Appropriate use of the gift of tongues - I Cor. 14

Tongues: A gift and a sign

Part II

Scenario 1: The youth service was coming to a close. The altar call had been moving, but as one of the organizers of the event, I felt like we had only touched the surface of what God was trying to do. I silently prayed at my seat as the speaker stepped forward to give closing remarks of dismissal. As he picked up the microphone, there was a shift in the Spirit. It is hard to describe if you have never experienced it, but it was as if all the air was sucked out of the building. A holy hush came across the congregation. Without warning or instruction, everyone including children and infants, went completely silent. The perfect tranquility was finally broken when a young person suddenly gave a message in tongues. In a few moments, another young man gave a crystal clear interpretation. It was like a trumpet sounding. God immediately confirmed the message with an unbelievable outpouring of His Spirit. Wave upon wave moved across the congregation.

It was only after the service that I found out the young man gifted by the Spirit to give such an authoritative interpretation has a speech impediment and is difficult to understand even in private conversation.

Scenario 2: I had been attempting to pastor our Spanish work for a very short time. The small congregation was mostly brand new believers. They were not familiar with biblical praise and worship. We had good services, but we were yet to really receive a break through. I decided that I needed to address true worship from the pulpit.

As the musicians took their seats, I prepared to preach. As was our tradition, we began to pray before the Word was given. Suddenly, the Spirit began to move. I gave a message in tongues. A man in the back stood and gave the interpretation in Spanish. The entire congregation as one began to fervently worship. The worship, without music, lasted over an hour. People were raising their hands, lifting their voices, and even dancing before the Lord.

I had a bilingual elder that I deffered to in regards to judging the validity of the interpretation since I had a very limited knowledge of Spanish. His response to the message seemed to confirm it so I stepped back and allowed the congregation to entertain the presence of God. This was exactly what I hoped to see. Instead of listening to me preach about worship, the church engaged in heartfelt worship. They practiced what I planned to preach.

After everyone had received a good blessing, I decided to close the service by reading my text.

John 4:23 (NKJV)

23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.

I told them, “I had planned on preaching about worship, but the Holy Ghost preached the message better than I could have.” Only after service did I find out how true that statement was. The interpretation given in Spanish was…wait for…. a quotation of John 4:23, the very text that I was to preach from. The Holy Ghost had truly preached and confirmed the message!

As these two scenarios from my own life show, the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation are for the church today. God uses these messages to speak and confirm His word. Some have mistakenly excluded messages in tongues from the church. This is against God’s will and is actually detrimental to the church. A messsage in tongues is a gift of the Spirit that is to be in operation until the coming of Christ for the edification of the body.

Although the gift is of God and thus good, it can be abused. Paul gave instruction regarding the appropriate use of the gift of tongues in I Cor. 14. To understand these instructions properly, it is essential that we differentiate between tongues as a sign of the infilling of the Holy Ghost and tongues in conjunction with interpretation to bless the church.

This distinction was discussed in my first post concerning the gift of tongues: Tongues: A gift and a sign. (All remaining hyperlinks in this post are to the same article. If you click it now, you can ignore them in the future. Go ahead and click it. Procrastination does not flatter you.)

To effectively communicate my point, this second post is dependent on the conclusions of the first post. If you haven’t read it yet, do not continue, pass go, or collect two hundred dollars.

Seriously, read this now!

Let’s look at Paul’s teaching concerning the “gift of tongues.”

1 Corinthians 14 (NKJV)

14 Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2 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.

We should desire spiritual gifts. Paul stressed that in the church it is better to have a word of prophecy than a message in tongues because the goal of a message in church is for the church to understand.

3 But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.

Speaking in tongues edifies the speaker because he is in direct communication with God. The Holy Ghost helps him to pray as he should. It gives utterance to things that he can not express on his own. However, when speaking to the church, the primary goal should be to edify the body. Prophesy is an inspired word in the native tongue of the speaker and thus usually in the native tongue of the hearers.

5 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.

Again, it is essential that we recognize that Paul was speaking of the gift of tongues apart from tongues as the initial evidence of receiving the Spirit. (Don’t know the difference? Stop now and read this.) The subject, gifts of the Spirit apart from the initial infilling, was established in I Cor. 12. Paul was comparing two speaking gifts of the Spirit, tongues and prophesy, and their ability to edify the church as a corporate unit. A message in tongues is only beneficial if the church can understand and receive it.

6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? 7 Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? 8 For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? 9 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. 10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. 11 Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. 12 Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.

It is good to be zealous for spiritual gifts, but they are always intended to bless the church. They are never intended to exalt the individual. God imparts certain gifts to certain individuals. This is not necessarily a sign of the individual’s level of spirituality. It simply is God’s will for that person to receive the gift for the good of all.

This is true for the gift of tongues. An eloquent or lengthy message in tongues is of little value to the church unless it is interpreted. If God does not supply the interpretation either to the speaker or to another believer, then the tongue was not intended to be shared with the congregation.

