“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.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Here in this letter Paul raises the issue of the spiritual gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues. The latter has apparently always been the more popular and interesting of the two. Still, there is a fair bit of ambiguity regarding what exactly these two gifts entail.
Prophecy is essentially speaking to God’s people on His behalf. While sometimes the message God wants delivered is oriented toward some future event (foretelling), it is usually focused on something necessary for them to know in the present (forthtelling). Either way, the exact content of the message may vary (judgment, warning, encouragement, conviction, etc.), but the goal is always to point people forward to a deeper relationship with Him.
When it comes to speaking in tongues, this is an entirely more personal experience. Sometimes called a personal prayer language today, speaking in tongues is a kind of ecstatic utterance that comes to a person during a time of prayer or worship, often in a language that she does not speak natively. From what Paul writes here and from much modern practice (not nearly all of it in line with the boundaries Paul sets here), this utterance is usually not understandable by anyone but the person who receives it. Thus, the gift of speaking in tongues is often paired with the gift of interpreting a message spoken in tongues. The latter accompanies the former so that folks beyond the person who receives the utterance can benefit from it.
With love as his background (chapter 13), what Paul does here is to set some guidelines for these two gifts, and specifically for speaking in tongues, within the worship service. His point here and in the following verses is pretty simple.
1. Speaking in tongues is great. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that we should all desire to have (though not in an unhealthy way).
2. While every spiritual gift has its place in the body (see chapter 12), prophecy is the more important gift of the two mentioned here for the larger body. The reason for this is that when someone speaks a word of prophecy, it is spoken in a plain language that everyone can understand and benefit from immediately. When a person speaks in tongues, however, it is in a language nobody can understand (possibly not even the one speaking) until someone else interprets.
3. Because of the unhelpful-if-not-interpreted nature of speaking in tongues, combined with the fact that seeing it practiced is unsettling and even off-putting for those who are either non-believers or believers who have not experienced it before, it is a gift that must not be exercised publicly without someone present who can interpret the message. Apart from that it adds nothing to the worship gathering. In fact, worse than that, it takes away from it, serving only as a distraction to those who are now wondering what was said rather than focusing on worshiping the Lord.
That’s it. Pretty simple. So, what do we do with it? Well, there are two errors that most churches make on this issue if they don’t get it right. The first is to deny that the gift of speaking in tongues is given to believers any longer. Many reformed protestant churches lean in this direction. Although it is a reasonably rare thing in the west, in the global east and south it is a much more common experience. Because it is a gift given for the benefit of the church, it is one that should be honored if there are in fact folks who genuinely have it and folks with the gift of interpretation are present to help everyone else understand the message.
The second error is to give it too great a role in the body. This is the direction many charismatic and otherwise Pentecostal churches lean. For many churches in this tradition, speaking in tongues is given sufficient importance that a person’s full salvation is tied to experiencing it. Until you do, you’re not as close to God as you could be otherwise. Not unexpectedly, this leads to pretty widespread misuse and outright faking of the gift. This benefits exactly no one. As Paul clearly feared here, speaking in tongues can become a show in worship that distracts from the real thing. He was clear that while tongues are good, prophecy is the gift everyone should really prefer to have. That way you easily and directly benefit the body by offering a word from the Lord that everyone can understand.
This is, on the whole, a tough issue to get right. It is one on which we need the clear guidance and help of the Spirit. But then, since the gifts are from Him, this really shouldn’t come as any surprise. If you have the gift of tongues, delight in what you receive from the Lord this way. When there is someone who can interpret present and it is not going to distract from the worship service, share what you gain for the benefit of the rest of us. If you have the gift of prophecy (which often manifests itself in the modern church tradition as preaching, though not without exception), share carefully and clearly so the body can easily benefit. In the larger picture, as every part of the church plays its due part, the whole body is strengthened and built up in love until we all attain to the measure of the fullness of Christ. This is a goal worth pursuing.