Tongues is widely considered the most controversial spiritual gift. Perhaps it was controversial even in Paul’s day. Fee believes that the Corinthians were so obsessed with tongues that Paul wrote chapters twelve to fourteen to address their obsession. “The problem is almost certainly an abuse of the gift of tongues.” (Fee, NICNT, p.571) Paul’s frequent mention of tongues implies that the Corinthians put too much effort into pursuing it, believing it to be a sign of spiritual maturity and even elevated social status. Paul did not want them to become snooty and make snarky comments to others not given this gift; he wanted them to pursue God and allow Him to manifest Himself in other ways besides just tongues.
Tongues is probably so-named because it sounds like another language or tongue. Paul does not describe it or coach the Corinthians on how to speak in tongues; they were already very familiar with it – maybe too familiar. Paul, however, did not have anything against the gift of tongues, even boasting, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (14:18-19) Paul is saying that he prays in tongues often, more than all of the Corinthians put together, in his own private prayer time. “But in the church,” Paul says there is little benefit without an interpretation – an interpretation usually done by the one who spoke in tongues. So he urges “anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.” (14:13) He goes on to say, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” (14:28)
Paul is not saying prophecy is better than praying in tongues; he is saying the context determines which is better. “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:4) In the church, prophecy is better. At home, praying in tongues would be better. What good would it do to prophesy in your bedroom? That giant stuffed panda isn’t going to get saved no matter how much he hears the gospel. He’s just one sad panda.
There are two different contexts: private use and public use.
The purpose of tongues in private is to help build yourself up through prayer. Paul describes it as speaking “mysteries with his spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2) and adds, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” In other words, tongues is a language known only to God, where even the speaker has no idea what he/she is saying. This gift empowers us to praise God and declare His wonders when we are otherwise speechless and in awe of Him. (Acts 2:11) This could be what Paul was referring to in Romans 8:28. “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” Sometimes I have no idea what to pray; sometimes grief or confusion or even joy and awe becomes so overwhelming that words cannot express how I feel. A private prayer in tongues might be the only way to express these feelings to God. May God loosen our tongues to praise Him and declare the wonders of God in our own tongues.
The purpose of this gift in public is to preach the gospel message. As described in Acts 2, Peter and the others who had gathered to pray in the upper room began speaking in at least 15 other languages and dialects fluently. Peter does not refer to this as “tongues and the interpretation of tongues,” but simply “prophecy” (Acts 2:17,18). In other words, interpretation of tongues IS prophecy. Though we might want to view each of these gifts as categories, we must allow for overlap within this list. Just as healings and miracles overlap as well as words of wisdom and knowledge, prophecy can overlap with interpretation of tongues when it is preceded by an utterance in tongues. This overlap is probably why Paul chooses to list tongues and interpretation of tongues immediately after prophecy; they all go hand-in-hand.
The reason why tongues can be really confusing is because it has two very different purposes for two very different contexts. Fee sums this up best. The Gift of Tongues “can be used privately as much as one pleases, but in the community only in the context of edification, which requires intelligibility. Hence it must always be accompanied by interpretation” (Fee, NICNT, p.571). May we never find ourselves tongue-tied again, but allow the Holy Spirit to use our tongues for His purposes.