Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

The Controversial Gift of Tongues

1 Corinthians 14

Teaching t05415


Remind of section on meetings. In this concluding chapter, he addresses the controversial issue of speaking in tongues. There is still tremendous controversy and misunderstanding over this issue today. Because of its misuse, many view Christianity as weird. We need to have an accurate biblical understanding of this gift. Read vs 1-17.

What is the gift of tongues?

It is the ability to speak in real languages unknown to the speaker.

"Real language"—with syntax and vocabulary (vs 11-13: comparison to meaningful human languages; capable of interpretation) vs. mere repetition of syllables. Samarin's research indicates that most alleged tongues turns out to be "linguistic nonsense". [1] Some actually instruct people to repeat syllables over and over again as a way of receiving this gift.

It is a self-edifying, non-cognitive form of prayer. Paul distinguishes tongues from prophecy in this way in vs 2-4.

"Form of prayer"—The one being addressed is God, not other people (vs 2a; vs 15-17—praise/thanks). In contrast, prophecy is addressed to other people (vs 3a). Prophecy is the ability to explain and apply scripture to the present situation so that people are spiritually impacted (PREPARED TEACHING OR EXTEMPORANEOUS SHARING).

"Self-edifying"—Its primary purpose is to spiritually build up the speaker, not other people (vs 4). Evidently, the speaker is aided in his/her praise and thanksgiving to God. In contrast, prophecy's main purpose is to edify others (vs 3b,4).

"Non-cognitive"—This doesn't mean that the speaker is in a trance state, unable to control himself; vs 27,28 make it clear that they are able to start and stop at will. Rather, it means that the speaker's mind is not engaged in the communication process as it normally is—by initiating the thoughts and selecting known language symbols to suit those thoughts. The one speaking in tongues is aware that he is praising/thanking God, but does not know what he is saying (vs 2b,14). I have often felt like my words were inadequate for this—it would be nice to be able to transcend the limitations of language in this way. In contrast, the mind is fully and normally engaged in prophecy.

It is primarily for private use rather than for meetings. Because prophecy is given primarily for corporate use, it should be featured in meetings (explain 14:1 here). But because tongues is given primarily for private use, it should not be featured in meetings. This is Paul's main point, though many miss it.

Yes, tongues can be edifying in a corporate setting if they are interpreted. In this case, they become another prayer of thanks. That's why Paul urges those with this gift to pray for the ability to interpret (vs 13). Evidently, some (but not all) tongue-speakers are given the ability to interpret their own tongues. This is why Paul can insist on vs 27,28—one would have to know he had both gifts before he used tongues in a meeting.

But Paul did not use the gift in this way. He had the gift of tongues (vs 18) and interpretation (vs 14-15 "I")—yet he did not use either of these gifts in meetings (vs 19). He evidently used this gift exclusively in his private prayer life, and he wants to influence them in this direction.

So, while Paul does not forbid Christians to use this gift in meetings (with restrictions), he urges them to feature prophecy. Vs 39 indicates that he would be disappointed if their meetings didn't have prophecy, while he would not be disappointed if they didn't have tongues.

Avoid extremism on this issue!

The Christian community is deeply divided over tongues today. Many Christians are polarized into two camps which ironically commit the same errors: twisting scripture and wrongly judging others.

Many groups, over-reacting to the abuse of tongues, reject its legitimacy and will not tolerate people who speak in tongues (CHURCHES; PIONEERS; PUBLISHERS). “God no longer gives this gift—so anyone who claims to have it is unspiritual (either fraudulent or self-deceived—maybe demonically)."

How do they get this from scripture? The main defense comes from 1 Cor. 13:8-13 (read). They claim the "perfect" is the New Testament canon. Since it has come, tongues has ceased. They also claim that tongues died out after the end of the first century.

But the "perfect" is obviously when Christ returns, or when we die and go to heaven. That is when we will see him "face to face" (1 Jn. 3:2). Knowledge and prophecy haven't ceased, have they? Tongues have surfaced throughout church history—but arguing from church history is dangerous anyway (DOCTRINE OF GRACE). This is blatant scripture-twisting!

We should defend the legitimacy of this gift! Who are we to tell God he can no longer give this gift to his people if he wants to? We have passed up opportunities with mission agencies because of this issue. I have good friends in this church who have this gift, and I don't want them to feel like they should be ashamed of it, or must hide it.

On the other hand, there is equally destructive extremism among many tongue-speakers. The same kind of wrongful judgment and scripture-twisting goes on, with the same grievous result. This gets expressed in various ways:

"Unless you speak in tongues, you are not baptized by/filled with the Spirit." Old-line Pentecostal teaching says it is required for salvation. Many charismatics say it is required for spiritual power in the Christian life. The Bible denies both of these assertions.

