Speaking in Tongues

I Corinthians 14

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2011

Our Scripture reading for tonight is I Corinthians 14. This is a highly controversial topic. We want to simply look at what the Bible says. What exactly does Paul say about speaking in tongues in I Corinthians 14? What do other passages of Scripture tell us about this gift?

There are many misconceptions and myths about this gift on the part of both charismatics and non-charismatics. While we may not all agree on every detail, this study will challenge whatever you believe about tongues.

Let me say at the outset that I do not have the gift of tongues. I have never spoken in tongues but I have studied the topic for twenty-five years. I wrote a paper on it in 1984. Let’s begin with some introductory material.


Tonight we want to look at the topic of speaking in tongues or as biblical scholars call it glossolalia, which comes from two Greek words.  It comes from γλωσσα, the Greek word for tongue (as in the word glossitis, which means inflammation of the tongue) and λαλία, the Greek word for to speak (as in echolalia). Paul gives us a whole chapter dealing with glossolalia. Speaking in tongues was a frequent phenomenon in NT churches.

It was not a universal experience but all scholars agree that speaking in tongues was a very common experience in the first century apostolic church. It was not limited to Corinth. It also took place in Jerusalem and Ephesus and other places.

It was done by both Jews and Gentiles. At Pentecost, a group of Jews spoke in tongues but the Church of Corinth was mostly a Gentile church and many members of the church spoke in tongues. People always say that they want to go back to the NT church. NT churches were charismatic. They spoke in tongues.

The Bible mentions “tongues” (I Corinthians 14:6), “other tongues” (Acts 2:4), “new tongues” (Mark 16:17) and “various kinds of tongues” (I Corinthians 12:10, 28). The KJV mentions “unknown tongues” in I Corinthians 14:2, 4, 13, 14, 19) but the word “unknown” is not in the Greek text.

Speaking in tongues is mentioned in three books of the Bible – Mark (16); Acts (2, 10 & 19) and I Corinthians (12-14). In I Corinthians 12, Paul gives three different lists of spiritual gifts. Speaking in tongues was in all three lists.

So it is mentioned in three chapters of Acts, three chapters in I Corinthians and in one verse in the Gospel of Mark and there is some debate among Bible scholars as to whether the statement in Mark 16:17 is actually part of the Gospel of Mark.

Paul’s View of Speaking in Tongues

What was Paul’s view of speaking in tongues? Paul tells us in I Corinthians what he thought of the practice of speaking in tongues. Did he like it? Was he pro-tongues speaking? Did he hate it? Was he anti-tongues speaking?

Paul tells us. What are some of the purposes of speaking in tongues? Paul tells us. He says several things about tongues in this chapter and this is not just Paul’s view but God’s view (cf. 14:37-38).

1. Speaking in Tongues is Not the Only Gift of the Spirit

It is only one in a long list of gifts of the Spirit (12:8-10). The gifts were sovereign-given AS HE WILL (12:11, 18). God decides what gifts we have. He gave the illustration of the human body which is made up of many parts. The whole body is not an eye or an ear (12:17). It is also not a tongue.

Paul specifically says that all Christians do NOT have the gift of tongues. Thus, you do not have to speak in tongues to be saved (because you can be a Christian and not have the gift of tongues). There is no command in the NT for Christians to speak in tongues. When Paul said, “I wish all of you spoke in tongues” (14:4) that implies that all of them did NOT speak in tongues.

2. Speaking in Tongues is NOT the Most Important Gift of the Spirit

Paul said to seek the “greater gifts” or “The best gifts” (12:31). That just raises the question, What are the greater gifts? Paul answers that question in 14:1-5. He comes out and says, “The one who prophesies is GREATER than the one who speaks in tongues” (14:5; cf. 14:19).

The Corinthians thought it was the most important gift and were seeking it. Paul said that it is one of the lesser gifts and if you are going to seek any of the gift, you should be seeking the more important gifts.

What exactly is prophecy? A prophet is someone who has a word from God. That word could be about anything. How does Paul conclude the chapter (cf. 14:39)? John Chrysostom pointed out the huge difference between the two gifts. One was to be greatly longed for and desired, while the other is just forbidden.

3. Paul was NOT Against Speaking in Tongues

Many non-Charismatics have somehow come to the conclusion that Paul was somehow against speaking in tongues. He was not. How do we know?

Paul said in I Corinthians 12 that speaking in tongues was one of the gifts of the Spirit. It was a supernatural ability that comes from God and is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Paul was not against speaking in tongues because he spoke in tongues. Paul was a tongues-speaker.

