What does 1 Corinthians teach about tongues?
That’s a question I’ve been wrestling with all year as we’ve preached through 1 Corinthians. In pursuit of understanding these chapters myself, I’ve written a number of blogposts. And here is a culminating post offering 15 propositions to crystallize what Paul says and does not say about tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.
More must be said about this subject, especially as it relates to redemptive-history and the book of Acts. Moreover, more could be said comparing and contrasting Acts and the rest of the New Testament. But what follows focuses on 1 Corinthians 12–14.
Here are the 15 propositions. You can find biblical expositions below.
- Tongues, as a spiritual gift, fit into the larger categories of what Scripture says about tongues.
- Tongues reverses the strife caused by the “gift” of tongues at Genesis 11.
- Tongues is a judgment against Israel.
- Tongues is a spiritual gift.
- Tongues was the least of the gifts.
- Tongues were not given to everyone.
- Tongues is not discussed in any other letter, not even 2 Corinthians.
- Tongues does not address men, but God—maybe.
- Tongues as private prayer language is not from the Spirit.
- Tongues are nothing compared to prophesy.
- Tongues are lexical languages.
- Tongues must be interpreted.
- Tongues in the plural may be different than tongue in the singular.
- Tongues are not absolutely forbidden by Paul, but they die the death of ‘one thousand qualifications’.
- Tongues are not a normative practice today.
1. Tongues, as a spiritual gift, fit into the larger categories of what Scripture says about tongues.
The most important—maybe the most famous— passage about tongues is not Acts 2 or 1 Corinthians 14; it is James 3. In those wise words, James warns about how the tongue is a fire that can cause great harm when misused. James words echo that of Jesus, who said that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matt 12:34). And both James and Jesus further the teachings of Proverbs, which regularly speaks of the power of the tongue—i.e., “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (18:21; cf. 12:18; 15:2, 4; 17:4; 25:15).
In short, because 1 Corinthians 14 main point is using “tongues” for building up the church in love, we should see this teaching as a species of instruction about the tongue. Moreover, because Paul affirms that tongues was something that could be controlled (vv. 27–28), the “owner-operator” of this gift could either use it for himself or he could use it for others. Either way, the individual in question, like everyone else, was responsible for using his gift responsibly.
2. Tongues reverses the strife caused by the “gift” of tongues at Genesis 11.
In response to mankind’s self-ascendent spirit, God confused the nations with multiple languages. These “tongues” divided the human race (see Genesis 10:5) and fostered misunderstanding, competition, and strife (see human history). Conversely, the gift of tongues (in Acts 2) began to reverse this division; it proved the presence of the Spirit and created a multi-lingual church. Instead of one nation (Israel), God’s holy people were now comprised of Jew and Gentile. The three (maybe four) episodes of tongues in Acts prove that multi-national church was unified by one Spirit.
Importantly, Paul’s letter to Corinth indicates that this gift was being used like the tongues in Genesis 11, not Acts 2. The gift was not building up the church; it was dividing it. Accordingly, Paul gives many “policies” to ensure the gift is not used for strife, but for edification.
3. Tongues is a judgment against Israel.
In addition to confirming the unity of the Church, Paul also says that tongues came as a judgment against Israel. In 1 Corinthians 14:21, he quotes from Isaiah 28:11–12. In context, those verses speak of the judgment Israel would receive from Assyria for refusing to listen to God. The logic goes, because Israel would not receive the voice of the Lord, he would send them people of foreign speech to destroy them. The prophet writes,
For by people of strange lips
and with a foreign tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
12 to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
give rest to the weary;
and this is repose”;
yet they would not hear.
The way Paul applies this verse then is to say that what was warned of old has come true in the Church. Gentiles speaking God’s Word is an indication that God has moved beyond Israel to the nations. Certainly, while many Jews in Paul’s day received the Gospel, the majority did not. And so, tongues is a means by which God has spoken a word of judgment against unbelieving Jews.
