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Speaking in Tongues: What Is Its Proper Role in Worship? (1 Corinthians 14 Commentary)

Categories Theology New Testament

9780310243694What is the proper role of tongues in worship?

Some would say tongues deserve no role in worship. Some would say the gift of tongues deserves a prominent role. But what does the Bible say?

The nature of tongues and their role in worship were among the issues affecting the church in Corinth, as we see in the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In Paul Gardner's exegetical commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gardner brings deep insight to the issue in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:1–19. Gardner explains that passage's main idea in this way:

Church members should pursue love, and this means desiring those grace-gifts that build up the church. This will lead to a prioritizing in public worship of gifts that build up the worshippers. The contrast between the gifts of speaking in tongues and prophecy help establish Paul’s point. (586)

Below is a brief survey of insights that Gardner draws from 1 Corinthians 14. It has much to teach us about the role of tongues in worship and the purpose of tongues: the building up of Christ’s body.

1 Corinthians 14

"Having shown that 'love' is the only true authenticator of God’s people and one that, unlike the grace-gifts, survives death itself, Paul now returns to the right and proper function of the gifts. Chapter 14 thus follows clearly and easily from chapter 13. The first verse of chapter 14 makes the transition with a summary of the thought of chapter 13 and a return to the matter of the gifts…" (585).


Before exploring the meaning of this passage in detail, here is the passage (1 Cor. 14:1–19) for your consideration from the NIV:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 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. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 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.

Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe 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 the speaker is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.

For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 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 understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Popular Passages in 1 Corinthians 14:1–19

Much of 1 Corinthians 14 is recognizable because several of its verses are among the most popular verses in the Bible. Below are three of the most popular verses in 1 Corinthians 14:1–19 (NIV) based on their overall Bible rank according to

1 Corinthians 14:1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.

Many have used this verse to justify the continuation of spiritual gifts, especially those like prophecy and tongues. However, Gardner exposes an important contextual issue: Paul’s instructions follow an exhortation to love. Which means such gifts are not to be used selfishly, but to lovingly build up the body. This is a major theme of the chapter, one which Gardner fully explores in his commentary.

1 Corinthians 14:18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.

An interesting verse, to be sure—especially the revelation that Paul himself spoke in tongues! Which means he didn’t rule them out. Gardner explains more below.

1 Corinthians 14:19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

This section ends with one of the most popular verses in the chapter: an exhortation toward intelligibility in the conduct of our worship. It’s a theme Paul reiterates, and one that Gardner explores throughout the commentary below.


Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14

1 Corinthians engages matters as diverse as marriage and singleness, sexual conduct and immorality, idolatry and spiritual gifts, the last days and the unity of the church. Paul Gardner's 1 Corinthians commentary (ZECNT series) carefully explains the mysterious aspects of these issues, and demonstrates that Paul’s response to these issues is to return to the centrality of the gospel message in which Christ is preached. Gardner's original translation and brief commentary is offered below. (The blog editors have added links to the NIV for your reference.)

Gardner explains that 1 Corinthians 14:1–19 may be divided into three sections:

  • Pursue Love and Strive for Gifts That Build Up the Worshippers (14:1–5)
  • Tongues Can Be Problematic in Worship (14:6–12)
  • Public Worship Should Be Characterized by Intelligibility (14:13–19)

I. Pursue Love and Strive for Gifts That Build Up the Worshippers (See 1 Corinthians 14:1–5)

14:1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire spiritual things, but especially that you may prophesy.

After summarizing the main thrust of chapter 13Paul addressed the matter of spiritual grace-gifts, "now to be understood in their relationship to the true mark of a Christian: love" (590).

And yet the Corinthians have not pursued love. In fact, some of the Corinthians had abused these grace-gifts. "The pursuit of love thus sets the right perspective, though not for seeking greater grace-gifts as if there is some hierarchy (12:31) but for seeking 'spiritual things' (πνευματικά)" (591), the things given by the Spirit that point to Christ.

14:2 For the one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men [or women] but to God, for no one understands him, but he speaks mysteries by the Spirit.

"The gist of this verse," explains Gardner, "is simply that the person who speaks 'in a tongue' (γλώσσῃ) cannot be understood by normal people but only by God because what he speaks is a 'mystery' given him by God’s Spirit (πνεύματι; a dative of means)” (591). Further, "this gift is always directed to God as part of a person’s praise or prayer" (591).

This communication with God is delivered in sounds or a language that cannot normally be understood. It remains a "mystery" to the casual listener, "for it is a language or message given by God’s Spirit and addressed back to God" (592). Paul addresses the use of such communication within the wider worship gathering for one important reason: "The whole point of Christ’s coming is to reveal God, his purposes, and his love" (591).

