonic kind. There are basically four kinds of tongues. There is Biblical tongues like you see in Acts 2. There is demonic imitations, which are also true languages. Witchdoctors in Ethiopia spoke in tongues when they are demon possessed. And we know several charismatics who lost the gift of tongues when a demon was cast out of them. So there is Biblical tongues, there are demonic tongues. Then thirdly there are fake tongues where people just say nonsense sounds so that they can fit in. But there is a third phenomena in which the mind is disengaged from the tongue through psychological manipulation or emotional trauma and the person lets forth a torrent of sounds that can have mixtures of words and non-words. And non-believers have experienced that. So I want you to be clear so that you are not sucked in.

But most importantly, you could pray that your pastor would be able to speak in a foreign language with understanding of what he says should he get into tight spots in missions. There is no reason why the Lord cannot continue to perform this miracle. Modern tongues is not prophecy. It is preaching the sermon you prepared the day before in another language. It is praying and exhorting in another language. And it's a beautiful thing when it happens.


  1. "How is it then, brethren" sets up a confrontation. Then comes the description of what they are doing (not what they should be doing): "Whenever you come together each of you has…has…has…" Then comes the solution to their bad practice: "let all things be done for edification." Rather than everyone trying to get in on the act in selfish ways, each should be thinking about what others need.

  2. "How is it then, brethren" sets up a confrontation. Then comes the description of what they are doing (not what they should be doing): "Whenever you come together each of you has…has…has…" Then comes the solution to their bad practice: "let all things be done for edification." Rather than everyone trying to get in on the act in selfish ways, each should be thinking about what others need.

  3. Sadly, many evangelical writers prefer to believe their subjective "revelations" on this subject rather than to submit to inspired revelation. Shockingly, Gordon Fee says that these two verses cannot be Scripture. He knows what they say, he just disagrees with them. He says this: "These two verses together have a singular concern, that women ‘remain silent' in the congregational meetings, which is further defined as ‘not being permitted to speak' (v. 34) because it is ‘shameful' for them to do so (v. 35). The structure of the argument bears this out. It begins with ‘a sentence of holy law,' the absolute nature of which is very difficult to get around…"

    "Despite protests to the contrary, the ‘rule' itself is expressed absolutely. That is, it is given without any form of qualification. Given the unqualified nature of the further prohibition that ‘the women' are not permitted to speak, it is very difficult to interpret this as meaning anything else than all forms of speaking out in public. Someone apparently was concerned to note by way of a gloss that all the previous directions given by the apostle, including the inclusive ‘each one' of v. 26 and the ‘all' of v. 31, were not to be understood as including women."

    "…it is surprising that he should add it here, yet allow them to pray and prophecy in 11:5 and 13…"

    "The author of this piece seems intent on keeping women from joining in the vocal worship of the churches. The rule he wishes to apply he sees as universal and supported by the Law. It is difficult to fit this into any kind of Pauline context…"

    "Thus, in keeping with the textual questions, the exegesis of the text itself leads to the conclusion that it is not authentic. If so, then it is certainly not binding for Christians." Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), pp. 7-5-708.

  4. Sadly, many evangelical writers prefer to believe their subjective "revelations" on this subject rather than to submit to inspired revelation. Shockingly, Gordon Fee says that these two verses cannot be Scripture. He knows what they say, he just disagrees with them. He says this: "These two verses together have a singular concern, that women ‘remain silent' in the congregational meetings, which is further defined as ‘not being permitted to speak' (v. 34) because it is ‘shameful' for them to do so (v. 35). The structure of the argument bears this out. It begins with ‘a sentence of holy law,' the absolute nature of which is very difficult to get around…"

    "Despite protests to the contrary, the ‘rule' itself is expressed absolutely. That is, it is given without any form of qualification. Given the unqualified nature of the further prohibition that ‘the women' are not permitted to speak, it is very difficult to interpret this as meaning anything else than all forms of speaking out in public. Someone apparently was concerned to note by way of a gloss that all the previous directions given by the apostle, including the inclusive ‘each one' of v. 26 and the ‘all' of v. 31, were not to be understood as including women."

    "…it is surprising that he should add it here, yet allow them to pray and prophecy in 11:5 and 13…"

    "The author of this piece seems intent on keeping women from joining in the vocal worship of the churches. The rule he wishes to apply he sees as universal and supported by the Law. It is difficult to fit this into any kind of Pauline context…"

    "Thus, in keeping with the textual questions, the exegesis of the text itself leads to the conclusion that it is not authentic. If so, then it is certainly not binding for Christians." Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), pp. 7-5-708.


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