This purpose provides a secondary reason for why I believe tongues ended after the early church. If tongues were given to signify God’s judgment, it would seem that a growing Gentile church would not understand or need this sign. Moreover, the greater sign of judgment would come in 70 AD as God used the Romans to destroy the temple. Though not definitive in itself, this is a secondary reason why tongues went out of season after the founding of the church.
4. Tongues is a spiritual gift.
The main point of tongues in Acts is redemptive-historical, but in 1 Corinthians the focus is personal, spiritual, and church-related. That is to say, Paul is responding to misuses and abuses of tongues and helping the Corinthians to understand its place in the church. There are many things which Paul says about tongues, but first we must recognize that tongues is (was) a gift of the Holy Spirit. More specifically, it was a miraculous gift of revelation.
First Corinthians 12:10 lists tongues and the interpretation of tongues as complementary gifts; likewise 12:28, 30 also list tongues among the miraculous gifts of the early church. Therefore, we can affirm tongues as a genuine gift of the Spirit for the upbuilding of the church, given by the Spirit to certain individuals. The question becomes, Are tongues an ongoing gift, or one reserved for the early church? Paul says he himself spoke in tongues (14:18), but interestingly Scripture never records this.
5. Tongues was the least of the gifts.
In fact, one reason why Paul does not urge tongues is because it was the least of the gifts. His arrangement of gifts in 12:8–10 and 12:28–30 put tongues on the bottom of the list three times. Likewise, Paul’s discussion in chapter 14 overturns the Corinthian belief that tongues was the greatest gift. Even in his discussion of love in 1 Corinthians 13, he speaks with hyperbole to say that the tongues of angels are inferior to genuine love.
Therefore, in reading 1 Corinthians 12–14, we should remember the context and the stress: Paul is not giving positive instructions for tongues, he is correcting their wrongful use. Just the same, he intends to demote tongues in the eyes of his hearers, not exalt them. So it is odd to me that someone would walk away from reading 1 Corinthians 12–14 with confidence to pursue speaking in tongues. It seems like his point is just the opposite.
6. Tongues were not given to everyone.
While Pentecostals have often argued that tongues is a gift for everyone, and that everyone who is baptized with the Spirit must experience tongues (at least once), Scripture plainly indicates not everyone experienced tongues. The rhetorical punch of 1 Corinthians 12:30 is that no one experiences every gift and no gift is ubiquitous.
The Spirit assigns gifts as he designs (12:11), and tongues is therefore not given to everyone. In fact, there is no command to seek the gift of tongues either. Whereas, the fruit of the Spirit is for everyone and in 1 Corinthians everyone is urged to “pursue love” and earnestly seek prophesy, tongues is not a gift all are commanded to pursue.
7. Tongues is not discussed in any other letter, not even 2 Corinthians.
Paul commends tongues in no other letter. He responds to the questions and concerns of division in the Corinthian church and thus addresses tongue-speaking, but nowhere else does he commend tongues as a gift to be cultivated and applied. The same is true for every other Apostle (Peter, James, John, Jude, the author of Hebrews). Even Jesus, in his seven letters to seven churches, does not commend tongues as a needed or beneficial practice in the church. Therefore, it strikes me again as odd to take the corrective tone of 1 Corinthians 12–14 and make from it a practice that is not revisited any place else in the New Testament, even 2 Corinthians.
If the goal of tongue-speaking was to employ it under certain qualifications, one might think that Paul or the Corinthians bring up the subject again in 2 Corinthians. The matter of church discipline is revisited, as is the place of arrogant leaders. Tongues, however, is not. Neither is it revisited in Clement’s first letter to Corinthians (circa 100 AD).
Therefore, it would see Paul’s instructions have effectively quelled the storm of tongues in Corinth—either by removing them from practice or by exercising them with perfect discipline and order. (Richard Hogue, Tongues: A Theological History of Christian Glossolalia demurs, but also finds no latter evidence for tongues in Corinth).
