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Date Posted:16/04/2008 12:13 PMCopy HTML

<!--[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-AU X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 ‘Speaking in tongues’—why the phenomenon is not definitive

Original essay written by Drew Dixon

(Edited and revised 2015 by Ian Thomason, PhD)


The following essay touches on the core issue of Revivalist teaching: the unchallenged assumption that ‘speaking in tongues’ confirms an individual has been ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’. But is such a belief valid?

Some might view certain statements in this essay as bordering on ‘irreligious’, but such was not my intent.  To the contrary, I have sought to present an honest account of events that took place, while remaining supportive of the position that ‘speaking in tongues’ is a valid spiritual experience for the present age.


Despite protests to the contrary the Revivalist focus remains on ‘speaking in tongues’ above all else. Everything hangs on the display of this one phenomenon. If you can ‘speak in tongues’ then you might be allowed into the fellowship—so long as you are prepared to abide by certain rules and regulations. But if you cannot, then you are judged to be without the Holy Ghost, spiritually unregenerate and eternally lost. In Revivalist thinking one can be assured of having the Spirit of God only if ‘tongues’ is present, and that regardless of whether there has been any change evidenced in one’s life. But if ‘tongues’ is absent, then one remains ‘worldly’ and that despite any obvious indications of ‘spiritual fruit’ and a renewed life.

The absence of ‘speaking in tongues’ throughout the overwhelming majority of Christian history has infused Revivalists with a misplaced arrogance, the belief that virtually all who went before were spiritually inferior, lacking the gift of the Holy Spirit. Consciously or subconsciously, many believe such people were not truly Christian.

Given Revivalists understand a person’s initial position before God hinges on the presence or absence of ‘speaking in tongues’ it would be reasonable to assume that the qualifications for assessing what is—or is not—a legitimate tongue would be fundamental. However, this has not been the author’s experience. During his years in the Revival Centres International (RCI) it was virtually an unwritten law that you did not challenge another member’s ‘tongue’. By all means judge the absence, but never the presence!

It is my position those who should be the most diligent in examining the biblical basis for, the history behind, and the contemporary practice of ‘speaking in tongues’ are often the most fearful of doing so: Pentecostals! But I also believe the journey of questioning is necessary for developing Christian maturity and a robust faith, and then despite the possibility of discovering truths that one would prefer did not exist.

I cannot recall a single occasion when I was either a member or pastor in the RCI, of anyone broaching the subject of whether it was possible to ‘learn’ or falsify ‘speaking in tongues’. Despite members of the Oversight acknowledging that certain people had ‘odd-tongues’, the reality of the manifestation was never questioned. This was because there was no objective process or test to determine the matter, one way or the other!

So how does one differentiate between a real and a false ‘tongue’? The reality is there is no test! It is impossible to determine! Consequently, whenever Revivalists encounter professing ‘tongues-speakers’ from outside their group, they are conditioned to accept them as being fellow ‘Spirit-Filled’ believers. While Revivalists might consider such people to be ‘walking disorderly’, they would never question the reality of their claim of being able to ‘speak in tongues’. Surely this is a remarkably subjective process of judging a person’s spiritual condition?

I do not wish to stand in judgment of any person’s profession of being able to ‘speak in tongues’; however, I do wish to question the non-recognition by Revivalists that ‘speaking in tongues’ can be both ‘learned’ and falsified.

A study into glossolalia (‘speaking in tongues’)

The following provides an introduction that is representative of a number of investigative studies that have been undertaken into ‘speaking in tongues’. It was conducted at the Carleton University in Ottawa, and was published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Volume 95, and Number 1:21-23, published in 1986. It is titled, “Glossolalia as Learned Behaviour: An Experimental Demonstration”:

“Sixty subjects listened to a 60 seconds sample of glossolalia (defined to them as pseudo-language) and then attempted to produce glossolalia on a 30 seconds baseline trial. Afterward, half of the subjects received two training sessions that included audio- and videotaped samples of glossolalia interspersed with opportunities to practise glossolalia. Also, live modelling of glossolalia, direct instruction, and encouragement were provided by an experimenter. Both the trained subjects and untreated controls attempted to produce glossolalia on a 30 seconds post-test trial. About twenty percent of subjects exhibited fluent glossolalia on the baseline trial, and training significantly enhanced fluency. Seventy percent of trained subjects spoke fluent glossolalia on the post-test. Our findings are more consistent with social learning than with altered state conceptions of glossolalia.”

Nicholas P. Spanos, Wendy P. Cross, Mark Lepage, and Marjorie Coristine.

