Prophecy and Tongues, 1-25

14:1 Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 14:2 For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit. 14:3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. 14:4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 14:5 I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened.

Eagerly desire…the gift of prophecy – ‘The Pauline wish that the Corinthians might earnestly desire the ability to prophesy (1 Cor 14:1) is by no means…a vapid rhetorical wish. It was a genuine possibility which stood in continuity with Moses’ prayer that all of God’s people might be prophets (Num 11:29), with Joel’s prediction that the Lord’s Spirit would be poured out on all persons, thereby enabling the sons and daughters of Israel to prophesy (Joel 2:28 [= 3:1 MT]), and with Peter’s identification of the Pentecost event (Acts 2:14-18) as the fulfillment of that for which Moses had longed and which Joel had predicted.’ (DPL)

Fee and Stuart note that ‘the most frequent justification for disregarding the imperatives about seeking spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 14 is a particular interpretation of a preceding moment, which states that “when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away” (1 Cor 13:10, NASB). We are told that the perfect has come, in the form of the New Testament, and therefore the imperfect (prophecy and tongues) have ceased to function in the church. But this is one thing the text cannot mean because good exegesis quite disallows it. There is no way Paul could possibly have meant this; after all, the Corinthians did not know there was going to be a New Testament, and the Holy Spirit would not likely have inspired Paul to write something to them that would be totally incomprehensible.’ (How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth,4th ed., p78)

J.F. MacArthur argues that in this verse Paul was criticising the Corinthians for using tongues to speak to God and not men. Paul is speaking ironically here: he is not suggesting that tongues should be used as a ‘prayer language’; he is saying that speaking in tongues without an interpreter is pointless, because only God would understand it. But spiritual gifts are not for God’s benefit, but for each other’s, 1 Pet 4:10. Similarly, in 1 Cor 14:4, Paul says that he who speaks in a tongue is serving his own needs, whereas the principle of love demands that gifts are used in the service of others, 1 Cor 10:24; 13:5. (Charismatic Chaos)

‘Though prophets ranked in importance second only to the apostles (1 Cor 12:28-31; Eph 4:11), none carried the role of statesmen as did Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The prophets’ ministry included revelation (1 Cor 14:29-32), prediction, identifying individuals for specific ministry (Acts 13:1-3), and bestowing on them the spiritual gifts that would enable them to carry out these tasks (1 Tim 4:14). Prophecy was intended for the edification, exhortation, and consolation of the church community (1 Cor 14:3; cf. Acts 15:32).’ (EDBT)

It is commonly asserted that the gift of tongues is given as a prayer-language for the benefit of the individual rather than the church. This notion, it has been suggested, is based on a misunderstanding of 1 Cor 14:1-5. When Paul says, ‘He who speaks in a tongue edified himself’, he is not speaking approvingly, for he has already stated that the general purpose of all the gifts is to edify the church, 1 Cor 12:7,24-25; 14:4-5,12, and that the specific purpose of tongues is to act as a sign for unbelievers, 14:22. It is likely that Paul is using the term ‘edify’ in 14:4 in a derogatory sense, for there is no instance where he speaks approvingly of people edifying themselves. ‘Edification’ refers to what one does for the good of others, 8:1.

14:6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 14:7 It is similar for lifeless things that make a sound, like a flute or harp. Unless they make a distinction in the notes, how can what is played on the flute or harp be understood? 14:8 If, for example, the trumpet makes an unclear sound, who will get ready for battle? 14:9 It is the same for you. If you do not speak clearly with your tongue, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air. 14:10 There are probably many kinds of languages in the world, and none is without meaning. 14:11 If then I do not know the meaning of a language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 14:12 It is the same with you. Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church.

