What Is Speaking in Tongues

What Is Speaking in Tongues?

Speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift. But is it required for salvation?

Of the roughly 2 billion people in the world who call themselves Christian, more than 500 million (almost 27 percent) are part of something called the Pentecostal or Charismatic Movement.1 Though this movement is broad—both geographically and theologically—one common element is the practice of “speaking in tongues.”

Speaking in tongues is a mystical experience when a person, inspired by God, speaks in a language unknown to the speaker.

I remember the first time I heard someone speak in tongues. I grew up in a church where this practice was never employed, so it was strange for me to hear. I didn’t understand how someone speaking a language that no one else understood could be helpful to me or the church. That’s not to say I doubted God’s ability to work these miracles in people, but I had many questions as to the purpose of this practice. Later I discovered other people had similar questions.

Who are these Pentecostal or Charismatic people who employ this unusual practice? Why does there seem to be such emotion and controversy surrounding it? How important is speaking in tongues? Is it required for salvation?

For more than a century, a debate has taken place within Christianity over the question of whether the experiences of speaking in tongues are valid or necessary for salvation. So when we begin to ask questions about this issue, we are entering into a much larger conversation with a rather long history and a large diversity of beliefs.

The Biblical Backstory

The most prominent biblical reference to speaking in tongues is found in the second chapter of the book of Acts.2 Acts recounts the beginnings of the Christian Church immediately after the death of Christ.

All of the Apostles were gathered together for Pentecost, a Jewish religious festival in Jerusalem that commemorated the giving of the law to Moses. Large numbers of Jewish people came from around the world to celebrate and give offerings.

Suddenly, an inexplicable “sound like the blowing of a violent wind” filled the house.3 Then “what seemed to be tongues of fire . . . separated and came to rest on each of them.”4 Immediately, “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”5 In spite of the language barriers among those gathered for Pentecost, each person who listened to the disciples speak heard their own native language and could understand what the Apostles were saying.

The Contemporary Backstory

The contemporary experience of speaking in tongues finds its beginnings in classical Pentecostalism, which in turn has its roots in the nineteenth-century Holiness Movement.

John Wesley (1703–1791), a British Anglican and the founder of Methodism, taught that Christians could—and should—eliminate sin from their lives. The goal for each follower of Jesus was to achieve sinless perfection. Wesley believed that this state of holiness was something every Christian could eventually achieve through a “second work of grace,” a mystical experience that followed their conversion to Christianity.6

Emerging from this movement was a pastor named Charles Parham (1873–1929), who concluded that the primary evidence for this second work of grace was something called the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Parham viewed this experience through the biblical account in Acts 2.

Parham began to teach the students at his Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, that this baptism—which followed their conversion to Christianity—was always evidenced by speaking in tongues. In 1900, students at his Bible college claimed to have had this experience.7

Six years after this event, the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles yielded hundreds of similar experiences, attracting attention from around the world. From the Azusa Street Revival, these experiences and the teachings that informed them began to spread around the world.8 Over time various denominations that today call themselves Pentecostal evolved, including the Church of God, the Assemblies of God, the Foursquare Church, and the Pentecostal Holiness Church.

Beginning in the 1960s, these phenomena appeared in many churches that were not traditionally Pentecostal. Many from Episcopalian, reformed, Roman Catholic, and nondenominational backgrounds began to experience speaking in tongues. What emerged from those experiences has generally been called the Charismatic (from the biblical term charismata, or “grace gift”) Movement.9 The Calvary Chapel Movement also emerged during this time, rapidly starting new churches across the western United States wherein these gifts were exercised freely.10

Speaking in Tongues and Salvation

The global Christian church is highly diverse, and the Pentecostals and Charismatics are a vital part of that diversity. When it comes to beliefs on secondary matters of faith—such as speaking in tongues—followers of Jesus are often more siblings than twins. That is, though they may be in the same family of the Christian belief system, they certainly don’t have identical beliefs.

The vast majority of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world are people of strong personal faith who defend the Bible and follow Jesus Christ with great passion. These men and women have contributed greatly to the spread of the gospel around the world. For instance, Pentecostal and Charismatic evangelism is responsible for many of the conversions to Christianity that took place in Latin America and Africa in the late twentieth century.11

However, nearly every major movement within the history of the Christian church has produced a minority group of followers who advocate extreme forms of belief and practice that are outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. The Charismatic Movement is certainly no exception.

Some more extreme Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians insist that speaking in tongues is required for salvation. However, this is not a belief held by the majority of evangelical Christians. Moreover, the vast majority of New Testament teaching about the Holy Spirit is devoid of such implications.

Those with questions about these issues should know that being a follower of Jesus isn’t conditional on the belief in or practice of speaking in tongues. Most Christians believe that the Bible is clear that faith in Jesus’ death for sin and resurrection to provide new life is all that is necessary. One of many examples of this teaching is from the Gospel of John in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”12

The Way of Love

The Apostle Paul writes that there are many spiritual gifts; speaking in tongues is just one. And “all of these [spiritual gifts] are the work of one and the same Spirit.”13 Though not everyone has the same spiritual gift—speaking in tongues, for example—all are equally valuable because all come from the Holy Spirit.

What’s most important is what Paul calls “the most excellent way”—the way of love:14

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.15

Though there will continue to be disagreement as to the particular actions of the Holy Spirit, those who speak in tongues and those who don’t join together in the primary mission of making the love of Jesus Christ known to the world. Like any family, Christians who are part of the church will sometimes disagree strongly about some matters. However, faith in, obedience to, and love of Jesus are unifying factors among all Christians.