It was not until modern times that Christians began looking to the scripture to justify ecstatic, unintelligible speaking. It was never introduced by Christ but was already in practice among the heathen. This pagan practice in churches today is emotion at best and a false spirit at worst. Ecstatic utterances are mistakenly seen as something godly and spiritual. Incoherent speaking and praying did not take place in the early morning church and it is not in God’s church today.
Much confusion and false teaching comes from misapplying 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul addressed almost exclusively the practice of speaking in tongues. The main confusion comes not from the Word but from man. On the day of Pentecost, God established what the gift of tongues is and should be. The word glossa (foreign language), which was used in Acts 2, is once again the word that is used in 1 Corinthians 14. With Pentecost as the pattern, it is not difficult to understand Paul’s teaching to the church at Corinth.
Corinth was a large, seaport city with people from many cultures and backgrounds. There were many problems in the congregation and Paul told them directly in I Corinthians 3:3, “For ye are yet carnal….” 1 Corinthians is largely a book of reproof and correction to a congregation who was carnal and not observing the tenants of Christian living.
A careful examination of chapter fourteen reveals that Paul was not teaching a new practice of tongues but was reproving them for their wrong exaltation and misuse of foreign languages. The congregation was in chaos and disorder. While it is possible that someone had the true gift of tongues in the congregation and was speaking a foreign language he had never learned, it is not likely this was the case, as God is not the author of confusion. Most likely, people who already knew foreign languages were speaking them to no edification of the hearers who couldn’t understand that particular foreign language. These people would not have had the true gift of tongues as it was not divinely given. Paul instructed them to seek God for the gift of prophecy (preaching) that the church would be edified. A message from God in the language of the hearer would be much more beneficial than a prideful display of speaking in a foreign language.
Consider a few verses from 1 Corinthians 14 and their meanings—with the clear understanding of the definition of tongues being a foreign language. (Note: In the English KJV Bible, the word “unknown” was added by the translators. It was not in the original manuscripts and has been left out of many subsequent translations.)
(Verse 2) For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue [glossa] speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man under-standeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.
He that speaks of the mysteries of God in a foreign language speaks not unto men but unto God if nobody present understands that foreign speech. In verses 2-3, Paul emphasizes the importance of prophesying for the use of edification to the church. The person speaking a foreign language is only edifying himself since he is the only one who understands what he is speaking.
(5) I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying. (6) Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? (see also verses 12-13)
Paul would be pleased if all the people could speak in different languages but he told them to seek gifts that would edify the church (not foreign languages that bring confusion). Prophesying is greater unless there is someone who can translate the foreign language so the whole church can be edified. What profit is there for Paul to speak many different languages if no one is there who can understand them?
(9) So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. (10) There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. (11) Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.
Words, no matter how sincere, will be lost to the air if they are not spoken in a language the listeners understand. There are many foreign languages in the world and they all have meaning. But, if you do not understand the language, it sounds barbaric or foreign. Clearly, Paul does not speak of some unintelligible language.
(For verses 14-17, see “Prayer Language” on page 9).
(22) Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. (23) If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? (24) But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:
The very purpose of the gift of speaking a foreign language was to be a sign to the unbeliever that they might hear the gospel and be saved as on the day of Pentecost. If everyone is speaking in different languages, whether gifted or learned, and the ignorant (those that don’t understand the language) or unbelievers come in, they will think you are mad for all the chaos. Better to preach in the native language of the unbeliever so that they might understand and be saved.
In verses 26-28, Paul further addressed the chaos that was not edifying and gave instruction. If you speak a foreign language, be sure that there are those that understand the language. If there is no interpreter, be silent in the church and just commune with God.
Understanding that the true use of “tongues” was to speak to the unbeliever in his own language for his edification brings clarity to the confusion that people have brought to 1 Cor-inthians 14. Glossa was and remains a foreign language and not unintelligible speech. Paul concluded by stating to the congregation that speaking in a foreign language was not to be forbidden, but that there should be someone to interpret. “Let all things be done decently and in order” (I Corinthians 14:40).