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Tongues in the Church

By Timothy Litteral


1 Corinthians 14
1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.

Pursue sacrificial love and earnestly desire Spiritual gifts. In the original Greek text, the next part would have been rendered “but much more willingly” and not as it is above. Paul is telling the Corinthians to actively pursue Spiritual gifts.

2 For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.

This should prove once and for all that the tongue that Paul speaks of here is not meant to convey any meaning unto another as on the day of Pentecost. This tongue is not “understood” by anyone. Paul goes on to say that this tongue, or more properly this language, is not spoken to men at all but to God. So here we have the subject of this part of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth: a language that they were speaking that was not understood by men nor was it directed toward men, but was spoken to God.

3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.

Those that prophecy; the forth telling of God’s Word, whether this be the foretelling of future events or to teach, refute, reprove, admonish or comfort, were those who spoke Words given by the Spirit to be understood and obeyed by men to whom they were spoken.

4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

The purpose of this unknown tongue is to “build up” the one speaking while the purpose of the other, that is understood, is to “build up” those in the church at large.

5 I would that ye all spake with tongues but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.

When Paul says, “I would that ye all spake with tongues”, the meaning of the word translated “would” is akin in meaning to a woman “would” that her child survived a fever. It is a very, very strong desire. Paul is greatly encouraging the whole congregation to seek this tongue! Paul continues to say that even in light of this overwhelming desire, he would rather that they prophesied “in the church”. He wishes very, very strongly for them all to speak in this unknown tongue that is for the building up of the individual, yet he wishes more for them to speak in this tongue that is for the building up of the church. He says that he who speaks the Word meant for the Church body is greater than he who speaks the Word meant for himself.

6 Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?

Paul says that if he speaks to them in tongues, that they don’t gain anything by it unless he then, by means of the Spirit of God is given the meaning, which he then shares. One must not forget however that he has already said above that even though the church at large is not profited, the individual is.

7 And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?

8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

9 So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.

How many of us have heard “Taps” or the old “Charge!” blast on a horn? Paul is saying that even these things which are not alive can convey meaning to us if we know before hand what a series of notes mean. Yet, if someone just plays a series of notes at random, it is just noise or even though it may be a nice melody, no meaning is given from one to another. If one then speaks in a tongue that to the listener has no significance, the speaker is no better than a lifeless noisemaker to them as far as the listener learning anything.

10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.

11 Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

Here the Apostle is saying that it is possible that every unknown tongue is some language that can be understood by someone somewhere. However, if I speak to you in a language that you do not understand, while I very well may be saying something significant; to you, it is gibberish and you profit nothing by it.

12 Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.

In the Greek, this verse is: “Likewise for you who are zealous.” In other words, Paul is just saying that this applies for those who speak in a tongue unknown to the listener.

13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.

In the Greek this would be rendered: “On this very account, pray to translate into ones own language.”

14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.

Even though one prays in the Spirit, even they do not know what is said.

15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Paul says, “What is the case then? I will pray in the Spirit and add my understanding to it. I will sing in the Spirit and sing along with my own understanding.” Even though Paul didn’t understand these utterances, he would offer his own praises and songs along with them.

16 Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?

Otherwise, when you speak a blessing in the Spirit, how will those who are standing by that don’t know about this Gift say Amen to your thanksgiving if he doesn’t know what is being said?

17 For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.

Here, Paul says that this type of thanksgiving is proper but the one standing by is not built up.

18 I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all:

19 Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.

Paul gives thanks to God that he speaks in tongues more than any of them, yet in comparison to prophesy inside the walls of the congregation he would rather speak to the education of those standing by. This is a qualification. First Paul thanks God for the abundance of personal edification he receives by this tongue and then puts this into perspective by saying that while in the church his focus shifts to teaching others and building them up.

20 Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.

Paul instructs his brothers and sisters to not be “infants” or “newborns” in their thinking except when it came to doing evil. This is an instruction to listen to what he is saying so that they would have a complete knowledge.

21 In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the LORD.

This is a reference to the Old Testament in which the Prophet Isaiah quoted God. God says that he will speak forth to the people yet they will not understand what is being said.

22 Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.

This would probably be better rendered, “Unknown tongues are not a sign to unbelievers but prophecy is for them too.”

23 If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?

Here, Paul clarifies the statement he has just made. He says that if an unbeliever walks into a church and everyone is speaking in different unknown tongues, won’t their natural conclusion be that the whole group is crazy?

24 But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:

25 And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.

However, if an unbeliever walks into a church full of people who speak clear words of prophecy, he hears things that have weighed on his very heart and he will then repent before God.

