Tongues build up the individual.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 October 2021

1 Corinthians 14.1-4.

Most of the time when Christians quote this particular passage about speaking in tongues, they quote verse 4 thisaway.

1 Corinthians 14.4 NIV
Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.

Yeah, tongues are okay, but. But but but.

Except the word but isn’t in the original text of this verse. The word which gets translated but in nearly every English-language bible, is δέ/de. It’s a conjunction which indicates the speaker just started a new sentence, and the new sentence is logically connected to the old sentence. You can, as bibles do most of the time, just leave it untranslated. Or, if you really, really wanna connect it to the previous sentence ’cause they fit together just so well, a semicolon will work.

Thing is, whenever translators think there’s a contrast between the two sentences, they can’t just translate de as a new sentence, a semicolon, or even “and.” They gotta turn it into a “but.”

So instead of writing John 1.17 as it it should be,

John 1.17 NIV
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

they gotta insert a “but” between those sentences,

John 1.17 NLT
For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.

and imply there’s a conflict between law, and grace and truth, where really there’s no such thing.

But the reason they gotta imply such a thing, has nothing to do with the text. It has to do with their pre-existing beliefs. If you’re dispensationalist, and think in the Old Testament times God saved people through his Law, but nowadays saves people through his grace, you’re gonna want that “but” in there, proving your point. You’re not gonna want people to realize God chose Abraham by his grace, rescued the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery by his grace, enriched their nation by his grace, sent them prophets to lead them aright by his grace, inspired the writing of the Old Testament by his grace, and so forth. You’re gonna want to minimize that Old Testament grace (and hide its occurrences in the Old Testament by translating it “favor”) as much as you can.

Then you’re gonna push grace, and encourage people to reject law. Because that’s what people tend to do with contrasts. They’re not presented as “There’s A, and there’s B, and they’re different,” but as “People do A, but they should do B.” Hence dispensationalists insist people do Law, but they should do grace. Not, as Jesus teaches, that we should do both.

So back to 1 Corinthians 14. Paul and Sosthenes did wanna present a contrast between tongues and prophecy. But again, it’s not so people would reject tongues and only do prophecy. It’s so people would recognize only one of the two activities is appropriate for church gatherings. Only one of the two is a group activity. Wanna guess which one?

1 Corinthians 14.1-4 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 to the Spirit.
3 Prophesiers speak to people: They build up, help out, and advise.
4 Tongues-speakers build up themselves. Prophesiers build up a church.

Tongues aren’t a group activity.

The apostles wanted to make the point in this chapter, and do throughout, that tongues is for the individual. It’s a form of prayer. You’re talking to God! And since it’s in tongues, you’re only talking to God; nobody understands you but the Holy Spirit. Nobody should understand you but the Spirit—unless he chooses to reveal to others what you’re saying.

So it’s an individual religious activity, and form of worship. But when we gather together in church, what ought we be doing? Group religious activities. Corporate worship: We’re worshiping God together, in community, in interactive relationships. Our worship should be the kind of thing we can do as a group. Tongues are not that.

The Corinthians were worshiping individually. At the same time, in the same room, but still individually. Picture a movie theater, but instead of everybody watching the movie on the screen, the screen’s off and everybody’s watching whatever they please on their phones. Nobody’s watching the same thing. All these people can legitimately say, “I went to the theater and watched a movie!” But it doesn’t look at all like what legitimate movie-watching oughta look like. Same thing with Corinthian worship: They were worshiping, but not together. They weren’t building up the group, the church.

Yeah it’s a problem: Jesus orders us to love one another. How’re we gonna do that when we’re not even interacting with one another? We’re not. At best we’ll love the idea of one another, or at least not actively harm one another, but that ain’t love. Benevolent apathy at the most.

Yes, Christians still try to turn tongues into a group activity. Every so often—usually when a church’s music pastors really want to take a minute for themselves to sing and worship in tongues—they’ll announce in the middle of the music, “And if you have a prayer language, go ahead and worship God with it!” and then they themselves will cut loose.

