Speaking in Tongues (Glossolalia)

Speaking in Tongues. A Biblical gift or … something else?

Did you know that the fastest growth among the Christian denominations in Australia today is happening in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Protestant Churches?

One of the defining characteristics of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity is the phenomenon of speaking in strange languages. It is believed that this is a miraculous gift from the Holy Spirit, that it continues a practice of the Apostles themselves, and that it is even a sign of God’s favour. People who speak in tongues consider it to be an experience of connecting with God, a superior form of prayer in fact. Some will even go so far as to say that Christians who do not speak in tongues are seriously deficient as Christians

All of these beliefs are highly suspect. But don’t take my word for it; read the evidence and make up your own mind. You will find some detailed research here which I will try to summarise briefly below.

Firstly, if speaking in tongues were truly a gift of the Holy Spirit, one would expect it to be unique to those who believe in the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. But in reality, speaking in tongues or glossolalia was not only practiced by pagan cults well before Christianity began, but continues to practiced by non-Christians today, including Hindu fakirs and gurus in India and even, worryingly, by voodoo practitioners in Haiti. There is no doubt that pagans began speaking in tongues long before Christianity began, and there is compelling evidence that the practice was smuggled into Christian life by pagan converts to Christianity.

But didn’t the disciples speak in tongues? Here we must make an important distinction, one you will have already noticed if you have been reading your Bible carefully. The apostles spoke with different languages on the day of Pentecost, and those who heard them understood what they were saying. This is a crucial difference to what was going on twenty years later at Corinth, and what goes on in Pentecostal Churches today. “Xenolalia” is the miraculous ability to speak in a real language that one has not learned, but that others who know that language can understand. “Glossolalia” is the ability to speak in something that sounds like a language, but is not actually any known language, and that no one understands. Xenolalia is quite rare. It is virtually impossible to explain by invoking any natural process – a person who does not know Swahili cannot possibly accurately imitate it. On the other hand, glossolalia is quite common, and there are many good theories that explain it as a natural psychological phenomenon (we will consider some of these below). Since no one can understand what is being said, anyone could make sounds, mimicking the tone and rhythm of real language, and sound like they’re speaking a real language when in fact they are just speaking gibberish.

There are in fact five clear references to speaking in tongues in the New Testament. Four of them almost certainly describe xenolalia. But the fifth certainly describes glossolalia – 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14. This long passage is agreed by all to be directed at those who had been causing disorder and confusion among the Corinthians at their church gatherings. It is part of a letter which also addresses not only disorder in gatherings, but many other undesirable trends that had developed in this Christian community.

In it, the overall picture we gain is of a church where people were trying to outdo each other in the spiritual gifts and using things like speaking in tongues for their own pleasure rather than for the building up of their fellow Christians in love. The tenor of the passage is one of admonition. Speaking in tongues may be nice between you and God, but you will have to stop speaking in tongues or at least severely limit it if you are just going to do it for your own benefit. In fact, to make sure no one does speak in tongues selfishly, if you speak in a tongue you must interpret what you said so everyone can understand it. If you can’t, then stay silent. The net effect of St Paul’s words would tend towards the complete eradication of public glossolalia from eh Church, particularly if there was no one who could interpret what was being said. As we shall see below, it is one of the characteristics of glossolalia that the sounds have no meaning (I wonder if St Paul knew this himself, but didn’t want to discourage the Corinthians?).

Most Pentecostal Churches today seem not to heed St Paul’s advice. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of glossolalia as a sign of the favour of the Holy Spirit upon the person who can practice it. Christians who do not speak in tongues are told they are not complete Christians. Pressure is put on Pentecostal teenagers, often in very subtle ways, until they begin to speak in tongues. If they don’t, they are made to feel somehow deficient or inferior. And contrary to St Paul’s quite explicit command, very little interpretation goes on. What interpretation does occur may be frankly fraudulent[1]. What one sees mostly is a multitude of people, all apparently in an ecstatic state, all speaking at once and lolling their heads about in complete self-absorption. They would do well to heed St Paul’s advice!

