Do All Speak in Tongues?

There is a commonly held belief that whenever someone is filled with the Holy Spirit, the initial evidence of this is that they speak in tongues.  1 Corinthians 12 is the key chapter on this issue, and I encourage you to read the whole thing in context.  Context alone is enough to make it clear that Paul doesn’t expect everyone who is filled with the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues.  He argues that the church is “one body” even though it has “many members”.  He compares the different gifts people have to different parts of the body.  He writes (verse 15):

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.

It’s a metaphor.  The implication is that if someone says “because I do not speak in tongues, I do not belong to the church,” that would not make them any less a part of the church.  God has given different gifts to different people, so that the church works together as a whole, just as he has given different functions to the hand and the foot, but they work together.

But in spite of the context being so clear, there is still some confusion.  In part, this is probably due to people taking 1 Corinthians 13:5 at face value:

Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. [Emphasis Added]

Yes, Paul does say that he wants them all to speak in tongues.  But in context, this is best understood as hyperbole.  He doesn’t mean that it is going to happen just because he wants it to.  This is the same Paul who wrote in Romans 9:3:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers

In both cases, he’s exaggerating to make a point. He wishes for it, but he knows that it is not what is actually going to happen.

But for those who are still unconvinced, the other verses that should seal the deal are in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30.

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?

Again, context makes it clear that the expected answer to all of these questions is “No”. However, in spite of context, some people may find this verse unconvincing because the answer is actually not given. Maybe Paul is leaving room for the possibility that all do speak with tongues?

This is one of those interesting cases where the Greek actually does make the verse a little clearer than the English. In English, if you ask a rhetorical question, you flat-out don’t tell the person the answer. Part of why you ask the question is to force them to figure out the answer for themselves. In Greek, when you ask a rhetorical question, you actually tell the person what you expect the answer to be. Questions in Greek that expect the answer “yes” start with οὐ (pronounced like “oo” in “me too “). Questions in Greek that expect the answer “no” begin with μή (pronounced somewhere half-way between “mare” and “meh”).

Now here’s 1 Corinthians 12:29-30 in Greek:

μὴ πάντες ἀπόστολοι; μὴ πάντες προφῆται; μὴ πάντες διδάσκαλοι; μὴ πάντες δυνάμεις; μὴ πάντες χαρίσματα ἔχουσιν ἰαμάτων; μὴ πάντες γλώσσαις λαλοῦσιν; μὴ πάντες διερμηνεύουσιν;

See all the occurrences of μή (highlighted in green)? That’s telling the reader/listener that the expected answer to this question is “no”. In any discussion about the importance of speaking in tongues to the church, this is a crucial point to understand. In the main teaching passage on speaking in tongues in the New Testament, Paul says explicitly that not everyone is meant to speak in tongues. God has given different gifts to different people, so that we would work together as a team – as one body.

There’s a larger discussion to be had about what “speaking in tongues” actually is in the New Testament and today. That’s a discussion for another post. But the take-away for now is simple. If you’re a Christian and you don’t have some spiritual gift, you might be worried that you’re somehow not fully included in Jesus’ plans for his church. The point of 1 Corinthians 12 is this: there’s no need to worry. Jesus made you, Jesus died for you, Jesus loves you and Jesus knows what gifts he has given you. Use them for him, and ignore the haters who tell you that you have the “wrong” gifts. The ones Jesus gave you are the right ones.