The primary purpose for addressing this topic is to answer the question: Is there a biblical basis for a Kingdom citizen to pray in tongues in private?
The late Dr. Manuel L. Scott, Sr., said, “There is an orthodoxy within him that would not permit the sermonic broadcasting of an idea that the Bible would not back.” Not only do I share Dr. Scott’s orthodoxy regarding sermons, but I believe that this orthodoxy extends to worship practices—including tongues—publicly or privately. If the Bible does not back the practice of speaking in tongues, then no believer—period—should speak in tongues at any place or at any time.
It is not my purpose, desire, or place to attempt to persuade all Baptists or all believers to speak in tongues. I do not believe that it is God’s will based on His Word for all believers to speak in tongues (1 Cor. 12:30). Although it is debated among those of us who speak in tongues, neither do I believe that every believer is capable of speaking in tongues—even if they desire to. God sovereignly determines which believer gets which gifts (1 Cor. 12:7-12).
There are those who would argue strongly against my viewpoint that all believers are not capable of speaking in tongues. Again, God sovereignly bestows and distributes spiritual gifts according to His will. And there is no one gift that is given to every believer. When Paul raised the rhetorical question, “Do all speak with tongues?” (1 Cor. 12:30), it is obvious that the answer is, No! The implication is that it is not the will or intent of God for all believers to speak in tongues.
A few years ago I read in Newsweek Magazine that 20% of all Christians worldwide speak in tongues. If my memory serves me correctly that was based on a Pew Poll. Furthermore, only 50% of the persons who are faithful attendees and members of Pentecostal/Charismatic churches speak in tongues. They all are open, desirous, and believe in speaking in tongues, yet only 50% or less have experienced speaking in tongues. Those figures are consistent to me with what the Bible teaches—all do not speak in tongues.
Please don’t misconstrue anything that I say here as meaning that I am on a campaign to get Southern Baptists to affirm, embrace, and practice—speaking in tongues. That is not my goal or intent. Nor is it my calling. If I am on a campaign it would be to simply, respectfully and humbly ask the IMB trustees to simply return to the pre-2005 policy on tongues; that would resolve this issue. Because the SBC in session has not addressed this issue, I believe that IMB, NAMB, and SWBTS have usurped the will of the convention. It is only because the aforementioned entities have established these anti-tongues policies, without one iota of SBC sanctioning, that I have also asked the SBC in session to weigh-in on these matters. I would be very pleased if the SBC policy was one of neutrality, which had served the SBC well prior to the adoption of the cessationist policies.
I want to address the question regarding the biblical basis for praying in tongues in private from a biblical and biographical perspective.
1. Jesus affirmed speaking in tongues. He told the eleven that they could expect as one of the signs that would be visible or audible among those who believe is that “they will speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17). No matter how one etymologically and theologically parses this statement by Jesus, they would have to conclude that Jesus’ statement here is an affirmation of speaking in tongues. He did not elaborate, give details, qualify his statement, define tongues, or distinguish between public or private tongues here. He did not say if it would be a one-time occurrence among certain people groups or an ongoing experience among certain believers. But what He did say is this: Counted among those who name His name should be those who speak with “new tongues.”
I will leave it to those much smarter than I am to figure out exactly what Jesus meant by this statement. I simply take His Word at face value.
It is disheartening to me that so many otherwise wonderful and Spirit-filled SBC institutions and individuals would discount and devalue here the words of Jesus.
To categorically deny IMB missionaries the freedom to receive and experience what Jesus said here is to trample on the words of Jesus or to define and qualify Jesus’ words here in a way that He chose not to define and qualify His words. That is a bold, presumptive move, from my perspective, for the IMB to take.
Based on the context of Jesus’ statement, coupled with Paul’s statement on the subject (1 Cor. 12:30), Jesus clearly did not teach that all believers everywhere, would speak in tongues—but He certainly was saying some believers, somewhere would speak in tongues. How can the IMB disqualify, what Jesus qualified? And that is speaking in tongues. Neither did Jesus preclude or promote the notion that his reference to “new tongues” would be limited to public forums—to the exclusion of private worship and devotion. What is clear, again, is that our Savior, Lord and King of His Kingdom affirmed speaking in tongues.
