Didn’t Paul Command, “Forbid not to speak in tongues”?

By Wayne Jackson

In a former article, we responded to an inquiry dealing with the nature of the gift of “speaking in tongues,” as such is set forth in Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 12-14; etc. In rejoinders to our article, several courteous readers wrote to us, essentially asking this question: “Why do you forbid to speak in tongues, when the Bible says, ‘Forbid not to speak in tongues’ (1 Cor. 14:39)?”

Let us address this sincere inquiry.

It is impossible to understand the significance of the command, “forbid not to speak in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39), without fitting that prohibition into the larger context of the entire segment dealing with spiritual gifts discussed in 1st Corinthians, chapters 12 through 14.

Paul begins this portion of the epistle by the phrase, “Now concerning spiritual gifts” (12:1). Following, then, is a discussion of several aspects of the “spiritual gift” problem as such related to the Corinthian church. Paul’s need to address this controversy likely was generated by a report of divisiveness within that church (cf. 1:10ff), and as a result of correspondence with some of the saints there (7:1).

Chapters 12-14 may be summarized as follows:

Chapter 12 catalogs the various spiritual gifts available, e.g., wisdom, knowledge, healings, prophecy, tongues (the ability to speak a foreign language supernaturally), interpretation of tongues (the divine gift of translation from one language to another), etc. (vv. 8-10). Further, this section argues that the gifts issue from a unified source, the sacred Godhead — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (vv. 4-5,11).

The implication clearly is this: those who possess these gifts must not act in an individualistic, adversarial fashion; rather, unity within the body of Christ must prevail (vv. 12ff).

Based upon the foundation laid in Chapter 12, Chapter 13 argues that spiritual gifts must be exercised in love. A gift recklessly invoked, with no consideration for others, is nothing more than an irritating noise (vv. 1-3).

“Love” is defined with such an exhilarating range of qualities that, were these traits to be mastered, nothing but unity would result (vv. 4-7).

After such a magnificent discussion of “love” is concluded, this lofty attribute — so enduring in its nature — is set in contrast to the fact that the “spiritual gifts” (creating such a controversy among the Corinthian Christians) were but a temporary phenomena anyhow. They were merely piece-by-piece modes of conveying divine revelation, so that when the “perfect” (teleios — complete; see “perfect,” W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary) arrived, i.e., the finished canon of Scriptures, these gifts were to cease.

Chapter 14 then reveals the sort of contentious disposition that marred the Corinthian church. The apostolic instruction sought to correct those evils by regulating the use of the spiritual gifts, particularly the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and the interpretation (translation) of tongues.

This provides an abbreviated background of the difficulties with which Paul was forced to deal in Chapter 14. How, then, does this relate to the prohibition, “forbid not to speak in tongues”? There appears to have been two principal problems related to the gift of “tongues” and the gift of “prophecy.” Let us consider each of these matters.

Some of those who possessed the gift of speaking in tongues were abusing their blessing. For example, a brother might have the “gift” of speaking in a particular dialect — let us say, as an example, Persian. What was he to do if, in a certain church assembly, only Greek-speaking folks were present? If there was no one who possessed the gift of translation, he was to remain silent (vv. 2,6ff).

While one person was delivering a message in a “tongue,” another was not to interrupt. Rather, those endowed with such gifts were to communicate “in turn” (v. 27). The use of their individual gift was under their personal control (v. 32), and they must exercise self-control in order that confusion not disrupt the meeting (v. 33).

Another prevailing factor was the reality that “prophecy” was deemed to be a “greater” gift than that of tongues. And why was this the case? Because prophecy was the more versatile gift; it involved the divine ability to teach the congregation in the native language (in this case Greek) so that each Christian could be edified (v. 3). On the other hand, the gift of tongues frequently was curtailed by the need for a translator, in the absence of which, the brother with the language gift was required to remain mute.

On account of this difference, prophecy was considered to be the “greater” (v. 5) gift. Because of its utilitarian nature, the gift of “prophecy” is viewed as superior, from a practical vantage point, to that of “tongues” (vv. 1-5; 12; 22-25).

When one blends into this equation the fact that some of the Corinthians were inclined to a divisive spirit anyhow (3:1ff), it is not difficult to see that the disposition could develop which suggested that those who possessed the gift of prophecy were superior to those with the gift of tongues. Carried a bit further, the former might even attempt to suppress those who possessed the gift of tongues. In view of this, Paul’s warning, “forbid not to speak in tongues,” makes perfect sense.

This is how verse 39 is to be interpreted within the framework of the overall context of the discussion. The gift of prophecy still was to be desired, but such was not to be used as a device to silence those who had the more limited gift.

It is an egregious misuse of this prohibition to employ it as a proof-text for the notion that the gift of tongues was intended to last throughout the Christian age — a theory in direct conflict with 13:8ff.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.