A Still More Excellent Way (1 Corinthians 11-14)

[Note: Before you read this post, we recommend you study the passage for yourself using this worksheet.]


  • 1 Corinthians 11 — Women who reject the principles of Biblical headship by publicly rejecting cultural expressions of submission disgrace themselves and their “head” (authority). The Lord’s Supper was instituted to unite Christians around the most selfless act of history: The Cross of Christ.
  • 1 Corinthians 12 — Christians have been given spiritual gifts for the common good of the body of Christ. Our diversity and unity give us great potential for building up one another as we gather together.
  • 1 Corinthians 13 — Paul wanted to show the Corinthians “a still more excellent way”: Love! Spiritual gifts were given to produce spiritual fruit. The Corinthians were so focused on temporary spiritual gifts that they lost sight of what is eternally greater.
  • 1 Corinthians 14 — The true purpose of spiritual gifts is to edify the church — to build it up. So, the church is better served by prophecy (intelligible words) than tongues (which no one understands).


Meetings matter. The church is a “body” that is supposed to represent the loving, Bride of Christ on Earth. If our meetings are chaotic and wild, what will that communicate? If our gatherings are full of improper activity, will we represent Christ well? The Apostle Paul would say “No!” to both of these questions. Chapters 11-14 of 1 Corinthians are packed with helpful teaching about how the meetings of the church can be “proper and orderly” — accomplishing the purposes the Holy Spirit intends.  

“Come Together” (1 Corinthians 11)

(1 Corinthians 11:1-6) Paul began this important section by praising the church at Corinth. Apparently, the Corinthians reported that they were obeying Paul’s instructions about including women in worship (11:2-16), celebrating the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34) and practicing spiritual gifts (12-14). In all three cases — as we will see — they were misusing these freedoms in worship. So, Paul praised them for this, but, the word “but” in v.3 tells us not everything was exactly as it should be.

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:3, NASB95)  

Here we have the theological basis of the discussion about women and head coverings in the verses which follow. Paul took this opportunity to explain Biblical headship — an important part of true spirituality. The fact that Christ Himself submitted to the “headship” of His Father shows that headship does not imply inferiority, but a necessary reality. Jesus is one with the Father (e.g., John 10:30), yet He willingly submits to the Father as Head. Biblical headship does not imply that women are inferior to men. But, what is Paul getting at?

He used the cultural issue of head coverings to teach timeless principles about authority and headship just as he used meat sacrificed to idols to teach timeless principles about love and selflessness.

“Praying or prophesying” in v.5 shows that women had the freedom to participate in a significant way in the church. But, this verse does not give an absolute freedom. That would contradict other clearer teaching on the same subject (e.g., 14:34; cf., 1 Timothy 2:12). Paul had most likely taught the Corinthians that men and women were equal in Christ (Galatians 3:28). But apparently, some women were pressing this teaching to mean something Paul (the Holy Spirit) never intended — that in the church there was no headship (subordination).

In keeping with this teaching, they were not wearing head coverings — which were cultural expectations — as a way of shouting, “All things are lawful!” (cf., 10:23). In the process, they were disgracing themselves and their husbands and denying the principle of headship which transcends culture. In the first century culture, only a prostitute or a feminist shaved her head. This was considered shameful, so Paul explained that the public rejection of the symbols of headship were just as shameful.

This is not that foreign to us. Most Islamic women still cover their heads in a similar way to the cultural expectation in first-century Corinth. When Western women diplomats visit Islamic countries, they usually wear a head covering of some kind — not just because it is the law, but because it shows respect for the cultural expectations.

(1 Corinthians 11:7-10) Paul made his point from creation, which tells us the truth of headship transcends culture. It goes back to the way men and women were created. Both men and women are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). Man represents God and His authority on earth (See Genesis 2 where Adam was given the task of cultivating the garden and naming the animals and the woman was given as a “helper”). Paul’s argument is that “origin” is significant — woman came from man’s body and was made for the man’s sake, not the other way around. A woman is a divinely created ally for man. If she abandons this complementary role, she also abandons her “glory” (her purpose), and for Paul an uncovered woman’s head in Corinth gave symbolic expression to that spirit.

