In our Seek the Gifts series on the gifts of the Spirit, we have been talking about the subcategory in the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 of the utterance gifts. In part 1, we discussed the background of speaking in tongues in the New Testament, the purposes of speaking in tongues, and the function of speaking in tongues.
Now we can study how Paul describes the gifts of speaking in tongues and interpretation in the corporate worship setting. First, we look at the contrast of the private prayer language and the corporate gift of speaking in tongues. As we consider speaking in tongues and interpretation, ask the Holy Spirit if He has given you either of these gifts.
Personal and Congregational Speaking
Paul separates the functions of using our personal prayer language and the gift of speaking in tongues in the corporate setting. Speaking in tongues as part of our personal prayer and worship, praying in the Spirit and singing in the Spirit, edifies us and is speaking between our spirit and God.
We don’t understand what we say when we speak in tongues, but we magnify God and encourage ourselves in the Spirit. We can control our private speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:28, 33, 40). It is not ecstatic speech like in the occult and some of the cultic prophets of the nations and idols in the Old Testament.
Speaking in tongues is not to make us look spiritual among other Christians. It is for us and for the Spirit. It has nothing to do with anyone else. We make the mistake of letting others know we are filled with the Spirit, but it is not about others.
On the other hand, the gift of speaking in tongues is led by the Spirit. He directs the gift and its use. We must listen to the prompting of the Spirit and follow His lead. Paul offers principles and rules for using the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, which we will discuss below.
The Spirit uses this gift to speak to His church. And when it is observed by unbelievers, it is a sign to them that God is among us, doing something great in their midst (1 Corinthians 14:22-23). This is the purpose of the gift of speaking in tongues in the public, corporate setting.
What Paul Said about Tongues
The one who speaks in a tongue speaks to God and others mysteries in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:2). Here, Paul is speaking of private prayer, not of the gift of speaking in tongues in corporate worship.
The one who speaks in tongues and defies himself (1 Corinthians 14:4). This is still praying and singing in tongues. I want you all to speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:5a). This refers to the experience of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, along with praying and singing in tongues. All Christians can speak in tongues because of these two experiences. But the gift of speaking in tongues in the corporate setting the Spirit gives to certain Christians.
One who speaks in a tongue (the gift in a corporate setting) should pray that he may interpret the tongue (1 Corinthians 14:13). Either the person speaking in tongues in the corporate setting must be able to interpret the message, or that person must not speak in tongues to the entire congregation. It’s also possible for one to speak in tongues and another to interpret.
Praying in the Spirit is unfruitful for your mind, but you can pray with both your spirit and your mind (1 Corinthians 14:15). Praying in the Spirit benefits our spirit, connecting the spiritual part of us with God. But it does not benefit our mind because we can’t understand what our spirit is speaking to the Spirit, deep calling to deep (Psalm 42:7). But this is not an exercise for the mind. It is spiritual food for our spirit and soul.
You give thanks to God through your personal prayer language (1 Corinthians 14:16, 17). Once again, this is a spiritual exercise to benefit our spirits. Paul is still describing the private prayer practice of speaking in tongues to God, not the corporate gift of speaking in tongues.
What Paul Didn’t Say about Tongues
Paul did not say we should not speak in tongues. At the very least, speaking in tongues as part of your personal prayer and worship time does not misuse speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues has value personally and corporately.
If Paul did not value speaking in tongues in our personal prayer language, why did he say things like, “I thank God I speak in tongues more than any of you” (1 Corinthians 4:18)? He also said that you must not forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39).
Paul said that when the Corinthian church comes together, each of you has a hymn, lesson, revelation (prophecy), tongue, or an interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:26). Though the Corinthians were overly using the gifts, the reason Paul writes this chapter, he was not striking down the use of speaking in tongues.
Paul was bringing order to chaos, proper use instead of abuse, and focus on the Spirit’s leading instead of individual aggrandizement. The chaos kept people from hearing from the Spirit, And if anyone was an unbeliever, they would think the Corinthians were crazy.
