As is true of all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the purpose of the gift of speaking in tongues is to edify the Church (I Corinthians 14:4-5). However, this edification can be accomplished in several different ways, as the scriptural examples and instructions regarding the gift attest. For instance, in Acts 2:4-8, the Spirit demonstrated his presence and activity to a crowd of unbelievers by using an outpouring of messages declaring "the wonderful works of God" in human languages unknown to the speakers, but known to the hearers. At Babel, God confused men's tongues in order to demonstrate that He would not permit men to think they could attain to the "heavens," i.e., achieve power like His own power, by their own unified efforts (Genesis 11:1-9). Thus, linguistic and ethnic division is a curse resulting from rebellious human sin. At Pentecost, God clearly demonstrated that this curse of ethnic division was reversed within His Church by enabling a group of Galilean believers to speak in languages understood by people from a number of other lands. Thus, there is in God's sight no such thing as a Russian Church, a Chinese Church, an American Church, a Black Church or a White Church, but only His Church, His one, unified Body. This purpose for tongues is, unfortunately, obscured by the modern Pentecostal practice of insisting that tongues given by God must usually, or always, be "unknown" tongues -- i.e., not human languages -- but it appears to be the real primary purpose for which the gift was given.
Similarly, the manifestation of tongues -- apparently without interpreters -- in Acts 10:44-46 edified the Church by showing the Apostles that Gentiles had been accepted into it on the same terms as Jews, thus demonstrating its unity. Again by contrast, the manifestation of tongues in Acts 19:6 edified the Church by reassuring the speakers that they were a part of it. On the other hand, I Corinthians 14:6 indicates that other gifts -- revelation, knowledge, prophecy or teaching -- may be presented through messages in tongues, although such messages, if given during organized worship, are to be presented only in an orderly way and with an interpreter present so that all may benefit from the message. I Corinthians 14:13-19, 26-28. Finally, I Corinthians 14:1-5 appears to indicate that speaking in tongues is a form of spiritual communication with God by which an individual believer may edify himself.
In Pentecostal circles, a distinction is usually drawn between "private" and "public" manifestations of tongues. "Public" manifestations are defined as those occurring during public worship and subject to the instructions stated in I Corinthians 14 and "private" manifestations are all other manifestations of tongues. It is at least implied that any manifestation which does not occur during a worship service must be kept strictly private, a matter for the private prayer closet (or, at most, whispered under one's breath in public).
However, the "public" versus "private" distinction, in this sense, is not supported by I Corinthians 14. Yes, any messages in tongues presented during a service must be limited to only a few, presented in an orderly way with an interpreter making them intelligible to the congregation. But nothing in I Corinthians 14, or anywhere else in Scripture, states that the Spirit will never ask any of his children to go to a foreign country, or to people of foreign nationality across town or next door, on notice too short to allow for language school, to present his message. Nor does anything in scripture ever suggest that God will never ask us to spontaneously speak in tongues audibly in a public place -- possibly to reach someone in that place who speaks the same language the Spirit is moving us to speak (much as occurred on a massive scale in Acts 2). What prevents these things from happening very much in our modern church is that we are afraid of appearing foolish if the Holy Spirit is wrong, not that God has said that he will not do these things. Therefore, it appears that the distinction which the Scriptures actually draws is one between tongues used "in a public worship service" and "not in public worship" rather than a "public" versus strictly "private" distinction. Regardless of setting, however, if properly used, tongues are always used for the purpose of edifying the Body and not to make the speaker look important.
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May specific gifts be requested in prayer? An historical hypothesis
The Doctrine of Babel, an explanation of the rebellion involved in building the Tower.
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