13 Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. 15 What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. 16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? 17 For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified.

Once again, we see that the focus of the gift (charisma) of tongues is the church. (How is the gift (charisma) of tongues different than the gift (dorea) of the Holy Ghost with the initial evidence of tongues? I’m glad you asked. Find the answer here.) An individual should always pray for an interpretation if they are led to give a message in tongues to the church. In truth, when we pray in tongues we are praying in the Spirit from our spirits. The one praying does not even have a full understanding of his prayers or songs in tongues. In our relationship with God, it is important to communicate in tongues as well as to engage our minds and pray with our understanding in our native language. If praying with understanding is important for the one praying, how much more important is it for those that are listening? How can they respond, agree, or appreciate a message that they can’t understand?

18 I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; 19 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.

Paul was not against praying in tongues. As seen in Acts 19:6, he had no problem with tongues as a sign of the infilling of the Spirit. He did have a problem with a message in tongues to the church with no interpretation. When communicating to the church, the speaker needs to be understood. He can not effectively teach others in an unknown language.

20 Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.

21 In the law it is written:

“With men of other tongues and other lips
I will speak to this people;
And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,”

says the Lord.

22 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.

Messages in tongues are given so God can speak to the people. They serve the same essential purpose as prophesy, however, the message is accompanied with the sign of tongues for those that otherwise would not believe. There should be much assurance of the word when a message is given properly in tongues. Sadly, even with this evidence of the supernatural, many still will not believe.

Prophecy on the other hand is not accompanied with the sign. Men under inspiration speak the words of God directly. Believers will receive prophecy by faith.

23 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?

The sign of tongues, instead of being evidence of the validity of the message as God intended, can destroy faith if it is abused. If multiple speakers give messages or sermons entirely in tongues, not only will the church not be edified, but visitors will be scared away. Abuse of the gifts results in chaos and disorder.

24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. 25 And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.

Since prophecy is spoken clearly, it is easily understood. Although intended primarily for believers, when an unbeliever hears the word and receives it, it will have a powerful impact on his life. Paul was not negatively comparing messages in tongues with an interpretation to prophecy. Instead, he was reiterating what was stated in verse five. Tongues must be accompanied with interpretation to be as effective as prophecy. Messages in tongues, though they are a miraculous sign for the benefit of unbelievers, are ineffective without an interpretation to explain the message.

26 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

Judging by Paul’s tone in response to their questions, it seems that the services had degenerated to a state of confusion. Saints were abusing grace by allowing sin to remain in the church. They were abusing the Lord’s Supper by selfishly feasting and even getting drunk. Apparently, they were also abusing the Spirit’s gifts. They were zealous for a demonstration of gifts without concern for edifying the body.

 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret.

If a message in tongues is given to the church, it should be done in an orderly manner. There should also be a limited number of messages. They should not be given simultaneously. If the message is for the church, and not simply communication between an individual and God, the message must be interpreted.

 28 But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.

If there is no interpretation, the speaker should be silent in the church. Obviously, this does not mean completely silent because Paul's instructions included continuing speaking in tongues to God. The stipulations that Paul gave in this chapter were for messages in tongues, the charisma gift of tongues (read about it here), because they were intended for the benefit of the entire church.

These stipulations were not for individuals praying to God in tongues. As seen in Acts chapters 2, 8, 10, and 19, there is no limit to the number of people that can pray in tongues. There is no expectation for an interpretation. Anyone has the right to pray in tongues in church, even without interpretation, if they are speaking to God instead of to the congregation.

In Pentecostal services, it is not uncommon for many people to speak in tongues while seeking God during the altar service or even during the praise and worship portion of the service. This is appropriate because the communication is between the individual and God. The individual is being edified with no attempt to speak a message to the body.

Comparably, churches from many different traditions and denominations allow time for individuals to talk to God at the conclusion of service. Many even pray aloud, but they don’t each raise their voice to pray prayers intended to be heard by the congregation. It is a time of personal prayer between the individual and the Lord. It would be entirely inappropriate for everyone to pray aloud simultaneously while speaking to the church body. It would also be inappropriate for the service to be continually interrupted as members of the church burst out in loud prayers for the congregation. This would be disorder.

The stipulations that Paul placed on the use of the gift of tongues to give messages to the church are generally accepted and applicable for messages of prophecy or prayer that are not in tongues. Basically, God is not the author of confusion. When God speaks, the gifts must be used in a manner that maximizes the ability of the congregation to receive the message.

Paul provided further instructions concerning proper practices and behavior in the church before summarizing his instructions regarding the gift of tongues. .

 39 Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. 40 Let all things be done decently and in order.

We should desire to deliver God’s message in a manner that is understood. This does not mean that tongues should be forbidden. In fact, tongues are a gift of the Spirit intended to bless the church along with the gift of interpretation. Our goal should be to use the gifts appropriately so that everything can be done decently and in order.