In my mind, it seems better to understand tongues as ceasing sometime after Paul’s first letter to Corinth. For if an orderly tongue-speaking in Corinth had occured, it would likely call for a second instruction to achieve maturity. Taken by itself, this mirrored reading of 1 Corinthians with other correspondences is not conclusive, only suggestive. But it will fit the theological reasons listed below for why tongues ceased shortly after the apostles.
8. Tongues does not address men, but God—maybe.
The purpose of spiritual gifts is clear: they are for the common good (12:7) and the building up of the body (ch. 12 and 14). Spiritual gifts are not for personal edification, but mutual edification—a word and idea that pervades 1 Corinthians 14 (vv. 3, 4, 5, 12, 17). Accordingly, when we read that tongues address God, not man (14:2), that it edifies the individual and not others, the implication is clear: tongues does not fit the purpose of spiritual gifts.
Strangely, some commentators miss this and defend the place of self-edification, so long as it is not excessive. For instance, David Prior commends the place for self-edification (The Message of 1 Corinthians). He writes in a footnote,
The edifying benefits of such personal speaking in tongues include a particular sense of God’s presence, relaxation from tension, strength to cope with pain, power in prayer to resist demonic onslaught, freedom in intercession when verbal prayer is inadequate or impossible, and freedom to worship God when ‘lost in wonder, love, and praise.’ (240)
Rather than following Paul’s argument, Prior makes self-edification an intrinsic good. As people are built up they add to the overarching strength of the church. This way of thinking is not wholly in error, but neither is it Paul’s point. In context, Paul is fighting self-edification. High-minded Corinthians are using their gifts to build themselves up. Paul, in response, is arguing that tongues must not be used in this self-centered way.
9. Tongues as private prayer language is not from the Spirit.
Moreover, the interpretation that verse 2 is commending tongues as a private (self-edifying) prayer language goes beyond the text. Here are a few reasons why I believe Paul is not commending a private prayer language.
First, the whole context of 1 Corinthians speaks to a corporate gathering. It is out of place to suggest that verse 2 speaks of a private prayer language, or that Paul is commending individuals who devote themselves to private glossolalia. Rather, as verse 5 and 13 indicate, tongues are a gift for the whole church so long as the tongues are interpreted.
Second, while many translations take pneumati as an instrumental dative describing the Holy Spirit—the NIV renders it “by the Spirit,” the ESV, “in the Spirit”—there is better reason to understand pneumati as describing one’s inner man. As the NASB has it, man utters mysteries to God by his spirit. Why should we read it this way?
For starters, the work of the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in chapter 14. Verse 12 appears to reference the Holy Spirit, but the plural of pneuma, makes certain that something else is going on—literally, it should read “eager for spirits,” which might mean eager for “spiritual gifts” or “spiritual things.” Some commentators even suggest Paul is likening the Corinthians to the pagans who sought multiple spirits. Whatever the case, the Holy Spirit is not a genitive object. Likewise, verses 14, 15, 16, and 32 all speak of an individual’s spirit (i.e., one’s inner man). For these reasons, I do not believe Paul is saying that tongues as a prayer language is derived from the Holy Spirit in verse 2.
Unlike Romans 8:26–27, which makes the Spirit the originator of prayer and spiritual groanings, verse 2 is speaking about something else. Man utters mysteries from the depths of his spirit, and these are directed to God. Even more, because of Paul’s willingness to use rhetoric in this section, he may be saying, these mysteries are only known by God, because they are neither intelligible to the speaker nor the audience. All in all, I don’t believe we can conclude that these words in verse 2 are given by the Holy Spirit.
10. Tongues are nothing compared to prophesy.
Three times in verses 1–-5 Paul compares tongues and prophesy. First, he commends prophesy because it strengthens, encourages, and comforts (v. 2). By contrast, tongues do none of the above. They do not address the needs of others; they address God. And hence, they are the charismatic equivalent of saying “be warm and well-filled” without actually lending a hand (cf. James 2:16; 1 John 3:17–18). Just as genuine faith leads to loving service, so spiritual gifts are by their nature intended to build up others. Because tongues (left uninterrupted) does not do that, it is not as good as prophesy.
