Tongues in the Church

A detailed discussion of miracles and healings would contribute very little to an understanding of the New Testament pattern for the church of God. While these are profitable subjects, they are outside of the subject matter of this book. But not so with tongues. This gift is widely misunderstood, and very few treat it scripturally. Many, if not most, non-charismatic churches completely forbid the use of tongues. When they do this they are disobeying an express command of God; for 1 Corinthians 14:39 says "do not forbid to speak with tongues." But almost all charismatic churches strongly encourage their use during church services. This is also contrary to Scripture.

1 Corinthians 14 treats this subject at length, giving two rules governing the use of tongues in the church:

"If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God." (1 Corinthians 14:27-28)

Within these parameters tongues are allowed in the church, but their use is strongly discouraged. The main subject of the first 28 verses of this chapter is that tongues have little value in the church. If they are not interpreted they are of no value at all. That is why their use is forbidden "if there is no interpreter." The Holy Spirit (speaking through the Apostle Paul) repeatedly tells us that it is much better to prophesy. The argument is presented in a series of seven couplets, each connected with the word "but" or the word "yet."

"... desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy." (verse 1)

"For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men." (verses 2 and 3)

"He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church." (verse 4)*12

"I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification." (verse 5)

"I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue." (verses 18 and 19)

"Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe." (verse 22)

"Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all." (verses 23 and 24)

The basic instruction of this passage is stated twice:

"Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel." (verse 12)

"Let all things be done for edification." (verse 26)

This chapter repeatedly says that tongues do not edify the church:

"But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you?" (verse 6)

"So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air." (verse 9)

"For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified." (verse 17)

Finally, the Holy Spirit reproves this practice as childish, saying, "Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature." (verse 20)

The net effect of these statements could hardly be more clear. They are sufficient for anyone who really desires to know God's mind on this subject. Tongues, though not forbidden, are not intended to be used in the church.

*12 The first half of this couplet is often quoted to prove that tongues are profitable. But that is lifting it out of its context. Examination of both parts of this couplet, comparing it with the rest of the couplets in this series, clearly shows that this is a negative statement, not a positive one. The meaning is that he who speaks in a tongue edifies, (that is, builds up) nobody but himself, but he who prophecies edifies the church. Return

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