Speaking in Tongues made Clear
At Pentecost the Church remembers how the Holy Spirit descended on the assembled apostles and gave them the gift of tongues, so that when they preached immediately afterwards, they could be understood by foreign people of whatever language group. Is this gift of tongues from the Holy Spirit the same gift of tongues that is a phenomenon among charismatic Christians? Marion
No, it is not. Acts 2:1-13 makes it plain that when the Aramaic-speaking apostles preached, all kinds of non-Aramaic speaking people heard and understood them in our own language. This event was a sign that the Spirit was giving the Church the power to announce the Gospel to all the peoples of the earth.
It was a special gift for the benefit of all, that is, the Christian community and those who would be brought into it.
The gift of tongues common among charismatic Christians, on the other hand, is not directed outwards. It is not addressed to the community.
St Paul gives us guidance here when he writes: Anybody with the gift of tongues speaks to God, but not to other people, because nobody understands him when he talks in the spirit about mysterious things (1 Cor 14:2).
This speaking in tongues usually comes about abruptly during community prayer. The subject enters a state of ecstasy and utters words and sounds that listeners cannot understand. St Paul writes that it is meant to be a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, and if believers would like to know the meaning of this strange speech, they should pray for the power to interpret it.
Note Paul’s emphasis on speaking to God and not the community when under the influence of the Spirit. This is a distinctive kind of prayer in which the subject may not comprehend what is said but, as Paul says in another letter, the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness, for when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put in words (Rom 8:26).
St Paul recognised the gift of tongues as a genuine personal gift. It did not much enhance the building up of the Church community and is clearly a transient sign of the Spirit’s presence in an individual. It is not a permanent sign within the Church.
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