The mention of angels (v.10) reminds us of the spiritual reality taking place during the meetings of the church — this is not just about human ritual. Angels are perhaps the supreme example of what Paul had been describing. They were created by God and for God and only as they submitted to Him and His authority did they fulfill their purpose for existence.

(1 Corinthians 11:11-16) The “however” makes it clear that man should not go around beating his chest declaring, “Woman, you’re dependent on me! You originated from me!” We need each other and all of us need God, so neither man nor woman is superior to the other. Men and women are to complement one another and live in an interdependent way.

“Judge for yourselves…” is probably Paul’s way of saying, “Now that you’ve heard my case, surely you can see that it is not proper for women to pray with uncovered heads.” He also argues that “nature itself” teaches that it isn’t natural for a man to have long hair and a woman to have short hair. This — obviously — is debatable, but most cultures throughout history have followed the same pattern: Men with short hair and women with long. “Short” and “long” are very subjective, though. Probably the key idea is masculine and feminine. Men should look like men and women should look like women. There are going to be cultural differences, but generally, hair is part of that.   

Rebellion against cultural norms and expectations may be sinful in ways — but this is an issue of the heart that we can’t determine from external appearances. It is still true that most men wear their hair short and most women wear their hair either long or in a distinctly feminine way. A shaved head for a woman, for example, is rare even in our culture and does communicate something — though again, we may not always be able to determine what is being said in our culture. A wife not taking her husband’s last name and or choosing not to wear a wedding ring are probably similar to the statements being made in ancient Corinth.

(1 Corinthians 11:17-22) In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, we discover that the Corinthians were celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but — once again — they were doing it in a divisive, prideful way.

But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it.” (1 Corinthians 11:17–18, NASB95)  

Notice the contrast with 11:2 — no praise on this subject. Again, there were “divisions” among them. He had already rebuked them for divisions earlier (1:10-12), but in this section we discover another type of division.

“You come together not for the better, but for the worse”. Their meetings were doing more harm than good! (NIV). The divisions were between the “hungry” and the “drunk” — the rich and the poor. They met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but it wasn’t His supper at all. They did not meet to remember and honor the Lord, but to eat their “own supper” — a stinging contrast. “The Lord’s Supper” is really the context for this whole section. The first-century church meetings included the Lord’s Supper. Paul was condemning the idea of selfishness. Of not sharing with the poor. Of some feasting while others went hungry.

Paul’s question in 11:22, “Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink?” makes it clear that if the Corinthians couldn’t share, it would be better not to have a fellowship meal at all — just eat at home before you come. But, the real point was to share. The second question in v.22 questions the motives of those who would do this — were they deliberately trying to humiliate the poor? If so, they were “despising” (lit., “thinking little of”) the church.  

(1 Corinthians 11:23-27) Paul takes advantage of all this to provide probably the first written, apostolic teaching on the Lord’s Supper. The best way to correct the Corinthians’ messed-up celebration of the Lord’s Supper was to go back to the original teaching on the matter. And that teaching — “My body” and “My blood,” “Remembrance of Me” and “proclaim the Lord’s death” — turns the focus sharply to Jesus. This “Lord’s Supper” was designed to focus every heart and mind on the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ! It was designed to turn the church’s focus onto the most selfless act of history — it should never have become an occasion for selfish indulgence.

Along with “remembrance” (vs. 24-25), “proclaim” in v.26 tells us that the Lord’s Supper is about remembering what Jesus did in the past by dying on the cross for the sins of mankind as well as the promise of His return — not some mystical event related to the bread and wine. Making it an individualistic, selfish thing, “despising” the Church is “unworthy” of the great significance of Christ’s death. Those who do so are “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” This means they were sinning against Christ by demeaning and dishonoring the significance of the cross — something like trampling the American flag. You’re dishonoring the symbol. As we shall see, this sin brings judgment. So, the second way Paul corrected the Corinthians was to get their focus off themselves and refocused them on Christ and the cross. This gave them a better understanding of the importance of the Lord’s Supper.

