The modern practice of tongues, which claims a higher level of spirituality, has modeled itself on the most problematic congregation in all of the New Testament. This has been said often, but it is still an astonishing fact. Another interesting observation is that what was happening in Corinth is not even hinted at in other epistles. It is dealt with in 1 Corinthians only because of its misuse. It seems that the subject arose in response to a question that came from the congregation (1 Cor. 7:1), perhaps from those who differed on the subject. Perhaps some were requesting apostolic authority to put a stop to the confusion.

Whatever the case, the apostle Paul, either clearly stated or implied that this congregation, in connection with tongue-speaking, was divisive (11:18; 12:1-31), uninformed (12:1; 14:38) childish (3:1; 14:20), mindless (14:4, 9), selfish (14:26-31) and disorderly (14:40), not to mention the influence of Corinthian paganism already considered.

To ignore these offenses, character flaws and violations of corporate responsibility is pastorally irresponsible. For this reason, the apostle took considerable time to break the subject down, explain the issues and offer solutions.

When we come to 1 Corinthians 14, we discover that much of the modern practice of tongues, argued from this passage, is problematic and cuts a very rough path through 1 Corinthians 14, squeezing and manipulating the text into its own narrow framework. Red flags pop up all over.

Tongue-speakers use a number of verses in 1 Cor. 14 to defend certain practices such as ecstatic utterances (14:14) and personal/devotional use of tongues (14:2). Reference is also made to prophecies and interpretations in this passage (14:5). There is a tendency to use these verses without due consideration of the context and build key Pentecostal practices on misunderstood proof texts.

First, let’s come to some understanding of the nature of prophecy. Paul said it is preferred over tongues, the one who prophesies is “greater” (1, 5). But why was prophesy preferred, and what made it a greater gift? Because it used the understanding (19) and was constructive and beneficial to the entire body (5). These two characteristics distinguished prophecy from tongues. Scholars have debated the idea of New Testament prophecy in the most detailed and technical manner. This is helpful in many ways and important, but I’m not sure we need to go there at this time. Paul clearly stated the purpose of prophecy in this context: it edifies, it exhorts, and it comforts (3, 31), and this is why it was called the greater gift.

We need to see, most importantly, that there is no indication at all of telling the future. Prophesy is simply, as Louis Berkoff suggests, the ability to understand and express “what the will of God is for a given present situation.” Many other scholars along the same line, identify New Testament prophecy with preaching or expounding the Scriptures. It could be, also, as some have suggested, that there is a direct link between prophecy and tongues, and that the Corinthians were confusing these two gifts. The biblical idea of prophecy is broad enough to include tongue-speaking, so even if this is the case, the apostle was challenging the Corinthians not to put so much weight on the unintelligible aspect of prophecy, but on the intelligent.

Then there is the added difficulty of interpretation of tongues. There is some indication in verse 5 that the interpretation of tongues was equivalent to prophesy, and also that one person might have two gifts; tongues and interpretation. Again, don’t forget that the goal is the edification of the body. Prophecy was a direct means of grace to the body of Christ. Tongues were not, but could have been in a limited way through interpretation. “In a way,” Lenski says, through interpretation, “the speaker with tongues rises somewhat to the level of a prophet.”

A second issue that arises out of 1 Corinthians 14, is the nature of tongues. Were they ecstatic utterances, heavenly languages, or normal human foreign languages? The case is made by Pentecostals, that the tongues in Corinth were ecstatic utterances, a prayer language, or a heavenly language, that they did not understand, and therefore needed an interpreter.  Verse 14 appears to argue for this, where Paul said “my understanding is unfruitful” i.e. he did not understand what he was saying.

This view, however, contradicts the broader context. Verses 2 and 4 clearly show that the speaker understands what he or she is saying. Verse 15 also indirectly, implying that the apostle singing, and praying does so with the understanding.

I keep bringing us back to the overall argument, and this is important. Paul was not saying that he does not know what he is saying if he speaks in tongues, but that his mind bears no fruit for anyone else. Although he will be benefited himself, as verses 2, 4 and 15 show, yet no one else will be benefited.

Let’s go back to the original occurrence of tongues and it is obvious from Luke’s account that they were understandable, real human languages. The promise of Joel 2:28, of Mark 16:18 and other Scriptures, was first fulfilled at Pentecost with identifiable, real human languages. It follows then, as Lenski has pointed out, “as the promise is one, so the fulfillment is one regardless of the place where the fulfillment occurs.”  We should approach 1 Corinthians 14 then, with the assumption that real human languages were used at Corinth also, not ecstatic utterances. There is no reason to think otherwise.

