Commentators are almost unanimous in their analysis of 1 Corinthians 14 (and the preceding two chapters) that Paul is in some way rebuking the Corinthians for an over-emphasis on the gift of tongues. It was central in their thinking and their meetings. Paul responds by effectively saying “If you want to make a big deal of one spiritual gift, then prophecy would have been a better choice, and in any case, the foundational mark of spirituality is not any of the gifts, but in showing love”.
Paul was clearly a tongues speaker, as he claims in 1 Cor 14:18 that “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you”. This is a surprising claim, given what we can deduce about how much the Corinthians seemed to be using the gift. Whilst Paul may be utilising hyperbole here, the point remains that he used this gift extensively. But from verse 19, we see that he clearly has private use in mind. This does not prove that he never spoke in tongues in a public meeting, but it does indicate that his main use of the gift was for his personal edification. In any case, Paul’s primary contribution in many meetings was doubtless teaching, and he presumably was glad to allow others to contribute in prophecy or tongues.
Paul has much to say in praise of tongues – they edify the speaker (14:4) and can edify the church if accompanied with the gift of interpretation (14:6). Most significantly, in verse 5 he says that “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues”. For many charismatics this is enough evidence for them to teach every Christian that they should keep seeking God until they get this gift. However, the sentence does not end there – Paul recommends prophecy as an even better option. Furthermore, earlier in 1 Cor 7:7 Paul has spoken of his desire that everyone shared his gift of celibacy!
So we conclude that this gift is valuable, but not essential. Those who desire help in their personal prayer lives and want to be edified (which is surely all of us) would benefit greatly from it. But given Paul’s insistence in chapter 12 on the diversity of the Spirit, it would be silly to imagine that everyone needs to follow exactly the same route to personal edification. That not all the Corinthians possessed this gift is strongly indicated by the rhetorical question of 12:30 and the implication of 14:5 (which is interesting to note, since 12:13 indicates that he did believe them all to have been baptised in the Holy Spirit – hence we cannot make tongues a required evidence of this experience).
But if Paul has much praise for tongues, he also seems to deprecate the gift in places. He is not simply content to pray or sing with his spirit in verse 15, he wants to pray with his mind also. He makes essentially the same point four times in a row in verses 2-6 that prophecy is preferable to tongues in the meetings. The most striking statement comes in verse 19 where he says that “in church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue”.
Some have taken this verse to indicate that in Paul’s opinion, tongues are purely for personal use, and are best kept out of public meetings. But this goes beyond what he has said. He has indicated that they can bring the same considerable benefit as prophecy if there is an interpretor present (v5). They are included in the list of things that “must be done for the strengthening of the church” in verse 26. And in verse 27, most tellingly, although he places limits on the use of the gift (one at a time, no more than two or three) he clearly expects that after heeding his rebukes in this letter, the gift will continue to be used in a public context. Exactly the same restrictions are placed upon the prophetic gift (v29), the very gift Paul has been encouraging the use of.
A brief comment is appropriate on the gift of interpretation, which is in many ways as mysterious as the gift of tongues itself. Paul is not criticising the use of tongues per se, but the fact that there were a number of uninterpreted tongues in their meetings (perhaps because the people who typically interpreted were not present on some occasions – see v28). He took a dim view of this situation as it provided no benefit whatsoever to the hearers. It only benefited the speaker, and hence was at best selfish and at worst shameless self-promotion.
So how important exactly, is the gift of tongues? If it is said that modern charismatics tend to overestimate the importance of this gift, then it must also be admitted that noncharismatics tend to underestimate it. To summarise the teaching of this chapter on the value of the gift of tongues:
1. Tongues greatly benefits the speaker in personal use
2. Tongues can benefit the church as much as prophecy, but only when an interpretation follows
3. A person with the gift of tongues may quite appropriately speak in praise of it and encourage others to desire it
4. No one however should insist that others exclusively seek or use one particular gift, but acknowledge that the Spirit gives a variety of gifts to the body of Christ
5. Sensible limitations on the gift should be exercised in public meetings so that it does dominate at the expense of other contributions (which include prophecies, teaching and hymns)
6. Those addressing the entire meeting should resist the temptation to speak in tongues if they do not intend to seek an interpretation.