Settling the Issue of Speaking in Tongues
[1st Corinthians chapter 14, verses 1-17]
In this week’s lesson we will begin the 14th chapter of First Corinthians which I will break up into parts for the sake of brevity. There is considerable confusion within the Christian church as a whole regarding the issue of speaking and praying in tongues. Some believe speaking in tongues is evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and this is essentially true. But there is an erroneous teaching that presents speaking in tongues as the primary – or worse yet the only – evidence of being ‘born again’. As you are about to read, this teaching is incorrect and misleading because it is based on this passage of Scripture being taken out of context. In a worst case scenario, it drives away new believers who mistakenly think that since they do not have the gift of speaking in tongues then they must be falling short when it comes to their level of faith. This kind of teaching is damaging and ultimately destructive to the propagation of the Gospel. That’s why I stand against it. Let’s now read what the apostle Paul wrote about it, beginning at verse 1.
“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.” (1 Corinthians 14, verses 1-5, NIV)
In verse 1, the first five words are written in the form of a command to the first century Corinthian church, and that command is equally applicable today as it was when Paul wrote these words nearly 2,000 years ago. The words “follow the way of love” refer to the two Great Commandments Jesus gave in the 4 gospels: “Love the Lord your God with all your might, with all your soul, with all your heart and with all your strength. And the second command is like it; love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments rest all the law and the prophets.” This is ‘commandment number one’ for not only the church, but for the entire world. Paul is also stating that it is not possible to truly serve God through our relationship with Christ unless we first practice and obey these first two crucial commandments. Anyone who does not obey them rejects Christ, and by extension God. Only after that does Paul write “eagerly desire Spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy”. This intense desire for Spiritual gifts is evidence of our devotion and loyalty to Christ and to the saving power of His blood. Paul then goes on to explain why he believes prophecy to be the most important Spiritual gift.
“For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit…. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues…”. In this verse of scripture Paul makes it abundantly clear that, while all gifts of the Spirit have their place and their importance, the gift of prophecy trumps speaking in tongues and therefore gets precedence within the true Church. Paul then continues with this train of thought beginning at verse 6.
“Now brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager to have Spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” (1Cor. 14, verses 6-12, NIV)
As you can clearly see here, Paul is stating emphatically that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about exercising the gift of speaking in tongues. Abruptly speaking in tongues in the middle of a service, for example, would be a distraction at best and an interruption at worst, ruining the spirit of the moment during the act of worship. Not only is there a time and a place for it, it would be out of place for someone who does not have the gift of speaking in tongues to attempt to imitate those who do. If you see others that have this gift and realize that you do not, there is no shame in this at all, and let no one tell you otherwise! No one can rightfully fault you for your silence in that case. Silence in church can be a kind of reverence, provided that our thoughts are directed towards Jesus. God simply has a different place for you within the Bride of Christ, and a different gift that suits you best. Let go and let God. Allow it to come to you through prayer and faithfulness, and do not attempt to blindly pursue it on your own. The Holy Spirit will lead you down the correct path, so do not concern yourselves with that. Paul then continues in verse 13.
“For this reason anyone who speaks with a tongue should pray that he interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.” (1Cor. 14, verses 13-17, NIV)
Although I can and do pray in tongues, it is not my main spiritual gift and it’s not something I do on a daily basis. When I do I am usually in church and I pray quietly to myself, but if I am in public and alone, such as walking down a street or waiting on a bus or subway, I also sometimes pray in tongues when the Spirit moves me to do so. I would not pray out loud with others present unless I can interpret what I am saying (and I often can’t), otherwise bystanders on the street or other folks in church would be mystified and bewildered at best. There is such a thing as one person in church being able to interpret what another is saying in tongues, but I have only seen one such church where this gift of the Spirit was present in over 20 years of being a born again Christian.
Do not allow the topic of speaking and praying in tongues to distract you in your walk with Christ. Jesus is the Savior and kinsman redeemer of all humankind and it is by His blood that we are saved – that and grace, which is a separate topic. Continue to make sure He is the center of your life and the focus of your faith. And when this is all over some day, we will be united in heaven with Him forever and ever with one language, the elegant language of praise in Spirit and in truth. So be sure and praise Him and be thankful every day, and next week we’ll cover the rest of 1st Corinthians 14.