(1 Corinthians 11:28-32) The Corinthians were then taught to “examine” themselves before they participated in the Lord’s Supper. What were their motives? Were they celebrating in an “unworthy manner”? Were they “despising” their fellow believers? If they did not “judge” themselves, they would be judged by God. Some were already “weak, sick and sleep (dead)”. This was not eternal “condemnation” (i.e., damnation), but “discipline” (lit., “child training”) from God (v.32). God will bring physical sickness on us to redirect us and will even end our lives to prevent us from being “condemned along with the world”. We are secure in our salvation even if we — as believers — sin in such a gross manner (i.e., disregard for the cross of Christ) that God considers it worthy of death.

(1 Corinthians 11:33-34) The final two verses remind us of the original point: The “divisions” and “factions” and “shaming” of the poor in the gatherings of the church. Paul instructed them to “wait for one another” when they “come together to eat”. The point is to gather together — to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together — not to satisfy physical hunger. If you can’t keep that straight, skip the fellowship meal part and eat at home so that you can wait for everyone to arrive and focus on Christ together.   

“The Common Good” (1 Corinthians 12)

(1 Corinthians 12:1-3) Remember that 1 Corinthians contains a list of Paul’s answers to the Corinthians’ questions (cf., 7:1, 25; 8:1). Spiritual gifts are addressed in chapters 12-14. There are three other passages in the New Testament that deal with spiritual gifts (Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4), but no passage is as complete as 1 Corinthians 12-14. Paul reminded these Corinthians that in the past they had been “led astray.” The pagan religion out of which the Corinthians had been saved was marked by ecstasy — frenzied, hypnotic experiences that included drunkenness, dancing, chanting and other physical stimuli such as incense, fasting and even sexual orgies. The point of this reminder can only mean that the Corinthians were still in danger of being “led astray” — even in the use of spiritual gifts (cf., 1 Corinthians 10:20).

In v.3, Paul gave them a test to figure out whether something happening in their church was the activity of the Holy Spirit or a pagan-demonic counterfeit. The test is two-fold. The first aspect of the test is negative. It is hard to believe, but it must have been so that someone in their gatherings was actually saying, “Jesus is accursed”. It must have been a professing Christian or else no one would have believed such a statement was from “the Spirit of God”. It must have been in the assembly (church service) because the entire context of 1 Corinthians 11-14 is related to the proper conduct of the assembled church, and — again — no one would think it was from “the Spirit of God” if it was said in any other setting. How could they possibly get there? Perhaps Paul’s teaching on this subject was being misinterpreted (see Galatians 3:13). This might also be Gnostic influence — that the physical was evil, so Christ could not have been physical. So, they taught that the spirit of Christ descended upon Jesus at His baptism and left him before He went to the cross.

So, the negative aspect of the test was simply correct doctrine. No spiritual gift would result in a statement that was contrary to Biblical truth. The second aspect of the test was positive. “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Calling Jesus “Lord” is almost certainly acknowledging that Jesus is God and man. So, the person being led “by the Holy Spirit” — using true spiritual gifts — will teach correct Biblical doctrine.

(1 Corinthians 12:4-6) The word “varieties” is repeated 3 times in vs.4-6. Christians have been gifted differently. There is diversity in the body of Christ. “The same Spirit” is the Source of these various gifts. In fact, all three Persons of the Trinity are listed here. The Trinity — Father, Son and Spirit — represents the most harmonious of relationships — perfect unity. It is completely contrary to the purpose of the Triune God to use spiritual gifts to create “divisions”.The word for “gifts” (v.4) is charisma — literally “gifts of grace” — gifts given by God’s sovereign will (cf., v.11). “Ministries” is diakonia (deacon). It means “service”. The point is this: The Corinthians were very divisive which was completely contrary to the Spirit’s purpose. To use spiritual gifts to create “divisions” was a travesty. That’s not what they’re for!

