The tongue – Scripture tells us it can be a great blessing and a grave problem (James 3:1-12). And don’t we, especially I, know this truth.
But still, the tongue can be used for blessing. And I believe one way it can be used is not just through kind words of encouragement and comfort, but also through the oft-misunderstood gift of tongues.
We don’t really have much detailed instruction by way of Scripture of how this gift works. We have some directives in 1 Cor 14, as well as examples throughout the book of Acts. But there definitely isn’t a guide that says: this is exactly how you do it!
And, again, I wouldn’t expect Scripture to give exhaustive commands about this gift, since it is not some kind of guidebook listing detailed instructions on the how to’s for everything it touches upon.
But here is where things get a bit sticky with the gift of tongues: In reading 1 Cor 14, it seems Paul tells us this gift is a beneficial gift to be utilised amongst God’s people. But on the other hand, it seems we’re told almost the opposite. It’s going to cause problems for non-Christians, so don’t use it.
Which is it?
For starters, let’s see the positive statements about tongues. I think we could start with 1 Cor 14:1-5:
1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Paul says for us to eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, and tongues is one of those gifts. That’s a plus. In vs4, we’re told that speaking in a tongue edifies the person speaking, which some take to be a negative because you’re supposed to edify the body. But that’s exactly what Paul gets to – let’s edify the body. Hence his instructions to give an interpretation when publicly using this gift. We just need to read on to vs5.
So there is opportunity for both the individual used in tongues and the body to be edified.
But, heaven knows we have Paul’s words in vs20-25. If anything, these make it very clear that tongues is actually problematic. Check out these words:
20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written:
“With other 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.”
22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Can you see the problem?
In vs22, we read that the gift of tongues is a sign for unbelievers. And in the very next verse, we read that, if all are speaking in tongues, and an inquirer-unbeliever comes into the gathering, will this not have a negative effect, leaving this person to conclude that they are amongst lunatics?!
So there we go. Tongues can make things a bit crazy, leaving us perceived as lunatics!
And, so, what I find is that people choose one of two options: a) either strike its use altogether or b) designate it solely to small groups and prayer meetings, rather than the larger gathering of the church.
But what is going on in this passage?
I’d posit we are missing something here, especially if we hone in on 1 or 2 verses. We must not forget that Paul is using an Old Testament example to show why this gift is still needed, as it’s used in a correct way.
Something to start with is this: In vs22, when Paul says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, he is not pointing to the fact that they are a positive sign, but rather a negative sign. How? Well, this all goes back to vs21 – In the Law it is written: “With other 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.”
Here, Paul is quoting from Isaiah 28:11. It’s important to understand the context of what was spoken to Israel a long time ago. Within that specific situation, Isaiah is warning of the judgment that would come upon the people of Israel for all of their disobedience, idolatry, etc. And so, by ‘strange tongues,’ God would speak to this people. This reference was to the Assyrian armies who took the Israelites captive, ransacking the northern tribes of Israel. Of course, guess what? The Assyrians spoke a different, foreign language from the Hebrew people of that day.
And, so, what Paul alludes to in 1 Cor 14, by referring back to the words of judgment in Isa 28:11, is that, if the church gathers together and all speak in unintelligible, and uninterpreted tongues, such will become that negative sign of judgment for outsiders who have come in to the gathering – like it was for Israel of old. To this, Paul says you are not utilising the gift in a proper manner. For remember, it is uninterpreted tongues that function as a negative sign. However, interpreted tongues in the public setting are good.
That’s the context of the passage in 1 Cor 14. When you use the gift of tongues in a public setting of proclamation, you need to follow up with an interpretation. If you do so, you alleviate it acting in a negative sense, as in a sense of judgment upon these non-believers and inquirers. Let’s not go there so these non-believers can encounter the living God.
Also, just as a practical side note, I’ve been in gatherings where, once a tongue has been spoken and followed by an interpretation, one of the leaders has also followed up with an explanation of what has taken place, just to provide a little more clarity into this good gift of God’s Spirit. That can also be helpful in our Enlightenment-centered, western world of today.
So, with what I hope is a helpful explanation of 1 Cor 14:20-25, you can now read the fuller chapter and see how Paul actually celebrates this gift as it’s used properly. This is why he comments later:
26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 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 to God.
Following the words we just examined, Paul goes on to state that when the church gathers, people come with all sorts of giftings, including tongues and interpretation. You’d expect him to close out with those two gifts! But he wants things to be done in an edifying way – so let’s keep it to about 2 or 3 public messages in tongues, followed by an interpretation (and, noting 14:13, I believe the tongue-speaker can also be the interpreter). However, if there is certainty that no interpreter is available, then the person is to offer the tongue to God at a personal level.
I am very aware it’s much easier to shepherd a church without giving space for the gifts of the Spirit, and especially tongues. Hey, it’s even easier if you don’t allow for spontaneous prayers, songs, testimonies, etc. Keep it to 3 songs and a sermon, right?
Still, I am convinced that if we do not allow for these beautiful, and sometimes spontaneous, gifts of God we will be found lacking in many ways. The Spirit can break in as he desires. But it’s even greater when the community of Christ is already open to his word, his acts, his work through the multi-varied gifts of the Spirit.