Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. – 1 Corinthians 14:20-25 ESV
The Corinthians had revealed their spiritual immaturity to Paul by elevating the gift of tongues to a primary position. They saw speaking in tongues as a sign of spirituality and were pursuing and practicing that gift to the detriment of the body of Christ. So Paul calls them out and encourages them to “grow up” in their thinking. It is one thing to be innocent when it comes to evil, but they were acting like children when it came to the gifts God had given to the church. They were enamored by the more showy, flamboyant gifts and were allowing jealousy, pride and envy to characterize their use of the gifts, rather than the mutual edification of one another.
One of the most important distinctions Paul makes about the gift of tongues is regarding its purpose or objective. He quotes a passage from Isaiah 28 to show that tongues “are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22 ESV). The context of the Isaiah passage is that God had sent Isaiah to warn the people of Israel of the coming invasion of the Assyrians. He has been calling them to repent and return to Him as their God, but they have stubbornly refused the calls of the prophet, Isaiah. Isaiah had been speaking to them in their own language, but they had refused to listen. So Isaiah warns them that God was going to send the Assyrians, and “by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people” (Isaiah 28:11 ESV). Their unbelief and stubbornness was going to force God to punish them by sending them into captivity, but even then they would not repent.
Paul is trying to get them to think logically and maturely about their view of tongues. He even uses a real-life scenario to make his point. “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Corinthians 14:23 ESV). In other words, if tongues is the superior gift they seem to think it is and everyone in the church practiced it at the same time, what would unbelievers think when they walked in the door and experienced the chaos and confusion firsthand? They would most likely conclude that Christians were crazy. Rather than see Christians living and worshiping together in unity, they would experience a spirit of competition. Instead of hearing a clearly articulated and understandable delivery of the gospel, they would walk away confused and convinced that Christianity was no different than the pagan religions with which they were already familiar. It is important to note that Paul is describing a time of corporate worship. This is supposed to be a time when the body of Christ gathers for worship and mutual edification.
If we look back at Acts 2 and see the first evidence of the gift of tongues being used, we see that it was not during a time of corporate worship. They had been waiting together in a room, just as Jesus had instructed them to do. And then something happened.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:1-4 ESV
And there was a purpose behind this one-of-a-kind event. Luke goes on to record:
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? – Acts 2:5-8 ESV
In this case, they all spoke in tongues at the same time. A scenario much like Paul described in his example. But the reason was simple. There were thousands of people present who were from other countries and who spoke other languages. And each was able to hear what was being said in their own language. And the result of this amazing event was that 3,000 people came to faith in Christ. The gift of tongues had a purpose. It was God-ordained and Holy Spirit-directed. But this was not intended to be the norm. It was not a prescribed method or form of worship for the early church. And yet the Corinthians had childishly elevated tongues to a superior position, misunderstanding its purpose and missing the point behind what God was trying to do in their midst.
Ultimately, Paul was interested in heart change. He compares tongues with the gift of prophecy, describing another scenario in which a lost person visits the corporate worship service. This time, rather than confusion and chaos, they hear the truth being proclaimed through the gift of prophecy. Paul says, “they will be convicted of sin and judged by what you say. As they listen, their secret thoughts will be exposed, and they will fall to their knees and worship God, declaring, ‘God is truly here among you’” (1 Corinthians 14:24;25 NLT). Understandable truth results in undeniable heart change. Revelation brings about redemption. Edification and evangelism were the primary purpose behind the gifts when the church gathered. There would be a proper place and time for the gift of tongues, but it had to be Spirit-determined and directed. Choosing to use gifts because of their seeming spirituality revealed an immature perspective. It was childish and short-sighted. A more mature outlook would view the gifts as given by God and up to Him to use as He sees fit, with the ultimate purpose being the building up the body of Christ.