So what is going on when today’s Pentecostal Christians speak in tongues? What is the cause if it is not the Holy Spirit? There are any number of theories around, but clearly some are better than others. Some have speculated that glossolalia is a genuinely supernatural phenomenon, but rather than being from God, is instead a trick of the devil intended to confuse and distract Christians from the things that really matter. But in general, if a natural explanation for something can be found, that is preferable to a supernatural explanation. Are there any natural explanations?

Tongue speakers often look like they are in a hypnotic trance. Could glossolalia just be some kind of hypnotic state or state of altered consciousness? Others have suggested that glossolalia is evidence of mental illness. It is important to note that some who practice glossolalia, though by no means all, or even the majority, progress to more extreme forms of expression. Holy Laughter is a well-documented phenomenon among Charismatics and Pentecostals, where the worshipper laughs uncontrollably often for hours on end. Even more disturbing is the phenomenon where the worshipper will begin to emit animal noises, grunts and caws and moos, all supposedly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. In fairness, most Pentecostals would consider these activities to be some kind of demonic trick rather than a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit. Others might consider that such behaviour could only be explained by mental illness. However, it would seem that recent research has ruled out hypnosis and mental illness, at least for the more common practice of glossolalia (I have not researched the laughter or animal sounds in detail).

What recent research has found is powerful evidence for glossolalia being a natural process that simply involves copying others. In other words, glossolalia can simply be learned by mimicry and does not need any supernatural or pathological cause to explain it. This makes far more sense of the evidence that glossolalia occurs across a multitude of cultures and religions than does the explanation that glossolalia is a unique gift of the Holy Spirit.

Why would people want to speak in tongues? Studies have found that the part of the brain that is associated with pleasure and positive emotions is highly active while speaking in tongues. This would explain why people who practice it like it so much! But it also means that glossolalia belongs not in the category of supernatural miracles performed by the Holy Spirit, but of natural experiences that make you feel good, like eating chocolate or having a hot bath when you’re tired.

Taking all of this information together, we are justified in concluding that glossolalia is a natural phenomenon and not a supernatural manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly not essential in the life of the Christian, anymore than is the eating of chocolate or the taking of hot baths. In fact, its emotional allure can easily distract Christians from the things that really matter, like practical faith, hope and especially love. When one is speaking in a tongue, one is focused on the pleasure they are experiencing within and ignoring others around them. This may be acceptable when one is worshipping God in private, but it is not what communal Christian worship should be like.

Communal worship involves sharing – many people singing and praying with one voice; listening to each other and harmonising with each other. It involves exchanging the kiss of peace with other, and bowing side by side; humbly coming forward to partake of the One Body and One Cup , united in the mystery of the sacrificial love of Christ. It is the sharing of the experience of God with those around you and thus being drawn into a deeper and closer relationship of love through that shared experience. None of this fits with the self-focused, unintelligible utterance of sounds of glossolalia.

[1] Anecdotal evidence from a servant (now a priest): he and two friends attended a Pentecostal meeting in Egypt. When the audience was invited to come forward and speak in tongues, the servant came forward and purposely made nonsense sounds. Upon finishing, the pastor gave an eloquent “translation” of what he had said!

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9 Replies to “Speaking in Tongues (Glossolalia)”

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, I may be interpreting what I read incorrectly. But I always thought that the gift of speaking in tongues does not actually involve the speaking of a language unknown to the speaker but that the listener hears what is being spoken in his own native tongue, even though the speaker is speaking in his own language. So that on the day of Pentecost when Peter the Apostle stood in front of the crowd, he spoke in his own native Aramaic, but those who stood and listened heard what was being spoken in their own tongues. So it wasn’t that Peter spoke in Latin, Arabic, Egyptian, Greek, Libyan, and Asian simultaneously and each person was able to decipher his own language from what was being heard, but that Peter spoke in his own tongue, but the Roman heard the Aramaic as Latin, the Egyptian heard the Aramaic in his native Egyptian, the Greek heard the Aramaic in his own tongue, and so on. So the gift extends beyond the speaker and involves the speaker and listener at the same time.

