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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
1 Corinthians 14

 

 

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Verse 1

1 COR. 14

In this the third chapter of Paul's writings specifically related to tongue speaking and other spiritual gifts, the full thrust of his purpose is revealed. It is the conviction of this writer that nothing in the history of the church has been any more misunderstood than this chapter. One can only be amazed at the near-universal acceptance of the idea that what those Corinthians were doing was actually CAUSED by the Holy Spirit! This is viewed as totally wrong with regard to all of the conduct which demanded Paul's attention.

THE GENUINE GIFT OF TONGUES

It may not be denied that there was a REAL gift of tongues belonging to some in Corinth, although this chapter does not give us much information on how that genuine gift operated. Many commentators believe that the LEGITIMATE gift of tongues at Corinth was no different from what it was on Pentecost; and there is a considerable weight of evidence to support this. Paul and Luke were friends; and the use of the same word to describe God's gift is used here which is used in Acts 2; and, since Acts was written by Luke at a time after Paul wrote the Corinthians, "It would seem logical that Luke would have noted the distinction between the two phenomena, if any existed."[1]

However, Paul taught that there was a genuine gift of "interpretation of tongues" (1 Corinthians 12:10): and this has the effect of denying the gift at Corinth any identity with the miracle of Pentecost, where no interpreter was needed. Furthermore, Paul allowed that when an interpreter was present, along with other prescribed conditions, the gift at Corinth might properly be used (1 Corinthians 14:27). From this, it seems mandatory to view the genuine gift at Corinth as different from that of Pentecost, and also of far less importance, even that genuine gift (at Corinth) being by Paul ranked last among spiritual gifts.

The genuine gift (at Corinth) was never exercised by Paul, who surely had the gift (1 Corinthians 14:18), in public assemblies of the church, at least as far as the record goes, and based upon his stated refusal to use it at Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:6ff). Paul's use of the gift, it is generally agreed, was either privately or in some missionary effort, there being utterly no word of either in the New Testament. Certainly, he didn't do it in church assemblies. The question persists regarding the authenticity of those Corinthian tongues. Can it be supposed that the Holy Spirit which led Paul to hide his gift and never use it publicly - can we suppose that the same Holy Spirit was moving in those Corinthians? No!

Whatever the genuine gift was (at Corinth), there is simply no glimpse whatever of it in this chapter. The genuine gift had to be either identical with that of Pentecost, or a far lesser thing given for the encouragement of individuals and to be used privately (1 Corinthians 14:4). It is the conviction here that the genuine gift to the Corinthians was precisely that, a demonstration of tongues for personal edification, not in the sense of learning anything, but as proof that he who had it enjoyed possession of the Holy Spirit. The need for an interpreter of the true gift proves that the possessor of it would not have known what he said, unless, of course, he also had the gift of interpreting tongues.

Does this true gift come into view in the Corinthian assemblies? Yes, but only to the extent that it had been perverted by dragging it into the public worship. However, the overwhelming certainty presses upon us that the visible tongues of Corinth were totally sinful and contrary to the will of God, being either: (1) a prostitution of a private gift for public glory in the case of the true gift, or (2) a sensational orgiastic counterfeit demonstration having no connection whatever with the Holy Spirit.

This mingling of the true (even though perverted as to purpose and use) tongues with the false is evidently the reason for Paul's tenderness in dealing with this sin. He simply did not wish to say anything that would discourage those souls who had indeed received of God the private gift of tongues for their encouragement. Since we today are dealing with a far different situation, it is proper to speak much more plainly of those bastard tongues at Corinth.

THE FALSE GIFT OF TONGUES

By the above title is meant the counterfeit, faked and pretended gift of tongues. As Billy Graham said of tongues in the United States at this present time (March 26,1976), "There is much that is counterfeit ... tongues are no evidence that a person has been baptized in the Holy Spirit."[2] It is clearly evident that the genuine gift of tongues, whether like those at Pentecost or at Corinth, perished with the age of miracles, and that all of the tongue-speaking of this generation is spurious. Graham was correct about the "counterfeit" aspect of it. Barclay also observed this and suggested how it comes about:

It (the true gift) was a dangerous gift ... greatly admired, and the possessor was very liable to develop a certain spiritual pride in his gift ... The very desire to possess it produced, at least in some, a kind of self-hypnotism and a kind of deliberately induced hysteria which issued in a completely false and deluded and synthetic speaking in tongues.[3]

