1 Cor. 14:1-19

1 Cor. 14:1-19

SERIES: Christ Is the Answer When the Church Is in Crisis

The Gift of Tongues: Better in Private than in Public

SCRIPTURE: 1 Cor. 14:1-19

Introduction: Today we come to the most controversial and difficult section of 1 Corinthians—chapter 14.  The dominant topic of this chapter is the use and abuse of the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues.  There are many different opinions on this subject, even in this church, and I know there is sometimes mistrust between Christians who speak in tongues and those who do not.  My hope is that this sermon might help us get over some of that mistrust so we can grow in our love and respect for each other. 

Perhaps you are visiting with us today and really have no idea what speaking in tongues is all about.  If that is the case, I guess you’re kind of stepping into the middle of a family argument, but I hope you are able to learn something as well.  Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know about speaking in tongues–it’s not something they usually talk about on the 10:00 o’clock news.[i]  

Actually Bible scholars have been debating for years what Paul means when he refers to this gift.  In simplest terms, speaking in tongues occurs when someone is miraculously able to speak a language that he or she has not learned.  I think it may be a real human language never studied (and that’s certainly what it seems to be in Acts 2), or it may be a prayer language that a person uses to communicate with God (and that’s what it seems to be in 1 Corinthians 14).  Frankly, I think both are legitimate ways to speak in tongues, though the vast majority of tongues we see in the church today is the prayer-language type.

I want to warn you in advance that there are two kinds of people who are probably not going to like what I have to say this morning:  those who are convinced that every Christian should speak in tongues and those who think no one should.  But if you are in one of those two categories, I’m glad you’re here, because if you are willing to look at the Biblical evidence objectively, I believe you just may change your mind.  I think an honest study of this one chapter gives us no choice but to conclude that speaking in tongues is a genuine spiritual gift for the good of the Body of Christ.  But it is not for everyone.  Let me repeat that: Speaking in tongues is a genuine spiritual gift for the good of the Body of Christ but it is not given to everyone.

Ironically, this passage is sandwiched between the sublime truths of the Great Love Chapter (1 Cor. 13) and the equally profound truths of the Great Resurrection Chapter (1 Cor. 15).  As a consequence, some are tempted to skip over chapter 14.  But despite the fact that this chapter lacks the inspirational impact of chapters 13 and 15, it contains a lot of straight talk the Church vitally needs today.  Because of the nature of this material I am going to teach through it more than preachon it. You see, some Scripture passages tell insightful stories, some are inspirational, some are convicting, but this one is what I call a teaching or didactic passage.  So fasten your seatbelts and be ready to fully engage your minds, because we’re going to cover a lot of ground this morning.  If you hang in there with me, I think you will find the exercise well worth the effort.

Let’s begin by trying to gain perspective on the gift of tongues both historically and biblically.  I want you to know in advance that I have no conscious theological axes to grind here, no prejudices to support.  I will simply attempt to tell it like I see it in Scripture.  Naturally, I speak as something of an outsider, inasmuch as I do not have the gift of tongues myself, but I will nevertheless try my best to speak objectively and truthfully.  And when we’re through, if you still have questions or are not convinced, I would value and invite feedback from any of you. 

The gift of tongues must be placed in proper perspective both historically and biblically.

There is hardly a branch of Christianity, and very few local churches, which have not felt to a certain extent the impact of the modern charismatic movement.  But we need to recognize that there is little evidence of speaking in tongues from the first century until the twentieth century, other than a few isolated incidents, usually in heretical or marginal groups.  For example, Montanus, a man who claimed to be the Paraclete, a name given by Jesus to the Holy Spirit, advocated tongues in the 2ndcentury.  In 1855 tongues-speaking cropped up among the Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinois.  In between, tongues was occasionally reported among the Waldensians, Jansenists, the Quakers, and the Shakers.  In addition, ecstatic speech was known among those who practiced the mystery religions.

None of these phenomena were widespread or lasting, and none contributed to any significant revival in the Church. You can check it out historically and you will discover that none of the great spiritual movements that did occur, like the Protestant Reformation or the First and Second Great Awakenings, involved tongues-speaking or other charismatic phenomena.  But when dawn broke on the 20th century, the modern tongues movement was born, and the Church has never been the same.  