Several aspects of the above report warrant highlighting. First, after the sixty subjects were exposed to a 60 seconds session of ‘speaking in tongues’, twenty percent (12) were able to immediately reproduce a similarly fluent phenomena. This bears an uncanny resemblance to the percentage of Revivalists who ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ on their ‘first attempt’.  Second, after further exposure and ‘practice’, seventy percent were able to fluently 'speak in tongues'. Third, none of the ‘tongues’ represented in the above test had anything to do with the Holy Spirit. They represented the completely ‘non-spiritural’ generation of something remarkably similar to Revivalist ‘tongues’. The study demonstrated that ‘tongues’ can be both ‘learned’ and falsified.

This has some bearing on the Revivalist experience as it is commonly accepted that several Pentecostal groups quite literally ‘train’ their converts to ‘speak in tongues’. Without an objective test it is impossible for the average person to be able to categorically state a given manifestation is either ‘real’ or falsified. For the RCI to then claim a ‘proof’ from something that cannot be proven is to promote nonsense as evidence. While the various Revival Centres would strongly deny that any form of training or coercion takes place within their assemblies, they would be wrong to do so. Such training might not be consciously undertaken, but the process and the outcome are often the same.

The Revivalist ‘tongues’ training process

Doubtless the various Revival Centres groups are keen to avoid the ‘speaking in tongues training’ approach followed by certain Pentecostal fellowships. However, over the years a similar ‘training’ system has been adopted by most all assemblies.

A new prospect is quizzed about their faith, and while this can take various forms, it eventually boils down to the question, “do you speak in tongues?” The principal focus is promoting the idea that “God will prove himself to you.” It matters little if a person declares they have already received God’s Spirit, if they can’t ‘speak in tongues’, they are told they are not saved. Often a King James Bible is produced, a few choice verses are then strung together, and the prospect is presented with the ‘story of salvation’. The texts generally include Mark 16:17; Acts 2:4, 38; and Acts 10. Obviously one can prove or disprove anything via this form of scripture wresting, but if the prospect does not know the Bible well the case being presented can appear convincing. The result is the prospective convert’s previous faith has been undermined by a very confident ‘testimony and scripture presentation’. The prospect is then invited to a meeting, or to a local home group or similar. The focus then shifts to getting the prospect baptised and ‘seeking for the Holy Spirit’. Jesus Christ, if mentioned at all, is presented as something of a side issue; more in the context of being the giver of the Holy Spirit rather than as the very focus of salvation itself.

The meeting—generally the prospect’s introduction to the people and the assembly—is a highly controlled event, with most assemblies in a given Revival Centre running to a uniform pattern. He or she will hear several ‘testimonies’, with Revivalists ‘encouraged’ to present the positive and victorious life they have enjoyed post-‘speaking in tongues’. Problems, setbacks and difficulties are generally not mentioned. ‘Speaking in tongues’ is uniformly presented as the ‘turning point’ in the Revivalist’s life, when their faith became ‘real’ and ‘powerful’. If someone fails to mention ‘speaking in tongues’ during their testimony, the Master of Ceremonies quickly points out in his summary that the person actually did ‘speak in tongues’ when they ‘received the Spirit’, and was baptised by full immersion.

Eventually the prospect is introduced to the ‘operation of the spiritual gifts’, a process that she or he is assured follows the instructions given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14. At this point the prospect generally hears ‘speaking in tongues’ for the first time. Generally three ‘tongues’ are presented, each one lasting between five to thirty seconds. This provides the prospect with the opportunity to hear the general form, cadence and pattern common to ‘Revivalist tongues’. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the prospect learns what is expected if she or he is to enter into the ‘salvation experience’ and full fellowship. The subsequent ‘talk’ is directed to the ‘Spirit-filled’; consequently, the prospect is further conditioned about the ‘them versus us’ attitude promoted in the fellowship. At the end of the ‘talk’ one or two of the ‘speaking in tongues’ texts are again presented, and a ‘call for baptism’ made[i]

At the conclusion of the meeting the offer is made for the prospect to attend the “seeker’s meeting”—a place set aside for those who wish to spend time ‘praying in tongues’, as well as for those who are hoping to ‘pray in tongues’ for the first time. There is no biblical basis or warrant for either practice. The prospect, accompanied by one or two trusted Revivalists, enters a room where there might already be a number of people ‘speaking in tongues’. The prospect is encouraged to repeat a fixed word or phrase; the word of choice is generally ‘alleluia’. They are then instructed to ‘ask for / seek after’ the Holy Spirit, chanting ‘alleluia’ over-and-over, with his or her helpers ‘speaking in tongues’ alongside. Quite often the helpers encourage the new convert to “just relax”, and “if you feel your tongue changing, just let it go”. The helpers themselves will often slip in-and-out of ‘tongues’, reinforcing to the prospect how the change from English to ‘tongues’ may sound. As the prospect increased the pace of their ‘alleluia-chanting’, his or her helpers increased the pace and the volume of their ‘tongues-speaking’.

