1 Corinthians 14:21-24 (resolving Paul’s paradoxical language)

spiritual gifts

(1Co 14:21-24 NRS)  21 In the law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people; yet even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord.  22 Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers.  23 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 mind?  24 But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. 

Paul’s argument is that tongues do not edify the saved. But he just said that tongues are inappropriate in the assembly because of how the lost might react. And so, outside the assembly, evidently tongues are a “sign” for unbelievers. How can this be?

There is a problem in that at first sight what Paul says in this verse is contradicted by what follows. Here ‘tongues’ are for unbelievers, but in v. 23, when unbelievers are confronted with ‘tongues’, they think the speakers are mad. Again, prophecy is said to be for believers, but Paul speaks only of its effect on unbelievers (vv. 24–25).

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

Morris is right, I think, that this is more than a little paradoxical. What’s the solution?

But perhaps the best suggestion is that of B. C. Johanson (NTS, 25, 1978–79, pp. 180–203), who argues that v. 22 should be seen as a rhetorical question (like that in Gal. 4:16, where the construction is similar). The Corinthians may well have argued that a man speaking in ‘tongues’ would be a sign to outsiders that God was at work, whereas prophecy did no more than convey a message to the believer. Paul asks, ‘Are tongues, then, a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers, and prophecy for believers, not for unbelievers?’ He proceeds to refute this view in the examples that follow.

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

This accords with —

Although it cannot be finally proven, the flow of the argument from v. 20, including the strong “so then” of this sentence, suggests that Paul is setting up this antithesis with the Corinthians’ own point of view in mind. That is, “In contrast to what you think, this word of the Lord from Isaiah indicates that tongues are not meant as a sign for believers. They are not, as you make them, the divine evidence of being pneumatikos, nor of the presence of God in your assembly. To the contrary, in the public gathering uninterpreted tongues function as a sign for unbelievers.”

Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 681–682.

In short, given the obvious contradictions in Paul’s logic, Paul must be stating the Corinthian position and correcting it — as is even more clearly the case in several earlier places in 1 Corinthians.

Now, this is no made-up problem. Read the text yourself.

Now, at this point I need to bring to your attention a fascinating article at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. He begins by pointing out that the Song of Solomon flips back and forth between speakers (the man and the woman) with no contextual clues as to which speaker is speaking. The English translations make this easy for the reader, but the Hebrew simply moves from speaker to speaker with no warning of any kind.

He then points out how this is common in ancient texts, including many of the OT prophets. And then he gives James 3:18-20 as another example. When does James stop quoting a theoretical opponent and begin saying what James himself believes —

(Jam 2:18-20 ESV) 18 But someone will say, You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe– and shudder!  20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 

In most translations, quotation marks show a quotation beginning after “someone will say” in v. 18. But I’ve taken the translators’ punctuation out. So tell me where the quotation ends?

Not easy, is it? You likely had to read three or four times to decide to end the quotation at “I have works.” Most translations end the quotation there. But the NASB ends the quotation at the end of v. 18, one sentence later!

McKnight then announces this startling evidence —

How could they have known? How do we know? Why not give signs or clues to such “citations” or rhetorical breaks?  The answers are these: (1) these texts were to be performed and instructions were given to the readers by the authors; (2) this was common in the ancient world, e.g., Epictetus, but I already mentioned Song of Solomon and now just go read any of the prophets and you will notice perceived or discerned quotations and poetic breaks. These were not tipped off most of the time. The reader caught them in a culture where this was how things were done. (3) Rhetoricians like Quintilian openly stated that authors didn’t need to tip the readers off to such breaks. The knowledge came in the performance.

(italics in original). He is summarizing an argument regarding 1 Cor 14 made in Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians by Lucy Peppiatt. Consistent with the commentaries mentioned above, which are all from conservative authors, McKnight and Peppiatt suggest this translation, with the italics representing the view Paul is intending to contradict —

1 Cor 14:20    Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.  21 In the law it is written,

“By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people; yet even then they will not listen to me,”  says the Lord.

22 Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers.

23 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 mind?  24 But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.  25 After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, “God is really among you.”

That makes as much sense as anything else I’ve come across. You can certainly make an argument that Paul means both, but if so, he’s badly argued his case. I mean, if Isa 28:11-12 means that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, then tongues are a condemnation of unbelievers. And how do we reconcile tongues being for unbelievers with Paul’s argument in v. 23 that tongues give the impression, to the lost, that the saved are out of their minds?

Fortunately, we don’t have to dissect every sentence to understand Paul’s points:

1. It’s arguable that the presence of tongues among the Gentiles in Corinth is a sign to the Jewish unbelievers of God’s judgment and a warning to them to convert — as in Isa 28:11-12. After all, the presence of tongues in Corinth, as in the new converts described in Acts, shows God’s approval of the Gentiles who have faith in Jesus as Messiah — which should be a warning to the Jews who reject Jesus. (Paul doesn’t really make this argument, but it could have been what he was thinking.)

2. Unbelievers who see tongues in the Christian assembly may take them to merely show the believers to be mad. This would be especially true of Gentile visitors, as the Jewish unbelievers would presumably be familiar with the OT passages, such as Num 11, where ecstatic “prophecy” shows God’s approval.

3. Prophecy edifies the church and so is for believers.

4. But prophecy can reveal the secrets of an unbelieving visitor’s heart, and so is for unbelievers, too.

No matter the translation, Paul is telling us to be concerned about the impact of our behavior in the assembly on the uninitiated. Even if we don’t speak in ecstatic tongues, we are still quite capable of being unintelligible, even appearing mad, to a visitor. After nearly 2,000 years, we remain capable of incredible insensitivity to unbelievers in our midst.

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.

This entry was posted in 1 Corinthians, 1 Corinthians, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to 1 Corinthians 14:21-24 (resolving Paul’s paradoxical language)

  1. Dwight says:

    I don’t see a contradiction in what Paul says. In Acts 2 the apostles spoke in tongues, not for thier sake, but for the sake of the lost around them. In Acts 10 Cornelius spoke in tongues, not for thier sake, but for the sake of the listeners who need to be convinced that they were worthy of salvation. In I Cor.14 Paul argues that speaking in tongues are for the convincing of others who aren’t saved, but prophecy is for conviction, which is why he says, “But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all,”
    Paul is saying that if in tongues, there must be a interpretor, otherwise there is no understanding, but prophecy is understood immediately. And while speaking in a tongue you don’t know and someone translating that tongue they don’t know is impressive, one is more beneficial…prophecy. And yet love rules them all even when these gifts aren’t present. And the argument isn’t for inviting the lost in to an assembly, but rather “if they come in”. The gifts were initially for the edification of the body who are the saints according to I Cor.12, whether in assembly or not.

  2. Randall says:

    Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.

    I’ll bet there could be a wide application of these words of Paul.
    Hesed,
    Randall

  3. I think sometimes we read Paul as if he is writing a law when he is really just making a point. Paul paints us a picture of a brown cow, and we respond by insisting that Paul must be saying that all cows are brown and anything that is not brown is not a cow.

  4. R.J. says:

    I think that Isaiah passage shows that God will go to any lengths to woo his rebellious children back to him If at all possible.

Leave a Reply