It all started in Topeka, Kansas 101 years ago this week, on January 1, 1901.  On that day Agnes Ozman, a student at Charles F. Parham’s Bethel Bible School, sought the baptism of the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.  Sister Lucy Farrow, a black preacher, carried the new experience to Houston, while Brother W. J. Seymour took it to Los Angeles.  He established the Azuza Street Mission in L.A. in 1906, from which the entire modern Pentecostal movement was born.  Many denominations have their spiritual roots in what has come to be known as “the Azuza Street Revival,” including the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), the United Pentecostal Church, and the International Church of the Four-Square Gospel. 

While these Pentecostal movements grew steadily and rapidly over the decades, it was not until April 3, 1960 that tongues-speaking gained its current respectability.  It was on that day that Rector Dennis J. Bennett of the 2,500 member St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, CA, announced to his congregation that he was a closet charismatic.  Almost immediately tongues began to crop up among Anglicans, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Presbyterians, Methodists, indeed, in nearly every branch of Christendom. 

By the way, the terms “Pentecostal” and “charismatic” are not synonymous, but they are closely related.  A Pentecostal is a person who believes that the experience of the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2, is normative; that is, every Christian must, subsequent to conversion, have his own personal Pentecost, at which time he receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the evidence of which is the ability to speak in tongues.  A charismatic is one who believes that all the gifts of the Spirit, including the supernatural gifts of tongues, interpretation of tongues, miracles, healing, and the discernment of spirits, should be operative in the church today in worship (certainly in personal worship but usually in public worship as well).  Both Pentecostals and charismatics tend to believe that if you don’t speak in tongues, you can’t be Spirit-filled.

Two other terms might be useful to mention:  non-charismatic and anti-charismatic.  The Evangelical Free Church has traditionally been non-charismatic but not anti-charismatic.  By that I mean, we have not encouraged the practice of tongues in corporate worship, but we have affirmed its legitimacy in private worship.  This passage today provides the rationale for that position.

Returning to our historical overview, it is evident today that the charismatic movement is stronger than it has ever been, and it shows no signs of weakening.  The huge growth of Christianity in Africa and South America is fueled by tremendous interest in charismatic experiences.  With major media outlets like Trinity Broadcasting Network and the 700 Club, plus literally dozens of radio and TV spokesmen, plus major Christian magazines like Charisma and The Defender, plus organizations like Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, Women’s Aglow Fellowship, etc., the movement is having a huge impact on American Christianity.  In fact, I would hate to see where the church would be today, particularly in numbers, without the charismatic movement!

Please understand that none of the historical information I have given you so far proves anything, in and of itself, about the theological legitimacy of the movement.  Truth can be squelched for long periods of time, and it is possible, as Charismatics often suggest, that the supernatural gifts which were largely dormant for 18 centuries, have been revived by the Holy Spirit in order to bring about world-wide revival just before the Second Coming.  On the other hand, it is also a fact that error can be followed by vast numbers of people, and thus it is also possible, as many non-Charismatics suggest, that many charismatic churches have been hijacked by those more committed to emotional experience than sound biblical teaching.

More important than the historical data is the Biblical perspective on the subject of tongues.  Let me begin by simply laying out the range and extent of biblical teaching on the subject of tongues-speaking.  It may well surprise many of you.  

First, tongues is mentioned in only four places in the Bible–three times in Acts and in 1 Corinthians:

1. Acts 2, where a form of tongues was spoken by the disciples on the Day of Pentecost.

2. Acts 10, where tongues were spoken at the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile.

3. Acts 19, where tongues were spoken at the baptism of twelve believers who had not yet heard of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

4. 1 Corinthians 12-14, where the Apostle Paul teaches on the purpose, value, and comparative usefulness of the various spiritual gifts.

A fifth possible mention is Mark 16:17-18, where Jesus predicted that tongues would be spoken:  

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands, and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”  

The problem here is that it is highly questionable whether Mark 16:9-20 was in the original NT; nearly every version of the Bible footnotes it as questionable because the best manuscripts exclude these verses.

At any rate, the gift of tongues is not mentioned in the OT, or in the Gospels, or in Jesus’ extensive teaching about the Holy Spirit (John 14-16), or in connection with any of the many conversion or baptism experiences in the NT other than the two in Acts already mentioned.  Nor is it mentioned in any of the other twelve epistles written by Paul, or in any of the general epistles, or in the book of Revelation.  Of course, it only has to be mentioned once in the Bible to be valid.  But I think it’s important that we realize how limited the data on tongues really is in the Bible, especially when one considers the tremendous emphasis that is given to tongues in many churches.  

