It’s definitely not one or the other.
1 Corinthians 14.1-5
Tongues are a controversial practice.
Not just because far too many Christians believe God turned off the miracles and therefore has nothing to do with tongues, bible to the contrary. To be honest and blunt, tongues are easy to fake, and easy to abuse. Christians who pray in tongues have a bad habit, and therefore a reputation, of being undisciplined about it.
Which was entirely the point of Paul and Sosthenes writing 1 Corinthians 14: They didn’t wanna forbid nor ban tongues, like certain overzealous Christians do, and in so doing squelch everything the Holy Spirit wants to achieve through ’em. They simply wanted the Christians of Corinth to police themselves. Stop letting your tongues-speakers run amok. Stop prioritizing tongues above unity, harmony, and especially prophecy.
Best I stop summarizing and get to that chapter.
1 Corinthians 14.1-5 KWL
- 1 Pursue love. Be zealous for the supernatural.
- Most of all so you can prophesy:
- 2 Tongues-speakers speak to God, not people.
- Nobody else understands them, and they speak secrets in the Spirit.
- 3 Prophecy-speakers speak to people: They build up, help out, and advise.
- 4 Tongues-speakers build up themselves. Prophecy-speakers build up a church.
- 5 I want all of you to speak in tongues; most of all so you can prophesy.
- Prophesy-speakers are more valuable than tongues-speakers—
- unless tongues-speakers interpret themselves so the church can be built up.
The issue here is worshiping together. Not alone, like we do during prayer time: The Corinthians met together to worship together. Problem is, they were worshiping like they did at home: They prayed. But not in Greek. They prayed in tongues. Which is fine when we’re alone, but when we’re together, and nobody can understand one another, we’re not gonna be blessed by what we’re praying for one another. ’Cause we don’t know what we’re praying for one another.
The core problem? Selfishness. Nobody was willing to step up and audibly, publicly pray for one another. But they were willing to speak in tongues super loud: “Check me out! God granted me the ability to pray in tongues! I’m performing a miracle! It’s so spiritual of me! Mamase mamasa mamkusa!”
Useful rule of thumb: When you’re worshiping, don’t be a dick.
’Cause here’s what’s gonna happen when we’re praying for one another correctly: We’re gonna pay attention to the Holy Spirit ’cause we expect him to respond to our prayers. And he will. He’ll tell us stuff. He’ll inform us what to say. He’ll have specific messages for the people we’re praying over. Prophecy is gonna happen. The whole church is gonna get blessed.
In comparison, what’s gonna happen in a roomful of Christians praying in tongues? In my experience, we just get unnecessarily louder.
It’s not prophecy versus tongues.
It barely means “and.” Technically it’s a semicolon. It’s used to connect the ideas of a theme; it’s how the ancient Greeks did paragraphs. A lot of ancient cultures did that, which is why so very many verses in the Old Testament begin with ha-/“and.” (That prefix is so common, it didn’t even get a Strong number.) Lots of translators just drop de or ha- as unnecessary: “And the earth was without form”
Thing is, sometimes translators will render de as “but”—which is a very loaded word, and certainly does change the meaning. See, to the average English speaker, “This but that” means “Not this, but that.” It means “this” has been nullified.
It’s why dispensationalists will take this verse—
John 1.17 KJV
- For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
—and claim it supports their idea that God saves people nowadays through grace, but in Moses’s day he saved people through the Law. Because “this but that” means “not this but that”: Not the Law, but grace. The Law doesn’t count anymore. It’s null and void.
Thing is, there’s not even a de in this verse! Nor an allá/“but.” The word “but” was added by the translators; it’s why bibles put it in italics (and I put it in gray letters). It’s not biblical. Neither is dispensationalism for that matter; still, you see why I gotta quibble about little tiny words like this.
I bring it up ’cause of the way 1 Corinthians tends to be translated:
John 1.17 KJV
- He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.