In v.5, Paul repeated “varieties” and “same”. But, instead of “gifts,” Paul used the word “ministries”. Instead of “Spirit,” he used the word “Lord”. The “Lord,” of course, is Jesus, Who is also the Source of spiritual gifts (cf., Ephesians 4:11). He is not the source of division either. In v.6, Paul repeated “varieties” and “same”. But, instead of “gifts . . . ministries,” Paul used the word “effects”. Instead of “Spirit or Lord,” he used the word “God”. We get our English word “energy” from the Greek word for “effects” here. The “effects” of spiritual gifts are the “works” God brings about through the use of spiritual gifts — the results. The point is, a variety of results occur when God works through the spiritual gifts of His people. “God” here refers to the Father — the First Person of the Trinity. So, verses 4-6 reaches a climax when Paul makes it clear that all three Persons of the Triune God are active in the ministry of the Church — giving gifts, bringing about the desired results.   

(1 Corinthians 12:7-11) First, v.7 is quite significant: “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7, NASB95). Every Christian has at least one “manifestation of the Spirit” — a spiritual gift (cf., v.11, Romans 12:3 and 1 Peter 4:10). This should be life-changing. Think about it: the Holy Spirit gifted you to serve the Church of Jesus Christ in a specific way. Your purpose in life is directly related to discovering and using your spiritual gifts! Also, there are a variety of gifts, but they are all given for the same purpose: “The common good”. If we don’t know the purpose for something, we are in danger of being “led astray” in its use. Spiritual gifts are not intended for private use as many have taught. For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:4, Paul treats self-edification as a negative thing (cf., 14:5, 6, 12, 17 and 26). Many say tongues is a “private prayer language” given by God for self-edification. But, tongues — like all other spiritual gifts — was given to benefit and edify others. To use it for self-edification is to misuse it. More on this in Chapter 14.

For now, look at the list in vs. 8-10. The word “varieties” should come to mind again. Notice the repetition again: “To another” is given this gift. “To another” this gift. Again, there are “varieties” of gifts and “varieties” of ways God’s people can serve Him and “varieties” of results that God is trying to “effect” in His people. “Spirit” is another key word — repeated five times in three verses. The emphasis again is on the “varieties of gifts . . . ministries and effects”. But, the Source of these gifts is the Triune God and if there is division, then something is very wrong.

Paul summarized his thoughts in vs.11. First, the “same Spirit” reminds us of the unified Source of spiritual gifts. God Himself is in complete control — that’s the picture here. Notice the words that describe the work of the Holy Spirit: “Works . . . distributing . . . wills.” He is sovereign in this matter of spiritual gifting. Second, “each one individually” reminds us of the “varieties of gifts . . . ministries and effects” — the fact that all Christians are not the same. We’re not gifted in the same way and we won’t all serve the Lord in the same way and we will not be used by God in exactly the same way.  

(1 Corinthians 12:12-13) The overarching problem Paul was trying to correct was disunity. Some thought too highly of themselves. Others thought too little of themselves or others because of the spiritual gifts they had. The human body (v.12) is a good illustration for addressing this problem. Although some parts are definitely greater and indispensable (e.g., heart, lungs, brain, etc.), every part is important and the body suffers if any part is missing. The body of Christ is made up of people who have been gifted by God in different ways. We have different roles to play, but we are unified by the Holy Spirit and the common good.

One becomes a member of this Body by being “baptized . . . by one Spirit” (v.13). Some teach that Spirit baptism is something that takes place subsequent to (after) salvation, but Paul could not rightly say “we were all baptized” unless Spirit baptism takes place at salvation. “We were all made to drink of one Spirit” describes the indwelling Holy Spirit. Again, by saying “all,” Paul is letting us know that all Christians have the indwelling Holy Spirit (cf., John 7:37-39; Romans 8:9). We don’t need to be baptized by Him any more. We simply need to “walk according to the Spirit” (Romans 8) — cooperate with Him.

(1 Corinthians 12:14-26) In vs.14-19, the focus is on the diversity in “Christ’s body”. Paul is addressing the danger of underestimating the importance of some gifts. If someone concludes they are unimportant or not part of the body, the entire body will suffer because an important gift will not be present. The body of Christ — like a human body — needs many different functions if it is going to grow and thrive.