‘Paul occasionally (1 Cor. 14:12, 32) referred to spiritual gifts as pneumatsa (lit. “spirits”) and the variant readings at both references reflect attempts to regularize the term. This curious usage may be paralleled by the Johannine use of to refer, not to independent spirit beings, but to the vocal utterances given by charismatic prophets (1 Jn. 4:1f) – i.e., “prophecies.”’ (ISBE)

14:13 So then, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14:14 If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unproductive. 14:15 What should I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing praises with my spirit, but I will also sing praises with my mind. 14:16 Otherwise, if you are praising God with your spirit, how can someone without the gift say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? 14:17 For you are certainly giving thanks well, but the other person is not strengthened. 14:18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, 14:19 but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Amen – ‘By NT times the word is regularly used at the close of prayers and doxologies and is a natural response to be expected in public worship (1 Cor. 14:16). Christ’s use of it in the introductory ‘Amen, I say to you’ was probably peculiar to himself, there being no evidence that the apostles followed his example, and gave his words their distinctive Messianic authority. Hence the association of the term with the promises of God, uniquely fulfilled in him (2 Cor. 1:20), and the attribution to him of the title ‘the Amen’ (Rev. 3:14).’ (NBD)

14:20 Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking. Instead, be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 14:21 It is written in the law: “By people with strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, yet not even in this way will they listen to me,” says the Lord. 14:22 So then, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers. Prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 14:23 So if the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and unbelievers or uninformed people enter, will they not say that you have lost your minds? 14:24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or uninformed person enters, he will be convicted by all, he will be called to account by all. 14:25 The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and in this way he will fall down with his face to the ground and worship God, declaring, “God is really among you.”

In your thinking be adults – ‘Christianity lays great emphasis on the importance of knowledge, rebukes anti-intellectualism for the negative, paralysing thing it is, and traces many of our problems to our ignorance. Whenever the heart is full and the head is empty, dangerous fanaticisms arise. Nobody has stressed this more than Paul. ‘In your thinking be adults’, he wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:20). He began many sentences with the refrain ‘I want you to know’ or ‘I do not want you to be ignorant’ (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:13), and he sometimes expostulated ‘but don’t you know … ?’, with the implication that if his readers did know, they would behave differently.’ (John Stott, Christian Basics)

If the whole church comes together – Prior suggests that Paul is thinking of a situation where the various house churches meet together in the house of one of the wealthier members.  ‘Such occasions, which would have been not nearly as frequent as the regular home-church gatherings, were the context in which Paul expected interested inquirers and other ‘outsiders’ to be present.’

J.I. Packer comments on 1 Cor 14:23-25:-

  1. Prophecy as Paul speaks of it here corresponds in content to what we would call preaching the gospel – detecting sin and proclaiming God’s remedy.
  2. The expected effect of such prophecy was to create a sense of being in the presence of the God who was its subject matter, and of being searched and convicted by him, and so being moved to humble oneself and worship him.
  3. In the experience of both Paul and the Corinthians, what Paul described must have occurred on occasion already, otherwise he could not have expected to be believed when he affirmed so confidently that it would happen.  That which has never happened before cannot be predicted with certainty.

(Collected Shorter Writings, Vol 3, p256)

When God’s Truth is Proclaimed

1 Cor 14:24-25 give us a vivid summary of what happens when the truth of God is intelligibly proclaimed.

  1. It convicts me of my sin. I see what I am and am appalled. Alcibiades, the spoilt darling of Athens, was the friend of Socrates, and sometimes he used to say to him, “Socrates, I hate you, for every time I meet you you make me see what I am.” “Come,” said the woman of Samaria in shamed amazement, “see a man who told me all that I ever did.” (Jn 4:29). The first thing the message of God does is to make me realize that he is a sinner.
  2. It brings me under judgment. I sees that he must answer for what I have done. So far I may have lived life with no thought of its end. I may have followed the impulses of the day and seized its pleasures. But now I see that the day has an ending, and there stands God.
  3. It shows me the secrets of my own heart. The last thing we face is our own hearts. As the proverb has it, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” The Christian message compels me to that searing, humiliating honesty which will face myself.
  4. It brings me to my knees before God. All Christianity begins with a person on his knees in God’s presence. The gateway to that presence is so low that we can enter it only upon our knees. When I have faced God and faced myself, all that is left for me to do is to kneel and to pray, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” (DSB, slightly altered)

Church Order, 26-40

14:26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church. 14:27 If someone speaks in a tongue, it should be two, or at the most three, one after the other, and someone must interpret. 14:28 But if there is no interpreter, he should be silent in the church. Let him speak to himself and to God. 14:29 Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said. 14:30 And if someone sitting down receives a revelation, the person who is speaking should conclude. 14:31 For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged. 14:32 Indeed, the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, 14:33 for God is not characterized by disorder but by peace.

