Right from the get-go of 1 Corinthians 14 we’ve got this understanding of a hierarchy within the gifts: Paul wants us to desire the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues. However, it’s important to understand his reasoning for this as he is not actually downplaying the importance of tongues or trying to belittle this gift.
If we’re paying close attention to the text, we’ll see why Paul values prophecy more than tongues: People can understand prophecy, but without interpretation they can’t understand tongues. The very purpose of tongues is to speak in another language, as evidenced by all of the people who heard the Christians speaking their languages on the day of Pentecost (Ac 2:5-12). But Paul makes it clear here in 1 Corinthians 14 that while we can speak in these foreign languages, we typically can’t understand what we’re saying when we do so.
With this in mind, the picture Paul paints for us of a Corinthian church service is a mass of people using the Holy Spirit’s gifts dysfunctionally. We can begin to imagine numerous Corinthian Christians interrupting the service and saying, “I’d like to speak in a tongue for everyone right now,” and then doing so until they feel like it’s time to stop.
The very idea sounds ridiculous until you frame it in the spiritual logic that these Christians were probably operating under: If the Holy Spirit has given me the gift of tongues, wouldn’t it be wrong of me to not exercise this gift?
This is the same kind of spiritual logic that’s hard to say no to in our churches today. If someone asks to do something “spiritual,” the church leader has to look like an ignorant jerk if he says no, because it appears that he just denied someone something good—even if he or she have a good reason in denying those things. Likewise, if someone is convinced that they should speak in tongues because it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit in their lives, anyone who denies them therefore looks like they’re denying the Holy Spirit.
And this is just one side of the dilemma, because another reason people want to take the stage is for their own purposes. This is just part of the difficulty with a church that truly is a communal body as it should be: Broken people will always be a part of it, because we’re all broken. And some of that brokenness is going to be found in people’s drive to be heard and feel important. The awkwardness of speaking in a language no one understands for an extended period of time will somehow take second place to the fact that they have everyone’s attention.
These are just the risks of being the church—and it’s partially why Paul is having this conversation with the Corinthians. He wants to help them stop illogical spiritual moments from happening in their services. He doesn’t want the church to forbid speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:39)—by all means, he says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Cor 14:18). However, he knows the role that tongues play in the church, and unless someone (including the person giving the tongue) can interpret the tongue (1 Cor 14:5, 13, 27), there is simply no reason to take the stage and practice this particular gift—there are more important matters and gifts that should be tended to instead. Tongues are for our personal lives more so than anything else and Paul would much rather have people speak five words others can understand than ten thousand words people can’t (1 Cor 14:19).
Granted, if a tongue is interpreted, the gift starts to take on a prophetic nature. For if prophecy is hearing the voice of God and speaking it out, tongues that can be understood suddenly become a direct message from God—for the speakers themselves don’t know what they’re saying—they simply feel God has given them this language and therefore they practice it. But if someone can make light of the language, suddenly God speaks to us via the words that come out of the person speaking in tongues and their language means something to the body. They become a vessel of prophecy so mysterious and direct that even they do not know what God is saying through them.
But without interpretation, we are failing to keep things decent and in order and you don’t even have to go to a supernatural church to understand this. All you have to do is attend a church that holds service in a different language than your own.
When I first started pastoring at 1208GREENWOOD, the church was bilingual. As cool as this was, it was also highly confusing. There are all kinds of stories I could share to make this point, but the reason I bring it up is to reiterate what Paul means when he says, “if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (1 Cor 14:16).
Prayer meetings were hard to do as a bilingual church. When I started I would offer up “mhmm’s” and “amens” to my friends speaking in Spanish to show my support for their prayers, when one day I noticed that I had no idea what I was “mhmming” and “amening” to. And having noticed over time that everyone was not on the same trajectory as I was, I could have very easily been approving of things I didn’t even mean to approve of. Likewise, I could have been approving of theology I didn’t agree with or thoughts I didn’t want to back. To me, Spanish was as foreign as a tongue and without someone interpreting, I had no idea what was going on.
That’s exactly how we feel when someone takes up our time to speak in a tongue without an interpreter. It’s awkward, confusing and you just don’t know what to do while the other person does it. That’s not to say that I can’t have a prayer session with a person who speaks another language—there’s actually something incredibly beautiful about that—but rather I use this story from my life as an illustration to attest to what Paul’s saying.