In vs.20-26, Paul addresses a different tendency: Overestimating one’s importance. When this happens, a person becomes too self-sufficient. This too is dangerous because the body will be hopelessly ineffective, sick and even terminal. Imagine thinking to yourself, “My hand is obviously less important than my eye, so I’ll just cut it off.” That would be foolish. Instead, we protect and cherish and “honor” both these “members” because we are not complete if either is missing. The greatest quarterback of all time could never win a game if he tells his offensive line to get lost. The body of Christ will grow and thrive as long as we recognize our dependence upon each other.  

“But God has so composed the body . . .” This tells us how we should respond to all this: Trust God’s sovereignty! There’s neither pride nor shame in spiritual gifts because God does the choosing. The gifts He gave us say nothing about our worth. Again, there should be no divisions about gifts. Instead, members should have a mutual concern for each other and “care for one another.”

Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:27–31, NASB95)  

(1 Corinthians 12:27-31) First, God’s sovereignty over spiritual gifting is once again highlighted: It is “Christ’s body” and “God has appointed” these gifts. Second, the variety of gifts is once again highlighted. What is the expected answer to the questions in vs.29-30? “No”. Not everyone will have the same gifts. Not everyone will do miracles and speak in tongues. Paul clearly taught here that even if tongues have not ceased, only some would receive the gift — it is not the sign of true salvation. It is a gift given to some.

Paul told the Corinthians to “earnestly desire the greater gifts”. What are “the greater gifts”? It is likely that the Corinthians had relegated the first three gifts in v.28 to a lower importance compared to the more showy gifts at the end of this list — especially tongues. Paul’s emphasis on tongues in chapter 14 supports the idea that the Corinthians got excited about tongues, but gave “less honor” to the gifts that could benefit the body far more — apostles, prophets and teachers. So, does the command in v.31 contradict what Paul has been preaching — that all members and gifts are important? No. Spiritual gifts were given for one primary purpose. Do you remember what that purpose is? The “common good”. Gifts are given to be used in building up the Body — not for self-edification. In 1 Corinthians 14:4, Paul treats self-edification as a negative thing (see also vs. 5, 12, 17 and 26). The fact is, some gifts are more helpful in building up the church — the first three gifts listed in v.28 are great examples (cf., Ephesians 4:11-12).

When Paul told the Corinthians to “earnestly desire the greater gifts,” he could not have meant that individuals should somehow try to get these “greater gifts”. That would contradict what Paul had already said about God’s sovereign choice in distributing the gifts. He was instructing the church at large to give a prime place and more attention to “apostles, prophets and teachers” (notice “first, second and third”) than to those who do miracles, heal and speak in tongues. Notice what is listed last in v.28 and in the second list in vs.29-30 (cf. vs.8-10). Paul was saying that the gifts they were giving more honor to (e.g., tongues) were not “the greater gifts”. Generally speaking, these three gifts — apostles, prophets and teachers — were “equipping” gifts (cf., Ephesians 4:11-13). Chapter 14 will clarify these things.

“A Still More Excellent Way” (1 Corinthians 13)

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3) Paul wanted to show the Corinthians “a still more excellent way” (12:31): Love. They had been using the gifts of the Spirit for selfish reasons when they should have been using them to produce the fruit of the Spirit — specifically love.

Chapter 13 starts with three hypothetical situations — all are related to spiritual gifts.

  • The first is the greatest scenario for a tongues speaker — something like: “Imagine I could speak all the languages of men and even languages never heard before from the angelic realm; imagine I was the most gifted tongues speaker ever . . . but do not have love.” The most gifted tongues speaker ever, but no love. Such a person is nothing but a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Irritating instead of helpful.
  • The second hypothetical is the most gifted prophet ever — with God-like knowledge and mountain-moving faith. But, imagine if such a person had no love. Paul said such a person would be “nothing.”
  • The third hypothetical is the most generous giver ever: One who gives everything he has, even his own body, giving his life for others. But again, the hypothetical is outrageous — that someone would make that kind of sacrifice with no love whatsoever is almost laughable. It would be of no profit without love.

