Do All Speak in Tongues?

Is it necessary to speak in tongues to be saved or to be spiritual? Is speaking in tongues the expected universal experience of all Christians? Is there a way to answer these questions? The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, although it may be difficult to see for the English reader because it involves a question of Greek grammar.

The NASB actually addresses the Greek grammar issue in its preface: “In the rendering of negative questions introduced by the particle mē (which always expects the answer “No”) the wording has been altered from a mere, “Will he not do this?” to a more accurate, “He will not do this, will he?” Greek has two negatives and ou, which mean no or not. When a question begins with , the author or speaker expects a negative answer. When a question begins with ou, the author or speaker expects a positive answer.1 The NASB handles the question in 1 Corinthians 12:30 this way: “All do not speak with tongues, do they?” The NASB translators are expecting the English reader to connect this construction with their statement in the preface and realize that the question expects the answer of no.

The NET handles these verses in a similar way:

Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? (1 Corinthians 12:29–30, NET)

However, NET places a footnote at the end of verse 30, which reads: “The questions in vv. 29–30 all expect a negative response.” I think the footnote makes this clearer for the English reader, and I’m glad that it is there. The NET often has helpful translation information in its footnotes.

Several functional equivalent translations attempt to make the passage clear using other methods. The NLT renders the questions in a simple form: “Are we all apostles? … Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages?” However, the NLT concludes the series of questions with the answer: “Of course not!” (1 Corinthians 12:30). The New Century Version and the Common English Version restructure the questions into statements: “Not all speak in different languages” (NCV) and “Not everyone can speak different kinds of languages” (CEV). All of these are attempts to make explicit to the English reader what the Greek reader would have clearly seen.

Is it necessary to speak in tongues to be saved or to be spiritual? Paul’s answer is no.

1A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, §427(2).

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