Speaking In Tongues: Sometimes Insane, Often Useless, and Potentially Practical
By David Metcalfe
April 18, 2020
Counting Away Charismatic Credibility
My friend once visited a charismatic church where they were really into the gifts of the spirit. In addition to shaking, fainting, yelling out “oh Lord Jesus!” dozens of times, and prophesying, they also spoke in tongues. They had a lineup of people going up to the pastor. The person in the front of the line would speak in tongues, and the pastor would interpret. My friend, being skeptical, decided to test whether or not this pastor was legit. So when it was his turn, he counted to ten in Norwegian. The pastor translated something like, “Oh God you are so great in this place! Your glory shines forever!”.
Needless to say, the pastor was not translating anything…other than his own thoughts.
In our modern day, we actually have things like Google translate, or we can even record a video of someone speaking in tongues, identify the language, and have a real speaker of that language verify it. Never has there been any hard evidence of a case where someone who could not speak a language was suddenly able to speak it, or where a pastor was able to translate a language he did not know.
Some people say they are speaking in a language completely unknown to humans, and that’s why it cannot be verified as accurate. I would have to ask, in that case, “how do we know you are not just saying a bunch of nonsense, and then the pastor is just translating his own ideas?” I suppose a common answer would be, “because I have faith” and in that case the word “faith” is being used in its most common form: to abandon reason and evidence in favour of superstition.
I don’t mean to write this just to criticize charismatic churches. Their leg lengthening, demon casting, sometimes snake handling, and other practices are so insane that it’s not really worth the time to go through it all. I can just say it’s crazy and leave it at that.
So it’s clear to me that the charismatic churches saying gibberish to each other is not the power of God, and is actually just insane. But could there be a valuable use for tongues?
Tongues In The Bible
In Acts 2, Luke writes,
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 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.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’
Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.'”
Let’s assume that story is true. If that’s the case, that seems to be a very effective use of tongues. I’m not sure why exactly these Jews from other nations were in Jerusalem at the time, or whether or not they had an ability to speak the common language there (most likely Aramaic), but regardless, the fact that they heard it in their own native language did two things: for one, made it possible (or just easier) for them to hear and understand the message being preached, and secondly, was a miracle that testified of God’s power.
The important thing too is that it is verified. We don’t have to take it on “faith” or just hope that speaking in tongues worked. There are actual people there who are hearing their own language and being amazed by it. That is good evidence.
We know that speaking in tongues was practiced some in the early Christian church, and perhaps as an important evidence of salvation. In Mark 16, Jesus is quoted as saying,
“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
If you take this passage literally and prescriptively, as many charismatic churches do, then all those things should be a part of a Christian life. So make sure to bring your poisonous snakes to church with you!
In The Latter Days
The Book of Mormon, from what I can tell, almost never makes reference to speaking in tongues. Omni 1:25 and Moroni 10:15 are the only clear examples that I can find. In Doctrine and Covenants 109:36, Joseph Smith mentions that when the new temple is made, it will be like the day of Pentecost as the Spirit is poured out in a greater capacity, and the gift of tongues is included in the list of things that the Spirit will manifest. Apparently, according to church history, such an expression of the spirit (including in the form of tongues) did take place in multiple instances among church members in Kirtland, Ohio (source). It is also briefly mentioned in D and C 46:24.
Apparently, many members of the early restored church spoke or sang in tongues. But over time, speaking in tongues became less relevant, and is not used in that way anymore. I have been to the Mormon church service probably 100 times by now, and I’ve never seen anyone speak or sing in tongues, or even talk about it.
But there is a common idea that missionaries are able to learn new languages faster through the Spirit, which is a version of speaking in tongues (xenoglossia as opposed to glossolalia). Many missionaries tell stories of going out to their missions in a foreign place with very little understanding of the language, and then learning the language extremely quickly.
I have a lot of problems with this apparent version of speaking in tongues. For one, not all missionaries learn the language quickly. Why is the Spirit blessing some and not others? Secondly, they still have to do all the work of learning the language. They do language courses and practice every day for months. If gradually learning a language but just slightly faster is speaking in tongues, then lots of secular people who have a good mind for learning new languages must also have the Spirit working with them. In addition, the speaking in tongues instance in the Bible was not one in which they gradually learned a language slightly quicker, but rather one in which it was instant, and clearly supernatural.
But if some random teenager from Utah learns conversational level Japanese in 6 months and believes he is speaking in tongues…ok…he can think that.
I divide speaking in tongues into three categories: insane, useless, and potentially practical. The insane category is where I put the charismatic churches or anyone else who is convinced they are speaking some spiritual language when there is no evidence to support it (and lots to contradict it). The useless category is where I put anyone who either does not believe in the power of tongues, or who believes in such a weak version that it isn’t really relevant to anything. The potentially practical category is where I might put something like Acts 2 or D and C 109:36, and any potential manifestation of that in our current time, where the different language has a clear efficacy and verification.
The best potential manifestation of tongues in our current time and context that the Mormon church seems able to offer is that missionaries can learn a language slightly quicker. This weak, unverifiable conception seems unlikely to be anything nearing “miraculous”. But I am open to the idea that perhaps there could be miraculous instances of tongues in rare cases, if verified and if effective.
It seems that, rather than a regular occurrence, the use of tongues is rare and is used to show God’s power and preach the gospel to people in a powerful expression of the Spirit.