The phenomenon called tongue-speaking can be faked; this writer has seen it faked; and the simple truth is that anybody can fake it. Such a thing, of course, can also be produced through the influence of a kind of mob psychology which is sometimes evidenced in religious groups. There is no understanding of this chapter without taking into account the falsity of those Corinthians tongues, but at the same time not denying a legitimate gift as then existing and having been prostituted to unholy ends. This indeed posed a delicate problem. How could the darnel be pulled up without rooting up the wheat? Paul's method of doing so was a marvel. He simply issued apostolic orders that would inevitably, if followed, diminish and destroy the bastard gift, while at the same time cautioning "not to forbid to speak in tongues" (1 Corinthians 14:39). Metz said, "It was difficult to distinguish the valid gift (of tongues) ... from an invalid expression of personal exultation."[4] It should be remembered, however, that the disappearance of apostolic miracles has removed the necessity of confusion with regard to tongue-speaking. The only kind that has ever existed since the age of the apostles has been the kind Billy Graham called "counterfeit."

Why has the phenomenon of counterfeit tongues persisted? It has been produced by people who earnestly desire to do it, and who have been led to believe it is Scriptural because of the inaccurate and misleading words in many of the "translations" of the New Testament in vogue today. For the prime example of this, see under Mark 16:18 in the Gospel of Mark, and comment in my Commentary on Mark, pp. 363-367. Such persons are sincere, to be sure, but sincerely wrong.

However, there is another force operative in the tongue-speakings of post-apostolic times, and that is satanic instigation. The pride, vainglory, envy, strife, factionalism, etc., which marked the original outbreak of counterfeit tongues was of Satan; and it may not be doubted that the evil one is still active in such things as the recurring appearance of tongue-speaking throughout Christian history.

[1] S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., Wycliffe Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 634.

[2] Billy Graham, as quoted in Christianity Today (Washington, D.C.: Today's Publications, Inc., 1976), Vol. XX, Number 13.

[3] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), p. 142.

[4] Donald S. Metz, Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 1968), p. 447.

Follow after love; yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)

Follow after love ... seems to connect with what was said in 1 Corinthians 13. "This clause belongs to the preceding chapter."[5]

Desire spiritual gifts ... prophesy ... The spiritual gift of prophecy was largely a teaching gift (1 Corinthians 14:3), but also included, at least in some cases, the ability to foretell future events. It was the teaching phase Paul stressed here, indicating that teaching was a much more desirable activity than tongue-speaking.

This gift, like all the infancy-age miracles, ceased. There are no miraculously endowed teachers today, despite Satan's having induced a few to fake even this.

ENDNOTE:

[5] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1831), Vol. VI, p. 273.


Verse 2

For he that speaketh in a tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God; for no man understandeth; but in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.

Speaketh not unto men ... This refers to the true gift of tongues as manifested in Corinth and has the information that it was PRIVATELY utilized. Any other, besides the possessor, was never to hear it done. God of course could hear.

No man understandeth ... This probably means that, even if another heard it, he would not be able to understand it; and it appears that the speaker also could not understand it, unless he had the gift of interpretation. If there was an interpreter, then others might be permitted to hear both the tongue and the interpretation.

In view here is the almost total uselessness of this gift in the area of instructing the church, even the true gift.


Verse 3

But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men edification, and exhortation, and consolation.

Even the utility of the gift of prophecy was here said to perform the same services usually associated with ordinary teaching. This shows how unspectacular it was as compared with tongues.


Verse 4

He that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

Edifieth himself ... The true gift of tongues benefited not others but the tongue-speaker himself. Since not even he understood what was said ("no man understandeth"), the nature of that edification would appear to have been the confirmation to him (by the gift) of his having received the Holy Spirit. No man today could need any such confirmation because the New Testament makes it clear that all believers who repent and are baptized into Christ enjoy the promise of the sacred Scriptures that they will in consequence of their obedience and subsequently to their obedience receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38ff); and that word is all the confirmation that any true believer really needs.

He that prophesieth edifieth the church ... The word from which the Pauline expression "edifieth" is translated is related to the building up of an edifice; and Paul demanded that EVERYTHING ("all things, 1 Corinthians 14:26) be done unto edification of the church. This requirement alone demanded the omission of tongues from all church services.


Verse 5

Now I would have you all speak with tongues, but rather that ye should prophesy: and greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edification.

I would have you all speak with tongues ... The true gift was referred to here; but even of it the apostle said that teaching and edifying the church constituted a far better thing.

Except he interpret ... Despite Paul's mention of the interpretation of tongues as a genuine gift, the possibility in view here that even the tongue-speaker himself might possess it, it does not appear in this chapter that any of the Corinthians were said to have this gift. Only the possibility that they might have it is indicated.

Greater is he that prophesieth ... The teacher did more good and was therefore greater than the tongue-speaker.


Verse 6

But now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching.

What shall I profit you ... means "I shall not profit you in any manner at all," if I come to you speaking in tongues. This was Paul's refusal to speak in tongues in the Christian assembly at Corinth; and it is safe to assume that he never did so anywhere else. The only way that even an apostle could benefit his hearers was by preaching to them.

By way of revelation ... refers to what was revealed in Scripture.

"Or of knowledge" refers to the spiritual gift of knowledge which Paul assuredly had.

Or of prophesying ... refers to intelligible teachings given by the Holy Spirit to Paul as a spiritual gift.

Or of teaching ... refers to ordinary teaching of what was learned from others, orally or through study of their writings.

Here again the essentially private nature of the true gift of tongues is implicit and demanded by the context.


Verse 7

Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?

If such an illustration as this has any meaning, it has to be that uninterpreted tongues are as noisy, disagreeable, useless, cacophonous and worthless as a kitten on the keys of a piano. Paul, of course, made the comparison with instruments known in his day.


Verse 8

For if the trumpet give an uncertain voice, who shall prepare himself for war?

The meaning of this is exactly the same as in 1 Corinthians 14:7, the repetition of the thought using another illustration was for emphasis. Uninterpreted tongues were as disastrous as the efforts of a military bugler whose unintelligible blasts could not be distinguished either as a call to charge, a call to retreat, or a call to go to bed!


Verse 9

So also ye, unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye will be speaking into the air.

The force of 1 Corinthians 14:7-9 is that the false tongues of Corinth were unintelligible nonsense, having no meaning whatever, being nothing more than jabberings of orgiastic demonstrators; and here was the delicate part of the whole situation, the UNINTERPRETED manifestations of the genuine gift itself resembled the false tongues so perfectly that no one on earth could have told any difference! It was a master stroke of the devil that he had prevailed upon some who had the true gift to bring it into the public worship; and therefore, when Paul condemned the false, his care not to discourage the true variety of tongues resulted in an occasion of misunderstanding of this subject for centuries afterward. What Paul said here is applicable to both varieties of tongues, both kinds being forbidden in public worship, the true kind because it was not interpreted and had no business in the public worship to start with, and the false kind because it was nothing but pure nonsense anyway.

The essential thing to see is the close likeness in appearance of the two kinds of tongues; and this is paramount as an indication that the true tongues of Corinth were unlike those of Pentecost.


Verse 10

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and no kind is without signification. If then I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh will be a barbarian unto me.

These verses are a recapitulation of the argument in 1 Corinthians 14:7-9, the conclusion being that any kind of jargon or gobbledegook, such as tongues, which cannot be understood by the hearers, is condemned.

Barbarian ... in ancient times meant merely one who did not speak Greek. Paul encountered some of these "barbarians" on his mission tours, namely, at Malta and at Lycaonia (Acts 14:11); and significantly Paul did not understand the dialect of the Lycaonians, this being another reason to suppose that Paul's gift of tongues did not include the gift of speaking in languages he had never learned, but was rather for private encouragement.


Verse 12

So also ye, since ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may abound unto the edifying of the church.

The teacher of the word of God is the true hero, not the tongue-speaker. It is simply incredible that the people affecting to speak in tongues could really imagine that they are doing any good. One humble teacher of the word of God does more good than a thousand tongue-speakers, even if their alleged "gift" should be accepted as genuine. Why then should intelligent people bother with it, or be impressed with it, or make any excuses whatever for it? This whole section of this chapter (1 Corinthians 14:1-12), if it had any purpose at all, was to get rid of tongue-speaking in the assemblies of the church in Corinth, with the delicate purpose of Paul, always in view, not to discourage any real gift that might have existed there.


Verse 13

Wherefore let him that speaketh in a tongue pray that he may interpret.

That he may interpret ... Again, no certainty that any interpreters existed at Corinth appears here. Paul's admonition that they should pray to be able to interpret is, on the contrary, a declaration that they could not interpret.


Verse 14

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.

As Lipscomb said with reference to this and 1 Corinthians 14:15:

Neither the KJV nor the English Revised Version (1885) is correct here. The thought evidently is, "I will sing as the Spirit directs or inspires, and I will sing in a language that those who hear can understand."... The following verse shows clearly that Paul's meaning is: "I will pray and sing by the inspiration of the Spirit, and in a language that they will understand to their profit."[6]

The inference that must be made from this and the next verses is that the tongue-speakers had even taken over the songs and prayers of the public worship! Of course, Paul would not countenance anything of that kind.

The quotation of these verses in the sense of people singing and praying in the public services "with the spirit and the understanding" is based upon an incorrect discernment of their meaning. It is not the subjective understanding of the participant that is meant, but the objective purpose of conveying understanding to others.

ENDNOTE:

[6] David Lipscomb, Commentary on First Corinthians (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1935), p. 208.


Verse 15

What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

What is it then? ... McGarvey understood this is idiomatic for "What is the conclusion of the argument?"[7] We might state the argument as this: "Therefore, let's have no more of this tongue business in the songs and prayers; let everything be done in a language everybody can understand."

ENDNOTE:

[7] J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on First Corinthians (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1916), p. 137.


Verse 16

Else if thou bless with the spirit, how shall he that filleth the place of the unlearned say the Amen at the giving of thy thanks, seeing he knoweth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.

Say the Amen ... It was customary from the earliest times for Christians to say Amen to the public prayers and thanksgivings of the church. Any use of a tongue in such prayers contravened the purpose of congregational participation in the public prayers; and it is an error, therefore, to suppose that the Holy Spirit was guiding those tongue-speakers to do anything of that kind. The Blessed Spirit never operated against the will of God. Therefore, we view Paul's words, "Verily givest thanks well? as absolutely sarcastic, meaning that no matter how "well" they thought they were giving thanks, the Holy Spirit was opposed to what they were doing, on the simple grounds that the rest of the congregation would not know "what thou sayest." It is the failure to see the essential sin of that whole tongue-speaking outburst (of both kinds) which has blinded people to the teaching of this chapter. To suppose that the Holy Spirit was actually guiding those ostentatious leaders of the public prayers, or songs, so that they were doing so in tongues, is absolutely an impossibility.


Verse 18

I thank God, I speak with tongues more than ye all.

This is the verse, beyond all others, that is supposed to take the lid off tongue-speaking and to legitimatize it for all generations; but this cannot be. We have already noted that Paul never used the gift in the presence of others, or in church assemblies. Furthermore, Paul's speaking in tongues "more than ye all" is tremendously significant. His speaking in tongues was genuine, a true gift, to edify himself; the "gifts" he was correcting were (1) either the misused genuine gifts, or (2) the affectations of the tongue counterfeiters; well, actually both of these were condemned.

What then was the apostle's purpose in bringing up the fact that he himself spoke in tongues? Bruce gave the probable explanation thus:

His speaking with tongues belonged to the sphere of his private devotions. We should not have known of his possessing this gift (even in this passage) were it not that his possessing it in an exceptional degree gave him the undeniable right to put it in its place in relation to other spiritual gifts.[8]

If Paul had not possessed the gift, some of his critics would have responded merely by saying, "Well, you know nothing about it." As it was, Paul's possession of the gift superlatively enabled him to pour a pitcher of ice water over the whole practice. Bruce further commented on what Paul did here, saying, "(This was) a master-touch which leaves the enthusiasts completely outclassed and out-maneuvered on their own ground."[9]

The tongue-speaking fraternity cannot claim Paul as an advocate of their practices, there being no record whatever that he ever did it in the presence of another human being; and, besides, his gift was the real thing!

[8] F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), p. 99.

[9] Ibid.


Verse 19

Howbeit in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Well, there it is! Anyone in possession of God's Spirit would have exactly the same attitude; but no, the tongue-speakers would rather speak ten thousand words in tongues than five words that anybody could understand!

In the church ... "This of course refers to the Christian assembly."[10] All of Paul's tongue-speaking was apparently done in private devotions.

ENDNOTE:

[10] Leon Morris, Tyndale Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), p. 196.


Verse 20

Brethren, be not children in mind: yet in malice be ye babes, but in mind be men.

No new paragraph begins here, such a division being arbitrary and incorrect. There is a continuation of the thought of the foolishness of tongue-speaking. The three phases of mortal life: babies, children, and men were intended to explain the whole matter of spiritual gifts, belonging as they did to the infancy and childhood age of the church, and not to its maturity. This is therefore a call for the Corinthians to stop chasing after tongues and to grow up spiritually. As McGarvey said it:

All Christians who mistakenly yearn for a renewal of those spiritual gifts, should note the clear import of these words of the apostle, which show that their presence in the church would be an evidence of weakness and immaturity, rather than of fully developed power and seasoned strength.[11]

In this connection, see also 1 Corinthians 13:8-11, above.

ENDNOTE:

[11] J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 132.


Verse 21

In the law it is written, By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers will I speak unto this people; and not even thus will they hear me, saith the Lord.

Paul here quoted Isaiah 28:11, where strange tongues were a chastisement for the unbelief of God's people, in that they were made to hear God's voice speaking to them in the unknown tongue uttering harsh commands given by the foreign invader. As Metz said:

Paul now introduces an extremely sober note. Whereas the Corinthians regarded speaking in tongues as something to be desired, Paul pointed out that it might be a sign of God's displeasure and punishment.[12]

ENDNOTE:

[12] Donald S. Metz, op. cit., p. 450.


Verse 22

Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to the unbelieving: but prophesying is for a sign, not to the unbelieving, but to them that believe.

Tongues in a church are not a sign of God's blessing at all, any more than the foreign tongue of the invader was a blessing of God in Jerusalem, but just the opposite! Tongues in a church? Not as long as there is a single believer in it! The notion that speaking in tongues is to convert unbelievers is foreign to this text. It does just the opposite of converting unbelievers, with the result that they turn aside in disgust, as Paul stated in the very next verse.

Prophesying a sign ... to them that believe ... The fact of Paul's calling it a "sign" for believers instead of saying that it was merely for the benefit of believers indicates that the miraculous endowment of certain teachers in the primitive church is in view. It must have been of great value to have such directly inspired teachers in that age of the church (the infancy age); and the foolishness of the Corinthians is seen in their astounding preference for the showy gift of tongues, instead of honoring and preferring a gift that could have blessed and benefited.


Verse 23

If therefore the whole church be assembled together and all speak with tongues, and there come in men unlearned or unbelieving, will they not say that ye are mad?

Far from being an instrument of converting unbelievers, or being some kind of sign that would help unbelievers to believe, tongues in a public assembly were a positive hindrance, resulting not in the conversion of any but in the judgment against Christians to the effect that they were all crazy. It should be carefully noted that what was true of the counterfeit tongues in this respect was also true of any genuine tongues exercised without an interpreter's presence to tell what was said. And if this was true in those days, how much more is it true today, generations and centuries after the true gift disappeared altogether.

Incidentally, it is quite obvious that the assemblies of the early Christians were open meetings, free to be attended by any who might wish to do so.


Verse 24

But if all prophesy, and there come in one unbelieving or unlearned, he is reproved by all, he is judged by all.

If all prophesy ... This answers to "if all speak with tongues" in the preceding verse; but what is meant in both cases is a reference to "all who participate publicly," instead of being an affirmation that all were speaking at one time. However, despite the absence of that thought from this particular verse, it was true of the tongue-speakers that they were all speaking at once. This is a mandatory conclusion based on Paul's order that the speakers should speak "one at a time," or "in turn" (1 Corinthians 14:27).

Reproved by all, ... judged by all ... has reference to the power of a decently ordered service featuring intelligible speakers to move the unregenerated to accept the gospel, as stated in the next verse.


Verse 25

The secrets of his heart are made manifest; and so he will fall down on his face and worship God, declaring that God is among you.

Many in all ages have prostrated themselves before God in worship and in prayers, and the admissibility of this as legitimate is plain enough in this verse. There is no rule, however, that this must always be done.

Fall down on his face and worship God ... "Power to make unbelieving visitors fall down on their faces and worship God, O for such today, instead of dead formalism on one hand and irreverent monkey business on the other!"[13]

ENDNOTE:

[13] Henry H. Halley, Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1927), p. 549.


Verse 26

What is it then, brethren? When ye come together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

The spontaneous, informal nature of the early church services is clearly visible. There could have been no set program in advance, with even the words that people would say written down a week ahead. There cannot be any doubt that formalism, which is the current religious style, and which certainly corrected the shameful disorders like those at Corinth, has nevertheless left many a congregation in a state of abiosis.

Psalm ... probably refers to a song, or hymn composed by the worshiper during the previous week, or at least one he had learned. There were no hymn books or congregational singing, except tunes sung in unison; and four-part harmony had not been invented. A very early description of Christian worship stated that "they sang by turns a hymn to Christ as God";[14] and there can hardly be any doubt that this was true.

Teaching ... would refer to the instruction of ordinary, uninspired teachers; and in this, it corresponds roughly to preaching in the present time.

Revelation ... is a reference to the words of an inspired, miraculously endowed teacher who had "the gift of prophecy" as used in this chapter.

Tongue ... would mean, not the counterfeited non-sensical "utterings" of the fakers, but the real gift (with the great big IF stated in 1 Corinthians 14:29, IF there was an interpreter). The frequency in this chapter of that condition coming into view, always with the uncertainty of "may" or "if" connected with it, strongly suggests that there might not have been very many interpreters at Corinth.

