What Role Should Speaking in Tongues Play in the Christian Life?


One of my favorite days as a first-grader was “Show and Tell.”

You remember show and tell. Each child brings a unique or special item to show the class and tell them about it.

  • An old photo
  • A coin from France
  • A favorite doll

Something to “show off.”

There was a process.

Typically, a teacher was present to oversee an orderly process of each student going one by one, taking turns.

What if show and tell were to take place without a teacher?

We’d have a problem. There would be chaos. Pushing and shoving and arguing and talking at the same time.

This is what was taking place when the Corinthian church gathered for worship.

Sunday gatherings had become more like a “show and tell” day for first graders without a teacher present to maintain order.

What they wanted to “show off” was how spiritually gifted they were. Rather than worship services, their gatherings had become religious X Factor competitions. 

But a worship service is not about showing off my gifts. It is about showing off God’s gift in the person and work of Jesus, focusing on his substitutionary atonement for sin that reconciles sinners to God as forgiven, accepted, and beloved sons and daughters.

Yet the gift the Corinthians had come to value above all other gifts was speaking in tongues. The result was chaos in worship and the need for a teacher to return to the classroom to restore order. 

This is what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 14. He is returning to the classroom to restore order.

The question we are going to ask for us is this: What is Speaking in Tongues and what Place Should it Have in the Christian Life? 

Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 14 to find out. Turn in a Bible or look at the sermon insert page in your bulletin.

NOTE: This is a long passage with some hard to grasp ideas upon a first read. Not to worry. I will explain it as clearly and simply as possible so that we can derive the maximum benefit as the Lord gives us understanding.

4:1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.


Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. 13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. 20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.


26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.


As in all the churches of the saints, 34 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. 35 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.

36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.

 What is the gift of tongues and where does it fit in the life of the church? 

Three headings:

  • The priority of prophecy (over tongues)
  • The value of tongues
  • The necessity of order (in the use of tongues)


v. 3, “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.

Three primary benefits

  1. Upbuilding (edification)
  2. Encouragement
  3. Consolation

Prophecy is a positive expression, not a judgement or rebuke. 

An important distinction

  1. Authoritative apostolic prophecy
  2. Non-authoritative congregational prophecy

Helpful definitions

ESV Study Bible, “The word “prophecy” (Gk. prophēteia) as used by Paul in 1 Corinthians refers generally to speech that reports something that God spontaneously brings to mind or ‘reveals’ to the speaker but which is spoken in merely human words, not words of God. Therefore it can have mistakes and must be tested or evaluated.”

David Prior, “Insight… given by God to any sensitive and obedient believer… [expressing] God’s will for a specific situation, or into the application of God’s word to the times in which we live.”


  1. Seek to be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit and willing to share in humility and with teachability. Requires quiet.
  2. John Piper’s perspective → small groups

2. THE VALUE OF TONGUES (14:6-25) 

As a public sign (Acts 2)

  1. For the nations
  2. In intelligible human language

As a personal gift (1 Corinthians 14)

For private prayer (personal edification)

  1. ESV Study Bible, “[Speaking in] tongues is a form of prayer and praise, but in a language that the speaker does not understand.”
  2. Not speech from God but to God (not a “revelatory” gift)
  3. Spirit prompted utterances (mysteries, not human language, v. 20) in which “the speaker’s human spirit is praying even though the speaker does not understand the meaning.” (ESV Study Bible)
  4. 14:2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit… 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
  5. Maybe Rom. 8:26-27, 26 The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
  6. I wonder if the gift of tongues is meant to provide an aspect of wholeness -- able to engage with God with mind and spirit?
  7. RC. Sproul's testimony and my experience.
  8. Is every believer expected to speak in tongues? No. 
  9. Is tongues the primary or only gift that reveals the filling or baptism with the Holy Spirit? No. 
  10. Should we feel as if we are missing out if we do not speak in tongues. No.
  11. Is it okay to speak in a private prayer language (tongues)? Absolutely. 

Not to be used in gathered worship 

Unless interpreted - which is different than a translation [“An interpretation is the response of God the Father through the Spirit to the prayer (also through the Spirit) of his child.” (David Prior)]

But even then speaking in tongues is limited to 2 or 3 people.

Additional note: Interpretation will always be within the boundaries of authoritative, apostolic revelation.

Typically, we should not expect speaking in tongues to be practiced in public but privately, as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 14.


Order in the use of gifts

Everyone gets to participate taking turns

Ministering in the spirit of love, with humility and teachability

Paul’s deep desire, v. 26, “Let all things be done for building up.”

Order for expressing questions, concerns, or opinions

Paul’s comments about women are troubling until we do some work to grasp the context -- what Paul does and doesn’t mean.

  1. The context is confusion over prophecy and tongues -- chaos, division, and disorder.
  2. Were married women using public worship as an opportunity to usurp the leadership roles of their husbands?

David Prior, “Whatever this section is teaching, it is not telling women [merely] to keep quiet in church. In 11:5, Paul has already referred to women praying and prophesying… Although we cannot uncover the details of what was going on, we can discern some of the attitudes prevalent at Corinth[that prompted him to write this about the married women].”

It seems that a spirit of prideful defiance in the context of speaking in tongues and evaluating prophecy that was causing division in the church and in marriages. It is the lack of teachability and humility that leads to divisiveness that Paul considers shameful.


Gathered worship is not primarily a personal experience, it is a congregational experience. Because it is congregational…

  • Your presence matters.
  • Your voice matters.
  • Your gifts matter.
  • Your prayers matter.
  • Your response to the Word matters.
  • And order matters.

Summary - vv. 39-40 - “39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.”

David Prior, “At no stage does Paul decry, let alone dismiss, the gift of tongues. He is redressing an imbalance in Corinthian spirituality and correcting a confusion in Corinthian worship. He wants tongues to find their proper place in the life of the church—neither reckoned to be the most important gift, nor used in public worship without interpretation. He accepts readily the importance of tongues for the personal edification of believers, but he looks to the gifts of prophecy and teaching to build up the church as a whole.”


One of the most moving moments in a worship service for me is standing behind the curtain listening to you sing after the sermon.

It is hard to pinpoint the emotion. Maybe it is the satisfaction that I’m not wasting my life. You really are absorbing the grace message of the gospel by faith and responding with grateful praise! But it is more. It is the connection I feel with you and with God.

I feel edified.


The Latin noun aedes, meaning "house" or "temple," is the root of aedificare, a verb meaning "to erect a house." From it, we get the word edifice.

Your singing is building my life… and mine is building yours. Your presence matters. Your voice matters. Your contribution matters.

It all helps me see Jesus more clearly and connect to God more personally - as we gather congregationally. To know that I am forgiven, accepted, and beloved by the Father in Jesus.

That is what I need.

Reminders of Jesus, his cross, resurrection, present reign and future return. And to live in view of that hope with others who are believing and hoping the very same thing.

A Cross Focus

I think it is important to emphasize the reason for doing things "decently and in order." Just like the students in a show and tell class need to go one by one to show off their prized possessions, so Christians gather to show of our prized possession, which must highlight the cross of Jesus. 

It is by his cross that our sins are removed from our account and placed in his. It is by his cross that we are given access to the Father, no longer as condemned orphans but as fully justified sons and daughters. It is in his cross that we glory and boast. It is because of his cross that we gather to show and tell the wonders of the gospel of our Savior, Jesus.