1 Corinthians 14:22-25 confuses me. Verse 22 states:

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.

So, tongues is a sign for unbelievers. But then, verses 22-25 go on:

So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

These two parts seem in contradiction. And this also applies (in reverse) to Paul's comments on prophecy.

Can anyone explain this?

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    In Orthodox parlance, there are two kinds of tongues - there is the Glossolalia of Corinth, which needed translation, and there were the Tongues of Pentecost, which were heard by the unbeliever in their own tongue. That's worth considering here.
    – user304
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 3:01

8 Answers 8


The whole 14 chapter of 1 Corinthians is dedicated on how the Christian meeting must operate. It was good to talk in tongues in many cases but a problem may occured when "everyone speaks in tongues". Paul recommend an organized way for the operation of Christian meetings. He also recommended that the speaking in tongues “be limited to two or three at the most, and in turns.” However, if no one could translate, then the person speaking in a tongue was to remain silent in the congregation, speaking to himself and to God. (1 Corinthians 14:22-33)

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    So you're saying: tongues, when not translated (i.e. in personal prayer) are for believers. However, tongues, when translated are for unbelievers. Is that correct? If so, that's a great answer! Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 12:40


The spiritual gift of tongues serves one purpose: communication where ordinary language skills do not serve. Paul saw prophecy as useful to non-believers even though its primary purpose is for the edification of believers. But speaking in a language the unbeliever does not understand fails to accomplish any purpose at all.

A little context is in order:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.—1st Corinthians 13:1 (ESV)

The idea of speaking in angelic languages, which is sometimes practiced in Pentecostal denominations, comes from this passing reference. Paul seems to be using hyperbole when looking at the rest of the chapter. But even if he does approve of speaking in a non-human tongue, it's clear that it must be done in love. At this point, however, it's not immediately clear how speaking in tongues (apart from saying unloving things) could lack love.

After an excursion on the topic of love (perhaps the greatest chapter ever written by anyone), Paul returns to the topic of speaking in tongues:

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.—1st Corinthians 14:6-12 (ESV)

Now we can understand how Paul could say that the mere act of speaking in a language that is not understood by its hearers could lack love. If you've ever been in a situation where other people speak a language that you don't, you'll understand how frustrating it can be to not have anyone translate for you. Conversely, when you are around someone who doesn't understand what you are communicating, you probably have felt a combination of superiority and (hopefully) compassion toward that unfortunate soul.

Notice that Paul repeats the imagery of a worthless musical instrument from the previous chapter. The purpose of language is to communicate meaning, but if you can't understand you are a foreigner and outsider in relationship to the speaker. When it comes to building up the church (or in fact any community) putting people in the relationship of outsider doesn't seem like a good plan. That's why Paul encourages (in the rest of chapter 14) that church meetings be understandable to everyone present. The primary consideration is given to building up the church in love.

The historical context of the practice of speaking in tongues is Acts 2:1-13. On the day of Pentecost, with Jerusalem packed with foreigners, God gave the church the extraordinary gift to speak in many languages they did not themselves understand. Later that day, three thousand people were baptized and, presumably carried their new faith back home with them. So God gave the gift of tongues at an ideal moment to carry out His mission to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. It may be that some of Paul's Corinthian readers were witnesses, or even products, of that event.

Luke records that some observers thought the church was drunk on Pentecost, which might be in Paul's mind:

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?—1st Corinthians 14:23 (ESV)

Clearly, this sort of speaking in tongues (i.e., in a language not understood by unbelievers) fails to perform the mission of building the church. The strong implication is that this sort of tongues should not be practiced at all. Paul seems to be building on the theme of chapter 10: '“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.' (10:23-24 ESV) He seems unwilling to condemn the practice of glossolalia, but gives some good reasons to avoid it in meeting where outsiders are present. Xenoglossy, however, would be quite useful to Paul and other missionaries.

Personal Experience

Speaking in tongues is not commonly practiced at my church, but I have some personal experience with it:

  • When I've visited highly charismatic churches, I've found speaking in tongues in particular to be off-putting. Even in the rare cases where a translation can be given, there's a too-obvious division between those who participate and those who don't.