2. The eleven disciples (Acts 1:13) and presumably the 120 (Acts 1:15) all spoke in tongues on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1, 4). The content of their tongues speaking, or what was heard by the Jews assembled from every nation under heaven (Acts 2:5) was—“the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11).
If what the devout Jews from different language groups heard on the day of Pentecost, when the 120 spoke in tongues was “the wonderful works of God,” it does not seem unreasonable to me that in a time of private devotional prayer and praise one could also speak—“the wonderful works of God” to God, about God.
You may ask, why would God allow this? God requested, allowed and required many things in scripture from our perspective that does not compute to the modern rational mind—nevertheless, He’s done so. Neither did He ask our permission to do so, nor is He interested in our opinion about what He’s done. The point here is simply this: If the early believers could speak in tongues “the wonderful works of God,” it is not a stretch from my perspective they could also speak in prayer to God these same “wonderful works.” Why? The answer is: For God’s own sovereign purposes.
Having experienced tongues as they did on the day of Pentecost, I can assure you that their speaking in tongues was not limited to that occasion only. Those of us who speak in tongues often during times of intense worship, devotion, prayer, and praise spontaneously often speak in tongues as the Sprit gives utterance (Acts 2:4). It is my opinion, but, I don’t believe their tongues speaking was limited to Pentecost only. I believe it carried over to their private devotions.
It is not an insignificant factor here that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 involved exclusively Jews and Jewish proselytes (Acts 2:5, 10).
In Acts 8 we see where another people group was introduced to Christ and received the Holy Spirit—the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-8; 14-17). Some scholars have referred to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Samaritans as—the Samaritan Pentecost—although there is no mention of tongues specifically being heard at Samaria.
Likewise, scholars have referred to the conversion the Ethiopian Eunuch as the Ethiopian Pentecost (Acts 8:26-39). There is no mention of tongues in the Ethiopian Eunuch narrative, but clearly the Holy Spirit was at work in his conversion. God used a Greek-speaking man—Phillip—to share the gospel with an African man—who was reading from a Jewish Bible while riding in a Roman Province. Truly the Holy Spirit was at work.
There is no record of the Ethiopian Eunuch, Phillip, or the Samaritans speaking in tongues. In Acts 2:4, the 120 were filled with the Spirit and spoke in tongues. In Acts 4:31 the 3000 that were converted on the day of Pentecost were “all filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke the Word of God with boldness.” There is no indication or record here of the 3000 speaking in tongues, although they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
One of the errors of Pentecostalism—or at least among many of them—has been to insist that all who are filled with the Holy Spirit are to also speak in tongues. That was not true in the Book of Acts, neither is it true today. I am convinced though that the private devotional lives of the Samaritans who were filled with joy (Acts 8:5), Phillip and the Ethiopian were all invigorated by the filling of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus prophesied that tongues speaking would be an occurrence among His followers. Indeed His disciples spoke in tongues declaring the wonderful works of God.
3. Paul affirmed speaking in tongues as an act of private devotion.
We find the strongest support for praying in tongues in private in Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians 14.
“Different kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:10) are mentioned as being manifest by the Holy Spirit and “given to each one for the profit of all” 1 Cor. 12:7). Paul then lists several gifts (12:8-10) and includes “different kinds of tongues.”
In Chapter 14 Paul admonishes the church at Corinth to, “pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” Although Paul does spend the remainder of the Chapter contrasting the gift of prophecy with the gift of tongues, Paul does not forbid speaking in tongues—publically or privately (1 Cor. 14:39). He does place guidelines around its use in public worship.
In 1 Cor. 14:2 I believe Paul addresses the primary way tongues was practiced by Christians at Corinth; this is also the primary practice of those who speak in tongues today.
In Acts 2, although they were speaking the “wonderful works of God,” men heard it and were pricked in their hearts. In 1 Corinthians 14:2, Paul is clear and specific in spite of scholars and commentators desperate attempts to explain this verse away.
