I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue. – 1 Corinthians 14:18-19 (NET)
Time and again, Paul, as he deals with what is happening in this church body because of the glossolalia (speaking in tongues) that is occurring there, focuses his audience on the strengthening of the church (which we can also see in the way that he deals with the problems at the church meal and the Lord’s Supper in this same letter). Paul insists, above all, that it is strengthening of the entire body of believers that should be the motivation and the result of speaking in tongues. If that motivation and result is not achieved, regardless of the gift under consideration (with this going beyond speaking in tongues), then it’s place in the assembly needs to be reconsidered and carefully examined. We must also be aware of the need to enfold into consideration the issue of the pursuit of honor, in an honor and shame culture, into any examination of speaking in tongues. Failing to do so will leave any examination incomplete, rendering any interpretation of Paul’s position fallacious. With that in mind, it can easily be said that if one is concerned with accumulation of honor through the exercise of what are considered to be the gifts of the Spirit, then the strengthening of the church is probably not going to be in sight.
Bringing the all-important pursuit of honor (all-important for the society that surrounds the church, though the pursuit of honor for anybody but Jesus is to be disavowed within the church, as those that call Jesus “Lord” are called to embrace the cross and its shame) into consideration at this point allows what comes next to dovetail quite nicely, as Paul writes “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (14:18-19). Paul knew that speaking in tongues would gain him honor, but this he did not seek, so he did not engage in this publicly, which his hearers would probably think quite odd. If there was no public display and no witnesses of this speech, then what would be the point? Paul did not want to limit his impact within the church to only those gifted with the ability to interpret or understand, thus unwittingly contributing to a division and a spiritual hierarchy of elevation and exclusion. If he spoke plainly in church, then no matter how much or how little he spoke, all could share equally in the instruction. Thus, the body is strengthened. Any type of exclusion that renders some unable to participate or to be strengthened, may weaken the church.
Skipping over a few verses, though these verses do mention speaking in tongues, we come to the twenty-second verse and hear Paul say “So then, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers” (14:22a). What does he mean by this? Inevitably, this runs back to the fact that the activity of speaking in tongues, as if possessed by the spirit of a god, is not an uncommon feature of religiously-oriented assembly and would not be an unexpected component of an association that honored a particular god, as did the Christians. Offering up some reasonable conjecture, we might be able to propose that those that joined in as observers or casual witnesses of the meal-based Christian assembly, thereby placed in a position by which they witnessed such activity, would be aided in their realization that the Christians worshiped a god by the name of Jesus (a god that was crucified and said to be resurrected). Furthermore, in witnessing the nature of the activity around the meal table of the association that honored this god Jesus, whose story was substantially different than that of any other god of which they might be acquainted, the radically different social order that was to be on display in the assembly would be inescapable. Finally, when excessive honor was not conferred upon the ecstatic speaker, the unbeliever would be curious as to this fascinating diversion from accepted social practices.
The second half of the twenty-second verse has Paul writing “Prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers, but for believers” (14:22b). This, of course, is a speaking forth of the word of God. We do not approach these particular words independently of, or in isolation from the other mentions of prophecy within the same train of thought, but we hear them in the context that has been created for them. In the first verse of the chapter we find “Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” In verse three: “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation.” In verse four, “the one who prophesies builds up the church.” In verse five, with a contrast built upon what has been said about the strengthening of the church, we read “I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more than you would prophesy,” with the attachment of verse six, which reads “The one who prophesies is greater,” because the result is “the church may be strengthened.” Paul has encouraged them to abound in manifestations of the Spirit for the purpose of strengthening the church (14:12), with that strengthening also encompassing the previously mentioned encouragement and consolation, clearly connected to prophecy, and all of it in the context of pursuing the most-to-be-honored gift of love that was highlighted in the thirteenth chapter (immediately proceeding and providing the context for the fourteenth chapter and all that is there treated).
So though tongues are a sign for unbelievers, in at least the ways that we discussed, it is in this context that Paul has indicated that prophecy is for believers. How and why is this so? It is because prophecy serves to strengthen the church, which, by definition, are those that call Jesus Lord. It is those that call Jesus Lord who constitute the church, and therefore it is they who are the believers. An unbeliever is not a component of the church, as they are not going to be concerned with the making God’s kingdom present, though they may be physically present in the assembly (attending a church service is distinct from being a member of the entity that is understood as the body of Christ). The activity of prophecy however, because all are encouraged to participate without regard to position or status or honor, with no divisions at the table as befitting the messianic banquet which the church is called to model, should make a substantial impression on the unbeliever. This should be taken into consideration when and where the practice of speaking in tongues is encouraged and accepted.