Now let us turn our attention to our primary text today, 1 Corinthians 14.  In the first 25 verses of this chapter, two fundamental propositions are discussed, only the first of which we will have time to cover thoroughly this morning:

1.  The gift of tongues is not an effective way to edify believers (1-19).

2.  The gift of tongues is not an effective way to evangelize unbelievers (21-25).

If you react to the negative way in which these propositions are stated, I can only respond that the tone of this entire chapter is more negative than positive, for its primary purpose seems to be to correct the undue focus on tongues that had caused the church at Corinth to become imbalanced.  There will be some very positive statements made about tongues in the course of the chapter, and I will point those out, but the Apostle Paul’s overall emphasis is clearly corrective and restrictive.

As we read the first paragraph of our passage this morning, I hope you have your Bible open before you.  We put the text on the screen for your convenience, but there’s nothing like an open Bible when we’re in a teaching passage.  1 Corinthians 14:1-5:

“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of 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.  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.”  

The first proposition, then, is …

The gift of tongues is not an effective way to edify believers. (1-19)

Notice how often “edification” is mentioned in these verses:  the term is found twice in verse 4, once in verse 5, again in verse 12 and 17, and it is implied a number of other times in the chapter.  I submit to you that one of the chief tasks of the church gathered in worship is edification, i.e., building each other up in the Faith.  To demonstrate that tongues is not an effective gift for this purpose, Paul contrasts it with the gift of prophecy, which is much more effective.  He wants believers to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. 

In NT times prophecy undoubtedly involved speaking God’s unwritten revelation to the Church.  In our day, when God’s revelation has been put into Scripture form, the gift of prophecy seems to parallel the preaching or proclaiming of God’s written Word.  I don’t mean to say that every preacher or teacher has the gift of prophecy, for these are separate gifts.  The gift of prophecy seems to involve the ability to apply God’s truth to the culture in a uniquely authoritative way that brings about conviction.  However, clearly the gift of prophecy is content-oriented, thus I have taken the liberty of referring to it as “proclaiming God’s Word.”  I think it might be even better to speak of “proclaiming God’s truth,” allowing for the fact that some truth from God might not come right out of Scripture, so long as it doesn’t contradict Scripture.

Tongues are inferior to the proclamation of God’s Word. (1-5a). Of course, tongues are not intrinsically inferior to prophecy, for both are gifts from God.  But they are inferior when it comes to edification.  This is explained in three ways:

1. Tongues are addressed to God, who doesn’t need to be edified, while proclamation is addressed to people, who do need to be edified.  In fact, proclamation, he says in verse 2, results in strengthening, encouragement and comfort for the Church.  (2)

2. Tongues are not understandable to most people, while proclamation is.  (2b,3)

3. Tongues edify oneself, while proclamation edifies the Church.  (4)

He concludes this point, interestingly, by saying he wishes everyone had the gift of tongues, but an even greater wish is that everyone could proclaim God’s Word.  Paul seems to be employing a figure of speech here.  He knows quite well that none of the gifts of the Spirit is possessed by everyone, because he himself said so in 12:29-30.  In essence I think he is saying, “If the gifts were mine to bestow, I’d give all of you the gift of tongues, because it’s a good gift.  But even before I did that, I’d give everyone the gift of prophecy, because it is even more useful for building up the church.”  

Now, let’s be honest here.  If Paul wishes that every believer had the gift of tongues, there can be nothing wrong with this gift.  It must be good and profitable, or the Apostle would never say such a thing.

Then Paul advances his argument by pointing out the basic reason for this inferiority of tongues to prophecy:

Tongues are useless to others unless interpreted(5b-13) “He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.”  I believe Paul is speaking here of the Church at worship.  Tongues may be profitable for an individual Christian in his private prayer life even when no interpretation is given.  But when believers are gathered together in worship, there is no edification that comes from hearing someone else speak in a language you can’t understand.  He asks in verse 6, “If I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you (he obviously expects the answer, “none”)unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction” (in other words, unless I say something you can understand in plain English, or Greek).  

