In today’s text Paul is going to lay down rules and principles for handling tongues in the local church. By and large this should not even be an issue today since the primary purpose for tongues ended in A.D. 70. But please do not tune out because you think this message will be of little value. Instead, as I hope to show you, the principles Paul lays down in this text have eternal and universal value in relationship to the most important task we face today. I mean the task of preaching the gospel, strengthening the church, and making disciples of Jesus Christ.
I Cor. 14:26 What then is the conclusion, brothers? Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation. All things must be done for edification. 27 If any person speaks in another language, there should be only two, or at the most three, each in turn, and someone must interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, that person should keep silent in the church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should evaluate. 30 But if something has been revealed to another person sitting there, the first prophet should be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged. 32 And the prophets’ spirits are under the control of the prophets, 33 since God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
Let’s begin by getting down in the weeds and looking at the details of this passage. Then we will look at the big picture. At first glance this passage applies strictly to languages, but as you will see, Paul’s rules encompass the whole spectrum of corporate Christian conduct.
Rule 1: Universal rules apply universally.
vs. 26 “Whenever you come together” means any time Christians get together, either spontaneously, in small groups, or at a set time for a formal worship service. These rules apply everywhere Christians get together in Jesus’ name. Ethics, morals and propriety don’t change from one setting to another. And why not? Because the issue is never what we can get away with in a particular setting, but rather what is pleasing to the God who is always with us, wherever we go. It is in Him, and before Him, that we live, and move and have our being.
Rule 1 restated in The Lord of the Rings.
“Eomer said, “How is a man to judge what to do in such times?”
“As he has ever judged,” said Aragorn. “Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear, nor are they one thing among Elves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.” J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Rule 2: Every Christian is Competent to Minister.
vs. 26 “each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, an interpretation” In those days everyone contributed to public worship as they wished. Though nowadays this approach to worship is honoured more in theory than in fact, even today, we should practice the principle that every Christian has something to contribute to the well being of the body of Christ. All of us should be striving to build up the body. Is every Christian born again? Yes? Does every Christians possess the Spirit? Yes? Then from the Bible’s perspective the entire congregation is able to understand and apply God’s Word to life. Every Christian should be competent to share the gospel and teach the basic truths of the faith as well as exhort others to lives of obedience.
Rule 3: Always be building the Body.
vs. 26 “All things must be done for edification.” Paul is single minded about this point. You could even say it is the main theme of the entire epistle. Our attitude toward the church, our intentions toward the church, our actions regarding the church matter to God. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25) If Christ cares this much for the church, don’t you think He cares about your attitude toward the church? The opposite is also true. If we’re to always be building the body, shouldn’t we also be striving to never be guilty of deliberately tearing it down, or neglecting it? (I Cor. 3:16-17)
Rule 4: Gifts with limited applicability should have limited expression.
vs. 27 As you can see, verse 27 states that those who have the gift of tongues should limit themselves to no more than three speeches per service, and always one at a time. But why so few? Remember the purpose of the gift of unlearned languages; it served as a warning to Christ- rejecting Jews that their day of destruction was drawing ever nearer. (See Isaiah 28:11-12) If no Christ-rejecting Jews were present, then there would be no reason for anyone to speak in languages at all. And even if several Christ-rejecting Jews were present, Paul said to stop with the languages after three people had spoken in order to give other people an opportunity to express their gifts.
Rule 5: No interpreter? No languages.
vs 28 Scripture could not be more clear. If no Christian interpreter is present that day, then no unlearned languages are to be expressed. Not on that day, anyhow. On such a day the languages speakers are to remain silent; They can talk to God in private (in some private place other than a public meeting of the church). Frankly, if this one rule were followed in modern times it would likely eliminate the tongues-speaking movement.
Rule 6: Give unlimited expression to prophecy.
vs. 29 We’re moving now to the gift of prophecy, which Paul treats differently from tongues all through this section. “Two or three prophets should speak,” Paul says. But notice he does not say, “two, at the most three,” as he does with tongues in v. 27. There is a huge difference between Paul’s limitations on tongues and his wide open door for prophecy. In fact, in verse 31 he’s going to say, “For you can all prophesy one by one.” His only concern is courtesy, which is why in verse 30 he speaks of each prophet being ready to let another prophet have a turn.
You can see Paul’s strong preference for prophecy revealed in verse 31. “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged.” Do you see it? Everyone may prophesy, and in so doing “everyone may be encouraged.” It’s clear from this verse that Paul is still working from the original definition of prophecy he first gave back in 14:3. Prophecy: speaking God’s word in a known language, for the purpose of building up the body of Christ, encouraging Christians, as well as consoling them.
So the real question for today is, are you speaking words to build up and encourage fellow Christians? Are you practising your gift of prophecy? That is, are you allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through you to build people up in their faith and understanding, to encourage them in their daily Christian walk, and to console them with God’s forgiveness and grace when they are conscious of failure and sin. Are you a channel by which God can use His Word and Spirit to build up the church? If not, why not?
Should every believer be a minister?