When you come together – Prior suggests that Paul is now thinking of a meeting of one of the house churches, in contrast to a gathering of the members of all those groups (cf. 23).

‘There was obviously a flexibility about the order of service in the early Church. Everything was informal enough to allow any man who felt that he had a message to give to give it. It may well be that we set far too much store on dignity and order nowadays, and have become the slaves of orders of service. The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contributing something to it. A man did not come with the sole intention of being a passive listener; he came not only to receive but to give.

Obviously this had its dangers, for it is clear that in Corinth there were those who were too fond of the sound of their own voices; but nonetheless the Church must have been in those days much more the real possession of the ordinary Christian. It may well be that the Church lost something when she delegated so much to the professional ministry and left so little to the ordinary Church member; and it may well be that the blame lies not with the ministry for annexing those rights but with the laity for abandoning them, certainly it is all too true that many Church members think far more of what the Church can do for them than of what they can do for the Church, and are very ready to criticize what is done but very unready to take any share in doing the Church’s work themselves.’ (DSB)

Two or three prophets should speak – ‘Such a limitation would allow other individuals with other gifts adequate space to minister to the body. (1 Cor 14:26) It would also make possible sufficient time for the various prophetic words to be given and to undergo the scrutiny of others.’ (1 Cor 14:29) (DPL)

The others should weight carefully what is said – ‘Who are the “others” to whom Paul made reference here? Many have suggested that Paul envisioned a group of “prophets” who might weigh or test the oracle, but it is more likely that Paul saw a role for the entire congregation in this regard. Paul’s injunction in 1 Thess 5:20-21 that prophecy should not be despised but tested is not limited to a group of testing “prophets.” It appears to be a congregational mandate. Regardless of who engaged in the discernment process, the important issue seems to have been that all claims to prophetic inspiration be limited to those who have been appropriately reviewed and accepted by the larger body.’ (DPL)

The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets – Some understand Paul to mean that one prophet is subject to the others; but this does not suit the context.  He means, rather, that the prophet’s spiritual gift is subject to the prophet himself.  It is not some external ‘force’ that takes over, causing him to speak with no self-control.  ‘Each prophet controls the spiritual gift he or she possesses’ (Soards).

Hodge: ‘The word spirit is used here (comp. vs. 12, 14, 15) for the divine influence under which the prophets spoke.’

Fee: ‘the phrase “spirits of prophets” means “the prophetic Spirit” by which each of them speaks through his or her own spirit. Paul’s point is that the utterances are subject to the speakers in terms of timing; the content is understood to be the product of the Divine Spirit who inspires such utterances. Thus he justifies their speaking one at a time, being silent with regard to tongues when no interpreter is present, and ceasing for the sake of another when a prophetic revelation is given to someone else. All of this is possible because “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.”’

‘So a prophet cannot plead, as some in Corinth may have done, that he must continue speaking because the Spirit compels him to do so; if there is reason for him to be silent he can be silent.’ (Barrett)

‘Fee’s analysis is correct when he concludes that Paul teaches a viewpoint here that is a radically different thing from the mania of the pagan cults. “There is no seizure here, no loss of control; the speaker is neither frenzied nor a babbler.”’ (College Press)

As in all the churches of the saints, 14:34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 14:35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. 14:36 Did the word of God begin with you, or did it come to you alone?

Women should remain silent in the churches

Interpreting this passage
Various approaches to interpreting this (notorious?!) passage have been proposed:-

A few scholars think that Paul is self-contradictory.  Having acknowledged that women may prophesy (1 Cor 11:2-16) he now reveals his true colours by denying them any opportunity to speak at all.  This is a rather desperate interpretation.  Better ones are readily available.

Barclay thinks that Paul’s teaching at this point is sub-Christian; that he was unable fully to shake off the restrictions of his time and culture: ‘No man ever rose completely above the background of the age in which he lived and the society in which he grew up; and Paul, in his conception of the place of women within the Church, was unable to rise above the ideas which he had known all his life.’  This is clearly inadequate for those who hold to a sound doctrine of biblical inspiration.

