Speaking in Tongues

Its Essence, Purposes, and Use (Part 3)

by George M. Flattery

My purpose in this series of articles is to study the essence, purposes, and uses of speaking in tongues. An early insight of the Pentecostal movement was that the tongues in Acts 2:4 and the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12:4–10,28 are the same in essence but different in purpose and use. Some of the questions that arise about purposes and uses are:

  • What is the purpose of speaking in tongues in connection with the baptism in the Holy Spirit?
  • Should a pastor encourage people to be baptized in the Spirit during public services?
  • Should a pastor foster speaking in tongues, along with interpretation, in public services?
  • Should the worship leader, or the pastor, lead the congregation to sing in tongues?
  • Should a pastor encourage people to pray privately in tongues?

This third article examines what Paul writes about tongues and offers practical guidance from 1 Corinthians 14:1-40 for their use in public gatherings. The first article in this series was devoted to speaking in tongues as presented by Luke. The second article, as well as this one, presents what Paul writes about tongues. In this third article, I focus on 1 Corinthians 14:13-40.

Praying and Singing: 1 Corinthians 14:13–19

Verses 13–19 have to do with praying and singing:

13For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue [lalōn glōssēi] should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14For if I pray in a tongue [glōssēi], my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

18I thank God that I speak in tongues [glōssais lalō] more than all of you. 19But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue [glōssei].

In verses 14 and 15, Paul draws a contrast between praying and singing with the spirit and with the mind. He uses the words spirit and mind to make a point about intelligibility. When one prays and sings with the spirit, he or she utters words (tongues) without engaging the mind. Paul says his or her mind is not fruitful. In contrast, a person utters intelligible words when praying and singing with the mind. The Spirit is present in either case; the Holy Spirit influences both spirit and mind.

It is a topic of debate whether “my spirit” refers to the human spirit, a gift of the Spirit, or the Holy Spirit. With an explanation that includes all three ideas, Barrett supports the view that “my spirit” is a spiritual gift. He writes: “Paul’s language lacks clarity and precision here because he is compressing into a few words the thoughts (1) that it is the Holy Spirit of God that is at work, inspiring Christian worship and prayer; (2) that the work of the Spirit is crystallized into a specific gift; (3) this gift is given in such personal terms to me that I can speak of it as mine — in short as my spirit, which, being what it is, operates through appropriate psychological channels independently of my mind.”1

It is possible to include all three ideas, yet put the greater emphasis on the human spirit. Also, we may say that “my spirit” refers to the human spirit, but it is the human spirit empowered by the Holy Spirit and expressing the Spirit’s power through a spiritual gift. There is little difference between these two approaches.

What kinds of praying and singing does Paul have in mind? One possibility is that Paul is referring to praying and singing in private. In this case, interpretations are unnecessary when singing and praying with the spirit. However, given the context (see verse 16), this is not the main emphasis. In the context, Paul primarily is describing what should happen in the congregational setting.

Paul could also be referring to praying and singing alone in public services. Obviously, he can pray and sing with the mind without having prayed or sung with the spirit beforehand. In addition, Paul can pray and sing with the Spirit (in tongues) and then interpret the tongues using the language of the congregation.

Another issue has to do with praying and singing in unison. Personally, I don’t believe Paul is discussing these practices. He uses the personal phrase “I will.” Of course, this does not mean the Church never prayed or sang in unison.

Paul mentions “songs from the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18,19, and Colossians 3:16. In these passages, spontaneous songs in one’s own language and previously prepared songs may be included. Although the term “songs from the Spirit” may have broader applications in these passages, it certainly includes songs in tongues. As these passages indicate, the believers taught and admonished others through songs, including those sung in a known language.

When people in the congregation pray or sing in unison, all have the opportunity to be engaged in this activity. Thus, when the congregation sings or prays with the spirit it seems an interpretation is not necessary. When they sing with the mind, all sing the same words. When praying in unison, they pray individual prayers in a collective setting.