The second contrast is like the first. Tongues builds up self; prophesy builds up the church (v. 4). Strike two against tongues; it only promotes the self-ascendent habits of Corinth.
Last, Paul makes a comparison between tongues and prophesy. In verse 5 he says “the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.” This language is shocking because of how it contradicts his teaching 1 Corinthians 12. Earlier, he went to great lengths to show how every part of the body mattered equally (see vv. 14–26). But now he says that one part is greater than another. What gives?
Here are two considerations. First, Paul is rebuking the self-assured members of the body. Those with the gift of tongues thought they were the most spiritual, but Paul is actually saying their gift is the least impressive. Why? Because, by itself, it doesn’t build up the body. Therefore, we should read his words as slanting against the puffed-up tongue-speakers. His statement is not meant to be a balanced doctrine of gifts, but a word intended to correct those who thought too highly of themselves.
Second, he is making the independent glory-seekers to depend on others. He does not reject tongues outright, but he makes them submit their words to the interpretation of others. As stated above, tongues are not for personal use, but public edification, when they are interpreted. In this way, they would function analogously to prophecy, if indeed these tongues are genuine languages.
11. Tongues are lexical languages.
While ecstatic utterances were a known phenomenon around the Mediterranean, the Bible describes tongues as “languages.” In fact, some translations (HCSB) even render glossa as “another language” instead of tongues.
Certainly Acts 2 makes the experience of tongues language-based. When the Spirit descended on the gathered church, vv. 4–6 read,
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [glossa] as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language [dialektos].
In this report, the spoken tongues were recognizable languages. This is why we understand Pentecost as undoing the work of Babel, but it also seems that the other two incidents of tongues were spoken languages. Luke uses the same words in 10:46 and 19:6 when the Spirit came to Cornelius’ home and the disciples of John in Ephesus. Therefore, Acts and the men of whom Luke reports in Acts understand tongues as spoken languages. The gift of the Spirit is the ability to speak another known language without the need for study.
But what about 1 Corinthians 14? Are these known languages or some kind of ecstatic utterance? Verses 6–12 give us the best answer. In these verses Paul employs four illustrations to indicate the need for tongues to communicate intelligibly. First, he asks what benefit he would bring if he spoke with tongues without revelation, knowledge, prophecy, or teaching? Next, he questions how an instrument can be understood without using various notes? Third, how can an army understand its orders without the bugler playing distinct notes? Fourth, and most clearly, he turns to the Corinthians and asks in verse 9, “So with you, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?”
Paul concludes his illustrations with the conclusion that unintelligible speech only speaks into the air. And he assumes that all languages have meaning, “none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me” (vv. 10–11).
From this argument we can assume that any ecstatic utterance devoid of meaning is worthless. Tongues, as it was originally experienced, and as it was given as a gift, must be interpreted. In Acts such interpretation came through men and women from various nations who understand the spoken language. In Corinth, such interpretation is also needed. This interpretation might be natural, to a foreigner who understands a foreign language, or it may be a supernatural gift. But either way, tongues cannot simply be an elevated state of mind, a psychological relaxer, or some sub-conscience work of the Spirit. Rather, it must be gift which has meaning and leads to intelligible edification, which is why Paul concludes in verse 13: “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret,” or that someone else may interpret. (Commentators debate who is in view).
All in all, genuine tongues were actual, lexical languages (i.e., languages that could be looked up in a dictionary). What we don’t know is if the Corinthians manifested this type of gift, or if, as some have suggested, they were participating in something more akin to the ecstatic utterances of the mystery religions that surrounded Corinth. Less than 100 miles away, stood Delphi a notorious religious site where hallucinating women delivered ecstatic utterances. Could this pagan practice have crept into Corinth and its church? It’s plausible, however, there is no direct address of this matter in 1 Corinthians.
