1 Corinthians 14:16-22 (How can an outsider say “amen”?)

spiritual giftsThe outsider

(1Co 14:16-17 ESV) 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit [NIV/NASB: “in the S/spirit”], how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?  17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.

“Give thanks with your spirit” seems to mean “Give thanks while speaking in tongues.” And while it seems clear, as discussed in prior posts of this series, that the speaker does not know what words he is saying — or else why would Paul urge the tongue-speaker to pray for the gift of interpretation? — nonetheless, the tongues express the heart of the speaker. How else could Paul say “you may be giving thanks well enough”?

This should remind us —

(Rom 8:26 ESV) 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

I do not take this passage to be a reference to tongues. Paul uses “groanings” to speak of the yearnings of the creation itself in vv. 22-23, and so he’s not being quite so literal. But he is certainly saying that the Spirit knows our yearnings better than we do, and so it makes sense that the Corinthian “tongues” could be a Spirit-aided expression of the speaker’s deepest feelings.

The other point Paul makes is that the impression we make on outsiders (NJB: “uninitiated”; NIV: “inquirer”) matters. Those who sneer at “seeker sensitive” services have not been reading this chapter very closely. Paul plainly cares a great deal about how non-Christian visitors react to the assembly.

For those who sneer at inviting non-members to the assembly (because that would be an “attractional” strategy), well, obviously the practice in Corinth was to routinely have non-members present — or else why would Paul be so concerned about their reaction to tongue-speaking?

On the other hand, Paul speaks first and at most length about the impact on the members — those who are to be edified. The assembly is not a show targeted at the lost to convert them, but a gathering of the saved for their spiritual formation — to help them in their efforts to follow Jesus — but with great sensitivity to the impression made on visitors — with the expectation that visitors will ordinary be present.

And v. 16 adds thanksgiving (or praise, depending on the translation) to the purposes of the assembly. It’s not just edification, but Paul uses edification as his litmus test throughout the chapter.

“I speak in tongues more than all of you.”

(1Co 14:18-19 ESV)  18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.  19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. 

Some use this verse to argue that “tongues” in Corinth are actual human languages. And there is indeed support in Acts 2 for this point of view. We covered this in prior posts. Here, Paul is likely contrasting his private devotions, rather than his evangelistic efforts, with the assembly.

“In church” means, of course, in the assembly — although the Greek is ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ (en ekklēsia), that is, “in church.” Which seems kind of trivial until you realize how much some want to complain about saying “going to church” when “the church” is the people and not the bricks and mortar. But we are in fact “going to the assembly” which is “going to the church.” After all, ekklēsia means “assembly.” It’s just that the church is more assembled on Sunday mornings than most of the rest of the week — if that makes any sense.

That is, sometimes we outsmart ourselves trying to show how much smarter we are than anyone else. It’s a hard habit to break, but we really need to stop showing off by criticizing perfectly biblical phrases such as “in church.” I prefer to say “the assembly” to avoid say “worship” because “worship” colors our conclusions — tricking our minds into not noticing what else the Bible says about the purpose of the assembly — such as Paul’s repeated emphasis on edification. I mean, why not “Five Acts of Edification”? Because we start with our conclusion — assuming worship to be the singular purpose of the worship hourassembly, thereby blinding ourselves to other things.

A sign for unbelievers

(1Co 14:20-22 ESV)  20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.  21 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.”  22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.

Paul paraphrases —

(Isa 28:11-12 ESV)  11 For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the LORD will speak to this people,  12 to whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear.

Isaiah here is prophesying the coming destruction of the Northern Kingdom (“Ephraim”) at the hands of the Assyrians. It’s a bitterly sarcastic denunciation, accusing the leaders of chronic drunkenness.

God spoke to that age even if it had to be through drunken prophets/priests and through the Assyrian invaders.

John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1–33 (Word BC 24; Accordance/Thomas Nelson electronic ed. Waco: Word Books, 1985), 430.

Paul’s point in vv. 21-22 is that God speaks to the lost — those under judgment — by the voices of foreigners and drunkards — that is, languages that cannot be understood. And I admit that’s an odd way to make his point.

