1 Corinthians 14:20-40

1 Corinthians 14:20-40

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

The Gift of Tongues: Restricted in Public

SCRIPTURE: 1 Corinthians 14:20-40  

Introduction:  Last Lord’s Day we opened a dialogue on the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues and the companion gift of interpretation of tongues.  We did this because we are in the process of preaching through the book of 1 Corinthians, and chapter 14 is the principal passage on this gift in the Bible.  In fact, it is the only chapter that gives us instructions concerning the use and misuse of this gift.  Since the gift of tongues has become a dominant feature in many churches over the past fifty years, it is only right that we examine this passage carefully to see whether we here at First Free are following biblical guidelines, but also to determine what our attitude and response should be toward many churches that follow very different practices than we do.   

Last Lord’s Day we began by putting the gift of tongues in proper perspective both historically and biblically.  We noted that it was clearly practiced in the first century but then was largely absent from the church for the next 18 centuries.  However, in 1901 the modern Pentecostal movement was born, and since then the charismatic gifts have taken the Church by storm.  We also noted that tongues is mentioned in only four passages in the Bible–three places in the book of Acts and in 1 Corinthians, chapters 12-14.  

By the way, since last Sunday several have asked me, “But what about all the mentions of praying in the Spirit, such as Rom 8:26ff?”  I think it’s possible that tongues might be used when one is praying in the Spirit, but I certainly don’t think that’s the only way to pray in the Spirit.  Essentially “praying in the Spirit” is praying in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, whether tongues is used or not.

The first half of our chapter (and the sermon last Sunday), was devoted to demonstrating the following proposition:

The gift of tongues (whether speaking, praying, or singing) is not an effective way to edify believers, unless, of course, there is interpretation.  (1-19)

We summarized the first 19 verses this way:  Tongues is a gift for which the recipient should be very thankful, but when the Church is gathered in worship, it is better to speak, pray, or sing in plain English.  (18, 19)

Today we want to examine the Apostle’s second major proposition, which we only introduced last Sunday:

The gift of tongues is not an effective way to evangelize unbelievers.  (20-25)

If you’re familiar with Acts 2, this point may surprise you.  After all, weren’t there 3,000 converts the first time the gift of tongues was used in Acts?  A careful reading of that chapter indicates that the 3,000 people who were saved responded to Peter’s sermon, which was apparently preached in plain Aramaic, not in tongues.  But at the very least, the fact that these people, traveling to Jerusalem from all over the world, heard their native languages spoken fluently by Galileans, must have gotten their attention big-time and made them more receptive than they would otherwise have been to Peter’s sermon.  So that kind of tongues certainly can be effective in evangelizing unbelievers.

But I believe Paul is here talking about tongues as a prayer language, not a real human language, and he tells us that kind of tongues is not an effective evangelistic tool.  Paul introduces this section by calling upon us to abandon childish thinking and to think like adults.  We noted last week that there is a place for naiveté–it’s in regard to evil (the less you know about it, the better), but there’s no place for childishness in regard to spiritual gifts.  He wants us to abandon the childish fascination with tongues, but also to abandon the childish fear of tongues.  

Immediately we are immersed in some hard adult thinking as the Apostle presents his first argument:

         Tongues were intended as a sign of judgment on unbelievers.  (21-22) In verse 21 we are given an obscure quotation from Isaiah 28:11, 12:

         “’Through men of strange tongues

                  and through the lips of foreigners

         I will speak to this people,

                  but even then they will not listen to me,’ says the Lord.”

Paul then provides this editorial comment: “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.”  Please note that tongues are not a sign for believers.  They are not a sign of the baptism of the Spirit, or a sign of the filling of the Spirit, or a sign of super-spirituality.  The sign value of tongues is for the unbeliever.   

But, if it’s a sign for the unbeliever, wouldn’t that automatically make it a great evangelistic tool?  Not necessarily.  One might hope that the prospect of coming judgment would turn unbelieving hearts to God, but rarely is that the case.  Just consider the ancient Israelites.  The prophet Isaiah predicted that God would speak to Israel through the Assyrians.  The Assyrians didn’t speak in tongues–they spoke Assyrian, but they might as well have been speaking in tongues because the Israelites couldn’t understand Assyrian. 

Mind you, God had sent His prophets, many of them, to speak to the Israelites in Hebrew.  But even though the people understood Hebrew, they refused to repent.  So God decided to speak to them through foreigners.  When the Israelites were invaded and began hearing a language they couldn’t understand, they would know that God’s judgment was upon them.  