Fee and some others think that this passage is a non-Pauline interpolation.  Thiselton (who does not support this theory) summarises the reasons adduced in its favour: ‘(1) the verses depart from the main theme of chapters 12–14; (2) they interrupt the argument about prophets; (3) they conflict with 11:5; (4) they appeal to a legal rule; and (5) a few later MSS place the verse after v. 40.’  But every known manuscript includes this passage.

It is possible that Paul is addressing a different group of women than those considered in chapter 11.  They are the unbelieving wives of believing husbands.  But there is nothing in the text itself to support this.

Some see this passage as an extended quotation from the letter that the Corinthians had sent to Paul; it does not represent Paul’s own view at all.  According to this interpretation, Paul in v34f rebukes the (male) believers who have put forward this point of view.  But there is little evidence to support the idea that Paul is at this point quoting the Corinthians.

A further approach is to say that Paul does indeed urge absolute silence on the part of women in church meetings.  However, it is clear that women prayed and prophesied in the Christian meetings (1 Cor 11:4f).  With 1 Cor 11:5 in mind, Prior puts it bluntly: ‘Whatever this section is teaching, it is not telling women to keep quiet in church.’  This cannot be an absolute ban.

Stott (Issues facing Christians today, 4th ed, p340) cites Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger as suggesting that this prohibitions was restricted to a particular situation in Corinth (and a similar situation in Ephesus, 1 Tim 2:12).  They pointed out ‘that ancient Corinth was a well-known centre of the worship of Bacchus…, which included frenzied shouting, especially by women.  They, therefore, suggest that Paul was urging self-control in worship, in place of wild ecstasies, and the lalein he was forbidding (an onomatopoeic word) was either the mindless ritual shouting of “alala” or the babbling of idle gossip.’  But the application of this background to Paul’s teaching here is conjectural.  However, it is difficult to square this will his comment that the rule applies in all assemblies.

Similar to the above is the approach taken by Bailey.  He too thinks that the key to understanding this passage is the makeup of the church in Corinth.  The city was large and diverse.  Many different languages were spoken, and Greek (spoken with various accents) might have been the second or even third language for much of the population.  Their use of Greek would, in any case, have been colloquial rather than formal.  Due to their relative lack of education, women would not have developed an extended attention span.  Due to theirs being an essentially oral culture, they would tend to process information by turning to one another and chatting.  Moreover, Paul has just complained that people were getting drunk at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, and that everyone was speaking in tongues at the same time: who can blame the women for giving up on what was happening in the meeting and instead talking to one another?  For such reasons, says Bailey, the women are instructed to be subjected to the worship leadership (a leadership which was, he urges, comprised of both women and men).  So, having just told others (prophets and tongues-speakers) when they need to be quiet, Paul now says to the women: ‘please stop chatting so you can listen to the women (and men) who are trying to bring you a prophetic word but cannot do so when no one can hear them.’

A similar approach is proposed by Prior.  He thinks that the new-found freedom in Christ which the women had experienced had prompted what may have been a local example of a fairly widespread tendency in the early churches.  ‘They had discovered a unique freedom in the life of the Christian community, and it is possible that this freedom had gone to their heads, or, more precisely, to their tongues. This lack of self-discipline was causing confusion and disorder in the worship of the church.’

Witherington thinks that the women may have assumed that prophets at Corinth may have functioned similarly to the oracle at Delphi, who prophesied only in response to questions.  Paul’s instruction then would be to say that Christian prophecy is not like that.

Another line of interpretation is to suggest that Paul is restricting only certain kinds of speech.   One writer regards it as likely that ‘Paul is restricting the only kind of speech directly addressed in these verses: asking questions (Giles, 56). It was common in the ancient world for hearers to interrupt teachers with questions, but it was considered rude if the questions reflected ignorance of the topic (see Plutarch On Lectures). Since women were normally considerably less educated than men, Paul proposes a short-range solution and a long-range solution to the problem. His short-range solution is that the women should stop asking the disruptive questions; the long-range solution is that they should be educated, receiving private tutoring from their husbands. Most husbands of the period doubted their wives’ intellectual potential, but Paul was among the most progressive of ancient writers on the subject. Paul’s long-range solution affirms women’s ability to learn and places them on equal footing with men (see more fully Keener 1992, 80-85). Whatever reconstruction one accepts, however, two points are clear. First, Paul plainly does not enjoin total silence on women, since earlier in the same letter he expects them to pray and prophesy publicly along with the men; (1 Cor 11:4-5) he thus must enjoin only the silencing of a particular form of speaking. Second, there is nothing in the context to support the view that Paul refers here to women teaching the Bible. The only passage in the entire Bible that could be directly adduced in favor of that position is 1 Tim 2:11-14.’ (DPL)  However, as Campa and Rosner say, Paul’s readers, just like modern readers, would have assumed that when Paul said that women should not not speak in church he meant precisely that, unless some qualification or restriction was clearly implied or stated.  For those writers, the clearest statement of such a restriction comes in v35.  The meaning would be, then, that if the women/wives desire to learn, they should not ask other people’s husbands in public (culturally, that would have been regarded as scandalous), but ask their own husbands at home.

