The twenty-third verse of the fourteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to Corinth begins with “So if the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues” (14:23a). Stopping right there, it must be said that this would be quite the unusual event. It would be well outside the normal range of religious experience to have the entire assembly of an association demonstrating glossolalia. In the recorded history of this type of activity, the ecstatic utterances associated with the idea of being possessed by the spirit of a god was a limited occurrence. As we understand that honor, in an honor and shame society, was a limited good, and that honor would accrue to the individual or individuals said to be employed by the god for communication in need of interpretation, it is more than sensible that the activity would be limited to a select few individuals and would not occur prolifically or haphazardly. Such a thing would be quite novel.
Now if speaking in tongues was being used to create a spiritual hierarchy within the kingdom of God, this allows us to easily comprehend why there may have been a desire on the part of each person to engage in the practice, especially if this was the very Creator God, who had inhabited physical form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, now speaking through another person by His Spirit. If the Creator God had taken human form in the person of His Messiah, if that Messiah had been resurrected from the dead and was being proclaimed as having received all power and all authority as Lord of all, and if that God was now speaking through another human by means of ecstatic utterances, then it is not at all difficult to understand why an entire congregation would have wanted to be viewed as the human vessel somehow inhabited by that God. If we think along these lines, and if they are reasonable speculations, then we are not left to wonder at the particular elevation of those that spoke in tongues.
However, as has been said, this rather commonplace religious practice, to this point, has been limited in its performance. One simply did not see entire groups of people speaking in tongues. Not only would this have been counter-productive, whether within Christian associations or other gathered groups, this would also have run afoul of the honor system and its embedded functionality for society. Now, one might try to take this particular point and argue that an entire church speaking in tongues would serve to uproot the standardized systems of honor and shame, as this was certainly a portion of the missional ideal of the church and the kingdom of God (the first becoming last and the last becoming first, willingly taking the lowest place, ascribing all honor to a man that had suffered the most shameful ordeal of that age), but Paul’s words do not allow for any such thinking. If this was truly a desired goal, Paul would not write things like “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 in order to instruct others, rather than then thousand words in a tongue” (14:18-19). Also, since Paul also goes on to write “If someone speaks in a tongue, it should be two, or at the most three, one after the other, and someone must interpret” (14:27), any such argument that speaking in tongues should encompass the entire congregation falls flat.
It is the limited performance of tongues, and the limited number of people who spoke in this way within a society accustomed to witnessing a person engage in ecstatic speech, that could be the key to understanding the whole of verse twenty-three. Though he begins with “So if the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues,” he quickly digresses from any sense that this is going to be a positive thing by adding “and unbelievers or uninformed people enter, will they not say that you have lost your minds?” (14:23) Now this is not to say that the unbeliever or the uninformed should determine how Christian gatherings are conducted, but if someone in Corinth were to walk in on such an assembly, with knowledge about glossolalia, with knowledge that interpretation is a necessary feature of the practice, with knowledge that it is a limited good, and with knowledge that speaking in tongues was a component of the never-ending competition for honor, then it is quite simple to see why Paul might say such a thing.
If all were speaking in tongues, unbelievers or the uninformed, not knowing that Christ-worshipers do not compete for honor in their world or in their assemblies and association as do everyone else, would see a massive honor-competition taking place. Along with that, since glossolalia was believed to be the way that a god sometimes chose to communicate to his worshipers, presumably through one particularly devout worshiper, what kind of a god would need to speak in such a way through each person in an assembly? This immediately leads to the idea that if there were multiple people all doing the same thing at the same time, it could be presumed that there was more than one god speaking through those people, which would then run counter to the claims of the Christians there gathered.
Bearing in mind the way that an assembly-wide engagement in ecstatic speech would be viewed by the outsider, along with the importance attached to public speech acts (as those deemed to be most honorable are those that would be permitted to speak in the assembly of an association), and building on his statement that “Prophecy… is not for unbelievers, but for believers” (14:22b), Paul goes on to write “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or uninformed person enters, he will be convicted by all, he will be called to account by all” (14:24a). Does this mean that those prophesying are convicting the unbelieving or uninformed visitor to the association of their sins, of their immoral lifestyle, or of their need to “get saved”? Perhaps, but these would most likely be secondary convictions, discussed as fellowship and relationship is established.