Rules about Messages in Tongues (1 Cor 14:1–25)

Before Paul leaves behind his discussion on how the church should regulate the gifts, he turns from the general exercise of all the gifts to two of the speaking gifts, prophecy and tongues. Apparently, the Corinthian church wasn’t doing so well with these gifts. So Paul laid down some pretty specific guidelines for maintaining orderly edification in their church services.

  1. The loving way prefers prophecy over tongues (1 Cor 14:1–5).
  2. Uninterpreted tongues have no power to convey meaning, and thus no power to edify others (1 Cor 14:6–12).
  3. The one who delivers a message in tongues has a responsibility to make sure understanding occurs so mutual edification results (1 Cor 14:13–17)
  4. One may speak in tongues privately without interpretation, but public messages should always being interpreted (1 Cor 14:18–19).
  5. No one should act like a baby by speaking in tongues without assuring the rest of the congregation gets an interpretation (1 Cor 14:20).
  6. Uninterpreted tongues are a sign of judgment for unbelievers, interpreted tongues or prophecy can serve as a sign that leads to repentance (1 Cor 14:21–25).

Prophecy over Tongues (1 Cor 14:1–5)

Paul tells the Corinthians to seek for love and pursue the spiritual gifts that he’s taught about. Since these are all from the Spirit and distributed according to the Spirit’s sovereign will, it seems to me that seeking the gifts is seeking with a “thy will be done.” Nonetheless, Paul is still able to say the loving way prefers prophecy over tongues (1 Cor 14:1–5). The way of love will lead a congregation to desire the gifts that edify the most. So Paul says, “Let love be your highest goal! But you should also desire the special abilities the Spirit gives—especially the ability to prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1). Paul notes that uninterpreted tongues have no power to edify anyone other than the speaker: “You will be talking only to God, since people won’t be able to understand you” (1 Cor 14:2). This is in contrast to prophecy, which “strengthens others, encourages them, and comforts them” (1 Cor 14:3).

This does not mean Paul is prepared to abolish tongues. On the contrary, he would love all of them to speak in tongues—which of course implies that some of them did not. This cannot mean that Paul’s conception of the ideal in the church, as a considered theological stance, is that every Christian speak in tongues—any more than his desire in 1 Cor 7:7 that all be celibate means his considered theological stance is that the ideal church must be utterly celibate. After all, Paul has just finished insisting, in chapter 12, that not all do speak in tongues. The text before us simply means that Paul knows the gift of tongues is from God and is therefore a good gift, and he wants his beloved converts to enjoy as many good things as possible.1D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 102.

Notice three things that Paul doesn’t do.

  1. He doesn’t accuse tongue talkers of being unspiritual; rather, he accuses them of being unedifying. Indeed, he says, “You will be speaking by the power of the Spirit”; it’s just that it’s to no good effect for others (1 Cor 14:2).
  2. He doesn’t even deny the edifying power of tongues; he just says it edifies only the speaker (1 Cor 14:4)
  3. So he doesn’t forbid tongues; indeed, he says, “I wish you could all speak in tongues” (1 Cor 14:5).

If Paul had wanted to discount or stop tongues, he would never have included this in the list of edifying gifts for the church; instead, he would have left it only as initial physical evidence of the Spirit’s filling (Acts 2). So even though he says “prophecy is greater than speaking in tongues,” he can still note that tongues can edify the whole church, as long as they are interpreted (1 Cor 14:5). A classical Pentecostal formulation of this is tongues + interpretation = prophecy.


Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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