In chapter fourteen of the first Corinthian letter, we read “Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (14:1). Why does Paul here highlight the activity of prophecy? It is because “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation” (14:3). The contrast to the one who prophesies, for this church, are those that are engaging in glossolalia, or speaking in tongues (a common and established, spanning a number of religions). Drawing out that contrast, Paul writes “the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit” (14:2). Because Paul is here engaging in a rhetorical action here, we cannot isolate the statement here in verse two or in other verses. It demands to be heard in contrast. So when we hear that “the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God,” and that “he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit,” we don’t throw up our hands in a glorious salute to spirituality. Rather, we hear it in juxtaposition to what Paul says about the one who prophesies, who “speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation.”
This directs our attention away from a judgment call about the propriety of speaking in tongues, directing us instead to a consideration of the motivations for speaking in tongues. With the honor accorded to public speech acts, and the honor that would be accorded to the person that is said to be possessed by the spirit of a god when engaging in the ecstatic and incomprehensible speech, the motivation of those doing so in Corinth is called into question. It follows then that when Paul writes “The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up” (14:4a), he is not making this assertion as if it is a good thing. Once again, it stands in contrast to what follows, which is “but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (14:4b). In this case, and in consideration of the honor and shame culture, and especially the divisions in Corinth when it came to the meal gatherings and the divisions in the church, a person building himself up asks to be viewed as a negative. He builds himself up because he is more concerned about his honor and demonstrating in historically acceptable ways his special relationship with his god, whereas the person that prophesies, by engaging in strengthening, encouragement, and consolation, is concerned about the church---concerned about the body of believers.
Paul does not rule out speaking in tongues, but he also does not make it a litmus test for the identification of one that is filled with the Spirit of God. He apparently sees it as a legitimate expression, but is concerned with why it is being employed and what results from its employment within the gathered church. To that point, he writes “I wish you all spoke in tongues” (14:5a). Indeed, if all spoke in tongues, then there would be no opportunity for one person to gain undue honor from the practice, thus eliminating the problem as he sees it. Here, we must be careful not to assert that Paul desires for this to be the norm among Christians. We have to hear it from within the context, which is that of the pursuit of honor in connection with speaking in tongues. If all speak in tongues, then there will be no special awarding or assignment of honor to the speaker. Paul understands that it is not the case, nor is it going to be the case that all speak in tongues, as we can presume there was no historical precedent for such a thing, and concludes his statement with “but even more that you would prophesy” (14:5b).
Why? The reason is at least two-fold. Paul wants all to prophesy because it leads to the strengthening, encouragement, and consolation of the entire body of believers, whereas ecstatic speech, in the historical records of the practice, and within this early church, generally leads to the elevation of one person above the rest. With this sensibility created, it feels as if Paul engages in a bit of shaming of those that are vaunted or vaunting themselves owing to their glossolalia, writing “The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened” (14:5c). It becomes apparent that interpretation was not a regular component of the glossolalia in Corinth. Without interpretation, there could be no strengthening of the church (which is Paul’s desire), only of the individual, for it is interpretation that turns the ecstatic speech into prophecy. Commensurately, the necessity of interpretation reduces the honor of the ecstatic speaker, as the interpreter is elevated in honor as well.
Paul’s concern is with that which is good for the body, and ultimately, with that which brings honor to Jesus. A strengthened body, rooted in equality and preference of others, completely unconcerned with honor and shame competitions, would accomplish this quite well. With what we are hearing from Paul, it becomes clear that some of the members of this church had highly elevated that which they referred to and classified as the “spiritual gifts,” which is reflected in the list that can be found in chapter twelve. Owing to the extensive treatment that speaking in tongues receives (as we consider the wider context and movement of the letter), it appears that the ability to speak in tongues was the most prominent of those abilities---affording the highest degree of honor to those engaging in the activity.