Therefore, such communications are "highly inappropriate for a gathered congregation, in which the gospel and its glories are articulated and in which constant praise is being given to God for his work through Christ, to have something spoken that remains unexplained" (591).

14:3 But the one who prophesies speaks to men [and women] for their building up and encouragement and consolation.

Here Paul presents a contrast between the two grace-gifts of tongues and prophecy, the latter of which he will return to in verses 20–25. Gardner explains this contrast in his book:

For Paul the contrast between 'tongues' and 'prophecy' as they are employed by the Corinthians offers a key to understanding how 'love' ought to be the controlling factor in discerning the function of 'spiritual things' when used in the gathered community. (592)

Building up the body in love is an important aspect of Paul’s argument regarding the role of tongues in worship gatherings—which he addresses in the next verse.

14:4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

The contrast between the two gifts is summarized here, which Gardner explains:

Prophecy, by focusing on others rather than the individual who is speaking, helps express that unity and the concern each should feel for the other. It encourages the erection of an edifice on the foundation of Christ that begins to look Christ-like. When a person speaks in a tongue that is unintelligible to others, it may be good for the individual but it fails the 'building' test for the community. It is as if the individual has used the wrong materials. Each Christian must understand that Paul’s greatest desire is to see the whole body of Christ 'edified' (v. 5). (593)

14:5 Now I wish that you all would speak in tongues, but to an [even] greater extent I wish you would prophesy; and the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues unless he interprets in order that the church may be edified.

Gardner presents several views on the ending of this first section, but here is his take:

Paul expresses a general desire for 'all' to experience the benefit of being built up individually when exercising the gift of tongues in private. Yet he wishes 'to an [even] greater extent' that people should prophesy because that gift builds up the entire church. This coheres with his next statement that the one who prophesies 'is greater than' the tongues-speaker, with one caveat: unless the tongues-speaker interprets his message for all to receive benefit. 

Again, Paul's point, and one Gardner reiterates in his commentary on this section, is that the goal of any gift, whether prophecy or tongues with interpretation, is "that the church may be edified."


II. Tongues Can Be Problematic in Worship (See 1 Corinthians 14:6–12)

14:6–9 Now it is like this, brothers [and sisters], if I come to you speaking in tongues, what shall I benefit you unless I communicate to you either by [some] means of revelation or knowledge, or prophecy, or teaching? Similarly, lifeless instruments that produce a sound, whether a flute or harp, if they give no distinction between sounds, how will what is played on the flute or on the harp be recognized? Also, you see, if the trumpet gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? And so it is with you, if with the tongue you do not give a clear word, how will what is said be recognized? For you will be speaking into thin air.

Paul continues to explore how the grace-gift of tongues can be problematic during worship, presenting four hypothetical illustrations:

Each example focuses on intelligibility like the first. The second (v. 7) speaks of musical instruments not giving a clear sound, so how will anyone know what is played? The third (v. 8) speaks of an indistinct bugle, so who will get ready for battle? The fourth (v. 9) returns to the matter of the 'tongue' which is not intelligible, so how will anyone understand what is said? (602)

Underlying this whole argument of intelligibility in these verses is the theme of “building up” the community, which is the criterion by which any of the spiritual gifts must be assessed and by which the Corinthian church should operate as they seek to use them in congregational life. Gardner explains Paul’s overall point:

Should he himself come among them speaking in tongues—a gift they know he possesses (v. 18)—he asks what benefit he would be to them unless he communicated some intelligible message. It is the intelligibility of the 'revelation,' 'knowledge,' etc., that is at issue here rather than the specific style of each communication… Just as a musical instrument must be played properly and proper notes sounded in proper sequence for the music to mean anything, so the tongue must be controlled in a way that will produce clear and comprehensible speech. (603–604)

In short, what happens during congregational worship during the use of the tongues grace-gift must be comprehensible to all. Even praise directed to God should be meaningful to everyone in the body, for "to speak otherwise is to disregard the body" (604).

14:10–11 Though there may be many kinds of languages in the world and none without meaning, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the one speaking a foreigner to me.

He continues his exhortation with another relevant illustration. In such a cosmopolitan city as Corinth with its many languages, the experience of being a "foreigner" in one’s hometown, unable to know the meaning of the language, would resonate well.

"For Paul," explains Gardner, "it is unthinkable that 'I,' a member of the congregation, should be made to feel a foreigner in my own family. In this way Paul not only draws attention as before to the lack of intelligibility of 'tongues' but also, now, to their divisiveness" (604).

14:12 And so it is with you, since you are enthusiasts for inspirations of the Spirit, strive that you may abound in the building up of the church.

Another word for "enthusiasts" is zealots. "These Corinthians are zealous for visible evidences of their spiritual competencies" (605), explains Gardner. Further, "they would have regarded each manifestation as an indication of the Spirit’s personal presence with them in a special way at that moment. They were enthusiasts or zealots for this evidence of the Spirit’s works among them" (605).