In fact, not only did he speak in tongues, he spoke in tongues a lot (14:18). He said that he spoke in tongues more than the Corinthians did and that was their favorite gift. They prided themselves on that gift. He apparently did not flaunt his gift like they did.

John Calvin commented on that verse and said that “God bestowed undying honor on tongues in that verse”. Paul said that he wished all of the Corinthians spoke in tongues (14:5). Paul told the Corinthians NOT to forbid people from speaking in tongues (14:39; cf. I Thessalonians 5:19-21).

4. Tongues-Speakers were to Follow Some Rules in Church

Just because Paul said, “Don’t forbid speaking in tongues,” does not mean that any Christian is free to speak in tongues at any time and in any way that he or she wants. Paul gave some very clear rules for speaking in tongues in the public assembly (14:26-28). He also gave three rules for the use of prophecy in the public assembly. What were some of the rules for tongues-speakers?

Three Rules for Tongues

1) The Number

There was not to be more than two or three speaking in the service (14:27).

2) The Procedure

They were to speak on at a time and not all at once (14:27). This was based on the character of God. God is a God of order (14:33) and all things are to be orderly in our church services (14:40).

3) The Necessity

They were to always have an interpreter if they were to speak in tongues in church or they could not speak at all (14:27-28).

Some Charismatics today follow these rules but many do not. Paul had rules for speaking in tongues but he did not prohibit the practice among Christians.


I Corinthians 14:39 is not a suggestion. It is a command. Dr. A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, summed up Paul’s teaching on tongues in four words: “Seek not, Forbid not.” There is some who say that the charismatic speaking in tongues today is of the devil but if you forbid all speaking in tongues, you are actually quenching the Spirit.

That is very significant. It was one of the last things that Paul said about tongues (don’t forbid it). What’s even more amazing about it is that the Corinthians Church was the church that abused and misused the gift of tongues and Paul still said, “Don’t forbid it”.

Two Kinds of Tongues in I Corinthians 14

Many believe that there is only one kind of tongues in the Bible but Paul mentioned not just one kind but different kinds of tongues (12:10, 28). Paul mentions at least two different kinds of tongues in chapter 14.

1)  There was a PRIVATE use of tongues.

This was done at home WITHOUT an interpreter. This is called the devotional use of tongues. The main devotional use of tongues involves praying. Paul mentions praying in tongues (14:15). It is praying from your spirit, not your mind (14:14). This kind of tongues was addressed to God (14:2).

That is what prayer is. It is talking to God. We can also see that speaking in tongues is a way of speaking to God. This was a private prayer or language. It is another way besides prayer than you can talk to God.

The devotional use of tongues may have also involved praise and singing in light of 14:15. Apparently, this was how Paul mainly used his gift. He spoke in tongues more than all the Corinthians but. If he never told us this, we would not have known.

Apparently, he did this on his own privately. There is no record of him ever speaking in tongues in public and keep in mind this was something that he did a lot, so we probably would have heard about it.

2)  There was also a PUBLIC use of tongues.

Speaking in tongues in the church was allowed, as long as it followed the rules Paul gave (e.g., it had to be done WITH an interpreter).

Common Myths About Tongues

MYTH ONE – Speaking in tongues is a mark of spirituality

There is a big difference between being gifted and being godly. There is a big difference between the Gifts of the Spirit (I Corinthians 12) with the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). The Church of Corinth was a church that was big on spiritual gifts. That was one of their strengths.

They had all of the gifts (1:6). They had people in the church who could heal. They had people in the church who prophesied. They had people in the church who were teachers. They had people in the church who spoke in tongues but it was also a church that was carnal (3:1).

Gifts are not a sign of spirituality. We saw that in 13:1-3. Speaking in tongues is not a sign of spirituality or even a sign of salvation. Speaking in tongues is not proof of salvation, since it is practiced in many pagan religions.

Many Pentecostals think they are saved because they speak in tongues but there are many charismatics who will stand before Jesus on the Day of Judgment and he will say to them, “Depart from Me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23).

MYTH TWO – Speaking in tongues was a sign just for the Jews

Many think this gift was a sign to the nation Israel (a sign of judgment on the unbelieving nation). Where do they get this idea? They get it combining two verses. They take I Corinthians 14 which says that tongues are “a sign” and combine it with I Corinthians 1:22 which says that Jews require a sign but there are several problems with this.

To come up with this interpretation, you have to take BOTH I Corinthians 14:22 and 1:22 out of context.  In the context, Paul was only talking about uninterpreted tongues.