Think also of the words that both Luke and Paul use concerning tongues. Let’s first of all, get rid of the word “unknown.” This word appears six times in the Authorised Version (vv. 2, 4, 13, 14, 19, 27), but it is not found in the original text. It was added by a translator to help the reader but has only caused more confusion. The word tongue, alone, then, is found throughout the passage and everywhere this word is found in the New Testament is either means the wagging bodily organ found in the mouth, or, as in this chapter, a foreign language. The word does not appear anywhere else with any other meaning.

Luke used two words, tongue and dialect (Acts 2:2, 6), to mean the same thing—foreign languages. Paul used only one word, but one that Luke also used, the word glossa (tongue). However, interestingly, Paul used a term in 14:10, so many kinds of tongues, or different languages, and he makes the point that every word, every sound had meaning. Again, this puts the idea of ecstatic utterances on very unsure footing.

The clear and consistent teaching of Scripture is that the gift of tongues was the ability to speak a foreign language without previously learning it. This is what clearly happened in Jerusalem in Acts 2. It should not surprise us, therefore, that tongues were spoken at Corinth since Corinth was a busy seaport with a multi-national population. Ecstatic utterances, however, must be forced on the text of Scripture and on the context of the situation.

Third, among many Pentecostals and Charismatics, tongues are increasingly being used for personal devotion, rather than in public. Now there are good and godly men who defend the use of tongues for private devotions, at least in theory. Verses that seem to imply this, or that are used as proof-texts to defend this position are, verse 2 “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God,” (see also 28), verse 4 “ He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself,” and verse 18 “I speak with tongues more than ye all.”

Two general points to keep in mind; First, it denies the apostolic identification for the purpose of tongues. Paul said tongues were for a sign—a public sign to the nation of Israel, and perhaps by extension the unbelievers in the apostolic era. Second, throughout this passage, the apostle is pressing home, with some force, the “common good” (12:7) and the edification of the entire body (5, 31). The implication is that anything else, any other use of tongues is selfish, unprofitable and contrary to the purpose of tongues.

So, what is the apostle saying in these verses?  At the risk of sounding repetitive, let’s consider the context. The apostle was dealing with public worship—the benefit of all (31). To use verse 2 to defend tongue-speaking for “private worship” is to ignore the negative, disparaging tone of Paul’s message against selfishness and to miss the emphasis on the edification of the whole body, throughout the chapter. He said, therefore, very simply, that if a believer brings a message to the church in tongues and no one understands it, then God is the only listener.

Paul is speaking of a scenario in which the speaker is clearly addressing the congregation. He is not addressing God directly. However, if the congregation doesn’t understand, then God and the speaker, (2) are the only ones who understand and no one else is benefited.

In verse 18 Paul said, “I speak with tongues more than ye all.” Dr. Carson believes there is “no stronger defense of the private use of tongues” than this verse. He argues rather dogmatically, that, since Paul will not speak in tongues in the church (19), then the only place he must speak in tongues is in private. But this approached fails to recognize that Paul was a traveling apostolic missionary. It should not surprise us that Paul spoke in tongues, especially as we understand the use of tongues in Acts (see the previous study).

I have never heard a tongue-speaking Pentecostal saying they were blessed by a brother or sister speaking in tongues. I have, however, been told by many that they have been personally blessed, lifted up higher plain, by speaking in tongues themselves—this selfish spiritual superiority is what the apostle is rebuking in 1 Corinthians, for self-edification is not the purpose of tongues and it does not edify the congregation.

So how did Paul deal with tongues at Corinth?

Paul’s methods of dealing with such difficult issues are gracious, wise and insightful. He showed the same qualities in dealing with the slavery issue in the Philemon/Onesimus case. He could not deny tongues (14:18) nor forbid them (14:39) but knowing that they would cease of themselves in time (13:8), advocated for a peaceful environment that would enable them to die out. First of all, he discouraged the Corinthians from exercising the gift (14:1-11, 19). Second, he undermined their current practices, by showing their correct/intended purpose (14:22). Third, he suggested alternative gifts that were more beneficial to the congregation (e.g. love, Ch. 13 and prophesy, Ch. 14). Fourth, while they still existed, he regulated the use of tongues in the public worship (14:26-40).