Here’s a good idea: Make up your own hypotheticals: “If I become the pastor of the largest church in America, but have not love, I am a failure.” Or, “If I become the wealthiest person on Earth, but have not love, I will be the poorest person on Earth.” How about, “If I win the Father of the Year award, but do it for the attention, not out of love, I’m really just a loser.”

Remember that the purpose of spiritual gifts was “for the common good” (12:7) so that the members of Christ’s body would “care for one another” (12:25) — this is selfless love. Paul is saying that if spiritual gifts are used for the purpose of self-edification or self-exaltation, rather than for the good of others, then it doesn’t matter what gifts you have or how gifted you are. You are a complete failure! Spiritual gifts were given to produce love (the first fruit of the Spirit; Galatians 5:22,23), not an exciting or people-impressing show.

So already, we’ve learned something very important about this “more excellent way”. It is exalting love as the highest ideal.

(1 Corinthians 13:4-7) Paul gave us some principles about the nature of true, Biblical “agape” love. These principles transcend the context, so it’s okay to apply them to dating, marriage, parenting, etc. Having said that, notice how this list of the characteristics of love relate to the situation in Corinth. These 15 characteristics describe selflessness — pure, selfless love. This is exactly what the Corinthians lacked. They were divisive. They were more interested in self-edification than edification of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Spiritual gifts — when properly used — should produce this kind of love. Clearly, the Corinthians were not using their spiritual gifts correctly.

The “more excellent way” becomes even clearer: It is understanding and living true, selfless love.

(1 Corinthians 13:8-11) The focus in this section is on the permanence of love. Gifts are not permanent. Specifically prophecy, tongues and knowledge. Paul said they will be “done away . . . cease.” He did not say when this would happen, only that it would. Why? They are “partial” (v.9). As important and helpful as these gifts are, they are limited. But, there is “the perfect” — something that will bring an end to the “partial”. Three possibilities have been suggested for identifying “the perfect”:

  1. Scripture. When the New Testament was complete, these gifts would no longer be necessary.
  2. Heaven. In heaven, these gifts will be obsolete (cf., vs.12-13).
  3. Maturity. “Perfect” often refers to maturity in the Bible (See Colossians 1:28 — “complete” is the same Greek word). This fits the context of 1 Corinthians 13 well since Paul has been addressing the immaturity of the Corinthians. The next verse — “I did away with childish things . . . became a man” — supports this interpretation as well.

We don’t need to be dogmatic, though, because the completed Word of God is crucial to our maturity (cf., Hebrews 5:11-14). And certainly, we will never be more mature (perfect) than when we are in Heaven.

So, the “more excellent way” is about growing up! Doing away with childish things and working toward maturity.

(1 Corinthians 13:12-13) One of the most important words in these verses is “then” (v.12). “Face to face” (presumably with Christ) and “fully known” tell us that “then” refers to our future in Heaven with God. “Then,” we will be completely mature. So, for “now” the “seeing” and “knowing” which the gifts of prophecy and knowledge provide, are very limited. A mirror in that time was little more than polished metal — nothing like our modern mirrors. “Then,” we will see God infinitely more clearly. We will know Him “fully”. “Now” our knowledge is not complete — even if we have the gift of knowledge. The point is that spiritual gifts are not permanent because they will eventually be obsolete.  

But, there are some things that are more permanent: “Faith, hope and love”. But, even faith and hope will someday be obsolete. Someday, faith will give way to a “face to face” relationship with God. For now, though, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Romans 8:24-25 tells us that someday “hope” will end in sight as well. “Love,” however, will “never fail” — it is eternal — because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

The “more excellent way” is investing in what is most permanent. The Corinthians had been overemphasizing miraculous, spiritual gifts — which were temporary — and their own self-edification, but neglecting that which was permanent and best for the common good: Love.

“Properly and Orderly” (1 Corinthians 14)

(1 Corinthians 14:1-25) To really understand this chapter, we need to remind ourselves of what “tongues” and “prophecy” meant in the context of the New Testament:

  • Biblical “tongues” was the supernatural ability to speak a language not learned. Biblical tongues were real, human languages — not “glossolalia” or ecstatic utterances. Acts 2:1-11 uses “tongues” (glossas; vs.4, 11) and “languages” (dialekto; vs.6 and 8) interchangeably. The long list of languages in Acts 2:9-11 reveals that the Apostles were speaking real, human languages they had never learned that were understood by the Jews who had come from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).
  • “Prophecy” was the supernatural ability to speak truth directly revealed by God. In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, “prophecy” may include more than one of the speaking gifts. It is clear from the context that what Paul meant when he used the word “prophecy” was a speaking gift that resulted in a message from God in the language of the church that could be understood by all (see v.19; “intelligible words”).  

It’s also helpful to look closely at Paul’s attitude toward the gift of prophecy here in 1 Corinthians 14:

  • He told them to eagerly desire prophecy (vs.1,39). Since the Holy Spirit sovereignly gave gifts to whomever He desired, this must mean that the church as a whole should ask the Holy Spirit to provide prophets — those with the gift of prophecy — and then focus their attention on what the prophets had to say.
  • He told them prophecy strengthens, encourages, comforts and edifies the church (vs.3-4,31). This not only tells us Paul had a high view of prophecy, but also reminds us of its purpose: “Edification” of the church.
  • He said he would rather the Corinthians prophesy than speak in tongues (vs.5,18-19). In fact, he said “greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues.”

Finally, notice Paul’s attitude toward the gift of tongues:

  • He said tongues speakers do not speak to men, but to God (vs.2). In context, this is not positive. It is negative. “Speaks to God” is probably exaggerated or even sarcastic. At the end of v.2 he said, “Indeed, no one understands him” (NIV; cf., “into the air” v.9). Again, in context, the word “mystery” is negative. “Apparently no native speaker of the tongue was present in the assembly (cf., vv. 10-11), and no one was given supernatural enablement to interpret it. The utterances therefore were mysteries, truths requiring a supernatural disclosure which God had not provided the Corinthians in this particular instance. As a result, the expression of tongues became an exercise in futility for the assembly as a whole.” (David Lowery, Bible Knowledge Commentary)
  • He said he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself (vs.4). Again, this is negative. The purpose of spiritual gifts was to edify the church, not oneself (vs.5,12,17,19,26,31; cf.12:7). How can it be positive or profitable to misuse a gift of the Holy Spirit?
  • He said when someone speaks in tongues, his mind is unfruitful (14). This too is negative. See v.15. Is there any virtue in praying or singing to God when literally no one understands — not even the tongues speaker?
  • He said he would rather speak “five intelligible words” than speak “ten thousand words in a tongue” (vs.18). Obviously, the tongues being spoken in Corinth were not “intelligible” to anyone.

Paul made three main points to show the inferiority of tongues to the gift of prophecy:

  1. Tongues are an inferior method of communicating truth to the church (vs.1-13). An interpreter is needed to interpret tongues, but prophecy doesn’t need an interpreter (vs.2,3,6,9).
  2. Tongues are an inferior method of worship, prayer and praise (vs.14-19). The whole personality is not involved (vs.14,15) — the mind is “unfruitful” (disengaged) because even the tongues speaker had no idea what was being said. “Meaningless” prayer was specifically forbidden by Jesus Himself in Matthew 6:7. To pray in ecstatic speech (glossolalia) without engaging the mind is not a Christian practice — it is a pagan practice which occurs in numerous pagan religions around the world. Another reason tongues are an inferior method of prayer and praise is because no one else can praise with the tongues speaker (vs.16-19).
  3. Tongues are an inferior method of evangelism (vs.20-25). Adults will (should) choose that which is best for their own good. To prefer tongues (especially a counterfeit) over prophecy was childish (20). Tongues were designed by God to be a sign to unbelieving Israel — this was the primary purpose of tongues. On the day of Pentecost, tongues was given to the unbelieving nation of Israel in order to fulfill prophecy. The point of the prophecy was that Israel would not believe in Christ, and the sign that they had missed Him was “strange tongues . . . the lips of foreigners” (see Acts 10:46). If unbelievers hear people praying in gibberish, they will “think you are out of your mind”. But, if a Jew walked into a Corinthian church and heard Gentiles in Corinth speaking fluent Hebrew, declaring the praises of Yahweh, he would recognize this as a clear, supernatural sign. So, the unregulated use of tongues will cause Gentile unbelievers to “say you are out of your mind” (v.23). Prophecy, on the other hand results in conviction of sin and praise (vs.24-25).