Apparently the church at Corinth had the same problem we’ve got today–there are many more people who claim the gift of tongues than who claim the gift of interpretation of tongues.  I don’t know why.  It seems to me that if both gifts were from God, there would be a balance between the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues.[ii]  Whatever the cause for this imbalance, Paul implies that if one speaks in tongues in public and no one interprets what is said, there is no profit to the church.  Later in verse 28 he will flatly say it shouldn’t be done.

To press this point home Paul employs two analogies, one musical and the other military.  1 Corinthians 14:7‑8: “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?”  When musical instruments are played, they just make noise unless the notes are combined by means of rhythm, structure, and harmony.  There’s nothing more grating on one’s nerves than hearing a child “play” a violin or a piano if they’ve never had lessons.  The military analogy goes a step further.  Not only does enjoyment depend upon distinctions in sound, but so does action.  If random notes are played on a bugle, the soldiers will not know it’s time to charge. 

Here’s the application: If noise is of no value for musical enjoyment, and if it is of no value for military action, what makes us think it’s of any value for the Church?  Verse 9: “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.”  If your goal is to edify your brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t speak in tongues–speak intelligibly.

He makes the same point in verse 12: “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.”  As you eagerly pursue spiritual gifts, go for the ones that build up the Church, not just yourself!  Clearly Paul does not consider tongues to be a gift that builds up the Church, unless, of course, it is interpreted.  That is why he says in the very next verse: “For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.”  He shouldn’t just hope that someone else with the gift of interpretation is present; he should pray that he himself would be able to interpret what he has just said in tongues.  And if he does, the assumption is that there is value and profit to the church in the same way there is value from proclamation.

Now in verse 14 Paul first mentions praying in tongues.  Up to this point he has talked only of speaking in tongues.  This raises an issue that was apparently argued in Corinth and is a quite common argument today, namely, “I don’t use tongues for the purpose of edifying others; instead I use it as a prayer language.  God knows what I’m saying, and that’s all that matters.”  This argument, according to Paul, also has a weakness:

Tongues are not even a profitable way to pray in public.  Listen carefully to verses 14ff: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”  The problem with praying in tongues, according to Paul, is that it doesn’t employ all the faculties God has given us.  He has given us emotions, but He has also given us intellect.  Paul believed that it was a waste to put the mind in neutral while trying to develop the spirit.  Of course, it’s just as much a waste to neglect the spirit while developing the mind, and Lord knows many of us have done that!

What’s the solution?  He asks in verse 15: “So what shall I do?  I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind.”  Is Paul saying that when he prays in public, he will sometimes pray in tongues and at other times pray with his mind?  Or is he saying that whenever he prays in public, he wants to use both his spirit and his mind?  I think the latter is his point. 

In verse 15 Paul also addresses still another way of using tongues–singing in tongues.  He continues, “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.”  When singing in the church, Paul also prefers to use both his head and his heart, not just his heart, which is what he’d be doing if he was singing in tongues.  It seems that when Paul either prays or sings in tongues, he does so privately rather than publicly.  Now please understand that he doesn’t forbid its use in church–we will discover next week that he clearly allows it under certain very stringent guidelines.  But he himself prefers to use tongues in private.

By the way, if I may run down a little rabbit trail, verse 15 may be one of the most important verses in the Bible when it comes to musical worship in any church, charismatic or not.  It tells us that the mind and the emotions should both be engaged when we sing.  The words must be true and edifying, while the tunes must reach deep into our spirits.  Finding a way to do that for people of different generations whose spirits are touched by a wide variety of music is a tremendous challenge.  I would caution all of us to submit our personal preferences in music to this criterion: does it engage mind and spirit equally?

Verses 16 & 17 reiterate the point that tongues are not a profitable way to pray or sing in public.  “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.”  Several months ago I attended a prayer meeting sponsored by a group of evangelical pastors here in St. Louis.  These were all brothers and sisters in Christ, and it was an enriching experience.  When we split into small groups, I found myself with Pastor George Stulac from Memorial Presbyterian Church and Frank Kollinger from one of the Brethren Assemblies, plus several people I didn’t know.  As George and Frank prayed, I could pray along with them, say amen, and really enter into their intercession.  