Yes, the apostles were comparing the different purposes of the different supernatural gifts. But make the interpretive choice to use “but” for de, and we wind up with preachers claiming tongues need to be abandoned. Usually for dispensationalist reasons: In bible times, God let his people speak in tongues, but now that the bible’s complete, he doesn’t need tongues anymore and switched ’em off. (Oddly, the very same people who claim God likewise switched off prophecy will make this argument. I know; makes no sense to me either.)
Or they’ll claim tongues aren’t to be used in church at all. Aren’t to be used in prayer. Aren’t to be used at all. Because they’re a selfish, me-focused gift. Whereas prophecy is selfless, others-focused, and should be practiced anywhere and everywhere.
This, despite the fact tongues are empowered by the Holy Spirit, same as every other supernatural gift.
Well, he doesn’t. Tongues has a valid, useful purpose: Self-edification.
But when we come together as Christians, put yourself aside and edify the group. Tongues needn’t be rejected. It’s just prophecy needs to take priority, and added to the practice of tongues.
When together, speak to one another.
Like I said, the issue is worshiping together. The Corinthians were big fans of praying in tongues, so they’d come together, pray in tongues, and go home without edifying one another. Imagine a soccer game where it’s not two teams; it’s every player for themselves, and every player struggles to get the ball, pass it to no one, and score goals for themselves alone. Basically, it’s how little kids play soccer when you first teach it to them, ’cause they haven’t yet learned teamwork.
Hence the apostles compared the practical use of a prophesy-speaker as opposed to a tongues-speaker. They chose the word profitévon/“prophecy-speaker,” instead of the word you might expect ’em to use, profítis/“prophet.” In part this is because we’re not talking about an official prophet, a person your church recognizes as the go-to person whenever we wanna hear from God. Anyone can hear God and share what God told ’em. Doesn’t have to be the folks your church considers prophets.
Now, if you wanna develop your prophetic ability and become known in your church as a prophet, go right ahead. But that’s not the point of this passage. It’s to simply encourage more prophecy. To not limit prophecy to the known prophets.
Note what the apostles say about tongues-speakers:
- “Tongues-speakers speak to God, not people.”
- “They speak secrets in the Spirit.”
- “Tongues-speakers build up themselves.”
- “I want all of you to speak in tongues.”
- “Tongues-speakers [can] interpret themselves so the church can be built up.”
None of these things are objectionable. People nowadays might object to ’em, but never the apostles. These are good things. We oughta do these things.
It’s just that tongues-speaking is not the proper sort of worship for a group setting. If we’re gonna worship together, we need to do something more interactive. (And by “interactive,” I mean where we interact with one another, and not just the people on the stage.)
Okay. By way of comparison, in group settings:
- “Prophecy-speakers speak to people.
- “They build up, help out, and advise.
- “Prophecy-speakers build up a church.
- “Prophesy-speakers are more valuable than tongues-speakers.”
If you wanna edify the group, these activities are meízon/“greater” (which I translated “more valuable”) because they minister to a greater number of people. They achieve more.
Tongues and prophecy.
“Most of all so you can prophesy”
Likewise the ultimate goal of tongues is prophecy. Baby talk is foundational to adult speech: We do one so we can someday do the other. Tongues are a form of prayer, but in this case the words from our mouths are guided by the Holy Spirit. Prophecy is also guided by the Spirit. The relationship with the Spirit we need to have in order to speak in tongues, directly correlates with prophecy. If we’re better at one, we get better at the other. If we develop proficiency in Spirit-directed gibberish, we develop proficiency in Spirit-directed messages.
Suppose we ban tongues-speaking in our churches ’cause it’s not prophecy, and we only want prophecy. What’s the result? Not good.
See, banning tongues means we banned people from praying with the Holy Spirit’s aid. We’ve forbidden people from speaking—unintelligibly, but speaking. How’re they gonna get any better at speaking? It’s like telling a baby, “Stop saying ‘mama’ and ‘dada.’ I want complete sentences out of you, or nothing.” Assuming the kid understands you, don’t be surprised when you get nothing.
So how’re our people gonna get any better at speaking in the Spirit? We’ll have to do it at home. Alone. By ourselves. With no supervision. No accountability. No encouragement.