However, Paul insists the Corinthian church should pursue what builds up the body of Christ, not their personal spiritual selves. There is one purpose for which they should earnestly desire the Spirit’s inspirations:

Paul beseeches them to seek or 'strive' after (ζητεῖτε) these inspirations in order that they may 'abound' (περισσεύητε), that is, let their cup overflow excessively, for the building up of the church. (605)


III. Public Worship Should Be Characterized by Intelligibility (See 1 Corinthians 14:13–19)

14:13 Therefore, let the one who speaks in a tongue pray to interpret.

Launching the next section that examines how the tongue grace-gift fails to build up people, Paul again stresses the need for intelligibility in order to build up properly. In essence he is saying: "If speaking in a tongue, pray for an interpretation since only then will the church be built up" (605).

At issue is how tongues function in a congregational gathering, a grace-gift that is meant to be exercised in private; prophecy is a sign for the wider body. However, Paul insists that if a person speaks in a tongue in the gathered congregation, "That person is to pray to be able to 'interpret' or articulate comprehensibly what he or she is saying so that the congregation may be built up" (605).

14:14–15 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, and I will pray with my mind also; I will sing with my spirit and I will sing with my mind also.

Gardner stresses a number of interpretive issues, but he brings it back to Paul's singular concern: intelligibility. "Thus it may be that Paul simply makes a distinction between, on the one hand, a person delivering some communication to God as a result of a thought process or, on the other hand, a person delivering some communication (inspired by God) that is spoken or received in such a way that it is not understood" (606).

He goes on to explain the need to engage the mind with regards to spiritual gifts and experiences, especially those speaking in tongues within the congregation for the purpose of building up the body. Gardner writes, "a person will need to engage the mind either to choose to use the gift in private or, if in the congregation, immediately to pray that the Spirit will enable an understandable version so that all may be built up" (607).

14:16–17 Otherwise, if you give thanks by means of the Spirit, how can the one who finds himself among those who do not understand say the "amen" to your thanksgiving since he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up.

Gardner explains that what Paul has in mind closely parallels Asaph’s song of thanksgiving to the Lord in 1 Chronicles 16:36. "The LXX uses both the verb 'to bless' (εὐλογέω) and the transliterated Hebrew 'amen' (ἀμήν). As the song comes to an end, we read: 'Blessed be the Lord. . . . Then all the people said, "Amen!" and praised the Lord' (ESV)" (608).

Again, at issue is intelligibility: "As both verses make clear, if the thanksgiving is not understood, then it doesn’t matter how good or well-intentioned the thanksgiving is. No one else is being edified" (608). Gardner continues, expounding upon the significance of those who find themselves among those who do not understand:

The idea that anyone should find themselves feeling like a 'private' individual in the midst of what is supposed to be a functioning community where people are constantly building each other up with their God-given gifts is anathema to Paul. The church is hardly 'church' anymore. (610)

14:18–19 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in the congregation I would rather speak five words with my mind to instruct others than ten-thousand words in a tongue.

The section closes with a series of insights into the role speaking in tongues plays in worship:

  • "Paul reminds his readers that however strong and even harsh his condemnation of tongues spoken without interpretation has been, he does not rule them out altogether."
  • "The verse affirms that they are indeed a grace-gift since he thanks God that he has this gift."
  • "When properly used, [this gift] is something for which God is to be thanked."
  • "The benefit of tongues to the community remains central as he continues with the strong adversative 'nevertheless'” (ἀλλά)."
  • "[Paul] makes it clear that he really does speak in tongues frequently, while reserving this gift for private use."
  • "In…the local assembly of Christians gathered for worship, he will always be seeking to teach in such a way that people will be built up in their faith and understanding." (610)


9780310243694Beyond exegeting 1 Corinthians 14:1–19 in a comprehensive explanation of the passage, Gardner also addresses it theologically (in a mode for application) from a couple of angles:

  • Seeking after Deeper Spiritual Experience
  • Tongues, Prophecy, and Speech Gifts

We encourage you to seek out this material in Gardner's commentary, in which Gardner actually offers a robust theology and application of the entire book of 1 Corinthians. Gardner also sketches an in-depth excursus into Paul's attitude regarding speaking in tongues and what exactly the phenomenon is—a feature that particularly marks this commentary as a stand-out volume among similar resources.

Add this commentary to your library to gain greater insight into the nature of the grace-gifts, into wisdom and knowledge, sexual immorality and idolatry, and the gospel of Christ’s resurrection.

You may also like these articles:

Is It the Spirit or His Gifts? (1 Cor 14:1)

Do You Pray for Spiritual Gifts? Here are Two Reasons Why You Should

What Is (Christian) Love? Insightful Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13

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