Ultimately, I don’t think our mirrored reading of this passage permits a final decision. What we do know is that tongues, biblically understood, was given by the Spirit as an intelligible language. It was able to be understood in Acts by foreign speakers, and in 1 Corinthians Paul goes to great lengths to stress its intelligible nature.
12. Tongues must be interpreted.
When properly employed tongues required interpretation. So, Paul says prayer should be made for interpretation of tongues (v. 13). Verses 14–19 follow this instruction with two conditional questions. First, “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” By this Paul means that his prayers have no external benefit to others, if prayed in foreign tongue. Calvin is probably correct to say “Paul here, for the sake of illustration, makes a supposition, that had no reality” (Calvin, 1 Corinthians, 446). He is about to correct the practice of praying in tongues without interpretation, and thus it seems unlikely that he himself would do such a thing.
Rather, as he says more positively, when he prays, he prays with his mind; when he sings praise, he does so with his mind. In short, there is no place for unintelligiblity in the church. All foreign languages require interpretation. And any form of communication that lacks the ability to be interpreted, i.e., art, dance, or any other spiritual activity devoid of clear speech are not acceptable. Why? Because as Paul says, he did not pray in a tongue devoid of clear communication. Rather, when he prayed and sang, he prayed and sang praise with his mind (vv. 15–16). For without the mind there can be no “authorial intention” and no communication. By consequence, no one can say “Amen” and give God praise. This is what he means by unfruitful in v. 14.
However, if tongues can be interpreted, then there is a place for tongues in the public meeting. Its place remains far underneath prophecy, but as a legitimate gift (see 12:10, 30), it does have a place. It is still uncertain if the Corinthians were using the gift rightly, but Paul’s point remains: if tongues is going to be used, it must be interpreted; no language is devoid of interpretation, therefore make sure the speaker has an interpreter.
13. ‘Tongues’ in the plural may be different from ‘tongue’ in the singular.
Remaining in verses 13–19, there may also be a rather nuanced reading of Paul’s language. John MacArthur makes this point in his commentary.
It is an interpretive key to this chapter to note that in verses two and four tongue is singular (cf. vv. 13, 14, 19, 27), whereas in verse 5 Paul uses the plural tongues (cf. vv. 6, 18, 22, 23, 39). Apparently the apostle used the singular form to indicate the counterfeited gift and the plural to indicate the true. Recognizing the distinction may be the reason in the King James translators supplied unknown before the singular. The singular is used of the false because gibberish is singular; it cannot be gibberishes. There are no kinds of pagans ecstatic speech; there are, however, kind of languages in the true gift, for which the plural tongues is used. The only exception is in verse 27, where the singular is used to refer to a single man speaking a single genuine language. (John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 373)
This is a plausible argument but one that is very subtle. There is no verse defining this distinction and I am slow to make my final decision on its bases, but it is worth noting. Ultimately, MacArthur uses this argument to make a case against tongues as a normative practice. This is my conclusion too, but my conclusion is based on more than the difference between glossei and glossais.
14. Tongues are not absolutely forbidden by Paul, but they die the death of “one thousand qualifications.”
In the end, after reading and re-reading these sections, I believe tongues are not meant to continue in the church today. But the reason is less clear than some cessationists might at first posit. For instance, there are at least two verses which seem to indicate the use and continuation of of tongues.
14:5 — Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy
14:39 — So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.
Taken by themselves, these sentences seem to support tongues in Corinth. And, of course, Paul cannot deny tongues absolutely. Historically, he has just seen tongues in person since leaving Corinth. When the Spirit fell on the disciples of John the Baptist, they spoke in tongues (Acts 19:6). Since Paul is writing from Ephesus (see 1 Corinthians 16:19), this would have been relatively fresh on his mind. Thus, from a distance, he cannot absolutely deny tongues.
That being said, he never outright supports an unqualified exercise of tongues. Even in these two verse, tongues is overshadowed by prophesy. Speaking of himself, he would rather speak 5 words with his mind than 10,000 words with a tongue (v. 19). Thus, it doesn’t fit his emphasis to say Paul is urging the people of Corinth to speak in tongues.
