In 1 Corinthians 14 the apostle transitions into the final part of his discussion on the abuse of tongues. In the first verse he summarises the previous two chapters with two imperatives, just in case we missed it—pursue love (Ch. 13), desire spiritual gifts (Ch. 12). He comes now specifically to the gift of tongues, which the Corinthians had so much overrated. While they should desire “spiritual gifts” they need to know which gifts are more beneficial and which have limited function.

The practice of tongues had become a measure of spirituality in Corinth and worship was reduced to a mindless and disorderly affair. It seems that the prevailing view was that the more unintelligible and out of control, the more divine worship is and the more spiritual the worshipper. You can’t read 1 Corinthians 14 honestly without recognising the limited value that the apostle put on the gift of tongues. And yet, Pentecostalism has made tongues its most desirable and distinguishing feature, the trademark of a full-gospel and authentic Christianity.

The apostle corrects this thinking with two broad principles; worship must be understood (1-25) and it must be orderly (26-40). The apostle’s approach is gracious and forgiving, although at times it is sharp and pointed. The most effective approach was to instruct, reason and seek to create an atmosphere in which tongues-speaking would not dominate and “Paul is an excellent example of how to win people away from wrong views in a psychological manner.”

Let’s look in this study at the importance of intelligent worship (1-25). The apostle addresses this in two parts.

First, he argues that prophecy is the greater gift to promote intelligent worship, as opposed to tongues (Vv. 1-5 and 20-25). I’ve already commented on the nature of prophecy in an earlier study, so we need not take time here. What we want to see here is the distinction that the apostle makes between that which we may desire (spiritual gifts) and that which is obligated in the Church (prophecy). It seems that the Corinthians laboured under the idea that the gift of tongues would mark their greater spirituality. Paul, however, tells them that tongue-speaking is actually in the category of lesser gifts—it was unintelligible, limited and in fact was not a means of dispensing grace but a sign to unbelievers (Vs. 22).

Spirituality is not manifested in emotional highs and individual satisfaction but in those things which engage the mind and build up the Body of Christ.

Now, the question is, which gift is best suited to engage the mind. And here the apostle states clearly that the Corinthians should desire prophecy over tongues (1). Tongues are limited but prophesy speaks to people for their building, encouragement, and consolation (3). Tongues are self-edifying, but prophecy builds the whole congregation (4). If that is not clear enough to wean these Corinthians off a preoccupation with tongues, the apostle flat out states that the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues (5). In short, everything good that Paul says about tongues, he qualifies with something greater about prophesying.

The reason why prophesying is greater is based very simply on the fact that it is understandable. At this point, Paul breaks it down a little by showing us from the perspective of believers in the Church (1-5) and then unbelievers who may come into the Church (20-25).

  1. Tongues have limited value for believers in the Church. Prophecy is more profitable, because tongues is unintelligible, whereas prophecy is understandable (Verses 1-5). Paul is not against tongues per se, he recognised it as a gift and he had spoken in tongues himself more than the Corinthians (Vs. 18). The difficulty was uninterpreted tongues (Vs. 13) resulting in unintelligible worship.

Paul repeatedly emphasised the use of the Christian mind, not just with the Corinthians, but with the Romans (Romans 12:2), with the Ephesians (4:23), the Philippians (2:3,5), the Colossians (3:12), and the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 2:2). The use of the mind also implies “self-control” which was something the Corinthians lacked, and which the apostle identifies as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Contrast Paul’s repeated exhortations to rational, intelligent, and temperate worship to what is common in many Pentecostal and especially in Charismatic churches—the experience of being “slain in the Spirit” which takes one into something like a state of hypnotism, and in some cases animal-like behaviour, uncontrollable convulsions, spasms, and unintelligible sounds.

  1. Tongues have limited value for unbelievers who might come into the Church. In verses 6-19 the apostle outlines and illustrates his reasoning for intelligent worship. We will come back to these verses. But notice in this context verses 20-25, where the apostle follows through on the importance of intelligent, mind-engaging worship. Here the contrast is greater—between the unbeliever and the believer.

Paul’s point here is that tongues-speaking is both a negative sign and does not convey content to the unbeliever—it provokes either hostility or scorn (or both). We have already seen in a previous study that tongues-speaking was a sign of judgement on the unbelievers, and signs, especially in the biblical context with the Jews, had a negative effect, arousing hostility among unbelievers (Luke 2:34; John 2:18-22; Matthew 12:39, 16:4).

