Tongues and 1 Corinthians 14

I’m preaching on this passage at Grace on August 15 so I’ve been reading and re-reading and studying a lot. I’m realizing that the view of tongues I’ve held for a long time isn’t the most likely one. So with any change like this, I’m running it be lots of people. Reading the Bible in the community of faith is so important. The more diverse the community, the more likely getting past the mistakes of one.

So I start with the purpose of tongues. Acts 2:11 says they were declaring the wonders of God. I’d taken that as evangelistic, but on reflection and comparison with 1 Cor. I’m thinking it is praise. Greg Haslam, Pastor of Westminster Chapel in London and one of the men on the Grand Canyon trip, was the one who raised this possibility in our intense discussions.

1 Cor. 14 adds these points:

Tongues are to God by the Spirit (2, 28) where prophecy is to other people. That direction is so obvious. I don’t know how I missed it up to now.

Tongues are a language with informational content, not ecstatic babbling as with pagans. This is very clear in Acts 2 but also in his reference in verse 10-11. There is much debate about whether it is human languages or if it can include language of angels. That seems an open handed issue right now. 

Tongues edify the speaker (4, 28) where prophecy edify the congregation. I’d always taken that as dismissive of tongues, but I think I was wrong on that. Lots of things build me and it’s good. Col. 2:5, 8 say put off sin and 3:12 says put on fruit of the Spirit. That edifies me so I can be more Christlike and a better member of the community. The error would be self-indulgence, something the Corinthians and not a few Americans are into (!!). Building myself is very good if it helps me be a better Jesus follower.

Paul is quite positive about tongues, just not in the public gathering of the church. I’m not sure how I missed his statement that he would like everyone to speak in tongues (14:5). Yes, prophecy is much preferred in the gathering but that does not mean tongues have no place. He is quite clear that he speaks in tongues a lot (14:18), but not on the gathering. That’s the place for prophecy to strengthen, encourage, comfort, edify, instruct (3,4, 26, 31).

Tongues are for prayer (14:14) from the heart. Of course there is also prayer with the mind, i.e., in a known language. Both are good in their proper place, it seems. Some prefer spirit prayer while others prefer mind prayer. Neither is a higher spirituality, it seems. I think Romans 8:26 speaks to this when it says “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” So the graonings there are the Spirit at work helping us when our mind and understanding fail us and we don’t know how to pray. That groaning certainly could come out of my mouth, I think.

Tongues are for praise (14:16) just as they are in Acts 2:11 and 10:46. That isn’t helpful for the congregation unless it is interpreted or explained as Peter did in Acts 2.

In the gathering Paul does not speak in tongues though he does speak a lot, evidently in his private devotions. Where the Corinthians were seeing their public use of tongues as a mark of their high spirituality. Paul shows them that it is a sign, but a sign of God’s judgment on their prideful self-indulgence! Hearing Babylonian in the streets of Jerusalem in 586 BC was a sign that God’s judgment had come to sinful Judah (he quotes Isaiah 28:11 a statement of His judgment in 14:21). Similarly, it is not a blessable thing if unbelievers hear all the confusion of public tongues and walk away thinking the people and their God is crazy.

So I’m thinking tongues is private prayer and praise to God in an unknown language.

That’s what I’m thinking in outline. I’d love to get input!

