Prophecy, Tongues and 1 Corinthians 14

This is a short exposition of 1 Corinthians 14. It’s based on notes I prepared for our adult bible study class. It doesn’t interact with the scholarly commentaries, and nobody will mistake it for a crushing blow that will lay Wayne Grudem low. Still, I believe it’s a faithful and accurate way to understand this difficult chapter. Perhaps some people will find it useful. 

Tongues are useless without an interpreter (1 Cor 14:1-5).

Paul wants Christians to cultivate love in their congregation (1 Cor 13), and to especially desire the ability to prophecy. I understand this to refer to direct revelation from God, in the Old Testament sense. Some believe it refers to general teaching or preaching. This view is possible, but I disagree.

I understand “tongues” to refer to intelligible, human language. I think this agrees with the evidence from Acts 2 and makes the best sense in this chapter. Paul doesn’t exactly denigrate tongues, but he remarks over and over that this gift has limited use in a church setting. Tongues is a gift for evangelism.

The one who speaks in a foreign language during a church meeting isn’t actually speaking to the congregation, but to God – because nobody but God understands what he’s saying (1 Cor 14:2)! Instead, he’s uttering mysteries by the Holy Spirit, who gives this miraculous gift. However, the person who speaks prophecy directly from God can be understood. He can encourage and build up the congregation. The man who speaks a foreign language can’t do any of that; nobody understands him (1 Cor 14:3). Instead, he builds and encourages himself. The man who prophesies builds up the congregation (1 Cor 14:4). This is why the gift of prophecy is better for the church than tongues, unless someone is available to interpret (1 Cor 14:5).

Build up the church, not yourself (1 Cor 14:6-12)

Paul asks an obvious question; how can you understand someone who speaks a foreign language unless an interpreter is present (1 Cor 14:6)!? You can’t, of course.

If a flute doesn’t sound a clear note, nobody can understand or appreciate it. If a bugle isn’t clear, nobody can obey the call. Likewise, if a foreign language isn’t interpreted, nobody will even know what’s being said! It’s like you’re speaking into the air (1 Cor 14:7-9).

There are lots of languages in the world, and they all mean something (1 Cor 14:10). But, if you don’t understand the language, the audience and the speaker will be foreigners to one another (1 Cor 14:11). So, Christians should focus on gifts that will actually build up the congregation (1 Cor 14:12). The gift of tongues won’t do that.

How to use the gift of languages (1 Cor 14:13-19)

This is why the person who has the gift of speaking in a foreign language should pray that he has the ability to interpret (1 Cor 14:13). This implies that some people could speak foreign languages, but didn’t even understand what they were saying! In this case, I assume the Christian is somehow a passive vehicle for communicating via the Spirit. This is strange, because Acts 2 suggests the Christians understood what they were saying to the Pentecost pilgrims. Whatever the situation was, Paul suggests they not be content with being passive actors.

Our minds must be engaged in worship (1 Cor 14:14-15). If you pray or speak in a foreign language, and you yourself don’t even understand what you’re saying, how can this build up anybody (1 Cor 14:16-17)? This is why Paul would rather instruct believers than speak 10,000 words in a foreign language that doesn’t do any good for anybody (1 Cor 14:19).

What tongues (“languages”) are for (1 Cor 14:20-25)

Paul suggests the Corinthians be mature as they think about this (1 Cor 14:20). Isaiah 28:11 suggests that, one day, Gentiles will come with strange languages and teach the Israelites about Yahweh (1 Cor 14:21). Paul takes this ironic situation and applies it to his own context – the gift to speak foreign languages isn’t for believers, but for unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22). Prophecy, on the other hand, is for believers (1 Cor 14:22).

This is why, if an outsider wanders into your assembly and sees everybody speaking foreign languages to one another, he’ll think you’re all insane (1 Cor 14:23)! But, if someone enters and hears prophecy direct from the Lord, he is convicted, he’s called to account, and he’ll worship God and confess that He’s present in the church (1 Cor 14:24-25). This is because prophecy can be understood by anybody, but tongues is for evangelism (cp. Acts 2).