  • I speak conversational Spanish, but I believe that I've been given the gift of tongues several times on short-term mission trips to Mexico and Bolivia. Since I already knew Spanish, these experiences would not convince a skeptic and I'm certain nobody but myself knew it happened. However, I was able to speak fluently beyond my skill in a way that closely resembles my occasional experiences with prophecy.

  • I've known people who use private prayer languages. One person asked to use it during prayer in a (very) small group. I found the experience of listening to be odd, but comforting. It seems possible that this sort of speaking in tongues could be edifying even if lacking in semantics. The communication seemed to be of an emotional nature.

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    I had to upvote this, because of the great knowledge imparted and the interesting and useful personal experience. But does it really address the apparent descrepancy highlighted in the question? Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 20:50
  • @Wikis: Probably not. It was intended to answer another question that was marked as a duplicate of this one. (I think it's not an exact duplicate as I commented there.) Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 20:56
  • Well, A for effort... ;) Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 20:57
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    @Wikis: I filled out the "Abstract" a bit to see if I could answer your question. (Thanks again for keeping me on target. ;-) Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 21:05
  • I've down-voted because some of what you have to say is actually contradicted by scripture - particularly 1 Cor 14:2, 4a, 5a & 18. Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 4:07

1Cor 14:21 In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. 1Cor 14:22 Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.

Isa 28:11 For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. Isa 28:12 To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.

The sign to them that believe not of 1Cor14:21 comes from Isa 28:11-12. Israel would know God's judgment was upon them because a nation whose language they did not know would make them prisoners. The Corinthian Church was rejoicing in the fact that so many of them spoke in tongues, but with no translation. This meant that nobody understood what was being said. They were experiencing the very thing Isaiah had told Israel they would experience as a judgment because of their unbelief. A language was spoken which they didn't understand. Israel heard it, and the Church in Corinth both practiced and heard it.

So, it wasn't just tongues alone that were the sign; it was uninterpreted tongues. Thus, Paul’s instructions on the use of this gift during their worship service, not forbidding it.


Paul was replying to the matters they had written to him about - 1 Cor. 7:1 "Now for the matters you wrote about". In Chapter 14 he quotes what they have written (that tongues are a sign for non believers) then he exaplains to them that non believers will think they are mad if they hear them talking in tongues without an interpretter - This section is what the Corinthians wrote to him about " In the Law it is written: “WITH OTHER TONGUES and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers." END QUOTE PAUL REPLIES : But if therefore the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”


Regarding the passages in 1 Corinthians 14, it does seem contradictory that under some conditions it’s improper to use tongues with an unbeliever even though they’re for them. And even more, that at times it’s better to use prophecy than tongues with an unbeliever, even though prophecy is not for them, while tongues is. And just to top it off, it actually appears as if God is saying the gift of tongues (which He designed as a sign to unbelievers) will always be ineffective with them.

1 Corinthians 14:21b "and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me," says the Lord. (NKJV)

So what would be the point then? Why would anyone ever speak in tongues if the goal of speech is effective communication? And how can ineffective speech be consider a spiritual gift when without it, God promises (Isaiah 55:11) His word will not return void?

To solve this paradox, one needs to distinguish between the “sign” of tongues, and what was said while speaking in them. We all know what signs are, for they are everywhere in life. Signs are objects containing typically short and to the point messages directed at select people groups. Some communicate with words, some with symbols, and others with a variety tools. To understand the sign portion of tongues, we must ask ourselves “Why did God invent this gift?” And also ”What was He trying to communicate by bestowing this gift on the believers He did at the times He did? When we grasp the answers to these questions (when we know what the sign of tongues said) we will see there are no contradictions within the passages under question.

I see four distinct situations in Scripture where God used tongues to convey a message. In the first, He tells us its purpose was to confirm the words of the Apostles, to give credibility to the New Testament truths they were proclaiming (Mark 16:14-20, 2 Corinthians 12:12). This particular use of tongues as a sign to the observers would have read “These Words Are True.”