26 How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

Paul in effect says, “What am I driving at here? I know that when you all get together you each have something to contribute like a song or a Word from the Lord or a teaching or an unknown tongue or a translation. Let’s keep the focus on building each other up.”

27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.

If you are going to speak in unknown tongues, let two, at the most three do this and let them take turns and then wait for an interpretation.

28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

After two or three have spoken and there is no interpretation, they are to not speak these things aloud but speak them to themselves and to God. They are to not broadcast this all over the church since there is no edification without an interpretation, yet as we have seen above, they will personally be edified by these utterances and are to add their own prayers and songs to them.

29 Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.

Two or three prophets are to stand and then these prophecies are to be held up to scrutiny.

30 If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.

If, while one prophet is speaking, something is revealed to another sitting by, the first is to sit down and let the second speak. In other words, they are not to “hog” the floor and they are to take turns.

31 For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.

This passage makes it clear that Paul is not limiting prophecy to two or three. He is saying that all, if the Lord calls on them to do so, may prophesy but that they must take turns. Coupled with the verse above, the order of service concerning prophecy would be for two, at most three, to stand and prophecy and then these would be examined. If while one begins, another receives a Word, the first sits down and then another but no more than three. After these two or three have finished and have been examined, two or three more can have their turns.

32 And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.

This means that while a prophet receives things from the Lord, not every word that comes from his mouth is from the Lord. It also means that even in prophecy, self-control unto edification is the order of the service.

33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

This is pretty straightforward. God has a purpose in His churches and it is never to promote confusion but to build the church up and call the unbeliever as well as the believer to peace.

34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

These verses must be taken together. It is abundantly clear that Paul is not forbidding women to participate in service. If this were the meaning, this would mean that no woman would at any time under any circumstances be allowed to ever say anything in a service. The New Testament has examples of women in every role of the church with the sole exception of a bishop or overseer and God is no respecter of persons.

What Paul is referring to here is the practice that women had in that day of asking their husbands questions aloud in the middle of a service.

36 What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?

37 If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.

Paul is saying that if you are receiving things from the Lord, you will have to admit that what he is saying here is the Truth.

38 But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.

Paul says to not hold those who are ignorant of these things accountable.

39 Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.

Paul is summing up here by saying that they are all to strongly desire to prophecy and that they are not to forbid even the ignorant who abuse the privilege to speak in an unknown tongue.

40 Let all things be done decently and in order.

Here, he makes it clear however that there is to be an order to the overall service. In other words, those who are of the church and have been taught not to restrain themselves, but to present that which God has given them in an orderly fashion, are expected to do just that.

Therefore we have the order of service. We are to seek after Spiritual gifts and to even “covet” them. Now this does not mean to be jealous of others, but to strongly desire the Gifts of the Father. When one speaks in an unknown tongue, it is to the edification or building up of the one speaking and is indeed, the person speaking in the Spirit unto God. There are so many languages that they may indeed be speaking in one of them. Even if this is the case, unless those that stand by know that language, they gain nothing from hearing this tongue. In church it is better to speak to the understanding of all than to speak to ones own personal betterment. Those who speak in unknown tongues are to speak by not more than three people in a row and then they are to wait to see if there is a translation. If there is no translation, they are to not speak out in the church but sit down and continue to speak to themselves and to God. Those who prophesy are to take turns and once two or three have spoken, what they have said is to be examined. This is because their spirits are still subject to their human nature and by the same token, since their spirits are subject to them, they can certainly present what they believe God has given them in an orderly manner. Women are not to disrupt service by asking their husbands questions in church but are to wait until they get home if they want to know what is going on. Those who are not aware of this order of service are not to be held accountable, but God does not promote things that lead to confusion, so those who know these things must keep order. This passage is a specific instruction on unknown tongues and a general admonition for overall order unto edification of the body in church services.

To confirm that the Spirit speaks in the believer to help them and build them up, we turn to the book of Romans.

Romans 8
26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.

Here Paul tells those in Rome that it is the Spirit that searches or inquires of our hearts and then makes intercession for us with sounds that we can not put into words. He makes these intercessions on our behalves according to the foreknowledge of God of which we are ignorant.

It is clear then that the speaking by a saint in an unknown tongue is of vital importance. We are admonished to keep this practice orderly in church to not confuse those who are unlearned as to the meaning of these tongues. The primary function of these tongues is to build up the individual and for God to intercede by His own Spirit on the behalf of the believer. In the church, God can and does use this on occasion as a means to deliver His Word to the body of believers.