    It’s kind of like when you see those United Nations gatherings where one person gets up to speak and each other person, with an ear piece in his ear hears what is being spoken by a translator. The speaker is speaking in his own tongue, but what is being heard through the ear piece is translated so the listener can understand. The difference being when the Apostles spoke in tongues there was no translator and the listeners heard the Apostles themselves speak, but heard their own language coming out of the Apostles’ mouths even though the Apostles spoke in their own Aramaic. Therein lies the phenomenon.

    Reading The Acts, it says, ‘And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?’ (Acts 2: 7-8)

    The Holy Spirit granted each man the ability to hear the Apostles’ native Aramaic in his own native tongue. So it is not really a gift granted to the speaker per se, but to the listener. When speaking in tongues the speaker does not speak an array of languages at the same time, the listener hears what is being spoken in the language he understands.

    That’s how I’ve always understood it. So glossolalia doesn’t really exist, or it’s more a demonic phenomenon. If you’ve ever seen an exorcism, the speaking of strange misunderstood tongues is common by the demon being exorcised. There is one very famous Coptic priest in Egypt who has been granted the gift and ability to exorcise, his videos are easily accessible. Often while he performs the ritual, he speaks directly to the demon who will often respond in an undecipherable language and the priest then commands the demon to stop doing so. This is speaking in tongues. Xenolalia should probably more accurately be translated to ‘Listening in Tongues’.

    I think?…

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  2. Does this mean if it is private between you and God in your private room then that is ok ? St Paul did pray in his own room by praying in tongues to God and he Also said No more than two or three should speak in tongues. They must speak one at a time, and someone must interpret what they say. But if no one is present who can interpret, they must be silent in your church meeting and speak in tongues to God privately. (1 Corinthians 14:27, 28 NLT). Just a thought … God bless

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  3. Hi Carmen. I guess it all depends what you believe to be going on with glossolalia. If it is nothing more than a learned mimicry that gives you a bit of a buzz then I suppose it is OK to do it in the privacy of your own home where you won’t bother anyone. If you think it is demonic as some people do, then one should stay right away from it, public or private.
    Fr Ant

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  4. I find this very offensive to the current Metropolitans, Bishops, Hegomens, Priests, Monks, Nuns, Deacons and servants in our church who have this gift and who practice it as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit! Are they demon possesed?
    Accroding to 1 Cor 14:39 St Paul teaches clearly “Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues”. I don’t know how anyone can say otherwise? Spiritual gifts are for the edification of the person and the church. How can we choose some gifts and say they are current and helpful while go against our bible and deny some as “demonic”. We need to be very careful here, we are talking about the Holy Spirit the giver of spiritual gifts according to the need of the individual and the church. There are many Fathers in our church who have very effective and active ministries who speak about the gift of tounges and affirm that it is current and they have experienced it.
    Just a thought……
    Honestly to resemble one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit or even the practice of one of the Holy Spirit gifts as eating chocolate or having a hot bath is blasphemy? mocking? ignorance?……
    Can a priest who is meant to be administring the gifts of the Holy Spirit recommend his congregation to “stay right away from it, public or private”? Are we getting in the way of the work of the Holy Spirit the life giver and the bestower of HIS gifts?
    Highly recommend dear Father that you consult with other Fathers, Bishops who have experienced this gift and who are able to shed more light on this important gift.
    “let ALL things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40). Can I say with St Paul “I thank my God that I speak in tongues more than you all”!! We know our great saints did, the great St Anthony, St Cyril “the pillar of faith” and many others. We should also be aware of what is happening around us, if it’s from God it will continue but if it’s from the devil it will cease. Is this not the same statement that was said about our early apostle fathers who were ALL filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and ALL spoke in tongues to the extent that people thaught they were drunk?

