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Looking Closely at Speaking in Tongues


1 Corinthians 14 is not an easy passage. The rise of modern Pentecostalism over the last 120 years has made the issue of speaking in tongues a perpetual issue, making it even more important to study this passage carefully. Further, Paul’s arguments in this chapter–made in response to the Corinthian Christians’ unruly worship and self-centered theology–stretches both the mind and heart. In this post, I will not be answering every question you or I might have about speaking in tongues, but I do hope to point out four features of this chapter, features which should shape our hearts and guide our discussion about speaking in tongues.

The first feature is context. Often ignored (because we don’t read our Bibles well) is that 1 Corinthians 14 comes right after 1 Corinthians 13 and is itself a continuation of Paul’s great call to love above all else. It’s right there in verse one: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts…” Paul is not giving general directions on how to speak in tongues; he is strongly rebuking the self-centered, hateful way the Christians in Corinth were using gifts intended for sacrificial love. Any discussion on these amazing gifts from the Spirit that doesn’t start and end with a pursuit of love is already wrong.

The second feature is the goal of speaking in tongues. Against the Corinthians’ desire to be the best Christian with the coolest Spiritual gift, Paul returns them (repeatedly) to the point of Spiritual gifts: to build up the church. While the gift of speaking spontaneously in another language was surely exciting and personally encouraging to some degree, the point of the gift was “so that the church may be built up.” (14:5) This goal of Spiritual gifts is why Paul prioritizes prophesying (the declaration of God’s Word to God’s people) over speaking in tongues–simply because prophecy benefited everyone while speaking in tongues only brought benefit to those who understood that language. Building on the call to love, Paul calls the church to be most dedicated to whatever builds up the the church, specifically the Word of God.

The third feature is the audience for speaking in tongues. It’s plain as day in verse 22: “…tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers.” God gave the gift of speaking in tongues (like almost all other miracles) as a “sign and wonder” to validate the message of the gospel being preached. This particular “sign and wonder” communicated two important things to those outside the Jewish people. First, it showed clearly that Jesus and His salvation was available to them without having to become part of ethnic Israel. Second, it indicated God removing the lampstand from Israel that the gospel might go to the Gentiles. (See Paul’s quotation of Isaiah in v21 to get the sense of this argument.) One of the reasons most modern versions of speaking in tongues doesn’t pass the test is that they aren’t being used for the Biblical purpose of validating the message of the gospel to those outside the church.

A final feature to consider in this passage is Paul’s focus on our minds. Throughout, Paul is most concerned that people understand what is being communicated, because without understanding there is no (or very little) spiritual benefit. After humbling all the proud tongues-speakers in Corinth by assuring them he spoke in tongues more than any of them, he turned the tables by declaring, “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue!” (v19) It is no new thing for Christians to seek emotionally fulfilling experiences without engaging their mind. But this is not how the Holy Spirit works! Even His gift of tongues was really intended to get people to listen to God’s Word and respond in faith. If we want to grow as a disciple of Jesus, we will learn to engage our mind with God’s Word. And if we want to help others grow as disciples of Jesus, we will learn to engage their mind similarly.

A post like this can’t ask or answer all the important questions about speaking in tongues. But if we take more care to understand 1 Corinthians 14 as it was originally written and intended, our thinking and conversations will be led away from immaturity to maturity. “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” (v20)

This article originally appeared here.