Tongues and Prophecy in Worship and Witness: 1 Corinthians 14:20–25

In 1 Corinthians 14:20–25, Paul addresses tongues and prophecy in worship and witness, saying:

20Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21In the Law it is written: “With other tongues [heteroglōssis] and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”

22Tongues [glōssai], then [hōste], are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23So [oun] if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues [lalōsin glōssais], and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

This passage has some seeming contradictions. These have been resolved, but the customary way is not entirely satisfactory. I propose an alternative explanation.

The customary interpretation is to say Paul was using direct address to state his own views in the entire passage. Given this, he was citing Isaiah 28:11,12, in verse 21. According to this view, Israel would not listen to the prophets. Therefore, God judged them by turning them over to men of other languages. The Lord says, “Even then they will not listen to me” (verse 21).

Here, Paul refers to speaking in tongues rather than the Assyrian language mentioned in Isaiah 28:11. God did not intend for their speech to be effective; rather, their speech hardened Israel in their sins. Therefore, Paul concludes that tongues are a sign — not to believers, but to unbelievers. The tongues are a sign of God’s judgment. However, Paul seems to argue against this line of thought in verse 23. When unbelievers are in the audience, they will say that, when all speak in tongues, those speaking are mad.

Under the customary view, prophecy is a sign to believers, but not to unbelievers. Prophecy is always a sign to believers, but Paul goes on to point out that the prophecies in the congregation convict unbelievers. This seems to put verses 22 and 24 in contradiction.

As I see it, 1 Corinthians 14:20–25 is an example of Paul’s use of dialogue. In verse 20, Paul points out that the Corinthians should be mature in their thinking. They have wrongly cited and applied a passage from Isaiah 28:11,12. Although the Isaiah passage is cited in verse 20, it is not an exact quotation. As under the first view, the other tongues in verse 22 are not the Assyrian language but tongues unknown to the speakers. The Corinthians have concluded from the Isaiah passage that the “other tongues” spoken at Corinth are for a sign to unbelievers (verse 22), but Paul refutes this in verse 23. When all of them speak in tongues, unbelievers will say that the congregation is mad.

In support of the dialogic approach, we may call upon the apostle Paul’s use of the conjunctions hōste (verse 22) and oun (verse 23). According to Bauer, the word hōste means “for this reason, therefore, so.”2 The New American Standard translation is “so then.”3 Assuming Paul is citing the Corinthians in both verses 21 and 22, the conclusion in verse 22 would follow in their view from verse 21.

Then, in verse 23, Paul refutes their reasoning with regard to tongues without interpretation. This verse begins with the phrase eav oun. With regard to the conjunction oun, Bauer says the meaning varies with the context. He maintains that it can mean “therefore,” “consequently,” “accordingly,” or “then.” In addition, he says that oun can be adversative, in the sense of “but” and “however.”4 Using the former meaning, verse 23 would represent Paul’s conclusion drawn from verse 22. However, in the adversative sense, in verse 23 Paul is presenting a contrasting view. The adversative sense fits the context. Paul is refuting verse 22 in verse 23. Instead of saying, “If therefore,” he is saying, “If however.” This verse applies to tongues alone, but not to tongues with interpretation.

Next, Paul deals with prophecy. The Corinthians have mistakenly concluded that prophecy, although it is a sign to believers, is not a sign for unbelievers (verse 22). Now Paul refutes their reasoning by pointing out the impact that prophecy has on the unbeliever (verses 24,25). He already has established (verse 4) the importance of prophecy to the believer.

In short, Paul cites an argument about tongues and prophecy made by the Corinthians in verses 21 and 22 and refutes that argument in verses 23–25. Whether Paul was expressing his own view or the view of the Corinthians in verses 21 and 22, his conclusions in verses 23–25 are the same. However, viewed as an example of his dialogic method, all the contradictions are easily resolved.

Edifying Participation: 1 Corinthians 14:26–33

In 1 Corinthians 14:26–33, Paul deals with edifying participation in the corporate worship of the church. Here, he describes how the worship service should flow. He tells what a service characterized by participation would look like.