Interpretation ... This was mentioned along with "tongue" to bind the two inseparably together; and it seems plausible that by this inclusion Paul did not mean to certify the fact of there actually being interpreters of tongues in Corinth, but rather as a device of eliminating tongues altogether UNLESS this condition was fulfilled (having an interpreter). Certainly the fact is plain enough that there was a POSSIBILITY of no such interpreter being present; and therefore Paul gave the order that if none indeed was present, tongues were not to be used under any circumstances (1 Corinthians 14:28-28).

Let all things be done unto edifying ... This has the weight of "no tongues in any case," except, of course, if such might have been duly interpreted by an inspired interpreter.

ENDNOTE:

[14] Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 6.


Verse 27

If any man speaketh in a tongue, let it be by two, or at most three, and that in turn; and let one interpret: but if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

There are a number of rules in these two verses which must be observed whenever tongues may be used. These are:

1. No more than three may speak in a tongue on any given occasion.

2. All tongue-speaking must be done "in turn," that is, by persons speaking one at a time.

3. On no occasion may tongues be used unless an interpreter is standing by to tell the audience every word that was spoken.SIZE>

To these prohibitions, there must be added a number of others which are given in this chapter, including these:

4. Everything must be done unto edifying, and tongues do not edify.

5. Love is a better thing to practice than speaking in tongues.

6. Five intelligible words are to be preferred to ten thousand in an uninterpreted tongue.

7. Under no circumstances let the women do it (1 Corinthians 14:34), interpreter or no interpreter.

8. Greater is the teacher than the tongue-speaker.

9. Uninterpreted tongues will cause outsiders to say, "Ye are mad."SIZE>

An analysis of the above apostolic rules on tongue-speaking will emphasize the importance of the inspired interpreter, the gift of interpretation itself being one of the miraculous gifts; and Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14:28 that, "If there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church," still leaves the possibility that there were not any in Corinth who had that gift. This might very well have been Paul's way of putting the terminator on tongues without discouraging any who might really have had the genuine gift. Certainly, the lack of authentic interpretation in the present times raises the most serious questions and goes far to prove the invalid nature of that which passes for tongue-speaking today. Has any revelation been delivered to mankind since the days of the apostles by means of the gift of tongues duly interpreted? If so, where is it? Has there ever been preserved any of this supernatural wisdom that is said to be imparted to people by means of tongues? If so, who has ever heard a single word of it? If it is a fact that God is speaking in such a manner to people today, and that there are interpreters who might tell what is spoken, why has it not been published, in order for all people to be able to share in it?

The things spoken by alleged interpreters who are conveying present-day messages received through tongues are nothing new, being for the most part garbled and confused bits of teaching gleaned piecemeal from smatterings of religious texts, being in no sense whatever any such thing as a coherent and enlightening communication from Almighty God. In a word, all the post-apostolic tongue-speakings for nineteen centuries have not contributed one authentic sentence to the revealed will of God, like that in the New Testament. If this does not condemn the whole monstrous aberration, then how on earth could it be condemned? The blunt, dogmatic apostolic answer to tongue-speakings is just this: "but if there be no interpreter!" We know there are no authenticated holders of this gift today; and the strong suggestion persists in this whole chapter that there were none of that class in Corinth.

Speak to himself and to God ... This stresses the private nature of the true gift; and the apostolic order for it not to be used in church (without an interpreter) removed the only possible reason why the counterfeiters were faking it, making it impossible for them to accumulate any flattery or "glory" from the display of their "abilities" publicly.


Verse 29

And let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern. But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence. For ye all can prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.

In a word, these four verses lay down practically the same rules for the prophets as those applying to those having the tongues (of either kind). There were not to be over three on any one occasion; two may not speak at once; and if one prophet was interrupted by another, that was the end of the first prophet's message! This would have made for shorter services, since the probable result was that they could run through the maximum number of three rather quickly under those rules!

The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets ... means that any true prophet could control his speaking; there was not any such thing as an irresistible compulsion for any TRUE prophet to speak. Rules like these carry the strong implication that some at Corinth had claimed otherwise.

Putting together all of Paul's regulations, the conclusion persists that there were also false prophets engaging in the free-for-all orgiastic demonstrations going on in Corinth. Certainly, in the case of the tongue speakers: (1) they were all speaking at once, (2) perhaps dozens were participating every Sunday, and (3) such a thing as interpreting what was spoken in tongues had been ignored altogether.


Verse 33

For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.

This adds another dimension to Paul's picture of the Corinthian assembles: they were scandalous examples of utter and complete confusion. Was God the author of it? Certainly not! Is he the author of similar confusion in our own times? Certainly not! Who is the author of such confusion? Both then and now the author is Satan.


Verse 34

As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law.