But there is another very practical reason for limiting the use of tongues and promoting prophesy. In verse 23 the apostle put forward a scenario where the “whole church” comes together and “all speak in tongues.” Unbelievers coming into the church, in this case, would scorn them as though they had gone “mad” (KJV) or “out of [their] mind” (ESV).

While tongue-speaking provokes hostility (21) and scorn (23), prophesy by contrast will convict, examine and reveal the secrets of the heart (24)—will bring to repentance—and ultimately reveal the fact that God is truly among them (25). In short, tongues is a sign of judgment and prophesy is a means of salvation for the one who believes (22, 24).

Secondly, Paul advocates for intelligent worship because it edifies the whole congregation (6-19). How many times and in how many different ways does Paul have to say that the goal is edification of the congregation (Vs. 3, 5, 6, 12, 16, 17, 19, 20, 26, 31; see also for example Philippians 1:24-25). Paul’s concern is always for the congregation, not the individual. His repetition of this theme and his use of multiple illustrations may indicate how stubbornly persistent the Corinthians were in their pursuit of tongues. The word that the apostle uses is the Greek word oikodome meaning “to build” (a house or an edifice). You can see the link between the word edifice(building) and edification (to build) as the KJV translates it.

Gifts were valued according to their ability to edify the congregation (1 Cor. 12:7; 1 Peter 4:10; Eph 4:12, 16). Indeed, some commentators question if it is possible for a gift to exist that is not for the good of the body. Paul forces the Corinthians to make a choice between their own selfish misplaced desire and the good of the body of Christ. He appealed for them to “excel in building up the church” (ESV 14:12), and he emphasises the fact that tongues cannot do this!

Paul’s argument for building up the body is divided into two sub-paragraphs (6-12 and 13-19).

  1. In verse 6 he says, I paraphrase, “how can I benefit you if I speak in tongues unless there is intelligent communication (revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching).” In verses 7-12 Paul takes the time to give three illustrations, just so that they don’t miss the point. First, if a musician runs his fingers over the strings of his instrument without producing a tune, it is no benefit. It is pointless and indeed unpleasant; a cacophony. Similarly, if the bugler does not sound a clear message in preparation for battle then he fails in his duty and puts the people in danger. The reference to battle (See Numbers 10:9; Joshua 6:4,9) indicates that there are negative implications with unintelligible worship.

The third illustration continues the emphasis from the previous two. The focus is on the speaker, not the hearer—although the hearer is negatively affected. This inordinate zeal for tongues is not only unpleasant and dangerous, but it is also an exercise in folly—speaking into the air (Vs. 9). There are many languages in the world, and they all have meaning, but if I don’t know the meaning, the speaker and I are foreigners to each other (verses 10-11). If there is no meaningful communication, no one benefits.

  1. The apostle makes another key statement and quite pointedly too. Again, I paraphrase, “your zeal, should not be for tongues (manifestation of the Spirit), but for the building up of the Church.” In verses 13-19 he develops this thought further. This is a rather difficult section but note that Paul is challenging anything that does not edify the body—the speaker who is not speaking from his mind (in his [own] spirit), or the one speaking in tongues without an interpreter. One might pray in his spirit, but not understanding the language he is speaking, his understanding is unfruitful. The word spoken must always be understood, otherwise, the apostle repeats, we should remain silent (see, Vv. 5, 28).

He continues to show that if there is one in the gathering who is unlearned, a layperson, how can the word benefit that person if it is not understood (16-17). The problem at this point is not the spiritual gift, but the total disregard that the tongues-speaker has for others as he exercises that gift. It is this proud, selfish, stubborn attitude of the tongues-speaker, that Paul is seeking to undermine throughout the chapter. Again, verse 18-19, Paul makes it clear that it is not the gift he is attacking. He has spoken in tongues himself—and he thanks God for that ability—but for Paul, tongues-speaking is a dispensable gift. He does not practice it when it does not edify the body.

Dr. D. A. Carson puts it well;

One lesson, however, comes through these first verses of 1 Corinthians 14 with startling force. Whatever the place for profound personal experience and corporate emotional experience, the assembled church is the place for intelligibility. Our God is a thinking, speaking God; and if we will know him, we must learn to think his thoughts after him (Carson, 106).