Jeremy Pierce raised some interesting questions in his comments on my recent post. He confesses to not understanding how speaking in tongues might edify the speaker. I agree that there is some mystery to it, perhaps in a similar way to the way that partaking of the Lord’s supper and water baptism can be means of grace to us. From personal testimony though, I would say that speaking in tongues for a few minutes is very helpful in putting me into a more prayerful attitude when I am finding it hard to pray, and afterwards I find a surprising liberty and passion in my prayers in English.
However, the point I want to address here is why would we want tongues in a public meeting? If it only edifies the hearer (1 Cor 14:4), as Paul says, then why not speak in your natural language? It would seem that in Corinth that some people were quite self-centred about their use of this gift – wanting to show themselves as spiritual, rather than desiring to edify others. But ego-centric motives are not exclusively tied to speaking in tongues – prophets and even preachers could just as easily fall into the same trap.
As a general rule (and here I may go against the views of some of my charismatic friends), people with the gift of tongues would not normally expect to use it in a public meeting. But on occasion, they may feel that the Spirit is stirring them to speak out in tongues in much the same way that a person with the gift of prophecy does. In this case, they should be open to the possibility that God intends them to bring this contribution, and that the church will be edified through its interpretation.
Which brings us on to the question of how you know if “an interpreter” is present (1 Cor 14:28). In charismatic churches, there are often a few people known to exercise this gift. But if you are not sure they are there, then you should pray that you yourself would be given the interpretation (1 Cor 14:13), as your desire should be for the church to be blessed which cannot happen if the tongue goes uninterpreted.
So how is it that a tongue followed by an interpretation might edify a congregation in a way that a contribution in a natural language wouldn’t? Let me suggest two ways.
First, tongues is an exalted prayer language, in which we speak mysteries to God (1 Cor 14:2). In my experience the interpretation is a prayer that really lifts the spirits of all who hear, often with greater fervency and eloquence than is normally seen in public prayers in church. Thus everyone is encouraged and drawn in to worship more wholeheartedly as they see the Spirit moving someone to pray in such a way.
Second, tongues are described as a ‘sign’ for unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22). This is by no means a simple verse to understand, but I take it to mean that the gift of tongues is a powerful witness to visiting unbelievers that they are outsiders. There is a power present that they know nothing of, and this may stir a hunger within them to know it for themselves.
In conclusion, let me quote 1 Cor 14:39: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” It seems clear to me that Paul considered prophecy far more immediately useful than tongues in meetings, but to forbid speaking in tongues publicly could also rob people of a blessing God wanted to bring. In other words, if Paul was judging a meeting, he wouldn’t be asking “were there three prayers in tongues?” but “were people edified?” and “was there evidence of the Spirit’s moving?”.