All too often we study this section without taking its context into account. As a result, many of us use this passage as a source of proof texts to back up one position or another regarding speaking in tongues. This is troubling on several levels, not the least of which is the fact that we tend to use the same passage to prove conflicting positions.
As you might suspect, when this happens, context is being ignored in favor of winning an argument. In this particular case, we are engaged in an argument that we shouldn’t even be participating in, no matter which side of it you are on.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, this is a study of 1 Corinthians, it is not a study of spiritual gifts as such. If you are interested in a study of spiritual gifts please see Your Spiritual Gifts Revealed which is available for free download on my website.
Let’s remember that chapter 14 is the third chapter in a section of the letter to Corinth that is discussing misunderstandings about spiritual gifts. It follows along from the previous chapter’s discussion of love as a contrast to the gifts themselves, as something that is eternal, while spiritual gifts are not. Paul has moved into a discussion here of the gifts in the context of the church assembly, and his overall point is that speaking in tongues really isn’t something that belongs in the worship assembly. He doesn’t say that because there is anything wrong with speaking in tongues; he says he himself speaks in tongues. Rather, his point is that it simply doesn’t edify the Body of Christ.
I realize that many would jump in here and assert that there is no longer any such thing as speaking in tongues… or prophecy, for that matter. I know this because that’s the way I learned it myself. If that happens to be your view, I would only say that Paul’s discussion here is in answer to an inquiry from the church in Corinth c. 55 AD: Context again!
I would also point out the lack of evidence from the New Testament for such an assertion.
Paul’s use of the contrast between speaking in tongues and prophecy is an interesting one, and it may be a bit confusing for some of us. That confusion would arise from a misunderstanding of what prophecy actually is. So often in our time prophecy is spoken of as though it was foretelling the future and nothing more. Yet this understanding is a mistake, for a prophet is one who brings a message from God to His people. Quite often in Scripture this message is one of correction in which God is telling His people that action is needed to correct an error of one kind or another. Certainly, that is case for most of the Major and Minor prophets of the Old Testament.
With this in mind, the contrast between speaking in tongues that we cannot understand is in sharp contrast with someone who brings a clear message from God to His people, and thus, Paul’s point is clearly made in these verses.
Notice that Paul wraps up his point by pointing out that should an unsaved person visit the worship assembly and be confronted by people who speak in an unintelligible manner, they would conclude that Christians were crazy, but if they heard a clear message from God they might well be brought to repentance and relationship with Christ.
That is the case Paul is making in this passage. It applies just as much today as it did then, and we will miss that critical point if we indulge ourselves by mining the text for ammunition to use in an unnecessary argument.