Tongues as a Prayer Language?

(Series “The Early Church of Jerusalem” post #7)

In my previous post, I explained that Acts 2:1-13 teaches that the Biblical definition of speaking in tongues is speaking in a known foreign language that you have never learned. I also explained that 1 Corinthians chapter 14 provides us with definite rules for how the gift of speaking in tongues should and should not be employed in a church service. However, if you know anything about how modern Christians use their supposed gift of speaking in tongues, you know that the Bible’s rules get violated prolifically. For example, in a typical Pentecostal/Charismatic church service these days, multiple Christians speak in tongues at the same time, without any interpreter present, and many of the ones doing the speaking are women.

The question becomes, then, why do these Christians feel such liberty to violate the 1 Corinthians chapter 14 rules? The answer is that the “tongues” these Christians speak in are not foreign languages at all. Instead, they are what the speakers refer to as a “prayer language.” And since a “prayer language” is a different thing altogether than an Acts 2:1-13 “tongue,” it is completely outside any rules laid down in 1 Corinthians chapter 14.

Really, the differences between an Acts 2:1-13 type of “tongue” and a supposed “prayer language” are stark. Note the comparison:

  • The Acts type is a foreign language spoken by some group of people upon the earth, but the 1 Corinthians type isn’t an earthly language at all.
  • The Acts type benefits the listeners, but the 1 Corinthians type benefits the speaker.
  • The Acts type is God the Holy Spirit talking to others through the speaker, but the 1 Corinthians type is God the Holy Spirit talking to God the Father not only through the speaker but also for the speaker.
  • The Acts type requires either listeners who understand the foreign language or (if the tongue is spoken in a church service) a Christian with the spiritual gift of interpretation, but the 1 Corinthians type requires no interpretation because it is spoken to God and He understands it.

And what scriptures do the Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians use to support their notion of a “prayer language”? Here are the most common ones (all from the N.K.J.V.):

  • In 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” The Pentecostal/Charismatic interpretation of this verse is that tongues “of men” refer to known languages and tongues “of angels” refer to a prayer language that only heaven can understand.
  • In 1 Corinthians 14:2, Paul says, “For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.” The Pentecostal/Charismatic interpretation of this verse is that if tongues were merely foreign languages, Paul wouldn’t have said that no one understands the speaker and so he speaks to God.
  • In 1 Corinthians 14:4, Paul says, “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” The Pentecostal/Charismatic interpretation of this verse is that if the person speaking in a tongue edifies himself that can’t be a reference to the tongue being a known language that is understood by others. If it was, the ones who understand the language would also be edified.
  • In 1 Corinthians 14:14, Paul says, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.” The Pentecostal/Charismatic interpretation of this verse is that it is possible for Christians to pray words they don’t understand (because the words sound like gibberish to them), but in reality the words are the indwelling Holy Spirit praying for the Christian in the language of heaven.
  • In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul says, “Therefore, if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” The Pentecostal/Charismatic interpretation of this verse is that Paul can’t be talking about all the church members speaking in foreign languages. If he was, then the unbelievers who happened to come into the church service would hear their languages being spoken and wouldn’t immediately assume that all the church members were out of their minds. Instead, the unbelievers would be just as impressed as those unbelievers were who heard those Christians speaking in their languages on the day of Pentecost.

Okay, so how do those of us who do not buy the idea of there being a second category of tongues — a prayer language — interpret these same verses? We interpret them as follows:

  • In 1 Corinthians 13:1, when Paul talks about speaking with the tongues “of angel,” he’s simply referring to speaking with the eloquence of angels. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament provide multiple stories in which angels appear to humans and speak to them. In all of these stories, however, the angels speak in the common language of the humans. There is no special “angelic” language that only God and angels can understand. If there was, surely it would be mentioned somewhere in scripture besides one highly debatable verse in 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
  • In 1 Corinthians 14:2, when Paul says, “For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but God…,” the setting he has in mind is the local church. The entire chapter is indisputably local-church oriented. As a matter of fact, the word “church” is used no less than nine times in the chapter: verses 4, 5, 12, 19, 23, 28, 33, 34, and 35. With this understood, the point he is making in verse 2 is that a Christian who speaks in a tongue (a foreign language) in a church service can’t be speaking to the others in the service because they can’t understand the language and don’t have a clue what the speaker is saying. God, of course, speaks every language fluently and does understand the tongue.
  • In 1 Corinthians 14:4, when Paul says, “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself…,” the problem is the same one found in verse 2. If a man stands up in a local church in the United States and starts speaking Swahili, the attendees of that service can’t possibly be edified (built up) by that display of speaking of tongues. How can they be when they don’t understand a word the man is saying? Therefore, the only edifying that is going on is the speaker edifying himself. He certainly isn’t edifying anyone else.
  • In 1 Corinthians 14:14, when Paul says, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful,” he simply means that the praying that is being done by the indwelling Holy Spirit is spoken in an unlearned foreign language. The Christian doesn’t understand what he is praying because he himself doesn’t know the language and there is no interpreter present. Therefore, that Christian’s understanding regarding that particular prayer is “unfruitful.”
  • In 1 Corinthians 14:23, when Paul talks about the hypothetical situation of a group of unbelievers entering a church service and thinking that tongues-speaking church members have lost their minds, what he doesn’t say is important. He doesn’t say that the tongues in which those church members are speaking are the languages of those unbelievers. Imagine a group of French tourists visiting an American church service on Sunday morning and hearing a bunch of church members speak in foreign languages. If those church members were speaking in Russian, Spanish, Arabic, or Mandarin Chinese — any language other than French — they would have to assume that all those Christians had lost their minds.

And so we see that there really is no good reason to contend that there are two different types of “tongues” described in the Bible. Scripturally speaking, there is simply no such thing as a “prayer language” of tongues, and the supposed proof texts that get used to support the idea can easily be explained and interpreted in accordance with “tongues” being foreign languages. That’s what I’ve done in this post.

In the end, though, there is no Bible verse that will convince a person who has had an “experience” that their tongues/prayer language isn’t valid and scriptural. I know that. But I also know that human experience never trumps a correct interpretation of the Bible. So, I suppose the debate over tongues as a “prayer language” will rage on until all of us Christians are safely at home with Jesus. Until then, I’ll keep right on interpreting 1 Corinthians chapter 14 through the lens of Acts 2:1-13.

This entry was posted in God's Word, Scripture, Series: "The Early Church of Jerusalem", Speaking in Tongues, Spiritual Gifts, The Bible, The Holy Spirit and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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