The connection with the present argument is not obvious. Perhaps Paul means that, as those who had refused to heed the prophet were punished by hearing speech that was not intelligible to them, so would it be in his day. Those who would not believe would hear unintelligible ‘tongues’, but be quite unable to understand the wonderful meaning.

Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 7; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 189.

I rather like the explain from the Pillar commentary —

[T]ongues are a sign to unbelievers in that the public experience of unintelligible communication from God highlights the sense and reality of alienation between the speaker(s) and those being spoken to. Such an experience was only intended for God’s people while they were in a state of rebellion and unbelief and suffering the curses of the Mosaic covenant.

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 703.

But the text becomes even more paradoxical as we continue …

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to 1 Corinthians 14:16-22 (How can an outsider say “amen”?)

  1. Price says:

    I’m not certain about Pillar’s commentary.. Why would members of the assembly be alienated from God in a covenant of Grace? Why would Paul speak to the edification of those in the assembly and encourage speaking when interpretation was available if it was to speak against a rebellious people.. I don’t buy that at all.. The purpose was to exhort, edify and encourage.. not to chastise, shame and condemn a rebellious people.. These were sincere baptized believers filled with the Holy Spirit… Surely no one expects them to be perfect any more than we are today in our assemblies. It seems Pillar is a cessationist and looking for a way to relegate this to a certain period of history no longer applicable today.. Perhaps I misread…

    I don’t see a lot of difference between speaking a “known” language that no one is familiar with and the jibberish that is usually connected with speaking in tongues today. What practical difference would there be.. I for one wouldn’t know the difference between Swahili, Sunni Arabic or Aborigine..

  2. laymond says:

    Jay said, “Give thanks with your spirit” seems to mean “Give thanks while speaking in tongues.”

    When it actually means giving thanks spirit to spirit, while not speaking at all.

  3. Laymond, your conclusion offered as fact lacks a basis as firm as your own certitude. The general requirement of silence goes beyond Paul’s. Or any in scripture, for that matter.

  4. laymond says:

    Mat 6:9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
    Charles, I am as certain of my statement as I am that no human voice is loud enough to reach heaven. The only prayers that reach heaven are prayers directed to God Almighty, and that is because God is God, not because you have a loud voice, or you speak in “tongues” . As Paul said if we pray spirit to spirit (there is no need for speak known or unknown) no one standing by will be edified as to what you said to God. Therefore no one could rightly second what you said.

    Charles, I will stand by my conclusions, rather than Jay’s

    Jay said, “Give thanks with your spirit” seems to mean “Give thanks while speaking in tongues.”

  5. Dwight says:

    The context of I Cor.12-14 is to the congregation of the Lord (the body) and then the assembly or those who gather to assemble and then use their gifts. The lost are mentioned, but they are not really in main consideration. Paul says, “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all.”
    This is arguing that “if” an unbeliever comes in to the assembly, they will not be edified or convicted, but this is an “if”, not a argument to invite the lost into the assembly. Paul places two “if” in play, “if the whole congregation come together” and “if an unbliever comes in”. Paul isn’t arguing that this has happened or is happening, but if they did happen in this way, then this is what should happen. The gifts overall were for the saints edification, when assembled or not.

  6. laymond says:

    2Pe 3:16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood,

    I see this as one of the things Peter was speaking of. If Paul was speaking of the Non-Christians why is it important for the outsider to amen the prayer, if Paul was speaking of other members, is it not more important that each member praise God in their own way. ?

    Dwight, was Paul speaking for or against “speaking in tongues ” in assembly ?

  7. Dwight says:

    The letters to the Corinthians was issued to the Christian Corinthians in Corinth. In I Cor.12 he relates that each member of the church or body of Christ at large have gifts that affect each other member. In 1 Cor.14 he relates that “if the whole congregation came together” and how they should use thier gifts when in assembly, so basically the same as if they weren’t in assembly…in order to edify each other. The placement of many saints in assembly adds to the fact that with people that confined and people using gifts, then they should be able to edify many who are within earshot. If one person can’t understand a language, then chances are many other can’t as well. The problem of not edifying becomes magnified. Paul in I Cor.12-14 spoke first for love, then encouraged prophecy and then lastly speaking in tongues as this would need an interpretor and was geared more for the lost…see Acts 2. The overall primary target was the saints who would be there, but a secondary target who might be there were the lost….within the assembly.

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