Now why does Paul quote this passage?  What is his point?  I think he is saying that just as God spoke judgment to OT unbelievers through a language unknown to them, so He would speak to NT unbelievers through a language unknown to them.  In other words, when those who have heard the Gospel (but have rejected it) begin to hear strange languages, namely the gift of tongues, they should know that the judgment of the Lord cannot be far off–either personal judgment or maybe even the end-times judgment.  Unfortunately, just as the ancient Israelites refused to believe even when foreigners invaded, so many today refuse to believe even though they are exposed to the gift of tongues.  

In point of fact, far from serving as an effective evangelistic tool…

         Tongues can easily discredit believers in the eyes of unbelievers.  (23-25)

Verse 23: “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?”  It’s hard enough to get most unbelievers into church in the first place.  If you do succeed, and they encounter the chaos of everyone speaking in what sounds to them like gibberish, they’re going to think the church is full of kooks.  In fact, the unbeliever is not the only one who is going to think so.  So will the believer who doesn’t have the gift of tongues (referred to in this verse as “some who do not understand”).  

I’ll vouch for that.  The very first time I heard tongues spoken happened at the Sheffield Assembly of God in Kansas City.  I was 18 at the time, and one of my friends said he knew where we could go on Sunday night for some wild entertainment.  At Sheffield that night we heard dozens of people speaking in tongues all at the same time.  My friend thought it was funny, but I was scared.  I thought that church was full of crazies.  But that’s what Paul says is the natural reaction of those who don’t have the gift, whether believers or unbelievers, when they see it used that way in a church service.  

On the other hand, the results can be very different when the gift of prophesy is used.  Look at verse 24: “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!’”  If instead of a bunch of people speaking in tongues, the visitor encounters a number of people proclaiming truth in a language he can understand, the results are much more likely to be positive in his life.  

Apparently in the early church, instead of having one pastor do most of the preaching, as most churches do today, they had what we might call “body life services,” in which a number of exhortations and revelations were delivered by various members of the congregation.  Most of these small house churches didn’t have full-time pastors.  When Paul or one of the apostles was in town, they would preach–sometimes for hours on end.  But when there was no authoritative apostle or bishop available, they tended to share the ministry among the spiritually mature individuals in the congregation.  It was a very participative kind of worship.

Here’s Paul’s contention: if an unbeliever walked into that kind of service and heard several people sharing truth, four things could be expected to happen:

         1.  He will be convicted of sin.  When truth is proclaimed, people are convicted, for “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

         2.  He will be brought under judgment.  To this point the person may have lived his whole life with no thought of its conclusion.  But when he hears truth being spoken in the church, he realizes that judgment lies ahead.

         3.  He will have the secrets of his own heart disclosed.  The last thing we want to face is our own hearts.  The proclamation of truth compels a person to a searing, humiliating honesty about his own true motives and attitudes.  

         4.  Finally, he will be brought to his knees before God.  When a person has faced God and faced himself, all that is left for him to do is to kneel and pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  

Now I don’t think Paul means that these will be the automatic results every time the unbeliever is confronted by truth, for clearly that is not the case.  In fact, I am chagrined that these results are not more common from our preaching.  But these should be the normal results when the gift of prophecy is exercised well in the church.  However, they are not the expected result of a sensational display of the gift of tongues.  

Isn’t it intriguing that while prophecy or proclamation of God’s truth is designed for believers, it also has a positive effect on unbelievers.  On the other hand, tongues, which is intended as a sign for unbelievers, fails even to have a positive effect on them when used carelessly in the church. 

Now everything in this chapter up to this point has been essentially doctrinal or theological.  In verse 26 Paul begins to make specific application to the Corinthian church.  He in essence asks the question, “What action should you take in regard to the tongues problem there in your church in Corinth?”

The gift of tongues (as well as prophecy) is placed under tight restrictions in the Church.  (26-38)

Look at verses 26-28:

“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 the strengthening of the church. {27} If anyone speaks in a tongue, two–or at the most three–should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. {28} If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.”

Now let me make a few observations about this paragraph.  When the house churches in Corinth met for worship, it was normal for everyone to come ready to participate.  Some would come with a new hymn they had written, some with an exhortation, some with a revelation (“God impressed on my heart this week that we should do such-and-such….”), and some with a tongue or an interpretation.  “All of these,” he says, “must be done for the strengthening of the church.”  This is not a time for self-edification or showing off or entertainment–this is a time for edification or strengthening of the Body. 

