Text: 1 Corinthians 14
You knew we’d get to it sooner or later. Here we are. This has been a very controversial issue in many churches, an issue that has divided the body of Christ in harmful ways. Churches refuse to fellowship with others over whether or not they believe that speaking in tongues is something believers can and should do today.
This was the exact issue that was going on in Corinth. By carefully reading Paul’s response to the Corinthians, we can discern some things about the Corinthian Church. The Corinthian church was, I believe, what we would call today a Charismatic Church. They were enamored by the experience of speaking in tongues and elevated that experience over other expressions of the Spirit. And it is clear from chapter 12 that they were dividing over it. Some of those who didn’t speak in tongues were charging that the practice was from the devil and were actually cursing God in their utterances, while those who spoke in tongues charged the others with not having the Spirit. Some who didn’t speak in tongues felt as if they weren’t fully part of the body, and others who spoke in tongues looked down upon what they regarded as weaker members. Paul’s pastoral answers to them affirmed the place in the body of Christ of all different sorts of members with all different sorts of giftings and all sorts of manifestations and argued that the Spirit sovereignly arraigned such diversity in the church that it might be stronger as it carries out its existence as one body. He told them that it didn’t matter what language they spoke, even if they spoke the language of angels, if they didn’t love each other, their spirituality meant zilch, because love is what will last into eternity.
That is not quite a full answer however, because we still have to consider the experience of speaking in tongues and what place it is given in the church. That’s what chapter 14 is about. Before getting into that discussion, though, I think it will be helpful to consider some definitions of what we are talking about when we speak of the issue of tongues.
When one talks of “speaking in tongues” biblically, one can be referring to one of four different capacities.
1) The first is simply the natural ability to speak a language. The book of Revelation describes people form different ethnicities in heaven as speaking in their own tongues. Most people are gifted in their ability to communicate in their mother tongue, some more gifted than others, and some people we call gifted in language seem to pick up other languages easier. These are natural abilities given by God to all people, whether they are believers or not.
2) A second thing referred to is a special manifestation of the Holy Spirit whereby one is able to speak a foreign language unknown to the speaker for the purpose of proclaiming God’s message. This is exactly what is recorded in Acts 2 as occurring at Pentecost. People from many different nations heard the apostles proclaiming the Gospel in their own native languages.
3) The third experience is a bit more controversial. It seems that a close reading of 1st Corinthians reveals a different sort of experience that the Corinthian believers referred to as speaking in spiritual tongues. This was a sort of ecstatic religious experience in which a person is making utterances not related to any known human language at all. They used it for prayer and in their worship services. They believed they were speaking God’s oracles, even thought they could not understand those oracles. They felt they were experiencing God in a close way, even a direct way. This is what most people today mean when they talk about speaking in tongues. Those who make a practice of this experience tell of how they feel closer to God through it, of how they feel as if they are able to connect to God in a more intimate way through it. We have people who practice this in our church and I believe that this practice is what was going on in Corinth as well which prompted Paul to write to them.
Paul’s focus in this chapter is very pastoral. How does he walk a tightrope between correcting the church in its overemphasis on speaking in tongues, yet not diminishing this practice that admittedly does bring personal benefit to the believer? Here’s the approach Paul takes with the Corinthians: in order to demonstrate the blessings and limitations of speaking in tongues, he contrasts it with the ability to prophesy. In doing so he also gives clear instruction regarding the use of tongues in church.
Tongues Edifies Oneself 1 Corinthians 14:1-5 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. Paul goes on to say in verse 4, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself.”
Prophecy, on the other hand, Edifies the Church
(verse 3) On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation, and in verse 4, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.
Paul gives a quick definition of prophecy here for us, speaking the Word of God into someone’s life for their upbuilding, encouragement and consolation. Again, like the other spiritual gifts we have looked at, this could be a charismata, you admonish people, or preach to them from the word already revealed in Scripture empowered by the Spirit, yet through natural means, or it could be a manifestation whereby you get a strong impression that God has a particular word for you to speak to a person. Either way, the purpose of prophesy is to build up others in the church. Paul’s point is this: If you’re going to elevate one of the things the Spirit does in the church, pray that you can prophesy. See, its good and all if you can speak in tongues and experience that close connection to God and that the Spirit frees you to do that, but it doesn’t help the church all that much and that is really the point of what the Spirit is really trying to accomplish. Instead, pray and seek after giftings that build up the whole church. That’s why Paul goes on to say:
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.
Tongues Isolates Individuals Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
Here’s one reason why tongues aren’t that helpful in building up the church. Tongues do not bring us together, they actually isolate you by making you unintelligible to others. You are speaking into the air and make you a foreigner to someone who should be a friend.