Rather, he is creating the most narrow confines possible for tongues to be practiced. Consider these nine qualifications that any exercise of tongues must pass:
- Tongues must be used for the common good of the church. (12:7)
- Tongues must not cause division in the church (12:25) and should not be used for self-edification that cuts people off from others. (13:1–3; 14:4)
- Tongue must always be interpreted; no tongue can be spoken without interpretation. (14:5, 28)
- Only two or three tongue-speakers. Paul puts a limit on the number of speakers, so that the service is not dominated by tongues. (14:27)
- Tongues must be spoken at one time. There can be no charismatic chaos that has competing tongue-speakers. (14:27)
- Prophecy supersede tongues. He never says seek tongues; he does say seek prophecy. (14:1–5, 39)
- Tongues is not forbidden, but it will pass away. (13:8)
All in all, I cannot help but conclude that tongues receives so many qualifications because it is a gift that is not meant to continue in the church. Paul does not forbid tongues (14:39), but neither does he endorse it. For him, tongues is never the main thing and is always under investigation. Thus, I have no reason to conclude from Paul’s words that tongues is a gift I must seek over against the inspired Word and God’s full revelation therein.
15. Tongues are not a normative practice today.
Rather than being a continued gift, I believe tongues along with all the miraculous gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 were given to lay the foundation of the church. In an era when the Spirit was inspiring apostles and prophets to speak God’s word and build the foundation of the universal church, the Spirit gave gifts to confirm the word of God.
Multiple texts affirm this fact. For instance, we find the disciples of Christ asking for God to confirm his word with signs and wonder (Acts 4:29–30). In Acts 4 and throughout Acts, the focus is on the spoken word. The miraculous works were sought to point to the Word. Thus, to seek the signs and wonders now would seem to go against the main point, which is the word of God.
Likewise, in 2 Corinthians 12:12 Paul says that “the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” In this verse, signs and wonders were given to validate the apostles unique ministry.
And what was their ministry? It was to build the foundation of the church (see Ephesians 2:20). As Paul says in Romans 15:19, God confirmed his evangelistic ministry “by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God.” Importantly, Romans 15:20 also indicates that Paul has the unique role of founding the church on Christ and not on anyone else. In this way, his apostolic office is unique and as Hebrews 2:3–4 indicates, this unique period of the church comes with unique gifts,
The word of God “was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
For all these reasons, I believe the miraculous signs were given to confirm the word of God. In a period before the Bible was completed, unique signs of power and revelation were given to build up the church and confirm God’s word. Amazingly, Corinth as a church planted by an apostle received a unique place in redemptive history. Paul’s ministry, along with his two letters, form part of the foundation for the church universal. No true church that affirms the full canon of Scripture is ignorant Corinth. It is a church whose unique experience serves as a prophetic word to us today. Still, its role is not to teach us how to experience the miraculous, but to place faith in the gospel that was confirmed with power in their midst (see 1 Corinthians 2:1–5).
That being said, because of the way Paul speaks of tongues, because tongues do not continue in Corinth (at least according to 2 Corinthians and 1 Clement), and because none of the others apostles of Jesus even mention tongues, I don’t believe Scripture gives us any reason to seek tongues as a gift that continues in the church. Rather, the most explicit statements about tongues, signs, and wonders lead us to question their use, not to confidently seek out their application.
To be sure, more discussion about the history of the church could contribute to this discussion, and more questions may need answering with regards to strange experiences on the mission field, but from a singular look at 1 Corinthians 14 in its original context (in Paul’s corpus and in the New Testament as a whole) I don’t believe tongues should be seen as a gift pursued in the church or practiced as a normative part of worship. Rather, we should give thanks for this miraculous gift which helped cement the church’s foundation, but today we have a more certain word preserved in Scripture.
To that book, let us give our time and attention.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds