Speaking in Tongues in a Public Assembly

Speaking in Tongues in a Public Assembly

There is a question that has been raised concerning speaking in tongues in a public assembly such as a church service.  Some charismatic churches do not speak in tongues during the Sunday church service but will freely do so during a prayer meeting.  Others do not speak in tongues during any church service and deem speaking in tongues as “your private prayer language” to be used in your closet for personal prayer.  All these positions originate from interpretations of the following passages:

  • “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Corinthians 14:18-19)
  • “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:23)
  • “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two–or at the most three–should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.  Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” (1 Corinthians 14:27-29)


When everyone is asked to pray together during a church service, let’s call that “collective prayer.”  During collective prayer each person in the congregation is praying at the same time to God and one is not affirming the prayer of the other.  When one person is asked to pray on behalf of the congregation during a church service let’s call that “Representative Prayer.”  During representative prayer the rest of the congregation affirms the prayer of the representative by saying “Amen.”

To properly understand the above passages we need to look at the context.  In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul has presented the gifts of the Holy Spirit but he proceeds in 1 Corinthians 13 to present the case for love as transcending all the gifts because love is what binds members of the body of Christ together.  Then in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul starts by urging the pursuit of love and the gift that he considers to be most important – prophecy.  And so the rest of 1 Corinthians 14 contains a discourse on the guidelines for prophesying.  In this discourse he uses the phrase “speaking in tongues” in a way that may cause you to interpret them as proscribing praying in tongues during a public assembly.  The opening verses of 1 Corinthians 14 follow:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.  For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.  But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. (1 Corinthians 14:1-3)


The context indicates that “speaking in tongues” in this chapter refers to prophecy that is being spoken in tongues.7  Such prophecy delivered in tongues is unintelligible to the hearers,  and, therefore, does not edify the hearers since they don’t understand it and they cannot say “Amen” to the prophecy.  That is why Paul urges that anyone delivering prophecy in tongues must also interpret it8 or another member must interpret it.  So the person delivering the prophecy in tongues also needs the gift of interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:10).

When you pray personal prayers you do not pray to men but God, and so your speech is not directed to men but to God.  You do not expect men to understand your speech but you expect God to understand your speech.  Thus when you pray in tongues your tongues speaking is personal (that is why Paul says you edify yourself when you pray in tongues) and directed to God.  Consequently, you do not expect others to understand in order to say “Amen” to it.  In fact Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians 14:2 that “anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; [this means you cannot interpret prayer tongues even though you can interpret prophecy tongues] he utters mysteries with his spirit.”  Furthermore “we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).  I believe that “groans that words cannot express” refers to tongues speaking since the Spirit is the one who enables us to speak in tongues (Acts 2:4).  “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Corinthians 14:14).  Thus when we pray in tongues our spirit–the human spirit (lowercase “s”) prays as it is enabled by the Holy Spirit.   The Spirit controls our speech in the tongues speaking act and formulates the proper requests we should be placing before God as Paul says in Romans 8:27, “And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”

Thus, we see that Paul’s guidelines refer to prophecy and not to praying in tongues.  Those guidelines on prophecy may be summarized as follows:

  • Only one person may prophesy at a time.
  • If the prophecy is coming in tongues, the person prophesying9 or someone else should interpret.
  • In order to make best use of the time during the church service only two or three should be allowed to prophesy.
  • Prophecy must edify the body of Christ and may consist of revelation, knowledge, or word of instruction.
  • Each hearer of the prophecy must evaluate and then dismiss it or appropriate it for himself.


The principles Paul lays forth in 1 Corinthians 14 for prophecy also apply to representative prayer.  In this case, since the prayer is to be affirmed by the rest of the congregation it must be intelligible and hence cannot be in tongues.  So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:16, “If you are praising God with your spirit [that is praying in tongues], how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying?”  Furthermore, as the name implies, in representative prayer only one person can pray at a time.  Paul further explains that we must know when to pray in the Spirit (in tongues) and when to pray with our mind (in human language).  He puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 14:15, “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.”

Knowing when to pray with your spirit and when to pray with your mind is important, and so Paul stresses that even though he speaks in tongues more than anyone else10 “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19).  To speak “five intelligible words to instruct” may mean speaking in a human language or speaking prophecy in tongues, which is translated into a human language.  As we have shown the prohibition Paul makes on tongues in this verse applies to prophesying in tongues (or what we have called proclamation tongues) without any interpretation, and it also applies to praying in tongues during representative prayer rather than collective prayer.

Finally, Paul cautions that his discourse on prophesying in tongues should not be used by some as an excuse to forbid praying in tongues in public.  So Paul says, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39).  While Paul’s statement here uses a negative clause to warn the Corinthians not to forbid speaking in tongues, he also makes another statement using a positive clause when he says in Ephesians 6:18, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”  As we have seen Jude also backs up this exhortation when he says in Jude 1:20, “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.”  These verses show that not only should the church not forbid speaking in tongues but they must also encourage speaking in tongues.




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