1 Corinthians Chapter 14: Paul’s Perspective on Speaking in Tongues
Key Verses: (1 Corinthians 14:2–19)
2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
9 Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
This is one of the most discussed and debated passages in Scripture today. Paul initially seems very critical of speaking in tongues, but it is clear that he views it as a legitimate gift of the Spirit when in verse 5 he says, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy” and in verse 18 he says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.”
So how do we make sense of this apparent contradiction? An explanation, as is often the case, requires an understanding of the historical context. Unlike today’s worship services (where preachers are the only voice during most of the service), in Corinth the assemblies were often chaotic, with many brothers and sisters shouting out in tongues and others giving prophesy, with multiple voices interrupting each other.
Paul’s concern was that outsiders visiting the gatherings for the first time would perceive this as madness or bedlam and would not be persuaded to follow Christ or even to return to the next gathering. Conversion requires a presentation of the Gospel in a language the visitor can understand. So unless the tongues were immediately interpreted, the others in the gathering would have no idea what was being proclaimed.
A Moment to Reflect
By reading Paul’s letters and understanding the context, we gain insights that are relevant today on an issue that divides some 21st-century believers. Paul was not rejecting the gift of tongues as a valid gift of the Holy Spirit. Instead, he was simply cautioning that in worship, greater emphasis should be placed on exercising gifts that can be understood and might therefore build the Kingdom. If you have ever visited a church service in which tongues were spoken, can you understand Paul’s concern about the initial impact on visitors?