This benefit of the body is a component of Paul’s continued focus on the issue of speaking in tongues. He continues: “There are probably many kinds of languages in the world, and none is without meaning. If I then I do not know the meaning of a language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. It is the same for you” (1 Corinthians 14:10-12a). There might be a tendency to get hung up on these words, with an attempt to discern if Paul is indicating that the ecstatic speech is more than just a string of incomprehensible syllables.
This mention of “languages” may prod some to compare the ecstatic speech being practiced in the Corinthian church with the events of the second chapter of Acts, in which the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4). This is often seen as a proof text for justification of the practice. It is not likely that Paul had justification of the practice of speaking in tongues in mind. After all, it was a historically accepted and understood religious practice, and it did no harm unless it caused divisions in the church. So the nature of the speech was not Paul’s abiding concern.
With the words quoted, it is Paul’s use of “foreigner” that should grab attention. Because he is dealing with activities that take place within the assembly, someone being made to feel like a “foreigner” would be problematic. An attendee may feel cut off from the proceedings, feeling as if there are components of what is there taking place of which they may be unworthy in some way. Any feelings of isolation or distance from the fellowship of the assembled church would militate against unity. Of course, this commentary by Paul runs back to the question asked in the sixth verse, which was “Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or prophecy or teaching?”
Once again, the issue is being helpful to the body. This question is nicely bookended by the remainder of verse twelve, which read “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church” (14:12b). Indeed, if there is a desire to abound in manifestations of the Spirit, those manifestations should abound in such a manner that the church is strengthened. It is this that is Paul’s abiding concern.
Paul is not surprised by the ecstatic utterances, nor is he about to limit the manifestation of the Spirit to the same. For Paul, the evidence of the presence of the Creator God’s Spirit, regardless of the activity in which one is engaged, is the strengthening of the church. This can be accomplished in an unimaginable number of ways, which is what makes it absolutely impossible to create lists of the gifts of God’s Spirit. To the end of strengthening the church in connection with speaking in tongues, Paul goes on to write “So then, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret” (14:13). To that he adds: “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unproductive” (14:14).
This is not new ground. Speaking in tongues, as an accepted and widespread religious practice that was understood to be the result of a god taking over the mind of a worshiper, was looked at in this way. So Paul asks: “What should I do?” (14:15a) He answers his own question with “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing praises with my spirit, but I will also sing praises with my mind” (14:15b). Paul is not devaluing speaking in tongues by contrasting mind and spirit, nor is he elevating activity that is mind oriented. He is simply discussing speaking in tongues as it was then widely understood.