(Years ago I responded to this invitation by belting out the Zulu first line of Elton John’s “Circle of Life” from The Lion King:


Broke up the whole room, but really pissed off the music pastor, because it spoiled the mood he was going for. It doesn’t have to, y’know; it means “Here comes a lion, Father.” But whatever. Have fun resisting the temptation to try it yourself.)

Prayer groups will also encourage tongues-speakers to engage their “prayer languages,” and pray in tongues aloud. Not so loud it disrupts things, but just loud enough to create some kind of holy white noise. Again, it’s about creating a mood.

Are either of these things appropriate activities for a group? Not really. Then again, neither are individual prayers spoken out loud in English. When we’re in a group, we oughta stick to silent prayer, and neither disrupt nor interrupt.

But does this mean we should ban prayer? Absolutely not. It’s just there’s a place and time and form of it, and we’re not paying attention to our circumstances and doing it wrong. And the very same thing is true for tongues. We don’t ban it either—but there’s a place and time and form of it. We oughta do it, but we oughta do it right.

There’s room in any church for a little bit of individual prayer activity. But we don’t go to church to pray alone. We go to pray together. We don’t go to church to worship alone; we worship together. And when we speak in tongues, it oughta be the type of tongues which the Spirit converts to English so everybody can hear what he’s saying to our church. Otherwise we need to be a lot quieter, if not silent. 1Co 14.28

That’s the point of this chapter. And verse 4. It’s not “Tongues suck; do prophecy.” It’s “Tongues are for the individual; prophecy’s for the group; when you’re in a group, stick to the group activity!”

Tongues do have a valuable purpose though.

Note what the apostles say in today’s passage about tongues-speakers.

  • They speak to God, not people. 1Co 14.2 They’re praying.
  • They speak privately to God: Nobody else understands them. 1Co 14.2 These are confidential conversations. Good to know when you need ’em to pray for something you’d rather keep private.
  • They “speak secrets to the Spirit,” or μυστήρια/mystíria, “mysteries.” In the bible, mystíria are usually things we didn’t previously know, but God’s now chosen to reveal ’em. In this case the apostles are talking about stuff others don’t know: Stuff that’s only between God and the petitioner. As is probably appropriate for two intimates.
  • They build themselves up. 1Co 14.4 Because tongues-speakers really work on those prayer lives. It definitely helps ’em grow spiritually.

Some more ideas we’ll find in the very next verses:

  • The apostles want everybody in Corinth to speak in tongues. 1Co 14.5 And really, every Christian.
  • If tongues-speakers wanna build up the church, they can of course interpret themselves. 1Co 14.5 Tongues don’t have to entirely be an individual worship thing.

None of these things are objectionable. Cessationists might object to ’em, but never the apostles. These are good things. We oughta do these things. Not necessarily in church, but since when is the whole of our Christian practice meant to take place in church? Way more of it oughta take place outside.

The apostles go on about why tongues aren’t as helpful in a church setting as prophecy, but the point of their contrast is not to say tongues aren’t helpful at all, or oughta pass away, or oughta be banned outright and declared devilish. The Corinthians lost sight of the proper place of tongues. But they still have a proper place in the building up, in the spiritual maturity, of Christians.

Because a Christian who prays in tongues, is a Christian who prays. And usually prays way more often than a Christian who doesn’t pray in tongues. Not that a non-tongues-speaker can’t pray just as often, or even more. But y’know how sometimes it takes effort to pray an unpadded prayer for more than a few minutes, because we’ve simply run out of things to say? Well the handy thing about tongues is the Spirit has no shortage of them. Christians with the gift of tongues can pray till our jaws are tired. We can pray all day long if we want. I’m not kidding.

No, you don’t have to; nobody has to. But you could.

And if you’re doing it right, it is gonna build you up. Way faster than prayers which don’t have the Spirit’s supernatural aid attached. All the more reason to not dismiss tongues!