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Rules for Speaking in Tongues

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 14:26–40

When self-promotion and disorder enter a church’s worship, the worship is greatly diminished. The Bible allows for great variety in worship, but it also gives important guidelines to ensure that the Lord is truly honored in our worship.


There was a problem in the church at Corinth. Evidently it was a unique problem, since the apostle Paul never addressed speaking in tongues in any letter other than this one to the Corinthian church.

It is possible that this church was influenced by a nearby pagan temple. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was not far from Corinth. There a high priestess supposedly channeled messages from the pagan god. She was known as the Oracle of Delphi. Farmers would give gifts to the temple and then ask the priestess when it was best to plant their crops. Merchants would pay to have her tell them when to sail their ships. Generals paid her to tell them when to go to battle and whether they would win.

The high priestess would mount her special chair, go into a trance, and begin speaking in an unintelligible language. Temple priests listened nearby, supposedly having the ability to interpret her tongue. When she finished, the priests delivered her message from the god. Over the centuries, this temple fell out of favor for one reason—the high priestess was wrong too many times.

Imagine a new believer, walking into a worship service in Corinth and hearing someone get up and speak in a strange language. Then someone else stood to interpret the message, and everyone was so excited that they had received another message from God. This all seemed familiar.

The church in Corinth was mimicking Delphi. It was misusing and magnifying this gift of tongues, which Satan had already counterfeited. 

In chapter 14 Paul now begins to deliver some guidelines to this church. He is attempting to bring the chaos in Corinth to a close. Paul reminds them of the goal of all the gifts in verse 26:

When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

Paul lists some of the elements in the worship service here; but we have discussed already that with the completion of Scripture, these revelatory gifts of tongues and revelation and prophecy are no longer needed. Today we are not listening for God to say something new through His messengers; we are expecting God’s messengers to teach us what God has already said. We call this expository preaching—preaching that expounds on what Scripture says.

Frankly, I feel sorry for many people who are following someone who delivers his own message, rather than simply teaches the message of God’s Word.

Now Paul gives some guidelines for the use of spiritual gifts; and since speaking in tongues was the gift that had grabbed everyone’s attention, he becomes rather specific about this gift. He gives what I like to call, “Rules for Speaking in Tongues.”

Rule number 1 is found in verse 27: “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three.” In other words, it is not to dominate the entire service. So, just start counting—1, 2, 3, and no more. Today in some churches people are called down to the front to say something unintelligible. I have visited some of these services where dozens were speaking—in fact, the more, the merrier. It was rather chaotic and uncontrolled.

Down in verse 33, Paul reminds his readers, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” A worship service is to benefit everyone; so, there must be order, not chaos. At the time this letter was written, the gift of tongues was still in use—and it was for a while until the completed Scriptures became available to the early church. But Paul ends the chapter in verse 40 by writing, “All things should be done decently and in order.” He is writing this because the church in Corinth was anything but orderly—it was pandemonium.

Here is another rule for speaking in tongues that we find again in verse 27: “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn.” Not at the same time, but in turn.

Beloved, this takes all the fun out of it! Biblical tongues is not an emotional eruption but as controlled as the soloist or the teacher who wait their turn.

Paul goes on in this verse to give a third rule to follow: “Let someone interpret.” Why? Because this unknown language was a revelatory gift. Tongues was tantamount to preaching in an unlearned language. The church could not turn to the book of Romans to learn about justification or the book of Revelation to learn about glorification. So, God was communicating significant truths through these messengers, but their messages were meaningless unless they were interpreted.

Now notice what Paul writes in verse 28: “But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in the church.” This church knew who had the gift of interpretation, which means they were to identify that person before speaking in tongues, not after. And if that person was home sick, the tongues messenger was to keep the message between himself and God.

We have already covered another rule based on the fact that this gift of tongues was a sign to unbelieving Jews. So, another guideline would be that unsaved Jews should be present to hear this gift in action. Isaiah had prophesied that foreign tongues would announce to the Jewish people that they have rejected the Messiah and that judgment is coming on the nation.

Judgment certainly came in AD 70 when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. This sign gift of tongues is no longer needed.

Let me tell you, according to the guidelines in this chapter, the gift of tongues has ceased. What is passed off today as tongues does not come close to following any of the rules given here.

Now, if you can handle it, let me bring up a fourth—and most controversial—rule. Here it is: Women are not to speak in tongues or prophesy in the church. Now before you tune me out, read what Paul writes in verses 34-35:

The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Before we make Paul out to be anti-woman, as many people do, we must understand that he is not talking about any kind of speaking in church. Women could prophesy, at least in certain circumstances, according to 1 Corinthians 11:5. However, here Paul says they are to be silent in the church. This probably refers to the discussion—the “weighing” of what some prophet had just delivered, as mentioned in verse 29.

Men could weigh the prophecy—debate it, raise questions about it. But Paul encouraged the women to stay out of the debate in public.  

This is also in the context of speaking in church—it relates to speaking in tongues. Why would a woman not be allowed to speak in tongues in the church service? Well, this gift was the preaching of God’s truth to the assembly. Women were not given this role of authority through preaching in the assembly. We will get to that later in Paul’s first letter to Timothy.

All this chaos in Corinth was coming from their proud exaltation of these two public gifts, prophecy and tongues—and especially tongues. It was dramatic; it was a solo performance; it meant being on center stage.

But is it not interesting that these two most highly prized gifts were two of the gifts that would cease as the Scriptures came to completion and the church began to follow the written Word of God?

Let us make sure, beloved, that we are following the Word that God has already revealed.

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