In our study of 1 Corinthians chapter fourteen, we will look at what Paul meant by speaking in tongues and compare it to what is going on in the church today.
"Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy." NIV translation
In chapter 13, Paul explained what love is and he continues by telling us to want spiritual gifts so that we can serve the body of Christ and not for ourselves. He specifically tells us to desire the gift of prophecy. So, what is this gift? It is simply the ability to teach the Word of God in a way that can be understood by others. There are some who have misunderstood this gift and tried to make it some kind of circus sideshow telling people their future but that is not prophecy.
"For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church." NIV translation
Now, Paul compares the gift of prophesy (teaching the Word of God) with speaking in tongues. So what is this "speaking in tongues" that he is talking about? In Acts 2, we see that the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages. There were people there from all different parts of the world and, although the apostles did not know their language, they were able to share the gospel with the people in their own languages. This was clearly from God as they had no training in these other languages. Paul compares this speaking in tongues (without someone to interpret) with the gift of teaching in a language that people understand. If someone speaks in a foreign language that his audience does not know, then, it is as if he were speaking only to God. Many in the church today have misunderstood this gift of tongues and it has become babbling in a supposedly "unknown" language that is known only to them and God. This is a lie and goes against what Paul taught as the reason for the spiritual gifts which is to build up the body of believers. I have actually been in the midst of bodies of believers that were trained to yell and scream in these "unknown tongues" on cue and they would call it praying. They would even criticize you if you did not take part in it and others would go so far as to say you are not in Christ if you don't have your own language. This is not of God but a learned behavior of men.
"I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified." NIV translation
Paul has been speaking about unity in the body of Christ (see chapter 12) but now he seems to create division? What he is saying is that one who can teach the Word of God in a manner and language that people can understand is more valuable to the church than someone who speaks in a language that they cannot understand. This is unless someone can interpret (translate) the words for the people.
"Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction. Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes. Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air." NIV translation
Paul explains that the words have to have a meaning and not just some babble in an "unknown tongue". He compares the words to musical instruments and the fact that they have to have distinguishable notes to be useful. He also gives the example of sounding a trumpet for armies to go to war. He is reminding us that there is a purpose for all of the spiritual gifts and it is building up the body of believers. Many times this so-called "speaking in an unknown tongue" is used to beat down other people and make them feel unsure about their salvation. My friends, that is not of God but instead is a scheme of the devil.
"Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church." NIV translation
Anyone who has been in a land where they do not speak the language can relate to what Paul is saying. All the languages of the world can be interpreted by someone or they would be useless. God has a purpose for everything that He does and the idea that He would have us babble in some unknown "prayer language" is a bunch of nonsense. There are those who hold up this notion of their own personal unknown prayer language but, as Paul has already said, the purpose of the spiritual gifts is to build up the church.
"For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say 'Amen" to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified." NIV translation
Why do we, as Christians, pray aloud? In explaining "tongues", Paul helps us to see that we not only pray as an act of worship but also to build up others in Christ. He says that this idea of praying aloud in a "personal prayer language" where the mind is disengaged is not in keeping with the purpose of the spiritual gifts.
"I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue." NIV translation
Paul had traveled through many places that spoke foreign languages and, back in his day, they did not have all of the ways of learning a foreign language that we do. We never see that Paul had an interpreter but he was always able to share the gospel in a language that the locals could understand. This glorified God as everyone could see that it was clearly a gift from Him.
"Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written: 'Through men of strange tongues and through lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,' says the Lord." NIV translation
Paul quotes from Isaiah the words of the Lord that warned Jerusalem about their legalism and the fact that it would be foreigners (Gentiles) who would reveal the truth. Once again, we see that this "speaking in tongues" was talking about the language of foreign countries.
"Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, 'God is really among you!'" NIV translation
Paul gives a wonderful example of the purpose for the spiritual gifts and the result when they are properly used. In this, we see that God gives us the tools to use to bring people to faith in Him.
"What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for strengthening of the church." NIV translation
Paul now speaks of the necessity of allowing the gifts of God to be put to use in the church meetings. Once again, he reminds them and us that the purpose is for building up the believers.
"If anyone speaks in a tongue, two - or at the most three - should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God." NIV translation
Keeping in mind that the tongues (languages) are to be used to teach others, Paul gives some guidelines for their use in meetings of believers. If the speaker cannot be understood, he or she is to keep quiet. I have been to some meetings of believers where this is ignored. The congregation will make all kinds of strange noises on cue because they have been told that, if they do not do so, they do not have the Holy Spirit and so are not saved. This is a lie from the devil and is used to divide the people of God.
"Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace." NIV translation
Now, Paul shifts his focus from the messenger and the subject of tongues to the message as delivered by a prophet. He reminds the church that God should be in control of the service and, since He is a God of order, the message He wants delivered should be shared so the church can be built up in the faith.
"As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." NIV translation
This passage is one of the most misinterpreted in all of scripture and has been used to beat down Christian women for centuries. We must understand that Paul was saying that the women, like those speaking in tongues and prophesying, were to be orderly in doing so. The silence that he speaks of is speaking of a temporary silence and not a total ban on speaking. It seems that they may have been interrupting the meetings with irrelevant questions or maybe even gossip. Paul reminds them that the questions could be answered at home by their husbands as that is one of the major responsibilities of a husband (see Ephesians 5). Once again, we are reminded that Paul was teaching the Corinthian believers about the purpose of meeting as brothers and sisters in Christ which was to build each other up in the faith. Therefore, questions that were off topic or gossip would have been contrary to the whole purpose of meeting together. For the good of the body, it was best if those matters were handled in private.
"Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored." NIV translation
Paul is referring to the fact that we are all a part of the body of Christ. Parts of the body recognize each other and work together. In the same way, Christians can recognize teaching from God.
"Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way." NIV translation
Paul sums up this part of his letter by encouraging the believers to seek the spiritual gifts but to remember their purpose. The next time you see someone "speaking in tongues", ask yourself whether it is in keeping with the purpose of the gift or is it some kind of show to make the person appear to be a super saint.