“Do All Speak in Tongues?”

Speaking in tongues is not the hot button topic it used to be.

Oh, I’m sure that in some circles it still is, but on the whole things have mellowed in the last five decades. I’ve lived through those decades of disagreement and conflict that moved toward dialogue and compromise. And I have been on both sides of that theological fence, so I can tell you with confidence: the topic does not cause the stir that it once did.

That said, it is still a controversial topic, and disagreements definitely still exist. The participants in the controversy are by and large brothers and sisters in Christ, and are sincere in their (conflicting) opinions. And hopefully they are less argumentative and more accepting of one another than in decades past. But make no mistake: it is a controversial topic.

This article is designed to answer just one question in the debate. Does the Bible tell us that speaking in tongues is something that is promised to all, and that therefore all believers should expect and seek out this experience?

For me, this may be the most important point in the whole discussion. If the Bible tells me that speaking in tongues is a Biblical experience that every believer should have, then the issue is settled. If, on the other hand, the Bible tells me that it is not for everyone, then again, the issue is settled. I have no allegiances to any denominational doctrine or theological viewpoint. I seek Biblical truth. If a teaching can be demonstrated to be Biblically true, I will accept that, and follow that truth wherever it leads me.

So, once more, the question is: “Do all speak in tongues?”

From the outset, let’s be clear about what we mean by speaking in “tongues.” From a Biblical perspective, what we are talking about is languages. In the English language, the noun tongue can refer to either an organ that is “the agent of articulated speech” or to “a spoken language.”[1] It is the same with the Greek of the New Testament: the Greek noun γλῶσσα (glōssa) can mean the organ of speech or a language.[2] Obviously, what’s being referred to in the Greek New Testament (hereafter, GNT) is languages, specifically speaking in languages. In the GNT, glōssa in this sense of a manifestation gift is consistently associated with the verb λαλέω (laleō), to speak.[3]

This kind of speaking in tongues is referred to as a “sign,” meaning it is miraculous in nature (Mark 16:17; 1 Corinthians 14:22). Of course, there is nothing extraordinary about speaking a language. What makes this miraculous is the utterance in this case is in a language other than your own native tongue (there’s that word again), or one you’ve learned by study. One is able to speak in tongues because it is a gift; the Spirit miraculously gives the ability to speak in a language not one’s own. This speaking in tongues is often described or modified in the GNT with adjectives such as “new” (Mark 16:17), “other” (Acts 2:4; 1 Corinthians 14:21) or “kinds” (1 Corinthians 12:10, 28).

So, is it the desire of God’s heart and His deliberate plan that every believer receive this miraculous gift and speak in tongues? There is a verse which addresses this issue head-on: 1 Corinthians 12:30. Before we look into this verse specifically, let’s take a minute to consider the broader context in which it is found.

To put this gift into perspective, the manifestation gift of speaking in tongues is specifically mentioned only nineteen times in the GNT. Only once is it mentioned in the Gospels (Mark 16:17). Only four of these references are in Acts (2:4, 11; 10:46; 19:6). The other fourteen of the nineteen references to this gift—75% of its occurrences in the New Testament—are found in a span of just three chapters (12-14) in 1 Corinthians.

This tells me that the Corinthians had a problem with their views on gifts, particularly this gift, and that Paul was addressing their issues in his correspondence. He instructed them in the matter of practical application of this gift (and other gifts) in the assembly. He admonished them to keep their focus on the body of Christ and on the Giver of the gifts, not the gifts themselves.

So, narrowing our focus to the more immediate context, we return to the verses surrounding verse 30. Here is my translation of the passage, 1 Corinthians 12:28-31.

28 And God placed these in the assembly: first, apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helpful deeds, administrations, kinds of tongues. 29 Not all are apostles? No. Not all are prophets? No. Not all are teachers? No. Not all work miracles? No. 30 Not all have gifts of healings? No. Not all speak in tongues? No. Not all interpret? No. 31 But be zealous for the better gifts. And an even better way I show to you.

In verse 30, the apostle Paul posed a question about speaking in tongues. It is typically translated, “Do all speak with [or, in] tongues?” The wording of this direct question in the original Greek is very specific, and conveys a very specific meaning. So bear with me as I talk you through the verse in the Greek: Μὴ πάντες γλώσσαις λαλοῦσιν;[4]

That first Greek word Μὴ () may seem relatively insignificant, but in fact, the meaning of this verse rests in the proper understanding of that word. It is a particle of negation in Greek, and means not, lest. But it has a particular significance when it introduces a direct question, as it does (seven times over) in this passage. In such a construction, when is used to introduce a direct question, a negative answer to the question is expected. Grammarians refer to its usage in this type of construction as an “interrogative particle.”

Any first-year student of Greek should know that the negative particles οὐ and μή when used in direct questions indicate what type of answer is anticipated. οὐ introduces questions for which an affirmative answer is expected; μή introduces questions for which a negative answer is expected. This was true of classical Greek and the common dialect of Koine Greek used in the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament.