“For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him, however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.”
No one would read that verse without the aid of any other explanation and conclude that speaking in tongues as practiced among believers at Corinth included—“not speaking to men but to God.” Speaking to God is the most basic, simple definition of prayer. Paul further explains while the believer’s speaking to God—not man—in prayer—“no one understands him.” The reason that no one understands him Paul explains is because, “In the spirit he speaks mysteries.”
The prayer that Paul described in 1 Cor. 14:2 had to be done privately because he later forbids this type of prayer without interpretation in a public assembly (1 Cor. 14:27-28).
Paul taught that one who speaks in tongues in the 1 Cor. 14:2 manner “edifies himself.” The fact that he “edifies himself” is another indication that the 1 Cor. 14:2 type of praying in tongues was private. Prophecy by its nature is public or at least directed to one other person. Prayer as in 1 Cor. 14:2 by its nature is private and is directed to God. The nature of private prayer is self-edification, that results in God’s glorification, and spirit-filled ministry to God’s people.
Jude taught that when believers “pray in the Spirit” that they build themselves up (Jude 20). No one views that verse as a negative. It amazes me that when Paul says that when one prays in a 1 Cor. 14:2 manner that they “edifies himself”—then it is viewed by some Southern Baptists as negative. That defies all logic, rationale and consistency.
When a believer builds himself up praying in a 1 Cor. 14:2 manner, or Jude 20 manner, they are then better equipped to “fight the good fight of faith” and “earnestly contend for the faith.” Built-up believers can then go, strengthen and encourage other believers to be a better witness to the world. Private prayer, be it I Cor. 14:2 or Jude 20, builds up the believer. And a built-up believer is better suited for Kingdom work. A built-up believer can build up the church.
“I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all:
Yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Cor. 14:18-19)
Here Paul makes it clear that he speaks in tongues more so than anyone reading his letter (1 Cor. 14:18). He follows his admission of being the #1 tongues speaker with a contrast statement: “yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:19).
Question: If Paul preferred understood language in the church, where was he speaking the language not understood (1 Cor. 14:2)? The implication is that this was being done in private, where he was building himself up, but it was not being heard in the presence of those who didn’t understand. To those whom it might matter, Dr. Jimmy Draper also in his book, The Church Christ Approves, interpreted these verses as Paul expressing a preference for private devotion tongues speaking, and publicly spoken understood speech.
“But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church, and let him speak to himself and to God.” (1 Cor. 14:28)
Those of us who speak in tongues can certainly relate to this verse. It is not uncommon for unintelligible speech to flow to your mouth if you are in a time of praise, prayer or even preaching in a public worship service. Although it flows to your mouth, according to Paul, and I know from experience that you have control over it until it comes out of your mouth. If no interpreter is present, Paul said—don’t cease praising, praying or giving thanks—simply do it within—“speaking to himself and to God.” This is another indication that a believer so gifted by the Holy Spirit to pray, praise, and give thanks in tongues can also pray even in tongues under his breath, or in a manner where it is not publicly heard, but yet it is occurring. Surely if one can do that while at church, they certainly could do it while not in the presence of others. These verses affirm praying in tongues in private.
I begin by quoting the words of Jesus: “they shall speak with new tongues.” I want to close by looking at the example of Jesus.
In Hebrews 5:7 we get an unusual glimpse into the prayer room of Jesus. Jesus is often depicted by the gospel writers as going away to pray alone. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus placed some distance between Himself and His disciples as He prayed. Commenting on the prayer life of Jesus, the Hebrew writer says,
“who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him, who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear.”
I am in no wise suggesting that Jesus prayed in tongues. I am suggesting that this verse probably describes His prayers in the Garden, perhaps at the cross and at other times when the disciples were not with Him. We learn at least three things about Jesus’ prayers in this verse:
- They were high volume [“vehement cries”].
- They were tear-filled.
- They were emotional.
My point is that private prayers often take on a different style and nature then public prayers. Jesus told us to go and pray in our secret closets. And in that closet, prayers are often prayed with words understood, words not understood and even without words.