Then he turns to both the tongues-speakers and the prophets and puts restrictions on them.  Let’s first look at the restrictions on tongues: 

         1.  No more than three, preferably two, should speak in tongues in a given service.

         2.  Only one person should speak in tongues at a time.

         3.  No one should speak unless an interpreter is present and identified.  

Now the reason I add that the interpreter must be identified is that v. 28 says, “if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church.”  Before one speaks in a tongue he must know there is an interpreter, not just hope there is one.  Of course, if there is no interpreter present, the tongues speaker doesn’t have to stifle his gift–he simply must use it silently: “let him speak to himself and to God.”

Paul then offers some restrictions on prophets as well, verses 29-33:

“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. {30} And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. {31} For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. {32} The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. {33} For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”

Apparently Paul’s statement back in verse 24 that good results can be expected “if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying,” is only a hypothetical case, because not everyone should be prophesying in a given service–only two or three. Furthermore, when the prophet speaks, he doesn’t do so with absolute authority.  Rather, “the others should weigh carefully what is said” (verse 29).  There is no place in the church for the person who says, “God told me such-and-such and you need to follow me.” 

On the other hand, a person can legitimately say, “I believe God wants us to do such-and-such,” or “I have a very strong impression that God wants us to do such-and-such.”  However, he has no right to say, “Thus saith the Lord,” unless, of course, he can show us in the Bible where the Lord really said it.  Every prophecy given in the church is subject to evaluation and careful weighing by the mature believers in the Body.  

Furthermore, prophets, like tongues-speakers, should take turns when they speak.  And most importantly, “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.  For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (verse 32-33).  No one should be out of control in the Church.  No one should say, “I couldn’t help myself.  I just had to interrupt and give this prophecy,” or “I just had to speak in tongues.”  Believers, if they are really speaking from the Holy Spirit, are under control–self-control and Spirit-control.  

Friends, that is the bottom line for Paul.  Chaos, frenzy, confusion, and noise have no place in the church at worship.  I will flatly say that I believe the phenomenon that swept through many charismatic churches over the past ten years known as the Brownsville Revival, including holy laughter and holy barking, is not of the Holy Spirit.  It clearly violates the Word of God and the Holy Spirit doesn’t do that. 

Then Paul really goes to meddling in verse 34, with a statement to the effect that women should remain silent in the church services.  I spoke in some detail on the place of women in the church many months ago when we were studying 1 Corinthians 11, and I’d rather not go back to that subject this morning (I survived it once; I don’t want to push my luck!).  I would simply say that I do not think verses 34-35 are a blanket denial to women of public ministry in the church.  In chapter 11 Paul clearly acknowledged that under certain situations a woman may pray or prophesy.  But in this context women are at least singled out as forbidden to create confusion and chaos in the church through speaking inappropriately, especially by abusing the gift of tongues or prophecy.  This is interesting, because my own experience is that women are far more inclined to speak in tongues publicly than are men.  

Now I want you to notice how Paul wraps up this section on restrictions.  He doesn’t say, “These are some suggested guidelines, but you make up your own minds.  Let the Spirit have freedom in your midst.”  No, he says, “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.”  

In essence he is challenging them: “Who do you think you are?  You’re not an island to yourself; you aren’t the only or even the first Christian church.  Therefore, don’t assume that you can set your own rules.”  Friends, this may sound pretty dogmatic and judgmental in a day when tolerance is the highest virtue there is, but that’s what Paul says.  A church which ignores the restrictions laid down here, allows multiple people to speak in tongues at the same time in a worship service, fails to provide interpretation following each exercise of tongues, and is dominated by women tongues-speakers, is violating these guidelines and it functions in that fashion at its own peril.  With that we come to the conclusion of our chapter.  

The gift of tongues is good and is not to be forbidden, even in public worship.  (39-40)   

There are many in evangelical circles who are completely intolerant of the gift of tongues.  Having been convinced by some preacher or teacher (or even possibly by their own independent study) that tongues was a gift that ceased in the first century (such people are called “cessationists”), they have written off all expressions of this gift in our day as, at best, psychological hysteria and, at worst, demonic.  

I agree that some of what we see in the church today probably is psychological hysteria.  When people take classes on how to speak in tongues and are trained to close their eyes, put their minds in neutral, and start making strange sounds, and as a result of this exercise learn to speak in tongues (and then, on top of that, violate all the guidelines in this passage), I seriously question whether that is a gift from the Holy Spirit.  I even think it is possible for Satan to generate tongues-speaking; after all, he is the great imitator.  

