Is Speaking in Tongues Only for a Few? Only for the Gifted?

tonguesIf speaking in tongues is a gift (1 Cor 12 and 14), then wouldn’t we think that only the gifted would be able to speak in tongues? The answer might seem to be “yes.”

This possible answer might find support in Paul’s questions at the end of 1 Corinthians 12. Here, after he has said much about the spiritual gifts, Paul asks, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Cor 12:29-30).

Paul’s implied answer to all of these questions is, “No, not everyone is an apostle, not everyone teaches, does miracles . . . or speaks in tongues.” And this is true! The Spirit gives people different gifts. This recognition does not mean, however, that only a few people (the gifted) can pray in tongues.

Considering a few other gifts of the Spirit makes this point clear. In the verse before Paul asks his questions (“Do all speak in tongues?” and so forth), he mentions people with a number of spiritual gifts: “those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues” (verse 28).

Like Paul, we can ask, “Do all have gifts of healing?” (verse 29) and the answer would be “no.” And yet, God can use any praying Christian to heal somebody. Similarly, we can ask, “Do all have the gift of helping others?” (verse 28). Again, the answer would be, “no.” But I sure hope that when I am in a pinch, anyone has the ability to help me, even if they don’t think they are “gifted!”

The same could be said about the gift of encouragement, the gift of giving, and other gifts (Romans 12:8). If only those with the gift of giving can give, then pastors might as well give up collecting offerings on Sunday morning! If some have the gift of prophecy, and yet “you can all prophesy in turn” (1 Corinthians 14:31), then it becomes clear that, similarly, some can have the gift of speaking in tongues (for a congregation), but any Christian can potentially speak in tongues as they pray.

This makes sense of Paul’s warning about times when “the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues” (verse 23). It also makes sense for Paul to write, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:5).

This blog post is an excerpt from a (non-academic) book I am writing on the Holy Spirit and Spirituality, tentatively titled Touched by God: Experiencing the Holy Spirit.

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