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  5. Dear George,

    I think you missed the whole point of this blog. Fr. Antonios put forward the argument that to speak a supposed unknown language for no benefit to anyone is NOT the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not typically do things just for the heck of it or for showing off. The Holy Spirit bestows gifts for edification and if no one understands what the person is saying including him/herself then it seems to me like a whole waste of time and energy – why would the Holy Spirit do that?

    Another note, the gift of the Holy Spirit was not resembled to eating chocolate etc. He was only saying that positive emotions etc were associated, according to studies, with speaking these gibberish languages, which again is not from the Holy Spirit since it is gibberish.

    I myself have seen and heard someone “from our church” in fact a “servant of the church” speak in gibberish and convince those around that she is speaking to God. I had an uneasy feeling around her and lo and behold a few years later it was discovered that she worked very closely with the devil. In fact many she preached too (some I know very well) went through hell and back because of her practices. So I think the advice to “stay right away from it” is pretty wise. Why would we want to speak in a different language even in private when God understands every language and so we can use our own?

    Have you heard those metropolitans, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, deacons and servants you speak about speak in tongues in public? If so then perhaps some of them are amongst the rare genuine few. The blog states that it could happen but in rare cases. I am glad that you respect these people but in defence of them (though the blog does not offend them) you were very harsh and disrespectful of the author of the blog!

    Just a little story, Pope Shenouda was documented to tell a funny story of someone (a well known copt in Egypt) who went to a Pentecostal church and went forward and said ‘our Father’ in Coptic. The people and leaders glorified him and maybe translated what he said (I can’t remember exact details). But when he told them what he said etc they kicked him out of the church. Pope Shenouda found that extremely funny. Was he also blaspheming, mocking or ignorant of the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

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  6. Hi George,can you please clarify which Metropolitan’s, Bishops, Hegomens, Priests, Monks, Nuns, Deacons in our church who have the gift of speaking in tongues? I have not heard of anyone having this “gift”.

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  7. I too would like to know who these Metropolitans, Bishops, monks, etc are of whom you speak!

    I think for us to determine whether the whole speaking in gibberish tongues thing is really a gift of the Holy Spirit or not (which from what I previously mentioned above, I think it is not), we have to look at why the Apostles were given the ability to do so (even though from my understanding there is never any gibberish talk at all, as I previously explained).

    The Apostles were given this gift for the sole purpose of spreading the Gospel to the nations. The Apostles were Aramaic speaking men, many of whom were unlearned. It would have been near impossible for them to preach to the nations who did not speak Aramaic and therefore it would have been near impossible for Christianity to spread outside of Palestine so rapidly like it did.

    In order for them to be able to spread the news of the their risen Messiah, they would have had to be understood in all languages of the countries they entered, which is where ‘speaking in tongues’ comes in. God allowed them to be understood by others who were not Aramaic speakers.

    So, the gift was not given for self-edification or as a display of holiness as people think today, the gift was given for a specific purpose in order to spread the good news of the Gospel.

    Once the Church became established in each nation and once the second generation of non-Aramaic speaking Christians were born, there was no longer any need for God to use this method to spread the word any more. Then once Greek became the universal language there became even less need for anybody to speak in tongues because everybody understood Greek. Even more today, there is no need for anybody to speak in tongues because the word is now even easier to be spread in any tongue you wish.

    Speaking in tongues is a phenomenon of the early Church which allowed it to be spread so rapidly. The spread of Christianity would have been impossible otherwise. It therefore has no need to exist in anybody today at all!

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  8. Listen to John McArthur’s sermons on this at Grace to You which are very enlightening. Paul warns against glossolalia in 1 Corinthians and even indicates it may be demonic (1 Cor. 12: 3) and Jesus Himself told us not to do it (Matt. 6: 7).

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  9. What does “praying in Jesus’s name” mean? I underdstand that what is described as the (holy) spirit coming to our aid when we do not know how or what to say because “the (Holy) Spirit knows the mind of God moreover ” (both) you or I in apparent groans and sighs that are beyond utterance is in fact edifying for The Lord’s Chosen vessels of Authentic Intercession to Honor The Lord Jesus by complying to as an action of “worshipping in spirit and truth” Amen.I

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