(1 Corinthians 14:26-40) In vs.26-28 we have regulations for the “proper and orderly” (v.40) use of tongues. In vs.29-33 we have regulations for the “proper and orderly” use of prophecy. In vs.34-35, Paul gave regulations for the “proper and orderly” conduct of women in public worship. The women were apparently being very disruptive — most likely asserting themselves in this competition to outdo everyone else in the use of tongues. But, these commands were not just for the women of Corinth.

  1. First, “churches” in v.34 indicates this was not just for the “church” of Corinth.
  2. Paul tied the command to “the Law” (v.34) so this was an Old Testament principle that carried into the New Testament.
  3. The broad principle given in v.35 is very clear: “It is improper (cf., v.40) for a woman to speak in church.” The New Testament principle is: Men are to lead in love and women are to submit in love. This is God’s design. Women may be highly gifted teachers and leaders, but those gifts are not to be exercised over men in the services of the church (cf., 1 Timothy 2:11-12).

This command for women to be silent is difficult. It must be approached with grace, reading it in its context. Was Paul commanding absolute silence (i.e., no singing, reading Scripture, praying, etc.)? No. Compare to 11:5 where Paul allows for women to prophesy (Perhaps while teaching women or children or in smaller gatherings). The instructions to the prophets in 14:29-33 are to “pass judgment” on (NIV, “weigh carefully”) the prophecy being spoken in the meetings. In other words, everyone is supposed to “learn and be exhorted” by the prophecy as the other prophets discussed it. What Paul was not permitting women to do was most likely that — “passing judgment” on or the “weighing” of prophecies through exhorting in an authoritative manner. (For a full explanation of this interpretation, see Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Chapter 6. See also the NET Bible’s note on vs.34 and Constable’s Notes for a long list of interpretations from respectable interpreters of the Bible.)

In vs.36-38, Paul asserted his apostolic authority. The word of God was given through the Apostles — including Paul. Paul knew that it would be difficult for some to receive this teaching, so it was necessary to remind them of this. The teaching Paul gave here to women is truly difficult, but since it came through an Apostle, it is also “the Lord’s commandment” (vs.37). This is a fitting conclusion to the discussion because all that the church does should be guided by the authority of the word of God — not our emotional and cultural preferences.  

The main point of Chapter 14 is that tongues is inferior to prophecy. There is genuine disagreement about whether tongues is still being given by the Holy Spirit today or whether tongues have “ceased” in this age. But, we should all be able to agree on, and be prepared to follow, the clear regulations for the use of tongues. This will usually reveal the counterfeit use of tongues because if there is no interpreter, the tongues are counterfeit.

Whatever one thinks of tongues, prophecy is to be preferred — according to the Apostle Paul. We should eagerly desire intelligible words from those with speaking gifts so that the church will be edified — built up. What edifies the church is “proper and orderly” worship centered on meaningful speaking of the truth for building up the body. We should not be fearful of emotional responses (see 14:25), but neither should we try to manufacture them or judge a worship gathering by how it made us feel.

The list of regulations in 14:26-40 should be used to guide our worship times together — primarily the great principle of v.40: “…All things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” This — rather than chaotic, emotion-driven events — reflects the nature of God. We should worshipfully reflect God’s characteristics of beauty, harmony and propriety.

Posted in Read the Bible Together.

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