The second use of tongues would be when God acknowledged the Gentile converts in Cornelius’s household (Acts 10:1-11:18, 15:6-11). Here, Peter had a vision, and while wondering about its meaning, God began explaining it to him by sending men to his gate seeking an audience with him. Per their request and God’s instructions, Peter went with them and shared the gospel. Upon hearing and embracing it, the new Gentile believers were gifted with tongues. By this, Peter came to understand the meaning of the vision, that God was telling him salvation was for people of all languages (Acts 10:28b), and that it came in the same way to all (Acts 10:34-35, 43), that being through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 11:17, 15:7b). This particular use of tongues as a sign to Peter would have read “Salvation Comes Through Faith In Jesus, And Is For People Of All Languages.”

The third use of tongues would be when God confirmed that John’s disciples were His people too (Acts 19:1-7). They were genuine Old Testament believers who had not yet been introduced to New Testament truths. This particular use of tongues as a sign would have been a continuation of the second, and would have read “Including Old Testament Believers.”

And the fourth use of tongues would have been at Pentecost itself (Acts 2:1-13). If I had been an observer and took the time to consider what God was saying by gifting those people with tongues, I would have concluded that He must have wanted the Gentiles to hear His truths really bad. And also, I would have wondered why He was speaking through the individuals He was, rather than through mainstream Israel. Paul confirms and explains this in Romans chapters 9-11 where he tells us that because of Israel’s extreme unfaithfulness to God (Romans 10:21), that He was turning to the Gentiles with the gospel message (Romans 11:11). If Israel was going to provoke Him to jealousy by giving their love to His enemies (Deuteronomy 32:16-22), then He was going to provoke them to jealousy by giving His love to their enemies (Romans 10:19). And also, in quoting out of Isaiah, Paul declares the reason why God was working through those He did, rather than through the leadership in Israel.

1 Corinthians 14:21 In the law it is written: "With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me," says the Lord. (NKJV)

Isaiah 28:11a For with stammering lips and another tongue he will speak to this people... 12b yet they would not hear. (NKJV)

This quote was itself a quote from the list of promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28 that God gave Israel before entering the Promised Land. The promise Paul associated with tongues is the curse found in verse 49. This curse was quoted by the prophets (Isaiah 28:7-19, Jeremiah 5:14-19, Ezekiel 3:1-11, Isaiah 32:1-4, and Isaiah 33) to warn Israel of impending judgment. God had told them that if they were unfaithful to Him, if they didn’t serve Him with joy and gladness of heart, but rather gave their love to the gods of the Gentiles (Deuteronomy 28:14-15, 45-49), that He would make them serve the Gentiles. If they wanted to worship His enemies, then he would make them serve their enemies. He would fulfill this threat by raising up a foreign military power (men of another tongue) to wage war against them, taking them prisoners. From this we conclude that the tongues of Pentecost were a sign to unbelieving Israel (who should have known their meaning from the Old Testament) that God was judging them. Their warning from Jesus (Matthew 21:43) was now coming to pass in that God was stripping them of their role in His kingdom by forming the Church as their replacement. Therefore this particular use of tongues as a sign to unbelieving Israel would have read “Your Sins Are Great, So Repent And Place Your Faith In Jesus, Or Face Judgment.”

I believe with this understanding the passages in 1 Corinthians 14 should be clear, containing no contradictions. As a sign, God used tongues to say “These Words Are True. Salvation Comes Through Faith In Jesus, And Is For People Of All Languages, Including Old Testament Believers. Your Sins Are Great, So Repent And Place Your Faith In Jesus, Or Face Judgment.” When used as a form of verbal communication to unbelievers (rather than as a sign), Paul is simply saying that tongues should only be spoken when understood, and in an orderly manner, as the purpose of speech is effective two way communication. In conjunction with this, he also says that if this can’t be done, that prophecy (even though its primary purpose is not for unbelievers) is a more effective form of communication with them, than tongues which are not understood. For words are words, whether they come easily, or through much study.