But I cannot accept that all speaking in tongues is bogus.  I was taught the cessationist view at Dallas Theological Seminary, but I am not a cessationist for several reasons.  First, I see nothing at all in the Bible to indicate that tongues was a temporary gift.  Second, experience tells me that it is a genuine gift of the Spirit—not my own experience, but rather the experience of many sincere brothers and sisters in Christ I have known.  Some of the most godly, Spirit-filled and loving Christians I know have the gift of tongues, including some of my most cherished friends and even leaders in this church.  On the other hand, some of the most godly, Spirit-filled and loving Christians I know don’thave this gift, which is exactly what I would expect when the Holy Spirit is the one sovereignly dispensing the gifts. 

And thirdly, if Paul had wanted to eliminate tongues from the Corinthian church or from the church today, he could have done so very easily.  Instead of writing this long and sometimes difficult chapter, he could have simply said in verse 1, “Pursue love, desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but quit speaking in tongues!”  Instead, we read in v. 39 of our chapter, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”  A lot of churches and a lot of Christian organizations plainly violate the Word when they categorically forbid their members to speak in tongues.  

I was teaching at a certain Bible College when a new President, a man with strong legalistic tendencies, came on board.  The first thing this man did was to circulate a statement on tongues that every staff member was asked to sign.  In fact, we were given the clear choice: sign or resign.  I still have that statement in my files.  Let me read a few paragraphs:

We believe that the speaking in tongues produced by the Holy Spirit ceased with the Apostles who ministered during the first century of the Christian era….

We believe that this modern phenomenon is a psychological experience expressed through the human spirit …, which according to many testimonials, meets emotional needs of people who are reacting to dead orthodoxy and empty ritualism in the churches, and who are longing, perhaps unwittingly, for an existential religion of feeling rather than of faith.

While we genuinely respect another point of view, we cannot allow this so-called speaking in tongues on our campus….  We cannot enroll students who are committed to this charismatic teaching either in principle or practice.

So, because we believe that the Biblical purpose of speaking in tongues has been fulfilled, because we view it as a substitute for the genuine Biblical experience of the filling of the Spirit, and because, historically, it has divided local churches, mission fields, and college campuses–lovingly and graciously we affirm our position.    

I always found that “lovingly and graciously” statement to be particularly interesting.  I lost my job when I refused to sign that statement.  Now mark you, we didn’t have a tongues problem of any sorton that campus.  There wasn’t a single faculty or staff member who spoke in tongues or tried to get anyone else to speak in tongues.  This statement was developed simply to prevent any possibleoccurrence of tongues on that campus.  I think that’s tragic.  In an effort to prevent something he didn’t understand and couldn’t cope with, that man violated a clear teaching of the Word of God: “Do not forbid to speak in tongues.”  

We welcome those who speak in tongues here at First Free.  Our church is built on the strong foundation of biblical teaching, and I personally believe that is an unshakeable foundation.  Those who speak in tongues and accept the Bible as their authority have not been, and will not be, a threat to First Free.  At the same time we should not be a threat to them.

Our chapter ends with verse 40: “But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”  That’s really what the Apostle is after–decency and order in the church.  Not dead orthodoxy.  Not boring predictability.  But decency and good order.  These are core values that ought to undergird every biblical church, and they are foundational here at First Free. 

Where does this leave us in our attitude and response toward the modern charismatic movement?

There are some major charismatic churches here in our city.  Many of you have close friends in those churches, and some of you have attended them.  These churches are not our enemy.  Pentecostal churches are not our enemy.  These believers are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Nevertheless, it is appropriate for us to question whether they may have diverged from biblical teaching on this issue.  I may get into trouble here, because I’m going to express some of my own opinions.  I have tried, however, to base these opinions upon the analysis I have just done of 1 Corinthians 14.  I want to give you advice in three areas:

         My first piece of advice is that we should continue to maintain a high priority on the teaching of the Bible and on decency and order in our worship services.  The only church we can control is our own.  The only one we’re responsible for is our own.  To me, continuing to maintain a high priority on God’s Word means that the use of tongues should be discouraged in the worship services of the church–not forbidden, but certainly not standard fare.  The whole focus of this chapter, I believe, has been to discourage the public use of tongues.  In fact the three principal positive statements in the chapter are each followed by the word “but.”  

         Verse 5: “I wish you all spoke in tongues, but …”  

         Verse 18: “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; but …”  

         Verse 39: “Do not forbid to speak in tongues, but …”  

And in each case the “but” introduces concerns for the church at worship.  Our worship will focus on the Word of God, will be decent and orderly, and will follow the biblical guidelines on tongues.  Fair enough?  