When the baby babbles, you don’t stifle it. You ignore it. The baby practices talking, and nobody understands it but God. And slowly, it gets better. Builds itself up. Eventually everyone can understand it.
Of course I’ve heard it preached that it’s wrong for tongues-speakers to build themselves up while at church. When it’s at the expense of the church, the preachers are absolutely right. If the tongues-speaker disrupts our Sunday morning services, bible studies, prayer groups, or what have you, stifle the overzealous tongues-speaker. But when people are quietly (or relatively quietly) praying to themselves, leave them be. Let ’em build themselves up. Let ’em get themselves ready to become prophesiers.
A prophetic tongue—and when God gives you one.
At some point in their Christian life, as a tongues-speaker is praying in tongues, the Holy Spirit’s gonna simultaneously give them (or someone else in the room) the English translation. Which means they have a prophecy.
Yep. All that stuff we were praying, and paying no real attention to (’cause we’re simultaneously praying in our minds, remember?) get unlocked. The secrets of the Spirit are secret no more. They can, and absolutely should, be shared with the group.
How do we know when one becomes the other? When the revelation comes at the same time as the prayer. When a person is praying in tongues, and the Spirit drops into them (or you) that this is a prophetic tongue, and here comes the prophecy, pay attention.
Custom in a lot of churches is for tongues-speakers, when they know it’s a prophetic tongue, to get loud. The reason they do this is because they know (or, let’s be honest, assume) it’s a prophetic tongue, but the Spirit didn’t give them the interpretation. So they’re shouting it out loud enough so others can hear it, and maybe one of ’em will interpret it.
More often, the Spirit gives us the interpretation at the very same time as the tongue. So we needn’t bother to say anything in tongues; we can just pause the praying in tongues, and prophesy in English. Certain prophets like to loudly say the message in tongues first, just to inform everyone God gave ’em the message in tongues too—and to remind people the Spirit does this sort of thing, y’know. (And, sometimes, to show off a little.) Hey, whatever gets God’s message out.
Now, there are some Christians who insist two people must always be involved: One to give the message in tongues, one to give the interpretation in English. The scriptures teach no such thing, but they’re pretty sure they do:
1 Corinthians 14.27-28 KJV
- 27 When someone speaks in tongues—or two, three at most, and one at a time—
- one must interpret them.
- 28 When there’s no interpreter, have them be quiet in church.
- Have them speak to themselves, and to God.
“One must interpret them” doesn’t mean “someone else must interpret them”—anybody can interpret them. Including them. They can certainly interpret themselves, if the Spirit empowered ’em to do it. (It’s just it’s more impressive when multiple people simultaneously get the same interpretation from God.)
But the reason the apostles wrote these lines was to clamp down on presumptive prophets. If someone’s bellowing out what they think is a prophecy-tongue, but they have no interpretation, and nobody else has any interpretation, they need to sit down and be quiet. Talk to yourself; talk to God; but work on your maturity, and learn the difference between a legitimate word from God and a warm fuzzy feeling.
Lastly I should bring up the fear of public speaking. It’s the biggest fear of most Americans. If you have it, start working now to be rid of it. If the Spirit gives you a message, but you lack the nerve to share, you’re getting in God’s way. I know you don’t want that.
Contrary to what movies and certain public speakers will tell you, it is rare that God’ll automatically remove that fear when he wants you to speak. He wants us to conquer it ourselves. People speak because they’re more afraid of what’ll happen if they don’t speak. But ideally we shouldn’t be afraid at all.
Hence I’ve been in churches where a message in tongues was given… and nobody had the guts to interpret it. The poor tongues-speaker had to sit down and be quiet, embarrassed for no good reason, ’cause he looked like he was being presumptive. Yet at the end of the service, I heard six different people separately state they all knew its interpretation. Why didn’t they give it? They were waiting for someone else to. Nobody did.
Or they were waiting for their fears to magically dissipate, ’cause it’s the Holy Spirit. Right? But it doesn’t dissipate. You have to fight it. Every Christian does.
So when you get that message, that interpretation, or that prophecy, get over yourself and get up there. Be bold. Watch what God does with it.