1 Cor. 12:13, 30 speaks conclusively to the Spirit-baptism issue. All true Christians are united permanently with Christ the moment they believe in him (Eph. 1:13-14—GOSPEL). And the main manifestation of being filled with the Spirit is not tongues—it is the fruit of the Spirit described in Gal. 5:22-23 (see also 1 Cor. 13). Some may have dramatic conversion experiences, or subsequent experiences which motivate growth—but to make these normative is unscriptural and extremely harmful to young Christians who haven't had these experiences.

It is ironic that in 1 Cor. 12-14, Paul is rebuking the attitude that tongue-speaking proves spirituality (13:1)! The Corinthians are proof that one can speak in tongues and be carnal! Outside of this passage and four special occurrences in the book of Acts, tongues is not even mentioned in the New Testament. [2] If it is so important, why is it mentioned so rarely??

"Paul's restrictions on tongues don't apply to our meetings."

CHARISMATIC MEETING REPORT: "What about Paul's rules?" "If you were there, you'd realize it was from God because we felt his presence so strongly." I don't care what you experienced—this doesn't justify disobeying God's word!" Verse 33 says these restrictions apply to all the churches. Vs 36-38 was written to counter this mentality (read).

Why? One reason is that new Christians and non-Christians can easily draw a negative conclusion about tongues at a meeting (read vs 20-25). This is a notoriously obscure passage, but the main point is clear. Non-Christians will likely be weirded out in a meeting with tongues ("This is a nut-house!"), but they will be convicted by the power of God's word when it is spoken prophetically ("I felt like you were speaking directly to me." "Who told you I was coming?").

"Unless your meetings include tongues, your church is unspiritual."

Paul is argues in exactly the opposite direction: encourage prophecy in your meetings, not tongues. Their meetings were unspiritual even though they were speaking in tongues, because they were doing so with a selfish attitude. While we should not forbid the use of tongues in some meetings (with restrictions), they are in no way necessary for spiritual meetings.

4 keys to dynamic meetings

So what is necessary for dynamic meetings? The early Christians' meetings were electric. Today, our choice is usually between MANIA or BOREDOM. In this chapter, Paul not only corrects their abuse of tongues; he also provides us with 4 keys to dynamic meetings.

Allow freedom for creative and spontaneous participation. Clearly, Paul approves of the participatory nature of their meetings (vs 26a). Meetings shouldn't be so pre-programmed that there is no room for this (RESPONSIVE READINGS; RITUAL OF FELLOWSHIP; TURN & GREET NEIGHBOR). Because all Christians are members of the body of Christ, and because many have meeting-type gifts, there should the freedom for Christians to speak up and share spiritual things (SHARING AFTER TEACHING; GROUP PRAYER). Home meetings make this possible because they are small enough for group participation. This is probably what Paul had in view in 14:26. But with this freedom comes some responsibilities . . . 

Maintain order in the meeting. Group participation and spontaneity is not chaos. In order to be uplifting, this kind of "freedom" needs some "form." That's why Paul says vs 33,40. It is important to have a basic format which centers around the Word (see point #3). Individuals should not be allowed to monopolize the sharing time. Grand-standing and disruption should also be disallowed. I've seen many promising meetings get ruined simply because people won't maintain this kind of order.

Stay focused on sharing, explaining and applying God's Word. This is why Paul emphasizes prophecy in this chapter (see also vs 6). These meetings are not group therapy, in which the main focus is on how you've been feeling/doing lately. Nor is it a place to simply share human opinion. There is a place for these (usually best in private conversation), but when we come together, it should be to get in the Word. This is what lifts up and restores our perspective. We usually find that after we do this, our personal sharing is much more satisfying.

Prioritize edifying others over self-edification. This is Paul's emphasis throughout the chapter (vs 4-5, 12, 17, 26). In keeping with chapter 13, this is the most important element. In my own experience, the key difference between electric and dead meetings is not how many gifts are present, but rather the percentage of people who have come committed to build others up.

BEFORE: Get before God to get in an edified state, anticipating the opportunity to meet. Prayerfully reflect on ways you might build others up (Heb. 10:24-25). Pray with others.

DURING: Be willing to speak up in the meeting (additional insight from teaching; another truth; question). Be willing to pray out loud with what God has put on your heart.

AFTER: The meeting should "set the table" for rich fellowship. Make a concerted effort to be hospitable to new people. Continue discussion of spiritual things in informal conversations. Practice 1 Thes. 5:14—encourage, help, admonish as needed.

QUALIFY: Sometimes you may be depressed or discouraged or just worn out. Then it's your turn to receive from Christ through others. When you feel least like coming, you most need to come!

We have the freedom to do this in Xenos! Take advantage of it!


[1] William Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Phrase cited by Ray Stedman, Expository Studies in 1 Corinthians (Waco: Word Books, 1981), p. 272.

[2] The reference in Mk. 16:17 is not part of Mark's gospel.