But, say the liturgical churches, if just anyone can handle the Word of God, if everybody prophesies or teaches, won’t there be confusion, with one person saying one thing and another contradicting him? This is why for 1,200 years the Roman church openly refused to make the Bible available to ordinary Christians—the laity. They argued that if the Scriptures were made available to everyone, then every man would think himself the pope of his own church and the body of Christ would splinter. They never faced the fact that in depriving God’s people of God’s Word, they were cutting their spiritual privileges right out from under them. They were refusing to give God’s people the necessary foundation for the Christian life.
In fact, the Catholic church is as splintered as Protestantism, and today they are going through a crisis of authority in which a lot of faithful Catholics have come to believe the current pope is an outright heretic. The problem is, they don’t know what to do about it. They can hardly say he’s a heretic because as the pope he is supposed to be infallible in matters of faith. They lack the privilege God has afforded to every Christian—that when the situation requires, to feel free to stand up with Bible in hand and pronounce hogwash to be hogwash so that every believer can see it for himself.
In fact, we don’t have to fear the results from everybody prophesying, or preaching, because even as Paul encouraged every Christian to prophesy, at the same time he built in a huge safeguard to prevent the message from getting muddled.
Rule 7: Every church must establish multiple layers of accountability.
vs. 29 “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should evaluate.” Evaluating another’s teaching in the light of God’s word is a wonderful exercise that will help every Christian grow into maturity. For one thing, in evaluating others God’s people learn that they cannot rely on feelings alone to guide them, but rather “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3). And Isaiah thundered: “To the law and to the testimony. If they do not speak according to this word, there will be no dawn for them” (Isaiah 8:20).
Paul is trying to wean the Corinthians off tongues and move them toward Scripture-informed judgment of everything they experience. We are to draw clear and objective conclusions based on
Scripture—“as evaluated by others” as we read in today’s text. Who are those “others” who do the evaluating?
Well, first the circle of hearers, then the elders of the church, then the leaders of the denomination, then the elders of church history (pastors, missionaries, scholars, teachers), going right back to the first century. We are to submit our prophesying (our teaching) to the judgment of others, and in a sense to the judgment of all. “That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all,” said Vincent of Lerins way back in A.D. 434. And I’m convinced this principle continues to stand the test of time. Mutual accountability will keep the church on track, feeding on the truth of God’s Word.
Rule 8: Heretics are spotted by their hatred of accountability.
Have you noticed that when a person wants to be a renegade and teach something that is not only “new,” but also “contrary” to widely accepted truth, the first thing he does is leave the body of Christ and set up as an independent? They start they’re own church or their own ministry.
Please don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with seeking new truth, so long as it is consistent with all that came before. The Word of God is alive and always fresh. You can tell a tree is alive because it puts out new leaves and grows new limbs. But the new limbs are consistent with what came before. Those who study God’s Word in the power of the Spirit will receive new insights and new applications. They find new ways of harmonizing or refining eternal truths with modern life. And these are all wonderful things.
But the renegade isn’t interested in new and deeper understandings consistent with the God of the Bible. When he says, “new” he means something contrary to all that came before. So he refuses accountability and says, “Everyone before me was wrong. I’m the only one who can get it right. And that, dear friends is how we got the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Christian Scientists, but also the Christian Social Justice movement (cultural Marxism in disguise), the movement to deny hell and heaven (Rob Bell), the movement to embrace homosexual and transgender lifestyles within the church, and a host of other anti-Christ philosophies.
Rule 9: Disciples manage their gifts.
vs. 32 “And the prophets’ spirits are under the control of the prophets, 33 since God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” In other words, a person who interrupts others just to display their facility with tongues, or to prophesy, or anything else, must not blame the Holy Spirit. They’re not Spirit filled. They’re just rude. There is no time when the Holy Spirit simply takes over and operates us like a robot. He is there to support the work of God in us, to help us fight spiritual battles, to encourage us during times of hard sledding, and to empower us to accomplish more than mere flesh and blood could ever do. But He never causes us to lose control, nor does He ever take control away from us.
And yet, the loss of control, or the giving up of control, is the very hallmark of most modern tongues-speaking. People who are trying to speak in tongues are told repeatedly to just “let go and speak the first nonsense that comes to mind. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense. Just give yourself to the spirit and let him carry you wherever He wants. You’ll be speaking in tongues in no time.”
Unfortunately, the Charismatic movement never stops with speaking in tongues. In a mad quest for experience it goes on into such strange behaviours as being slain in the spirit, barking like dogs, roaring like lions, laughing like idiots, and more besides. You may have heard of the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church, for instance, where all these things have been going on since 1994.
One outstanding feature of this movement is that once you give yourself over to whatever spirit it is at work there, it takes complete control and leaves none to the person. Here’s a testimony from Glenda Waddell, describing her experience when the Toronto Blessing was brought to her church.
[T]o my absolute horror I just knew beyond any shadow of doubt my hands were doing strange things and I was going to roar. I said, “Oh Lord, do anything but please, please, don’t make me roar. Only the men roar and the women don’t roar.” But it came and I did roar quite loudly and I made a lot of awful noise and I was crawling around the floor doing terrible things and half of me was thinking, “This cannot be me.” But another part of me knew that it was.
That stuff is not for God’s people. That is not the operation of the Holy Spirit. That kind of control is devilish in style if not in actual fact. The Holy Spirit is just the opposite. In the most mysterious way possible He links Himself with us so that we are always in charge, yet He is the one doing the work, the work of enabling us to live and prophesy so that the glory always goes to God!