Orderly worship (1 Cor 14:26-32)

So, prophecy and foreign language gifts should be done decently, in order, without chaos. Everything should be for edification (1 Cor 14:26).

If someone has the gift of languages, then have no more than two or three speak in turn, and someone must be there to interpret (1 Cor 14:27). If there isn’t an interpreter, nobody should speak (1 Cor 14:28).

For prophecy, let two or three speak and have others weigh what they say (1 Cor 14:29). If one person receives a revelation from God during the meeting, others should give way to let him speak (1 Cor 14:30). The prophets should speak one by one, so everyone in the congregation can be encouraged (1 Cor 14:31). The prophets are subject to one another, to critique and “check” one another (1 Cor 14:32).

Women and prophecy (1 Cor 14:33-36)

1 Cor 14:33-36: As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

This is the most difficult part of Paul’s letter. I believe Paul means that wives should keep silent (1 Cor 14:34) in the context of critiquing and “checking” their husbands, who have just uttered prophesies.[1] Paul can’t be saying women can’t ever speak in a public gathering, for several reasons:

  1. it would imply women are somehow structurally inferior; contra Gal 3:28
  2. it contradicts 1 Cor 11:5, which says women did regular prophesy in church services
  3. it would contradict Joel’s prophesy (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:18)
  4. it contradicts the prominent servant roles of Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3), Priscilla (Acts 18:2; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19); Mary (Rom 16:6), Junia (Rom 16:7), Tryphaena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12), Phoebe the deacon (Rom 16:1-2), Nympha who hosted a house church (Col 4:15)

The language of submission and shame suggest this is likely a case of women who are critiquing their husband’s prophesies during a church meeting. Indeed, Paul has just finished explaining how to handle prophecy during a church meeting, including critique or questioning afterwards. There is probably a local context to this controversy that we’ll never know. The data of other women performing prominent servant roles in various New Testament churches (see above) means this is likely a local command, for a local context, for a very specific situation.

I assume Corinth had a particular problem with some wives criticizing, critiquing or otherwise embarrassing their husbands during public church meetings. The overriding principle is that husbands and wives should not embarrass one another in public (cp. Eph 5:21ff). If the wife has concerns about her husband’s prophecy, she must ask at home – where there is no danger of embarrassment or shame.[2] In other words, rather than embarrass your husband in public, just ask in the car on the way home!

The reference “as the law also says” (1 Cor 14:34) is a general reference to the Old Covenant, likely to Gen 3:16 and the perpetual battle between the sexes in a marriage relationship in a post-fall context.

Wrapping up (1 Cor 14:36-40)

Paul concludes with some sharp, rhetorical arrows. The word of God didn’t just come to the church in Corinth, did it (1 Cor 14:36-37)!? Any true Christian should acknowledge Paul’s authority to speak on Yahweh’s behalf (1 Cor 14:37). If someone doesn’t acknowledge Paul’s authority, he shouldn’t be considered a Christian (1 Cor 14:38). Ask God for the ability to utter prophesies. Don’t forbid foreign languages in the church; just make sure everything is done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:39-40).


[1] I am following (1) David Garland, 1 Corinthians, in BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 664-673 and (2) Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 510-515.

[2] “Paul disallows speech in the assembly that would suggest that a wife is being insubordinate toward her husband, whether it is an interruption or a challenge to a prophetic utterance. The delicate relationship between husband and wife is imperiled by the wife’s public questioning, correcting, or challenging,” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 671).

Likewise, Kistemaker observes, “[t]he Corinthian women at worship are not told to be silent in respect to praying, prophesying, and singing psalms and hymns. They are, however, forbidden to speak when the prophesies of their husbands are discussed,” (1 Corinthians, 513).

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