When unbelievers heard everyone speaking in tongues at the same time without interpretation, they would think that the speakers were crazy (11:23). It is what is called “strange tongues” in 11:21. His whole argument is that the Corinthians should NOT give this sign to people, because they were only to speak with an unbeliever in church and not all at once.

Are Tongues Just a Sign for Jews?

Many use I Corinthians 1:22 as proof that tongues are a sign to the Jews.  However, that verse is taken out of context.  The passage itself does NOT mention tongues.  It does NOT connect tongues to Israel.  Nor does it connect signs in general to Israel.  Two things should be noted here.

1) Paul does NOT endorse signs for Jews in that passage.

Paul does NOT say that tongues are a sign to Jews. Paul says that they are a sign TO UNBELIEVERS (Jew or Gentile). He does NOT say that they are a sign only to unbelieving Jews (14:22).

Paul does say Paul does say that Jews seek signs (1:22) but he does not say, “Since the Jews seek signs, we should provide them as an evangelistic tool”.

Instead,  he says the exact opposite.  Paul says that the Jews SEEK signs but what the Jews will get is a sermon instead.  They get the message of Christ crucified (1:23), even if it is a “stumbling block” to them, as Paul says.

I Corinthians 1:22  says absolutely nothing about speaking in tongues.  It also does not say that signs are for the Jews.  The Apostle Paul does say that the Jews seek signs but he does NOT say that this is a good thing.

2) Jesus also did NOT say that signs were for the nation of Israel.

Jesus did not look upon needing signs to believe as a good thing. Jesus also said that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign” (Matthew 16:4). When the Jews came to Jesus and asked him to show them a sign (16:1), it was a form of unbelief.

Jesus said that NO SIGN would be given to Israel but the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:39). Jesus did NOT say that the Jews will also be given the sign of tongues.

MYTH THREE – The purpose of tongues is to evangelize the lost

Why do many people believe that tongues are for reaching the lost (missionary tongues)? Many believe that the gift of tongues is the supernatural ability to speak a foreign language that you have never studied. That would be an important gift for people on the mission field to have.

In addition, Paul specifically says in I Corinthians 14:22 that tongues are a sign FOR UNBELIEVERS. Many have assumed that the purpose of tongues was for people to preach the gospel to people in their own languages but there are some big problems with this view.

1) That is refuted by I Corinthians 14:23:”So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”

After saying, “Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not” (14:22), Paul goes on to say, “if unbelievers enter church and hear someone speaking in tongues, they think, he is absolutely crazy” (14:23).

2) That is refuted by I Corinthians 14:2:“For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God”.

God didn’t need to be evangelized. If tongues are a foreign language, that is a very strange statement. That would be a strange way to treat a foreign language.

According to Paul, when someone speaks in tongues “No one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit” (cf. 14:28). Even if tongues are indeed real languages, it would be hard to do evangelism with this gift without the gift of interpretation.

Some might say that there was no gift of interpretation at Pentecost. That is true. There the audience heard the tongue-speaking in their own language or dialect without the use of an interpreter but that was the exception in the NT.

Pentecost was a unique event in history (c. 30 AD) and has never been repeated. Everywhere else in the NT, there had to be an interpreter for anyone to understand anything that was spoken in tongues.

3) In Acts 10 & 19 there were no unbelievers present when the Holy Spirit caused people to speak in tongues.

Did people speak in tongues to win the lost in Acts 2? How did they get saved? Was it from the tongues-speaking? No. it was from Peter’s sermon (2:14-36).

The tongues-speaking took place BEFORE Peter started preaching and it saved no one. Speaking in tongues may have gotten their attention but no one got saved by the tongues-speaking. It functioned more like pre-evangelism. See the lesson entitled “The Miracle of Pentecost” for more information.

MYTH FOUR – Speaking in tongues is always a sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit

This is the standard Pentecostal interpretation. Were do they get this idea. In the Book of Acts some people who were baptized in the Holy Spirit spoke in tongues (e.g., 10:44-46; 19:6).  However, we need to keep in mind two things here.

1) Speaking in tongues is not the only sign of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:4 says that people “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with tongues”  I. Howard Marshall points out that the Holy Spirit came on seven people in the Book of Acts and in four of those cases there is NO reference to tongues (4:31; 8:17; 9:17; 13:9).

The Bible says that Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit but it never says that he spoke in tongues. That was not the only sign of Spirit filling and it was not the only sign of Spirit baptism.

2) All of the Corinthians did NOT speak in tongues.

Paul makes it very clear that not all of the Corinthians spoke in tongues (12:29-30; 14:5) but all of them were baptized by the Holy Spirit (12:13).

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