Before dealing with this as it may be applied in all generations, it should first be observed that the primary meaning has to be, "Do not let the women speak in tongues under any circumstances." This command comes right in the middle of an extensive treatise on tongue-speaking; and to blow this up to a universal law that no woman might open her mouth in a church service is simply contrary to all reason. As Glenn Wallace once paraphrased this: "As for tongue-speaking, don't let the gals do it at all!" This applied even if an interpreter was present.

It is not permitted unto them to speak ... That is, it was not permitted for them to speak in tongues, that having been the subject Paul was discussing. Significantly, even in these times of the alleged reappearance of this gift, it is almost invariably the women who catch on to it first, and later their husbands. Thus Pat gets it from Shirley, Tom gets it from Mabel, etc., just like Adam took the forbidden fruit from the hands of Eve.

But let them be in subjection, as also saith the law ... This prohibition was directed against the arrogant leadership of some of the Corinthian women in the promotion of a fad, that of speaking in tongues. Their vigorous advocacy of it had cast them in a role of immodesty and rebellion even against their husbands, hence Paul's rule as stated here. It was this sinful usurpation of their husbands' status as head of the family which was the essence of their wrongdoing. Not so much their voices being heard in a Christian assembly, but the rejection of lawful authority, is the thing suggested by Paul's statement that the Law of Moses forbade it.

The impossibility of reconciling the radically opposed views of scholars and commentators on this passage has the effect of sending us back to the Old Testament, to which Paul appealed in this verse.

Upon the occasion of the creation and fall, God said to Eve, "Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" (Genesis 3:16). Even prior to that, Eve was designated as a "help" suitable for man (Genesis 2:18). Thus, from the very beginning the authority of the family was vested in the man. The Corinthian women had violated that intention and Paul immediately assigned two reasons for forbidding the action (speaking in tongues publicly) which frustrated God's purpose.

These reasons were: (1) The Old Testament gave man the authority over the family, as in verses cited above, and (2) the customs of the age made it shameful for a woman to speak in public. The first of these reasons, of course, is the greater, the other having been removed by the customs of subsequent ages. Some would do away with these rules altogether on the grounds that there is "neither male nor female" in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28); but, as McGarvey declared, "This is unwarranted; for while the gospel emancipated woman, it did not change her natural relation"[15] in the hierarchy of the family. From this, it is to be inferred that rule (1) is still operative in the sense in which it is applied in the Old Testament. Paul's appeal here to the Old Testament proves this. What then was the force of the rule under the old covenant?

1. Many exceptions to the rule were allowed and approved by God.

(a) Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her (Exodus 15:20).

(b) And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time ... and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment (Judges 4:4,5).

(c) So Hilkiah the priest ... went unto Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum ... and they communed with her (2 Kings 22:14).

Clearly, the prophetesses of the Old Testament exercised their gift publicly, even the priests and the king being subject to what they said.

Is it any different in the New Testament? Note the following:

(a) And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel ... which departed not from the temple ... and spake of him (Christ) to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem (Luke 2:36-38).

(b) The apostle Peter, on Pentecost, cited the Old Testament Scriptures which prophesied that in the times of the new covenant, "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Acts 2:17).

From these passages from both testaments, it is clear that the total exclusion of women from any public speaking did not occur, nor was the action of such women construed as "usurping authority" over a man. Anna spoke openly in the temple to everybody; and all Israel went "up to Deborah" for judgment.

The whole tenor of the Bible, therefore, forbids the arbitrary enforcement of Paul's "Let your women keep silent" beyond the theater of its first application. Again from McGarvey:

The powers of woman have become so developed, and her privileges have been so extended in gospel lands, that it is no longer shameful for her to speak in public; but the failing of one reason is not the cessation of both. The Christian conscience has therefore interpreted Paul's rule rightly when it applies it generally and admits of exceptions.[16]

Of course, the gift of prophecy is no longer found in the church; but again to quote McGarvey:

The gift of prophecy no longer exists; but, by the law of analogy, those women who have a marked ability, either for exhortation or instruction, are permitted to speak in the churches. ... The law is permanent, but the application of it may vary. If man universally gives woman permission to speak, she is free from the law in this respect.[17]

McGarvey's comment written during the previous century cannot be set aside as a mere catering to current trends.

In this context, it is not amiss to point out that the appearances of prophetesses in both Old Testament and New Testament seem to have been simultaneous with periods of decadence and spiritual lethargy.

