There is no doubt that there is some form of tongues in the Bible. But typically, when people refer to tongues, they think of ecstatic speech or the “language of the angels” that is common in Pentecostal churches. It might be surprising to learn that there are actually different ways that people understand tongues. The word tongues just means languages. In that sense, English is a tongue. Many theologians think that this is the best way to understand the biblical data concerning tongues. God would equip believers with new languages to serve as a sign to the unbelievers. I think this is the most robust model and beyond that, there are several reasons why charismatics should cut glossolalia (tongues) out of their theology.
In fact, I think that a charismatic church could be consistent and function without that practice. They could retain their understanding of the continuation of the spiritual gifts with the simple amendment that tongues are human languages. There is nothing inconsistent about that. In fact, I think it would be a better way to practice their faith.
Glossolalia Harms The Christian Witness
The final marching orders for Christians is to share the gospel with the world (Matthew 28:19). Apologists such as William Lane Craig suggest that part of sharing the gospel will be impacting how the world perceives Christianity. As the apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all means I may save some.” (1st Corinthians 9:22-23). The core truths of the gospel are not changed, but the context in which it is presented is changed.
So how does glossolalia impact the gospel? While it may be a fundamental element of the charismatic’s religious piety, it is pretty bizarre to outsiders. I do not mean bizarre in the sense that a resurrection is bizarre, because that is just a miracle. This is a behavior that people are actually exhibiting. It comes off as overly emotional, anti-intellectual, and even creepy. That is not to say that glossolalia truly exhibits those characteristics, but that is how it is perceived by unbelievers.
Further, miracles are supposed to function as a witness to unbelievers. This purpose for miracles is evident from the very beginning. Moses said that he performed signs so that the people would believe in YHWH (Exodus 4:5, 31). Nicodemus seemed to have this view of miracles as well (John 3:2). When John the Baptist was having doubts, Jesus pointed to his sign miracles (Luke 7:22). Finally, when Paul refers to tongues, he says that they are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers. If Paul were referring to the glossolalia rather than to known human languages, it seems bizarre to think that ecstatic speech would be able to function as a sign to unbelievers, especially when it can be manifested by other religious bodies.
Anticipated Objection – Could The Holy Spirit Use Glossolalia?
It may be said that the Holy Spirit could use glossolalia and move on the individual’s heart. I certainly believe that God takes the scales out of the unbeliever’s eyes so that they believe the gospel. But if glossolalia is to function as a sign to unbelievers, and the only way to believe in that sign is if you are already moved upon by the Holy Spirit, then it seems that glossolalia would be redundant. On the other hand, I think that God could work through evidence by softening their heart and removing anti-theological obstacles. But the glossolalia would be a little different because it is not intrinsically persuasive, and the only way that one would be convinced by it (given this objection) is if the Holy Spirit compels them into understanding.
Another point worth harking back to is the cultural effect that glossolalia could have. Even if we grant that sometimes the Holy Spirit will compel somebody to believe based on the glossolalia, it would still have a negative cultural impact. Christianity would still be perceived as emotional, anti-intellectual, and creepy. Far from being a sign to unbelievers, this would create additional burdens.
Let’s contrast this with biblical miracles. In John 11, Jesus went to the tomb of Lazarus. He told his disciples, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” When he raised him from the dead, he said the famous words, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” Then, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” People can deny that a resurrection happened. But for those who believe that it happened – who actually saw it, it is a real sign. But the glossolalia does not have that kind of persuasion. It does not compel, it repels.
Ambiguous Biblical Data
Upon reading this article, many of our charismatic brethren might inclined to say that other considerations aside, the Bible forms our normative Christian practice. So even if glossolalia repels unbelievers, we should stand on the authority of the Bible rather than on man’s opinions of biblical practices. I take this objection to heart. But I think that in the case of glossolalia, we might have a bit more freedom because the biblical data is pretty ambiguous. In fact, there is a model of speaking in tongues that accounts for virtually every relevant passage.
As a sign to unbelievers, tongues are known human languages that are given miraculously. They are not necessarily for the purpose of evangelism (because biblical data suggests that some people did not even understand the known human language that they were speaking [1st Corinthians 14:2]). But the gift was (and perhaps still is) a sign to unbelievers. That model can account neatly for passages such as Acts 2 and 1st Corinthians 12-14. Acts 2 (the Pentecost narrative) is easier to reconcile and is often conceded by charismatic scholars, such as Douglas Oss and C. Samuel Storms in the Four Views book about charismatic gifts.
In v. 7, the onlookers point out that those speaking are from Galilee and would not know those languages. Yet they hear them in their own language. Whether the miracle is related to the hearing (the people merely hear them in their own language) or the speaking (they are actually speaking those languages) is pretty ambiguous, but we can say that it is probably related to both. But Pentecost is not too hotly contested; many charismatics agree with this interpretation.
