Should Tongues be Abolished?
Firstly, we should remind ourselves that spiritual gifts are given to the ‘the body of Christ’ for the building up of the church (12:12-20). Speaking in tongues is a God-ward and therefore prayer-like activity for the building up only of the individual since it is unintelligible to others (14:2), whereas the interpretation of a tongue is, like prophecy, for the building up of the church (14:4-19). There are then two assumptions behind this passage, namely that spiritual gifts will operate in church gatherings, and unbelievers will be present in at least some of these meetings.
In verse 21 Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12 which declares that Israel, after ignoring the warnings of the prophets, will go into exile and will only hear judgment against them in a foreign tongue, which only compounds their unbelief rather than bringing about repentance. The point he then draws from this in verse 22 is that un-interpreted and therefore unintelligible tongues only confirm unbelieving people in their unbelief but do nothing to bring them to faith and repentance. On the basis of this, he continues, an unbeliever in a Christian meeting will respond negatively to hearing un-interpreted tongues (v.23 ‘you are out of your minds’), whereas he will respond positively to prophecy (v.24-25 ‘God is really among you’).
However, Paul does not say that tongues do not benefit unbelievers but that they are a sign for unbelievers, and that prophecy is a sign for believers, and yet he goes on to say, you should therefore prophesy to unbelievers. Wayne Grudem concludes “such reasoning does not make sense” and then proposes (not particularly clearly!) that signs function as a display of God’s stance toward someone rather than being of direct benefit to them personally. So we might say, tongues is a sign for indicating unbelievers rather than for benefitting unbelievers, and prophecy a sign for indicating believers rather than for benefitting believers (although of course it does do that as well). In effect then, the sign works in the opposite way than might be supposed: speaking in tongues does nothing to bring about faith and repentance in unbelievers but signifies that they are apart from God’s kingdom, even driving them further away, whereas prophecy is a recognisable sign to unbelievers that God is with his people and present among them.
So far so good, but how should this be applied? What kind of prophecy and tongues is Paul referring to? Is he referring to what we call ‘singing in the Spirit’ or something else? Furthermore, some seem to say something that Paul does not say in restricting these gifts to believers meetings alone.
The Message puts 1 Cor. 14:23-25 thus:
So where does it get you, all this speaking in tongues no one understands? It doesn’t help believers, and it only gives unbelievers something to gawk at. Plain truth-speaking, on the other hand, goes straight to the heart of believers and doesn’t get in the way of unbelievers. If you come together as a congregation and some unbelieving outsiders walk in on you as you’re all praying in tongues, unintelligible to each other and to them, won’t they assume you’ve taken leave of your senses and get out of there as fast as they can? But if some unbelieving outsiders walk in on a service where people are speaking out God’s truth, the plain words will bring them up against the truth and probe their hearts.
I appreciate the style of The Message but did you notice the subtle shift? Peterson moves from the plural ‘all praying in tongues’ to what could be an implied singular: ‘people speaking out God’s truth’ when in fact Paul uses an identical word for both: ‘all speaking in tongues’ and ‘all prophesying’. If this is referring to everyone speaking (or singing) in tongues at the same time then the same must be said of prophesying and it is hard to see how a large group of people prophesying aloud at the same time is any more understandable than tongues. What I would suggest is that Paul is referring to tongues or prophecies being brought by a succession of individuals to the church, not ‘singing in the Spirit’.
Furthermore, the context shows that Paul’s teaching is not that tongues are unhelpful but that if they are to be helpful then they must be interpreted. So, his point is not that we shouldn’t have speaking in tongues when unbelievers are present because they will think us mad, quite the contrary. Speaking in tongues is a normal part of church worship (as is presumed in vv. 26-28) but must be interpreted if they are to benefit others.1 To have a string of individuals bringing a tongue in succession without interpretation excludes rather than draws in the hearers, whereas prophecy is understandable and therefore helpful.
So, to exclude these supernatural gifts seems to me to be the wrong conclusion, ensuring tongues are interpreted seems to me to be the right one.
This is part two of a series on the gift of tongues.
1 See David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians pp. 247-248