26What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue [glōssan] or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27If anyone speaks in a tongue [glōssēi], two — or at the most three — should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

29Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace — as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

When people came to the worship service in the Early Church, they came prepared to participate. Their participation could be spontaneous (verse 30), but it appears that they came with their hearts prepared. Undoubtedly, much of the content was inspired during the service. This would be true especially of tongues and interpretation. Even so, it is possible that many came prepared with a psalm, teaching, or revelation.

In verses 27 and 28, Paul gives some guidelines regarding tongues and interpretation. One view is that there should not be more than two or three utterances in tongues before an interpretation. Another view is that there should not be more than two or three utterances in tongues in any given service. An interpretation should follow each of these utterances, in turn.

The main point is that there should be balanced participation. There were other gifts to express besides tongues and interpretation. The second approach above seems to be the best. The clause “when you come together” suggests that, in any given service, the tongues and interpretation should be limited to two or three.

In verse 28, Paul assumes someone other than the speaker in tongues will interpret. Apparently, he expected the speaker in tongues, and perhaps the entire congregation, to know whether an interpreter was present. The speaker in tongues, alternatively, could pray (verse 13) that he or she might interpret. If the speaker, or someone else, was not prepared to interpret, the speaker was to keep silent and speak to himself or herself and to God. The speaker may vocalize tongues very quietly so that others do not hear. However, it is also possible to be totally quiet and mentally form the message in tongues. In either case, the speaker may understand the intent of his or her heart, but he will not understand the silent or vocalized words.

The apostle gives guidelines for prophecy as well. Many believe that only two or three prophets should speak in any given service. This view allows for the passing of judgment after each prophecy or after two or three prophetic words. No doubt, some judged silently even while the prophet was speaking. Another view is that only two or three should speak before others pass judgment.

The “others” are to pass judgment. This could mean that only those who have the prophetic gift should judge, but we note that all can potentially prophesy. Moreover, in verse 24, all are involved in judging the unbeliever. To pass judgment means to “weigh carefully” the content of the prophecies given.

While a prophet is speaking, a “revelation” may come to another person. Although prophecy is a broader term than revelation, many prophecies arise from revelation. Here Paul exhorts the first prophet to make way for the one who has just received a revelation. Those who prophesy must recognize others’ gifts.

With regard to verse 32, one view is that each prophet must be subject to other prophets. Others hold that each prophet is in control of his or her own spirit. According to Fee: “The phrase ‘spirits of the prophets’ means ‘the prophetic Spirit’ by which each of them speaks through his or her own spirit.”5

Given Paul’s emphasis on the inspiration of the Spirit, this view is best.

Fitting and Orderly: 1 Corinthians 14:39,40

The apostle Paul concludes his discussion of speaking in tongues and related matters in 1 Corinthians 14:39,40.

His conclusion was this exhortation to the people in the church at Corinth: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues [lalein glōssais]. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

The emphasis is on order. So the pastor has the responsibility of guiding the manifestations of the Spirit within the local church. Doing things in an orderly way, however, does not eliminate speaking in tongues. Paul exhorts, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues.”

Obviously, speaking in tongues was a valued and vibrant part of the spiritual life in the Early Church. We can pray and sing in tongues in private and, with interpretation, in the church. No wonder Paul said, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:5).


In 1 Corinthians 14:13–40 Paul continues his presentation of tongues and prophecy in the local church. Speaking in tongues refers to inspired utterances made by believers.

Paul addresses the role of tongues in praying and singing, the relationship of tongues and prophecy in worship and witness, his valued target of edifying participation, and the need for maintaining order. He gives general guidelines that each pastor, under the leadership of the Spirit, can apply to his or her situation. Because of Paul’s teaching, we can encourage the use of tongues in ways that are edifying to individuals and to the body of Christ.


1. C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. eds., Adam and Charles Black (London: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), 320.

2. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, fourth revised and augmented edition, translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 908.

3. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible ®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).

4. Bauer, 597.

5. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 696.