13 thoughts on “Tongues and 1 Corinthians 14

  1. I know I’m several months late to the discussion, but I wanted to jump in. 🙂

    I agree with much of what has already been stated. I have dealt with this issue perhaps as intensely as the divorce-remarriage issue during the past several years. My first concern, however, is that people are often encouraged “into” this gift today, but the Scriptures show that God’s gift come by the Spirit’s gifting. Thus, when the man is encouraged to repeat a few words after another tongue-speaker to “prime the pump,” he is not receiving a gift from God, but a false teaching from a man. I would doubt anyone would disagree about that, as never is the gift given in Scripture by someone repeating after another. From personal experience, and therefore of no argument-strength, my personal reception of the gift involved praying for two years nearly every day to receive it that I might experience this “closeness” to God which a few others had told me about and Paul speaks of with reference to the gift’s use, and then one evening I was praying about it and believed the Lord had answered my prayer and I began speaking in tongues. I have questioned this gift more vigorously than any other, both before that time and afterward. I know there is much contention surrounding it, and I have fasted and prayed and been heart-sick and pained physically in searching the Scriptures and calling upon God to know Him and what He would have me know and do about this gift. I follow that with some of my other thoughts on it.

    The experiences in Acts, though not necessarily prescriptive, point to the Spirit coming on the men before they begin speaking in tongues. Thus, though not ecstatic, the events don’t seem to be contrived or planned out by the men in the least. Furthermore, the Scriptures are clear that not every gift is given to every person. That seems to highlight that the gift of tongues is not free to everyone, but to the ones to whom the Spirit gifts so. Just as not everyone has the gift of prophecy or the gift of administration, not everyone has the gift of tongues.

    Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
    (1 Corinthians 12:29-30 ESV)

    What I believe this means is that were it not the Spirit’s will for me to have the gift of tongues for the building up of the body, I might not have kept on praying and thus would not have received it. But, I believe that I kept on praying because God desired to give me this gift; and so that my joy might be complete, He put it in my mind and heart to ask Him for this gift, and to be persistent in asking.

    Regarding whether or not the tongues are of men or of angels:

    If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
    (1 Corinthians 13:1-2 ESV)

    Paul’s intended purpose in that passage is not to give us some knowledge that now men can speak in the tongues of angels, as his argument is not about that. He’s arguing that without love, these things are meaningless to have, if you could have them. He’s not arguing analogously in the next statement that we can understand all mysteries and knowledge. Thus, I don’t believe there is any Scriptural evidence that speaking in tongues can even mean men speaking in the languages of angels. In fact, the Scriptures only testify that when angels are heard, they speak in languages understood by men, and when men speak in tongues, they are understood by God or by men around them. That doesn’t mean that speaking in tongues cannot entail a man speaking in some angelic language, but it does mean that we have no strong argument available for an existence of some non-human language or for the experience of a man speaking it in Scripture.

    Additionally, if you listen to enough foreign languages, you should be able to notice that language is not exemplified by repetitive sound, though for the untrained ear, a foreign language can sound like a collection of similar sounds in some kind of ordering. Thus, the person who sounds like they’re saying someone over and over and over, is likely not speaking in tongues. I cannot speak to you saying, “Go-cart, go-cart, go-cart,” though, I might at times say, “Believe. Believe. Believe!” More often, however, I’ll tell you things or speak in sentences and phrases that utilize different words, tenses, structures, etc. One might expect, therefore, that if the men in Scripture who were interpreted when they spoke in tongues as “praising God,” were speaking discernible languages that involved sentences with different sounds.

    [W]e hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
    (Acts 2:11 ESV)

    To me, that sounds like they’re speaking intelligibly, with sentences and phrases, as grown men who speak with a grown-up’s vocabulary and command of language.

    Perhaps, if a child received this gift, their gift would be exercised as a child? I have no basis for any understanding or speculation on this.

    Now, when we get to Corinthians, we see that tongues use seems to be at the bidding of the speaker, just as the teaching comes at the bidding of the teacher (and with much prayer!). When it comes to the matter of tongues use in the presence of unbelievers, I think that what Paul means is that just as the Babylonian speakers were a sign of judgment to the Israelites who had not feared and believed God so that His judgment was being poured out, so the tongue-speaker is a sign of judgment to the unbeliever that He might turn and fear God. I think it’s analogous to Jesus’ parables to both conceal and reveal or Isaiah’s commission to shut up their ears and blind their eyes and make them without understanding:

    Make the heart of this people dull,
    and their ears heavy,
    and blind their eyes;
    lest they see with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
    and understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”
    (Isaiah 6:10 ESV)

    Even in the Acts 2 scenario cited above, when “all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’… others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” (Acts 2:12-13 ESV)

    Thus, the tongues functioned as revealing for some the presence of the Holy God who through Peter called people to repent. For others, it functioned to conceal the truth from them and harden their hearts further. Thus, the “sign” is like the “omen” kind of sign. It’s the dark sign of judgment. In the same way, prophecy functions as understandable rebukes or exhortations to call people to obedience. But, the prophecy function can also call unbelievers to repentance and obedience to Christ in a way that they can understand, whereas from the tongues sign, the have to respond as they did at Pentecost with “What does this mean?” that a prophetic word might then draw them to repentant faith.

    In later experiences in Acts, such as with Cornelius’s household and the twelve Paul met who knew of John’s baptism, the experience occurs in the presence of believes, but not of any unbelievers that we know of. Thus, those experiences seem to point to the function of the tongue as solely to praise God. That means the function was with full reference to the believing community. Peter and Paul seem to understand or someone with the groups knows what is being said, and that it’s praise and prophecy.

    Acts 10:46
    For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

    Acts 19:6:
    And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.

    Well, as it’s late, I’m off. But, I enjoyed the opportunity to think with you all, even months apart.

    God bless,
    David S.

  2. Hi Gerry,
    My reading of 1 Cor 14 has led me to same conclusions. Pau spoke in tongues a lot in private, but in this chapter he assigns priority to using a known language when in the congregation. A few other points to add to the mix. 1) Paul makes it clear that many times an utterance in tongues may not be accompanied by the interpretation, but this does not mean the utterance is not from the Holy Spirit (14:17 “well enough”). Paul is simply saying that tongues without interpretation is not preferable in a corporate setting. He seems to be saying that in his own prayer life he often speaks in tongues without interpretation (14:18), in contrast to his habits in a corporate setting, where he uses a known language (14:19). 2) Tongues can be used for speaking to God, but also for singing (14:15) and for expressing thanksgiving (14:16). 3) The gift of tongues is a spiritual gift that is under the control of the speaker and can be exercised at will (14:32, referring to prophecy but I believe the principle can be extended to spiritual gifts in general). In other words, tongues are not “ecstatic utterance.” 4) The overall tenor of this chapter, especially the second half of the chapter (14:26-40), seems to be an environment of grace in which spiritual gifts can be used in a “learning environment” (14:31). I wonder if perhaps the “learning” in 14:31 could apply to both the one practicing the gift and the ones hearing the prophetic utterance. Paul definitely wants people to learn to prophesy (14:1,39). Paul’s heart is for peace (14:33), and decency/order (14:40), which I feel are fluid terms that may have different guidelines for different church cultures and situations. 5) the toughest part of the chapter for me is 14:22-25, where Paul seems to contradict himself.

  3. Thank you Gerry for yielding your theology to the Word of God. That takes a great deal of humility and I have not witnessed very many theology professors take such a fresh and honest look at a Biblical passage. I pray that I will have same approach to the Word of God late into my life, should the Lord tarry.

    Krista and I just dove into the issue of tongues yesterday because of a sermon series a brother encouraged me to listen to. Your conclusions are right on as far as I understand 1 Corinthians 14 and the other related passages. I too speak in tongues in my private prayer life and have found this gift from the Holy Spirit to be good just like the other gifts the Father gives.

    I am finding that the issue of tongues is not as important of an issue within itself, but however one deals with these passages has ramifications on some more foundational doctrines like the doctrines of the Holy Spirit, faith, prayer, and whether or not God still acts supernaturally in this world like He did in Acts and the rest of Scripture.

    May this discussion prove to be edifying to many, and may a fear of the Holy Spirit be lifted from those keeping their distance from certain forms of God’s grace.

    Thanks again!