I’m stating this in an unapologetic, simple and straightforward way because it’s that certain. It is so defined in all the lexicons,[5] and so delineated as a grammatical rule in all the grammars.[6] Any student of Biblical (or Classical) Greek worth his salt knows this. Therefore, we need to apply this grammatical rule to verse and verses in question.

I say “verses” plural, because verses 29-30 contain a total of seven questions, each beginning with the same grammatical construction of as interrogative particle introducing the question. And this fact tells us that in each case, a negative reply was what Paul expect in response to his questions.

Several English versions have attempted to convey this aspect of implied negative response by supplying additional words to the text of their translations. Among the versions so rendering these verses are the New American Standard Bible, David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible and the NET Bible. Their renderings are along the lines of “Not all speak in tongues, do they?”

Unfortunately, these versions did not put the added/supplied words (“do they”) in italics, so the English reader does not know they are supplied English words. I have chosen instead to render the Greek wording of the verses quite literally, and to add a simple No in italics after the question to indicate this expected negative response.

And that answers the question before us. “Not all speak in tongues? No.” And in the context of this chapter and especially in the context of all seven questions, it is even more clear. We as individuals are part of the body of Christ (12:20, 27), and we do not all have the same function in the body. Not all speak in tongues, in just the same way that all are not apostles, or prophets, or teachers, etc.

The meaning is clear. Our question has been answered. Not everyone in the body of Christ speaks in tongues. So it is not a gift that has been promised to all, and thus it is not God’s desire or will for every believer to expect and earnestly seek out experience.

Now please don’t read into this any ulterior motives on my part. I do believe that the Bible teaches that not all get the gift of speaking in tongues, and I’ve just spent 1,500 or more in telling you why. However, that does not mean that I reject this as a valid gift for some. And while I also truly believe that it is widely abused in its application, I do not feel the need to pass judgment on who does or doesn’t have this gift.

Let me share one story as an example of what I mean. Decades ago now, I was in a worship service in a Charismatic church. Behind me sat a man that I knew, Steve. At one point during the worship, he spoke a couple of sentences in Spanish praising the Lord. Steve was not speaking in tongues loudly, but the service was quiet enough that I could hear him. Now Steve is not a Texas native (but he got here as fast as he could); he’s from Maryland. He does not speak Spanish, but in that moment, he did. It was just a couple of sentences, but it was Spanish. He was speaking in tongues.

Now the Spirit of the Lord was not giving me a gift of interpretation that evening; I speak Spanish. I am a Texas native; I was born in South Texas. That fact in and of itself probably gave me a leg up on learning Spanish, but my real language instruction came from living in San Juan, Puerto Rico for five years. So, I can tell you, that evening, Steve spoke in the “tongue” of the Spanish language.

I’ve always believed that the Lord allowed that experience that night at least as much for my benefit as for Steve’s. It gave me a real world look into the existence of the workings of a gift that I don’t believe I’ve ever had.

I mentioned earlier that I have been on both sides of this theological fence. The denomination of my youth was and is ardently cessationist, that is, it has a doctrinal distinctive that claims miraculous manifestations of the Spirit, including tongues, ceased after the close of the first century AD. Many years ago now, I was challenged to reexamine that belief, and doing so led to my rejection of that tenet of my denomination’s doctrine. (I am no longer a member of that denomination.)

But while I am no longer a cessationist, that doesn’t make me a Pentecostal. I disagree with Pentecostal and most Charismatic position statements on what is called the “baptism” in the Holy Spirit and that speaking in tongues is the “initial physical evidence” of said “baptism.” I disagree with the abuse and the widespread failure to follow Biblical guidelines concerning its use in corporate gatherings today.

I can see the need for several other articles on subjects related to this: cessationism, being immersed in the Holy Spirit, etc. But for now, this answers the fundamental question of the supposed universal availability of this gift.

[1] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, p. 2407.

[2] Henry George Liddell & Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Seventh edition), p. 312; Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich & Frederick W. Danker [BAGD], A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 162; G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 93; Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 118; Barclay M. Newman, Jr. A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 37; Timothy & Barbara Friberg, Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Electronic edition. #5515, γλῶσσα; Johannes E. Louw & Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. Electronic edition. #8.21, 33.2; γλῶσσα.

[3] Liddell & Scott, pgs. 872f.; BAGD, pgs. 463f.; Abbott-Smith, p. 263; Thayer, pgs. 368f.; Newman, p. 106; Friberg, #16949, λαλέω; Louw & Nida, #33.70, λαλέω.

[4] That is a question in the Greek. The punctuation mark that looks like our semicolon is actually the symbol for a question mark in Greek.

[5] Liddell & Scott, p. 958; BAGD, p. 517; Abbott-Smith, p. 290; Thayer, p. 410; Newman, p. 116; Friberg, #16052, μή; Louw & Nida, #69.15, μή.

[6] A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 917; J. Gresham Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners, §§478-79, p. 197; H. E. Dana & Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, §241(2), p. 265; William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, p. 289; J. W. Wenham, The Elements of New Testament Greek, p. 75; William Hersey Davis, Beginner’s Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 173; William G. MacDonald, Greek Enchiridion, p. 123; William Watson Goodwin & Charles Burton Gulick, Greek Grammar, p.342.