One of the more convincing approaches is that which concludes that Paul means that wives should not take it upon themselves to evaluate what their husbands have prophesied: they should take up the matter at home (v35).  This is supported by Grudem and Carson, among others.  Thiselton: ‘we believe that the speaking in question denotes the activity of sifting or weighing the words of prophets, especially by asking probing questions about the prophet’s theology or even the prophet’s lifestyle in public. This would become especially sensitive and problematic if wives were cross-examining their husbands about the speech and conduct which supported or undermined the authenticity of a claim to utter a prophetic message, and would readily introduce Paul’s allusion to reserving questions of a certain kind for home.’  In support of this interpretation: (a) the word translated ‘women’ could equally be translated ‘wives’, and the distinct references to the home situation in v35 supports that translation here; (b) the context has to do with the evaluation of prophecy, and not all types of speech.  Prior says: ‘Although we cannot uncover the details of what was going on, we can discern some of the attitudes prevalent at Corinth. It seems that the principle of submissiveness was being ignored (they should be subordinate, 34), that a spirit of defiance was uppermost (it is shameful …, 35), and that an isolationist tendency was turning these wives into arbitrators of their own church order and even doctrine (Did the word of God originate with you?, 36). In other words, these married women were the source of some of the arrogance in the Corinthian church which Paul has already had cause to castigate’ (Cf. 1 Cor. 4:7ff.; 5:2ff.; 6:1ff.; 8:1; 13:5.).  Against this interpretation is the fact that Paul does not actually state that the women/wives have been criticising their own husbands in public (a behaviour which, in any case, would have been universally viewed as outrageous).  Moreover, it is not at all clear that Paul is restricting speak (e.g. questions) about prophetic utterances.

As the Law says – Some have asserted that the law of Moses does not say that women should remain silent in the churches.  Paul must, in that case, be referring to Rabbinic rules.  He is stating his opponents’ view, and then giving his own correction, v36.  However, although the law does not explicitly proscribe women speaking in the public meetings, it does teach the distinctive roles of men and women (see v34, with its reference to Gen 2:20-24 or 3:16. the former has already been quoted in 1 Cor 1:8-9.

‘It is of more than passing interest that most of those in today’s church who argue that women should keep silent in church on the basis of 1 Cor 14:34-35 at the same time deny the validity of speaking in tongues and prophecy, the very context in which the “silence” passage occurs.’ (Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, 17)

Disgraceful – or ‘shameful’.  Bailey (whose strongly egalitarian view of this passage may have coloured this remark: ‘Western cultures are no longer primarily honor-shame cultures. In the West the word shame is preserved for serious matters. Across the Middle East, without exception, honor and shame are primary categories. Every noble person is expected to act honorably and avoid all things shameful. As categories that permeate every aspect of life, the concept of shame can be used for casual occurrences. Consider the following conversation between a husband and wife.

p 417 “Dear, you saw your friend yesterday, you don’t need to visit her today.”
“No, I must go. She has caught a cold. I have to visit her. Shame on me if I don’t.”

Paul does not say, “This is illegal.” Nor does he label their chatting “immoral.” Rather it is “shameful” (in the sense indicated in the husband-wife dialogue). The cultural equivalent in English might be the Victorian sense of “improper.” Ladies do not chat during worship. It is “not done.”

14:37 If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. 14:38 If someone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 14:39 So then, brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid anyone from speaking in tongues. 14:40 And do everything in a decent and orderly manner.

Orderly – includes the idea that church members should do things one at a time, rather than all at once (Barrett).  Cf v33a.