  4. It has been a long while since I have visited this blog. I remember my days enjoying your mentoring in systematics. As far as I know, I was typically the lone charismatic in class. You were a gentleman who made me feel welcome. I appreciated how you encouraged us to remain true to our distinctives, but to learn how to state and defend them clearly and biblically. It is liberating to let the biblical text speak for itself, whether it is challenging us about tongues, or some other aspect of Christian life. Thanks for continuing that tradition here.

    I happen to concur with your conclusion about tongues. There are various ways I praise and worship privately. Music, poetry, being out in nature and meditating on the Lord, but sometimes–no oftentimes–the words I think are completely inadequate. In loss, in joy, in intercession when I do not know how to pray. Sometimes I need help. I believe it is at least partly in those times when tonques become so very helpful and meaningful. I do not make a show of it. It is always done privately. I do not make a practice of public utterances, although I do maintain its validity as long as the speaker or someone else is able to give an interpretation.

    In eternity, tongues will no longer be necessary, as Paul so clearly states. Likewise, many will never experience this gift for a variety of reasons. I put it this way in my own church context. I share freely about tongues, but I do not confuse it with the gospel. The gospel comes first and is the forefront of my evangelistic passion. Tongues and other gifts, however, are given their proper due in the discipleship process so as to edify.

  5. Another important aspect of tongue is that, as you mentioned, they are to God by the Spirit. Inother words, it is the Holy Spirit praying through you as a vessel. Since the Spirit is God, when you pray in tongues over a situation, you are praying the perfect will of God for that situation. You are praying exactly what God wants prayed for the exact outcome He wants. This is a powerful tool that the enemy is happy to degrade and dismiss.

  6. Hey Gerry,
    So I was at the Well this week attending church on Sunday morning. In the middle of communion CJ stopped the communion line and brought someone up to speak in tongues, and have it interpreted. He noted that they had taught the congregation 1 Corinthians for 2 years, and taught extensively on the subject of gifts (including tongues). I was pleasantly surprised since it was the first time I have seen tongues appropriately observed in a worship service according to what Paul commands. The next day I was talking with Jacquie and Luke at PRC and she mentioned you taught on this, so I thought I’d share!

  7. Interesting that on my first excursion on your web site I find a blog about “tongues.” Since you possibly won’t be getting too many comments from “tongue talkers,” let me just say that during my years as a Christian, I have found this gift to be of tremendous benefit in two primary ways (both you touched on). First, personal edification. As you well know, life and ministry can be difficult. Having the ability to connect with God in such an intimate manner always helps by affirming my personal relationship with him. I think Jude 1:20 speaks to this. Second, intercession. I appreciate the opportunity of being able to move past the limitations of my own mind when I pray for the needs of others. I do believe that unfortunate stereotyping and poor theology has led some to close the door on a wonderful gift from our Father. When used biblically and wisely, it can have wonderful benefits. After all, the Holy Spirit’s job is to open our minds to the work and presence of Jesus. That can never be wrong.

    • Thanks for this, Phil. I’d not considered the Jude passage as a part of the bibilical data. Freeing our prayers from the limits of rationality is a great thing.

  8. Howdy Hey, Gerry…

    What you’ve expressed has been my view for sometime: a real, but unlearned language designed for expressing praise to God in some kind of divinely touched, overdrive way.

    I miss the classes… I’m kind of “done” for the time being… indefinitely… but life is good otherwise.

    God bless,

  9. Pingback: Lead with the Tongue… « Jonathan Shradar

  10. It doesn’t seem normative in the sense that all must or should, though Paul does wish all would. the end of 12 is clear that not all will. But it is something that is open to all. In my case, I’ve never done tongues. My “non-linguistic” prayer/praise is in music and images.

  11. You write, “So I’m thinking tongues is private prayer and praise to God in an unknown language.” Over the past several years my thinking has moved in the direction you are going.

    The next logical question is: is this private praise and prayer normative for all believers?

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