See http://www.tonguesbook.com for an in-depth look at this.

  • Hi and welcome to the site! You have a lot of good and relevant content here (although I find it hard to reconcile it to the conclusion you make in your book - I guess I'll have to read the whole thing to follow your argument more fully). We hope you keep contributing - please review our help centre and How we are different from other sites to understand the site guidelines. Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 5:05
  • The questions being answered in this post and in my conclusion are not the same, and it did not seem appropriate to answer a question here that was not being asked. If you read the book, feedback is welcome.
    – Lon Eding
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 20:55

These verses, read in isolation, do seem contradictory. However, sense can be made of them by reading chapter 14 as a whole. Paul is aware of a strong belief in speaking in tongues, and is tactfully opposing the practice, suggesting prophecy as a better alternative. In 1 Corinthians 14:4, Paul says "Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church." He then goes on to explain what he sees as the futility of speaking in tongues, summarising this in verse 19: "but in the church I would rather speak five words with my mind, so as to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue."

The Corinthians prided themselves on tongues as a sign of God's favour, believing it to be a means of direct communication with him. Paul challenges them in verse 14:20: "Brothers, stop being childish in your thinking. In respect to evil be like infants, but in your thinking be mature."

Paul quotes from Isaiah 28:11–12 in 1 Corinthians 14:21, as an example of God speaking to the Jews in a strange language and they would not listen. In 1 Corinthians 14:22, he interprets that adversely for the Corinthians: "Thus (KJV: wherefore), tongues are a sign not for those who believe but for unbelievers, whereas prophecy is not for unbelievers but for those who believe." This is not Paul's view, but the construct he places on the passage he quotes.

Having demolished the case for speaking in tongues, Paul instructs the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 14:23–25:

So if the whole church meets in one place and everyone speaks in tongues, and then uninstructed people or unbelievers should come in, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if everyone is prophesying, and an unbeliever or uninstructed person should come in, he will be convinced by everyone and judged by everyone, and the secrets of his heart will be disclosed, and so he will fall down and worship God, declaring, "God is really in your midst."

This is what Paul meant in 14:4, when he said, "Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church."

  • This is completely opposite of how it reads to me. Paul is NOT demolishing or opposing the practice. He said I WISH YOU ALL SPOKE IN TONGUES. What is wrong with "building oneself up" as in verse 4? Jude mentions it! Your answer, for all the Bible quotes, is one of the most unbiblical I have seen on this site. Commented Mar 9, 2021 at 14:04

Tongues used in any other context refers to a different language not babbling that makes no sense to anyone. In this case the injunction against speaking in more then a few tongues and keeping quiet if no one could translate for you makes complete sense. How confusing would it be to walk into a church and hear 20 different languages or dialects being spoken (something that could of happened easily in that day around the Mediterranean sea) or in the latter case have someone get up in church to speak but he is the only one speaking the language so no one else can understand? Personally I think that the gift of tongues is a gift from God and should be understood to be the ability to comprehend or understand languages other then one's own. Wither spontaneously (a miracle) or through hard work and study.

  • your understand of tongues does not come to terms with 1 Cor 14:2 - "For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit." (emphasis added) Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 4:10

Haha Here is my simple version

Another language ( tongues) is a supernatural sing for the unbeliever, because they are supernaturally speaking in his language. Or a sign of doom based on verse 21.

But inspired preaching and teaching that reveals the divine will of God (prophecy) is for believers, because they are acquainted with the word of God.

So if everyone is speaking in a different language, it is utter chaos, the unbeliever will not understand and think you're all crazy

But if everyone is confirming the divine will of God, than he will come to the acknowledgement that he is not lining up with the divine will of God. Thus his sin being revealed

  • Hi and welcome to the site! This looks like a pretty fair first effort, but it could be improved by editing to add citation support and removing the sense of 'personal opinion' - this site is not about sharing personal opinions, but asking and answering questions according to identifiable groups of 'Christians' (those who self-identify as such) whether that's from a recognised denomination or holders of a particular identifiable doctrine. Refer to our help centre for more info. Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 9:10

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