It is interesting to note that the one chapter of the New Testament that extensively addresses the charismatic gifts opens with this statement: “Pursue love and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). This statement, of course, is building on 1 Cor. 13:13, which tells believers to abide in “faith, hope, and love,” the greatest of which is love.
Love must be at the forefront of our minds as we discuss spiritual gifts. Love after all is the “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31) and the one virtue in 1 Cor. 13 that will not pass away. Thus as we come to the topic of the charismatic gifts, it is a helpful to remind ourselves that Paul is much more concerned with commanding believers to live in love toward one another than he is with encouraging the use of the charismatic gifts. That is not to say that the charismatic gifts are unimportant. They are important because 1 Corinthians 14 addresses them in some detail. But as we seek to make sense of the charismatic gifts, let’s not forget the threefold purpose of spiritual gifts—to glorify God, edify, and promote unity in the church (See Spiritual Gifts 101 and 201). Thus we must apply the threefold purpose of gifts to the charismatic gifts as well—any proper use of the charismatic gifts ought to fulfill this threefold purpose.
The later half of the book of 1 Corinthians addresses specific questions that the church at Corinth had likely asked Paul in a previous letter that they had written to him. Thus Paul addresses some very specific issues to the church at Corinth such as what to do about lawsuits among believers (1 Cor. 6), food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8), and whether women in the church should wear head coverings (1 Cor. 11—each of these issues would make interesting posts!). 1 Cor. 14 is no different—Paul is only addressing their use of spiritual gifts because they had previously written to him concerning the use of spiritual gifts in the church. Paul in fact, seems to be addressing improper uses of spiritual gifts in the Corinth. The church at Corinth was plagued with factions—believers were boasting of which spiritual leader they followed (1 Cor. 1:11-13; 3:1-4; 11:18) and worse certain believers of lower standing were being neglected in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20-22, 33-34). Thus it is in this context, of divisions and factions, that Paul addresses the way the church at Corinth had been exercising their spiritual gifts.
Most specifically, 1 Cor. 14, indicates that the Corinthian church had improperly been giving preference to the gift of tongues over the gift of prophecy in their gatherings. Thus Paul says, “now I want you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:5). In fact it is likely that the Corinthian church was abusing the gift of tongues and so Paul tells them, “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (v. 11)—because they were likely desiring manifestations of the Spirit to build themselves up or to prove their spirituality. Paul contrasts tongues and prophecy calling prophecy the superior gift for the church assembly because the one who prophecies “speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (v. 3). And further, “the one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophecies builds up the church” (v. 4).
All this is not to say that tongues should not be practiced in our church services. What I wanted to emphasize is what Paul emphasizes—that we should make sure everything we do in our meetings in the church should be focused on building up the body rather than merely building up ourselves. The Son of Man, after all, came not “to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). Every spiritual gift is subject to this test—does it serve to build up the body. I am not trying to be repetitious—read 1 Cor. 14, I really do think Paul’s main point is to encourage believers to build one another up in the church!
That said, Paul does seem to hold out that tongues could be used to build up the body of Christ provided that those who speak in tongues do so in turn and an interpreter is provided (v. 27). If there is no one to interpret, Paul says “let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God” (v. 28). In fact Paul tells the Corinthians, “the one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret” (v. 13), because the interpretation might allow for the church to be edified. I have no idea what interpretation of tongues looks like because I have never seen it done; but I think, in Paul’s mind, tongues are not nearly as important as other gifts which directly edify the church such as prophecy. In fact, it is possible that 1 Cor. 12:28 sets forth an ordering of gifts in terms of importance with tongues as the least of the gifts (we ought, however, to be careful not to make too much of such an ordering lest we fall into the temptation of competing with one another in the exercise of our gifts like the Corinthians did). When the church assembles and “each one has a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation”—“let all things be done for building up.” (v. 26). So again whatever is done in the church ought to be done for building up and that was why Paul seems to hold a higher place for prophecy in the assembly. When the local church meets for worship its focus should be on doing that which builds up the body of Christ. This is why I think private prayer languages have no place in our worship services—whatever is done in the assembly ought to be done for the building up of the body—how does a private prayer language build up the body of Christ?
Paul says that tongues are “a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers” (v. 22). Thus the question comes up are the tongues mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14 the same as the tongues spoken by the disciples at Pentecost in Acts 2? To be completely honest with you, I must say that I don’t know. It seems to me on the face of things that they are not the same. I say this because there is no mention of interpretation in Acts 2 and because what you see in Acts 2 seems to be a miracle of God where God makes the hearers understand the gospel message even though it is spoken in a language not their own. I could be wrong about this and if you have a strong opinion, please leave a comment and help me think more clearly on this issue (even in writing this post and reading 1 Cor. 14 again, I have been tempted to change my mind several times). So, honestly, I am not sure what Paul means by saying that tongues are a sign for unbelievers; but I do know that in 1 Corinthians he continually challenges the believers to speak intelligible words so that the church might be edified (cf. v. 26).
It is virtually impossible to adequately address this issue in a single blog post, so feel free to leave your two cents in the comments section. I would love to address the issue of “outsiders/unbelievers” in our local gatherings in 1 Cor. 14:23-25 in more detail but this post would be even more ridiculously long! My next and final post on Spiritual Gifts will briefly address the remaining charismatic gifts and the issue of whether the Bible teaches a cessation of the charismatic gifts—I have already written this post so I promise to post it soon.