The spiritual gift of speaking in tongues has been a controversial doctrine in the church almost from the beginning of the church. This phenomenon is first noted in Acts 2 on Pentecost, the “birth day” of the church. Apparently, the disciples were in hiding in a Jerusalem home fearing for their lives some weeks following the cross-resurrection event. According to the account, a sound like rushing wind swept through the house and the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2.4).
In no fewer than two other biblical accounts, the “manifestation” of the Holy Spirit is marked by people speaking in tongues (Acts 10, 19). In Acts 10 Peter witnesses the Holy Spirit “falling” on non-Jewish (Gentile) believers who began to speak in tongues, while in Acts 19 Paul baptizes new disciples and, as he laid his hands on them in prayer, the Holy Spirit “came upon them” and they began to speak in tongues.
There are only two other books in the Bible that mention speaking in tongues. In Mark 16 we read one of the signs of a believer is that they will speak in tongues (17). However, scholars and most biblical translators believe that Mark 16.12-20 is a late addition to the book and in many Bibles these verses appear only as a footnote. In any event, according to Mark 16 speaking in tongues is not the only sign of a true believer—other signs include casting out demons, handling deadly snakes, drinking poison with no ill effect, and healing the sick.
The only other book that mentions speaking in tongues is 1st Corinthians. The church in Corinth apparently had a few problems and Paul addresses many of them in his two letters to the believers there. The church’s worship had clearly become chaotic and disorderly and Paul chastised them for their actions. In so doing, he taught them what was normal and acceptable behaviors in worship and he expands upon the works and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
There is no doubt that speaking in tongues was a popular and much-sought gift in Corinth. However, Paul wrote that they should seek the “higher gifts” such as prophesy (1 Cor. 12.31, 14.1-2). Indeed, Paul makes it clear that not everyone receives the same spiritual gifts and not everyone speaks in tongues: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor. 12.7-11 italics added). Note that each believer gets as the Spirit chooses—and clearly not all receive the “various kinds of tongues” (10).
But do we see other manifestations of the Spirit in scripture? The answer is yes. Indeed, the first person we see the Holy Spirit come upon someone in the New Testament is when the Spirit comes upon Jesus. In Luke 3.22 we read that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and an announcement was made from the heavens that Jesus was God’s son. However, even though Jesus was endowed with the Spirit, we do not see any immediate manifestation. Then, in Acts 4 we read that after Peter preached to a crowd and prayed that “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (31). Note that there is no mention of speaking in tongues, but the manifestation is apparently prophesy as they began to speak “the word of God with boldness.” Indeed, there are several other instances where we read of believers who, when filled with the Holy Spirit, apparently did not begin to speak in tongues (Acts 7.55, 9.17, 13.9, 13.52).
Although there are those churches who would have us believe that the only evidence of the Holy Spirit is to speak in tongues, clearly this is not a universal principle taught in scripture. When Paul chastised the Corinth church he was quite specific that, although the gift of tongues may be a good thing, it was not the preeminent gift from God. Indeed, the practice of speaking in tongues was severely limited to particular places and times of worship (or personal prayer in private), and even when allowed in worship it was limited to minimum displays.
The bottom line: the gifts of the Holy Spirit are
given to believers for the building up of the church—as
the Spirit deems necessary. Not as we desire
nor as we demand.