Speaking in tongues and singing in the Spirit has value in your private prayer language and worship. The Scriptures talk about, explain how to use, and encourage speaking in tongues. Even if you don’t have the gift of speaking in tongues, Paul considers speaking in tongues a valuable private practice for all believers.
There are abuses on both poles of using this gift. Cessationists believe this gift was meant for the early church before the Bible was completed and don’t practice it today. Pentecostals and charismatics can place too much emphasis on speaking in tongues.
Even as a Pentecostal, we place too much importance on speaking in tongues when we elevate it over major doctrines and practices. There must be a balance. Being a Pentecostal is about more than speaking in tongues.
But the New Testament clearly teaches that we must not forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39). As part of the gifts of the Spirit, we practice it like the rest of the gifts.
Tongues and Interpretation
Paul gives direction for using the gift of speaking in tongues with the gift of interpretation. These are companion gifts. You cannot have interpretation without a message in tongues. And you should not use the gift of speaking in tongues in a corporate setting without interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:5, 28).
Paul observes that the Corinthians are thirsty for the gifts, but they are using them without interpretation to cause chaos instead of follow the Spirit. So, he places restraints on their enthusiasm to bring order to chaos. These are rules for using the gifts of speaking in tongues and interpretation for every church in every age.
Rather than quenching the gifts in the Corinthian services, Paul wants the gifts to build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:26b). Because of the many things that happen in a Christian service, Paul limits the amount of speaking in tongues with interpretation to two or three (1 Corinthians 14:27).
He also stated that each one should take a turn and not speak over another (1 Corinthians 14:27b). As I have noted, there must be an interpretation for every message in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:27c).
We see the control anyone who prophesies or speaks in tongues has over the gift (1 Corinthians 14:28). If this were ecstatic speech, the speaker could not control what was happening to them. Because a person can avoid giving a message in tongues if there is no interpreter, the gift is controllable.
A God of Order
I believe the reason we have such a problem with tongues in the Church today is that we misunderstand Paul’s approach in 1 Corinthians 14. Because he places prophecy above speaking in tongues and interpretation, many downplay it in their churches.
The contrast Paul presents between prophecy and speaking in tongues deals with his desire for the church to be edified by intelligible words of prophecy, not that speaking in tongues and interpretation does not have its place.
Some Christians see chaos when they see people use their the personal prayer language. It’s not for others, but sometimes it happens when we are together. I speak in tongues even when I am among other Christians. But they usually can’t hear me because I do not make a point of doing it.
I do that because Paul says not to be distracting. God is a God of order, and there is a place when the Holy Spirit uses the gift of speaking in tongues among us (1 Corinthians 14:33-40). But it must be interpreted. That’s because we must understand, or we cannot receive from the Spirit what He speaks to us.
Paul teaches the principles of building up and order among the gifts. The Corinthians were more concerned about being spiritual and speaking in tongues to show they were spiritual, and the Spirit was speaking through them.
But they missed the point. God orders the service and the Holy Spirit controls the gifts. When we don’t follow His leading, we are missing what He wants to do and speak among us. It is of no use to the church for people to use the gift of speaking in tongues without the Holy Spirit directing every event in the service. He cannot edify the church if we are trying to be more important in our gift then He and His message are.
We have spent two posts talking about speaking in tongues and interpretation. I hope the clarifications I have made help you understand 1 Corinthians 14 better. As long as you can separate the personal prayer which and the gift of speaking in tongues corporately, you will see the points Paul makes.
You can always reach me with any questions you have about speaking in tongues. Whether you choose to seek this gift, or to practice the personal prayer language, you understand how Paul teaches about it. Do you have the gift of speaking in tongues?
Now that we have considered all the gifts of the Spirit listed in the New Testament, and attempted to understand them better through descriptions and examples, we turn to look at the applications of these gifts. Does God’s Spirit use our abilities and talents along with our gifts?