Applying The Model To 1st Corinthians 12-14
Many would argue that the most important text for understanding glossolalia is 1st Corinthians 14. Paul tells his readers that “Nobody understands,” and that he is “speaking mysteries.” But I think it is perfectly plausible to understand this as actual human languages. When he says that nobody understands, he means nobody in the local context (in the church) understands. So in that sense, it would be just as mysterious as glossolalia.
To underline Paul’s confidence that some ethnic groups understood the languages, though, look at his citation in verse 21. He quotes Isaiah 28:11, writing “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me.” Obviously Isaiah is referring to known human languages. So with that in mind, it might not be implausible to think that 1st Corinthians 14 is also referring to known human languages.
I suppose the most relevant proof-text would come from the previous chapter. In 1st Corinthians 13:1, Paul refers to the language of the angels. Since the adjacent chapters pertain to gifts and tongues, he may have mentioned it because tongues were on his mind. However, I think Paul could have been making a rhetorical point. In the next verse, he referred to knowing “all mysteries,” having “all knowledge” and “all faith.” These are rhetorical devices and out of our grasp. So we might think that the language of the angels is as well.
I want to emphasize that I am not saying that glossolalia is an exegetical impossibility in this passage. But other models, such as the one that I have presented, seem perfectly consistent and comport with the biblical data. Having made that point, that will mean that the central passages for the glossolalia at ambiguous at best. I just do not know that I would want to hang a doctrine that impacts so much of my piety, behavior and church practice on ambiguous passages.
As A Miracle, It Is Unfalsifiable
Every charismatic scholar that I have encountered is willing to admit that tongues can be faked. If you think that statement is a little too sweeping, I will amend it if you provide a source. We see glossolalia across the religious spectrum, present in New Age mysticism, Paganism, and several cults scattered across the world. That is not to say that it is inspired by demons or anything inflammatory like that. But it does have the earmarks of a common psychological manifestation in religious practice.
Yet it seems difficult to distinguish the glossolalia in these religious sects from the glossolalia exhibited by our charismatic brethren. In fact, if we think again of it as a sign to unbelievers, it becomes almost unfalsifiable. If you are to say that there is no way to tell the difference, and it has to be accepted by faith or something like that, then it will take on unfalsifiable traits. Any comparative or linguistic analysis will be rendered obsolete. It is just a matter of faith.
But once again I would like to make the point – something like that could not function as a sign to unbelievers. It could not be proven to be a miracle, which is against the character of miracles that we see in the biblical pattern. Even in another seemingly ambiguous miracle, prophecy, is subject to analysis. We are to compare prophecies with Scripture. We are to see if what they said comes to pass. If it does not, then she is not a true prophet. But there is no similar test that we could impose on the glossolalia. If Paul tells us to “Test all things” (1st Thessalonians 5:21), and John tells us to “Test the spirits” (1st John 4:1), then why pass on a sign that is inherently untestable?
What Do Linguists Think?
As indicated, some charismatics might suggest that as a heavenly language, glossolalia is simply not subject to linguistic analysis. I am a little skeptical of whether that is true. A language, whether heavenly or earthly, will have patterns, grammar, and recognizable distinctions that make communication possible. Otherwise it would not be a language. We might be able to say that there is some form of expression in heaven, but we would not say that it was a language. We would say that it was an expression. So I do think that so long as we are calling it a language, it will have to be subject to analysis. Further, if it is not, then we would fall back into the ditch of an unfalsifiable miracle.
Yet outsiders who listen to charismatics speaking in tongues will often note that there is no recognizable pattern. My personal experience with glossolalia came from Oneness Pentecostalism, in which of course my charismatic brethren would rightly object is not a legitimate form of Pentecostalism. But even so, I do not know that the glossolalia speech would different significantly. Anecdotally, it is pretty easy to recognize it as fraudulent.
This conclusion seems to be supported by linguistic analysis. As I pointed out here, a linguist from the University of Toronto analyzed glossolalia. He concluded that people were stitching together sounds from known languages. We might have heard Korean or Japanese on the television and buried it in our subconscious. Then it comes out during glossolalia. The Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion as well as the Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion report similar findings. This would also explain why atheists who de-convert retain the ability to speak in tongues. In fact, I could speak in tongues if I wanted to, even not believing in it. But I do not want to. Overall, I think that glossolalia has the earmarks of fraudulence.
Why Charismatics Should Cut Glossolalia (Tongues) Out of Their Theology
I think it is possible to be a practicing charismatic without glossolalia. You could still believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit as an event distinct from salvation, but tongues would no longer be part of the program. It would be something like when Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and was led into the wilderness (Luke 4:1). Being infilled by the Holy Spirit could come at any point in one’s spiritual walk when they are devoted to Scripture, prayer and fasting. There is no reason that it has to be accompanied by tongues.
Beyond that, for the reasons that I have listed, I do think that glossolalia brings more harm than good. I understand that many people have a deep, emotional connection to glossolalia, and that is why I have intentionally and carefully avoided any language that might sound inflammatory. But I do think that the church would be better off without it. It  harms the Christian witness,  depends on highly ambiguous passages,  is an unfalsifiable miracle, and  is evidenced against by linguistic analysis.