         My second piece of advice is that we should be aware, and wary of, some of the errors and dangers in the charismatic movement as a whole.  In no way am I accusing all tongues-speakers of these errors (in fact, most of our own people who speak in tongues would not be guilty of these, or they wouldn’t be comfortable here at First Free).  Nevertheless, these errors are common in the charismatic movement: 

1.  The teaching that the baptism “of,” “with,” “in,” or “by” the Holy Spirit is an experience subsequent to salvation and always accompanied by speaking in tongues.  This is a common but serious error.  I believe Spirit baptism is simultaneous with salvation and is the possession of every born-again Christian (1 Cor. 12:13).[i]  The filling of the Spirit, on the other hand, is an experience subsequent to salvation, can be repeated, and it may or may not be accompanied by tongues.

2.  The failure to observe the strict rules Paul has laid down in this chapter.  These rules are violated wholesale in church after church.

3.  The teaching that tongues is a mark of spirituality.  There is no biblical basis for this.  On the contrary, the only New Testament church known for its tongues-speaking, the Church at Corinth, was severely chided for its childishness and superficiality. 

4.  The promotion of tongues as a spiritual commodity that everyone should have rather than the recognition that it is a gift which the Spirit sovereignly bestows.  I see absolutely no basis for expecting all Christians or even most Christians, to have this gift.  We don’t expect most Christians to have the gift of mercy or exhortation or evangelism, do we?  Why tongues? 

         My third bit of advice is that while discouraging tongues in our worship services, and while being aware of the errors and dangers in the charismatic movement as a whole, we must not throw the baby out with the bath water.  We should be careful not to quench the Spirit, but rather be open to and grateful for any gifts He desires to give us.  In a context dealing with the gift of prophecy, 1 Thessalonians 5:19 warns us, “Do not quench the Holy Spirit of God.”  I personally think that is perhaps a greater danger for us here at First Free.

I will go further and say I think we should thank God for the evidence of a renewed devotion to Christ, a new steadfastness in faith, an expanded prayer life, and above all, a fresh exuberance in walking daily with God that some with the gift of tongues have experienced.  I say, “Praise the Lord.”  

I received a delightful email this week from a friend in this church who confessed to being a closet charismatic, feeling for the first time she could admit it because of the affirmation given in last Sunday’s message.  What was most meaningful to me was her explanation of why she speaks in tongues, on occasion, in private devotion to her Lord:

“When there are no words to express what is in my heart, when there is no way to say how much I love my Lord, when there is an anguish in my soul that cannot be relieved in any human way … in this gift I find a “pouring forth” from the depths of my soul that relieves the angst; an expression of worship and a connection to Him that I cannot explain or understand but that brings peace and strength to endure even the most unspeakable challenges.”

That’s what the gift of tongues is all about, friends–not wild demonstrations of super-spirituality, not chaos in public worship, not spiritual pride and self-edification–but quiet, private communion and intimacy with the Father.  While I see nothing in the Scripture which would urge any of us to go out of our way to seek this gift, neither should we resist it or be ashamed if the Holy Spirit gives it to us.  

I would hate for anyone to feel like they have to be a closet charismatic here at First Free.  If you speak in tongues, don’t feel like you have to hide it.  Rejoice and allow us to rejoice with you.  Just don’t be evangelistic with your gift, i.e., try to get everyone else to experience it, any more than I would try to get everyone to exercise my gift of teaching.  

Conclusion:  Friends, you may not see the gift of tongues (or any other gift of the Spirit) in a particular Christian’s life, but you should always see the fruit of the Spirit.   And what are those fruit?  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  

Did you notice what is the first of the fruit of the Spirit?  Love.  And do you remember the opening statement of 1 Cor. 14?  “Follow the way of love.”  Love is to be the basic, biblical reason for exercising any spiritual gift.   When you see a life marked steadily and continuously by love, along with the companion fruit of the Spirit, then you have seen a true follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, one who is filled with the Holy Spirit.  And that is true even though he doesn’t, or even though he may, speak in tongues.  

Prayer: O Lord, may we be a church that desires and pursues spiritual gifts, particularly those gifts that build one another up.  May we always use our gifts in love for others, not for ourselves alone.  May we always use our gifts for your glory.  And may we always be a community that serves you not just with our lips but with our very lives.  Amen.

DATE: January 13, 2002


Spiritual gifts




Charismatic movement

Fruit of the Spirit

[i] The only Scripture that appears contrary is Acts 19, and in that case a new group of people is being introduced to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the first time (as in Acts 2 and Acts 10).  The baptism of the Spirit is a positional truth, not an experiential one, so people have to be informed about it.  I believe the Spirit caused tongues to be spoken on those occasions to convince the believers that this new ministry of indwelling was real and important.  Once the whole church learned of it, the truth could be passed along in the normal way–through teaching.