Prophecy Unites the Brethren Through prophecy you can bring a benefit to another person. You are united in teaching and concern for one another. You are able to exercise love through prophecy as you admonish, encourage, and console each other with the word of God. Prophecy is messy because it requires us to actually be involved in each other’s lives. Prophecy makes friends from foreigners. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
Tongues Lack Edifying Content Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
Notice that Paul says that even in his personal life, he has a need to supplement his tongues-driven prayer with cognitive language-driven prayer, because tongues lack edifying content. He wants to pray in the Spirit, but it really edifies him if he can pray with his mind as well. This is not an either-or but a both-and. If this is true in Paul’s personal life, how much more so in the church: Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. If they other person can’t understand the content of your prayer, how can they agree with it and say amen?
Prophecy Contains Edifying Content I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. Five content-laden prophecy words can instruct others and are more beneficial to building others up than thousands of utterances. This is true because there is power in the Word of God. As Hebrews 4:12 says: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Again, the key question is, who are you building up? We don’t come together as a church to receive individual blessings, but to bless each other. This is the function of prophecy.
Tongues Confuse Unbelievers Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, "By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord." Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?
These verses have given me a lot of trouble in understanding them, but what I think Paul is saying here is that the church should not be driven by confusion. Going back to the context in Isaiah 28:11-12, God’s judgment on Israel was that unbelievers were going to come in and bring confusion to the nation by using unknown languages in their midst. The confusion among God’s people that the strange language caused was the sign for the unbelieving nation that they had conquered God’s people. Thus if today, an unbeliever came into a church and saw chaos, it would be a sign to them that God’s people were still confused and under judgment. Instead of coming to God, they would be repulsed by what they saw. Just as Israel was supposed to be a place of God’s revelation and wisdom, not confusion, so is God’s church.
Prophecy convicts Unbelievers But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.If on the other hand, an unbeliever entered and hears the Word of God proclaimed intelligibly, his heart will be convicted and he will understand God’s gospel and come to faith.
That’s why, for all the personal benefit speaking in tongues may bring you as an individual, here in the church we want to stand up and proclaim as intelligible as we can that Jesus Christ is Lord, so that any who enter may hear that message and recognize that God is in our midst.
So . . . What Should We Do?
In the last part of this chapter, 14:26-40, Paul gives some practical application to the Corinthian church:
1) Encourage Orderly Participation in Worship
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
We should have active participation in worship, but since we meet together in worship everything is to be done to build one another up in the Lord. So this is not the place for ecstatic tongues that edify only the individual. But if you have something that can build up the entire body, than yes we would encourage you to participate in an orderly manner.
2) Test The Content of What Is Taught
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
Here is the principle: we don’t let just anyone get up and share anything they thing God has said to them. Other spiritually mature people in the church should test the content of a message. This is one of the roles I believe God has given church leadership – to be able to test and approve the messages going into the congregation so the body can be protected from false prophecy. So if you come up to me and say, “I have a message for the church,” unless I know you to be a mature saint and an able communicator, I am not going to let you do it without testing what you are going to say first, and if affects the entire church, we will discuss it with our spiritual leaders before passing it on to the church, for the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.
3) Give Respect to the Appointed Leadership
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
Without opening up an entire can of worms, let me explain this very quickly and easily. We have already seen in this letter to the Corinthians that women prayed and prophesied in the church. So when Paul says that women should keep silent what is he referring to? I think it best to consider this command as pertaining to not the act of prophesying or praying, which women were allowed to do, but to the act of judging the prophecies, which Paul has just discussed in verses 29-33. Paul has just said that every prophesy or teaching given in the church should be evaluated by other leaders in the church. Remember, the New Testament assumes that these leaders be male and it will be those leaders who discern whether or not any teaching or prophecy reaches the church body. I think the heart principle of these verses is to respect those who are appointed to make those evaluations. Understanding these verses in this way provides a smooth transition into the last point:
4) Prophesy With Humility
Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
I can imagine a scenario where someone, either a man or a woman, feels they have received a word from the Lord for the church. However, instead of humbly and carefully submitted the message to the church leadership, they take matters into their own hands and refuse to subject their message to the approval of the church. What Paul is saying is, if you meet any prophets like that, who do not recognize the responsibility of church leadership to evaluate prophesies, than that prophet is a renegade and not to be recognized by the church. So if you have a word that you believe is from God or a message that you feel God has put on your heart for the church, please hold onto it with humility and come and share it with me so that we can discern together its value to the church.
Paul’s Final Words on the Subject
So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy (for it benefits the church), and do not forbid speaking in tongues (for it benefits individuals). But all things should be done decently and in order.