In 1 Corinthians 14 the apostle Paul spends some time teaching the church in Corinth about the spiritual gift that is commonly known as speaking in tongues.
In the phrase “speaking in tongues,” “tongues” just means “languages.” So in modern English, “speaking in languages” is actually a much better way of referring to this gift. And in modern English versions of the Bible too “speaking in languages” is a better translation of the Greek.
Nevertheless, given the widespread use of the phrase “speaking in tongues,” I will stick with this term in the following discussion. And when referring to an individual example of using this gift, I will use the term “speaking in a tongue.”
What this gift is
When someone speaks in a tongue, they speak in a language that they don’t understand with their mind. The person’s spirit connects with their mouth to form words that have meaning, but their mind is not involved.
Paul describes this situation in the context of prayer in 1 Corinthians 14:14:
“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unproductive.”
(Bible quotations in this article are my own translations of the Greek text.)
Tongues for strengthening the individual Christian
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul refers to two purposes for speaking in a tongue.
First, he says that this gift is used for personal spiritual strengthening.
In verses 4-5 he states:
“4 The person who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the person who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I wish that you could all speak in tongues . . .”
Paul is explicit here that speaking in a tongue serves to build up a Christian who uses it. And he is clear that he would like all believers to use this gift for this purpose.
Similarly, in v. 18 he says:
“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.”
Again, Paul stresses the usefulness of speaking in tongues for the purpose of personal spiritual strengthening.
Tongues for strengthening the church
The second purpose that Paul gives for speaking in tongues is to strengthen the local church.
In v. 5 he tells his readers:
“. . . The person who prophesies is greater than the person who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church might be built up.”
Here Paul is thinking of a situation where someone speaks in a tongue and then interprets the incomprehensible language into language that those listening can understand. The result will be that the listeners are built up in the faith.
Similarly, in v. 13 he tells his readers:
“Therefore, the person who speaks in a tongue should pray that he can interpret.”
And then in v. 27 he says:
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be two or three at most, in turn, and someone should interpret.”
This use of speaking in tongues referred to in verses 5, 13 and 27 is really the equivalent of a prophecy. In a prophecy, a prophet speaks a message from God to the listeners in language that they can understand. In a tongue plus interpretation, the same result is achieved in two stages. A Christian speaks the message from God out loud in the unknown language, and then either the same believer or another interprets this is into understandable language.
This is all extremely mysterious. Personally, I have no idea why God would ever want to use this method of tongue plus interpretation, when it might seem that a simple prophecy would suffice.
Tongues in Christian gatherings for worship
In other parts of 1 Corinthians 14 Paul tells his readers that when Christians gather for worship, it is only appropriate to speak out loud in a tongue if the purpose is to strengthen the church through the tongue plus interpretation method. A Christian worship service is not the time or place to speak out loud in a tongue for the purpose of personal spiritual strengthening.
In verses 6-12 he stresses this point at some length:
“6 But brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will it profit you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?
7 Even in the case of lifeless things which produce a sound, like a flute or harp, if they don’t make distinct notes, how will anyone know what tune is being played? 8 And if the trumpet gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?
9 So with you, unless you use your tongue to give intelligible speech, how will anyone know what is being said? You will be speaking to the air.
10 There are doubtless a great many languages in the world, and none of them is without meaning. 11 But if I don’t know the meaning of a language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker will be a foreigner to me. 12 So you too, since you are zealous to use spiritual gifts, seek to excel in building up the church.”
And in verses 27-28 he continues along the same lines:
“27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be two or three at most, in turn, and someone should interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, he should keep silent in the church . . .”
Paul is clear, then, that in church gatherings, the Corinthians should avoid speaking out loud in a tongue unless the aim is for the words to be interpreted into intelligible language. If there is no one with a gift of interpretation present, no one should speak out loud in a tongue. And even if there is someone present who has a gift of interpretation, speaking out loud in a tongue should only be for the purpose of having the tongue interpreted.
Why this restriction?
Why, then, did Paul tell the Corinthians not to speak out loud in a tongue for personal strengthening during church services?
He answers this question in v. 23:
“So if the whole church gathers together and everyone speaks in tongues, and uninformed people or non-believers come in, won’t they say that you are insane?”
Paul is concerned that speaking in tongues without any interpretation into intelligible language will only serve to put people off the Christian faith.
Those of us who are familiar with speaking in tongues need to realize how bizarre the whole concept can seem to those who are unacquainted with it. And the same was obviously true in the first century.
In verses 39-40 Paul seems to give another reason why the Corinthians shouldn’t speak out loud in tongues without interpretation, when meeting together. Here he says:
“39 So my brothers, eagerly desire to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done properly and in an orderly way.”
Paul makes it clear in these verses that when the Corinthian church meets for worship, it needs to behave in an orderly manner. To have people speaking out loud in an unknown language without any follow-up interpretation, was only going to distract people’s attention and lead to disorder.
The same principle applies today
Importantly, there is no good reason for thinking that Paul’s teaching on this topic does not apply in our day.
Today, when Christians meet for worship, those with the gift of speaking in tongues should only use it out loud if their aim is to have their words interpreted.
And the reasons for this are still the same as in Paul’s time. Speaking in tongues can easily serve to put people off the faith, and it can lead to disorder.
I have been at many church services where Paul’s teaching on this subject is not followed. It is not uncommon for Christians to speak out loud in a tongue, sometimes even to shout, with no interpretation. And I have seen the looks of bewilderment and even fear on the faces of some visitors to these churches.
This is very damaging and it needs to stop.
It is true that it is possible to speak in a tongue almost completely silently and in such a way that people around don’t even know that it is happening. This doesn’t cause the problems that speaking out loud can. So Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14 against using personal tongues in church services shouldn’t be seen as a rule set in stone.
Nevertheless, firstly, anyone who chooses to speak silently in this way in a church gathering needs to be very careful that they are not observed by someone who could be put off by it.
And secondly, Paul’s teaching in this chapter gives a strong impression that church gatherings are not usually a suitable time to use personal tongues anyway, even if this is done silently.