This is ‘tongues-conditioning’ and training, pure-and-simple!

Once the prospect “breaks through into tongues” the assembly’s attitude towards him or her immediately changes. Suddenly the new convert is no longer a tolerated outsider; he or she instantly becomes the much welcomed, much loved centre-of-attention! The ‘sinner’ has become a ‘saint’, with the sole ‘proof’ of the dramatic shift in his or her eternal destiny being the completely subjective, completely unprovable ‘tongues’! Unfortunately for the individual concerned, they may have forever lost their sense of Christian objectivity, along with their capacity to survive outside of a ‘tongues-focussed’ church.

Many Revivalists testify of a felt change within, at the point they first ‘speak in tongues’. While this may certainly be legitimate in many cases, one must also reflect on the potential for a significant emotional release for the newly converted. Once they have accepted the Revival Centres doctrine, to their thinking that initial ‘tongues’ moment has resulted in them realising salvation itself; they now ‘belong’, they are now one of the chosen few!

One should bear in mind the very act of ‘letting go’, as people are encouraged to do with their tongue, can present a significant emotional step in the development of a person’s psyche. Relinquishing control over the fundamental human activity of speech is accompanied by a highly charged emotional reaction. However, despite what happens all these factors combine to create a significant emotional ‘pivot point’ for an individual who is already under significant external pressure. This makes the person concerned extremely vulnerable, and opens them to intentional or unintentional emotional exploitation. In that moment the die is cast, with the person naively accepting an explanation that apparently fits the circumstances—circumstances that have been subtly manipulated from the beginning via a series of established processes and unconscious behaviours. And this often natural outcome is universally and uncritically accepted by Revivalists as supernatural ‘moving’ of the Holy Spirit.

Sadly, those unable to ‘break through to tongues’ inevitably succumb to the subtle condemnation they experience from those around them, fully accepting their failure is due to an unrepentant heart. Some will intentionally falsify ‘tongues’ out of desperation to belong. These ones go on to experience guilt, shame and a constant fear of exposure for years afterwards. The remainder slip away, often emotionally broken and spiritually crippled.

I became acutely sensitive to the subtle coaching going on around me during my final years as a RCI pastor; consequently, I ceased using the ‘training’ methods myself. It was only then I discovered just how difficult it was to ‘get’ someone to ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ in the Revivalist fashion without manipulating the circumstances, and the person.


By any measure the Revival Centre’s ‘unknown tongue’ must be considered an incredibly subjective and unprovable sign. It is impossible to verify the claimed source of the manifestation, unlike what we find written in the Acts of the Apostles regarding Pentecost. At Pentecost the languages were quantifiable and identifiable, they served their intended function. Put plainly what passes for ‘speaking in tongues’ in the Revival Centres is not what we find presented on the day of Pentecost.

As a Revivalist I had to accept every claim made to being ‘Spirit-Filled’ that was based on a personal profession of the ability to ‘speak in tongues’. Many others have stated they knew they were ‘Spirit-Filled’ because of the change that took place within them as a result of the Spirit’s influence. This is also a subjective claim; however, it is one more in keeping with Scripture, and is one that can also be assessed more objectively. A Revivalist cannot prove the validity of another person’s subjective ‘tongues experience’, but will still accept without question any claim to spiritual regeneration based on such a manifestation. The very same Revivalist will likely deny any claim to spiritual rebirth that is lacking in ‘tongues’, but which has an abundance of the objective evidence of a changed life via spiritual fruit! This flies directly in the face of Jesus’ teaching at Matthew 7:15-20.


The Revival Centre’s method of ‘seeking for the Spirit’ is found nowhere in the Bible; it is simply a received tradition, one which achieves the results required by the doctrine. It is also a self-reinforcing practice, one that can legitimately be viewed as a form of training. While it is likely many Revivalists truly received the Holy Spirit as a consequence of their faith, it is equally likely many have not received the Spirit as a consequence of the coaching they were subjected to. Sadly, they have based their perceived salvation on a natural process rather than on a supernatural Person.

The Bible assures us believers will be “known by their fruits”. The sad reality is there are many current and former ‘tongues-speakers’ who have never displayed anything approaching the biblical fruit of the Spirit. This alone should raise sufficient concerns as to the legitimacy of ‘speaking in tongues’ being the definitive sign of the indwelling Spirit of God.

From a scriptural perspective an individual’s claim to spiritual gifting should never be accepted on face value; the risk of falsification is always present. Prophets were always measured by their characters, and their prophecies ‘tested’ against Scripture. The same must ring true concerning individual claims to spiritual regeneration today. “Bad fruit, bad root”.


[i] It should be noted this ‘call for baptism’ is made to people who are, by Revival Centre's standards, still ‘unbelievers’. This highlights their lack of understanding given the New Testament Church did not baptise ‘unbelievers’.

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