George W. DeHoff, a current church leader and a scholar of great discernment, vigorously supported McGarvey's position on this question, saying:

No verse in the Bible teaches that women must teach God's word at home, or in private, those limitations having been added by false teachers. Any teaching that does not usurp authority over a man does not violate this passage.[18]

Some things, however, are forbidden to women in the Christian religion. By Scriptural definition, a woman may not be an elder of the church, nor a deacon, nor an evangelist. Phoebe (Romans 16:1) was not a deacon in any official sense. See comment on this in my Commentary on Romans, pp. 508-510. Churches presuming to appoint deaconesses do so without Scriptural authority, and without any guidelines as to the needful qualifications.

Women may not be appointed to the eldership of a church, because, like most men, they are unqualified. None of them may be "the husband of one wife," etc. Moreover the essential authority of the eldership is such that a woman's place in it would violate the primal law regarding her lawful subordination to her husband. To make a woman an elder would indeed "usurp authority over a man," in fact all the men of her congregation. The idea of "teaching a man" as a violation of that law is, however, far-fetched. Did Priscilla usurp authority over Apollos when she (and her husband) taught him the word of God (Acts 18:24ff)?

Women may not be evangelists. The notable violations of this during our own times have in no sense cast any reflections upon the wisdom of this rule, but rather have confirmed it as divine. The office of the evangelist is one of authority in the name of God; and as DeHoff expressed it:

She cannot be an evangelist for the reason that an evangelist must rebuke with all authority, the very thing the inspired apostle Paul has forbidden her to do (1 Timothy 2:11,12); but women who are faithful Christians may certainly teach God's word in Bible classes, at home or in the meeting house.[19]

What is said of women being elders, deacons or evangelists is also true of their being "preachers" in any sense whatever; because it is the duty of all preachers to be evangelists, even if their preaching sometimes gives little evidence of respecting their commission. Every preacher or evangelist is commanded to "Reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (1 Timothy 4:2).

[15] J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on First Corinthians (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1916), p. 143.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] George W. DeHoff, Sermons on First Corinthians (Murfreesboro, Tennessee: The Christian Press, 1947), p. 99.

[19] Ibid., p. 100.


Verse 35

And if they would learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.

The women under consideration in this order were married, nothing whatever being said of widows, spinsters or the unmarried; and they were also ignorant, as indicated by "if they would learn anything." To make this a universal rule for all women is to ignore the limitations evident in the passage. As McGarvey said, "To understand the passage we should know the ignorance, garrulity and degradation of Oriental women."[20] This was addressed to abuses of the formal worship by women of a certain class in an ancient culture. See under 1 Corinthians 14:34, above. What about the woman whose husband is an ignoramus, an unbeliever, or an open enemy of God and all religion; should she comply with this rule? Until it is affirmed that she should, it is a sin to make this rule universal.

ENDNOTE:

[20] J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 143.


Verse 36

What, was it from you that the word of God sent forth? or came it from you alone?

This was Paul's sarcastic denunciation of the pretensions of the Corinthians, having the impact of "Surely, you people could not believe that you are some kind of Mother Church!"


Verse 37

If any man thinketh himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him take knowledge of the things which I write unto you, that they are the commandment of the Lord.

All Christians of all ages should heed this verse. Difficult as some of Paul's intentions may be for people to discern, the unqualified inspiration of this chapter, and the entire epistle, must be received. Tongue speakers may not set aside the rules designed to control and eliminate tongues; but it is equally true that churches may not set aside the limitations imposed upon women in the realm of authority, in evangelism, and in holding offices of authority in the church.


Verse 38

But if any man is ignorant, let him be ignorant.

As Kelcy pointed out, "There is good textual authority for rendering this verse as the RSV does: "If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized."[21]

ENDNOTE:

[21] Raymond C. Kelcy, First Corinthians (Austin, Texas: R. B. Sweet Co., Inc., 1967), p. 69.


Verse 39

Wherefore my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. But let all things be done decently and in order.

To prophesy ... While still refusing to forbid tongues categorically, for fear of wounding some with the real gift, Paul again stressed the superiority of teaching, commanding here that the brethren should desire to teach, not to speak in tongues.

Forbid not to speak with tongues ... Throughout this chapter, it has been stressed that the existence of actual gifts of tongue-speaking and interpretation made it impossible to declare all such things out of order. Despite this forbearance, there never was a church anywhere which could practice tongue-speakings while observing Paul's rules, which inevitably diminished them to the vanishing point; and which, after the cessation of miraculous gifts, eliminated them altogether.

Let all things be done decently and in order ... This is the golden rule for organizing and conducting public worship services of the church in all ages. The first announcement of it came in a situation where it was drastically needed; and, despite the fact that over-formalization may occur from an over-zealous enforcement of it, it is the failure to enforce it at all which distinguishes many so-called "free" religious groups today.

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/1-corinthians-14.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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