But then a woman in our group whom I didn’t know began to pray, only she spoke in tongues–quite long and quite passionately.  What was I supposed to do with that?  I had no idea what she was saying because neither she nor anyone else interpreted for us.  I couldn’t say “amen,” because amen means “so be it,” and I had no idea if I agreed with what she was saying or not.  Her rather lengthy prayer was a distraction in the middle of an otherwise edifying time of prayer.  I think Paul would say to her that she should do one of three things: (1) interpret her own prayer, or 2) provide an interpreter, or (3) refrain from speaking in tongues.

Now so far those of you who do speak in tongues may be feeling a little put-upon and discouraged. In demonstrating that tongues are not the most effective gift to use in edifying believers, Paul has pointed out that tongues are inferior to the proclamation of God’s Word, they are useless to others unless interpreted, and they are not even a profitable way to pray in public.  But then the Apostle makes a startling statement in verse 18: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.”  

Has Paul gone schizo here?  How can he seem so negative toward tongues and then express gratitude that he speaks in tongues more than anyone in the church at Corinth, a church that has literally gone bananas over this gift?  I think the answer is found in the next four words: “But in the church….”  Paul speaks in tongues a lot, but he doesn’t to it in the church.  Please understand that he doesn’t mean “in the church building,” for there weren’t any buildings in his day–the church met in people’s homes.  Rather he means “in the assembly of believers.”  For Paul the gift of tongues is either a missionary tool (the ability to speak in foreign languages he had never learned while on his missionary journeys), or it was a prayer language, a way of communing intimately with his heavenly Father in private.

So this is how I would summarize Paul’s teaching in the first half of this chapter:

Summary: Tongues is a gift for which the recipient should be very thankful, and he should use the gift in his private devotions regularly (or if his gift is to speak foreign languages without learning them, he should use the gift as a missionary), but when the Church is gathered in worship, it is better to speak, pray, or sing in one’s native language.  (18-19)

Here’s how Paul drives his point home in verse 19: “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”  That right there, friends, is why we are not a “charismatic” church.  We have many charismatic individuals in our church, and we value them highly.  I wouldn’t want to lose a single one of them; rather I hope and pray that more will come.  But we do not think this gift is one that should be a regular part of our public worship, because tongues are clearly not the most effective way to edify believers.  

Surprisingly, Paul goes on to say that …

The gift of tongues is not even an effective way to evangelize unbelievers.

In fact, Paul is going to tell us that unbelievers can get downright turned off by tongues, especially the kind of charismania that apparently characterized the Corinthian church.  We’re going to leave the detailed examination of this point for next Lord’s Day, but I do want us to at least look at the introductory verse, verse 20, where we read, “Brothers, stop thinking like children.  In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”  

When someone calls us “naive” we generally consider it a put‑down, but there’s a place for naivete–it’s in respect to sin and evil.  The less you know about it, the better off you are.  But when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit and their use in the Church, this is no place for childishness.  Maturity is what is needed.  The Corinthians were showing a childish fascination with tongues.  It was like a new toy that attracted the attention of all the other kids in the neighborhood.  

It was time for some hard adult thinking.  And for the church today it is also time for adult thinking instead of childishness.  That may mean that some should get over their childish fascination with tongues, while for others it may mean getting rid of the childish fear of tongues.  This gift, as is true of all of God’s gifts, is good and profitable when used in accord with biblical guidelines.

Let’s pray.  Lord, this passage is a call to the church to quit either quenching the Spirit or grieving the Spirit.  We quench the Holy Spirit when we reject or neglect the legitimate gifts He has given the Church.  We grieve the Holy Spirit when we misuse and abuse the gifts He has given us.  Help us, Father, to use the gifts You have given and to use them wisely and profitably, for the good of the Body of Christ and for our own personal growth.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.  

DATE: January 6, 2002


Spiritual gifts

Speaking in tongues

Singing in tongues

Praying in tongues

Interpretation of tongues




Charismatic movement 

[i] Some of my introductory comments here are borrowed from Dan Erickson, Tongues:  A Controversial Gift, January 7, 2001.

[ii]. Could it be that many have sought the gift of tongues because it is more attractive and more exciting?  And if so, do they have a genuine gift of the Spirit?  I don’t know, but there are individuals in this church who have spoken in tongues in the past, but today they seriously doubt that their experience was a gift from the Holy Spirit.  Generally, these are individuals who were “coached” to speak in tongues.