The Study of the Holy Spirit

"But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner." 1 Corinthians 14:40

Part K: What rules must be observed in regard to speaking in tongues and prophesying?


K.           What rules must be observed in regard to speaking in tongues and prophesying?  In the next section (1 Cor. 14:26-36) Paul outlined rules for verbal utterances in the church.  In the first sub-section he gave rules in regard to speaking in tongues and prophesying (1 Cor. 14:26-33), and in the second, rules in regard to women speaking (1 Cor. 14:34-36).  Let us examine both sub-sections in order.

1.               Rule #1:  Let all things be done for edification.  This is the first of three over-riding principles that Paul stated as governing a church service.  Paul wrote, “26What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26).  Paul listed a number of speaking events that might occur in a typical church service at Corinth.  Someone might sing a psalm (or perhaps read one); another might wish to teach the church something from Scripture that God had helped him discover; another might receive a prophecy from God to communicate to the assembly; another might speak in a foreign language; another might translate the foreign language.  The governing policy in the church service is that whatever speaking is done, the goal must be that the church is built up.  If the church could not be built up, silence was mandatory (1 Cor. 14:28).

2.               Rule #2:  Speaking in tongues must be orderly and intelligible (1 Cor. 14:27-28).  This rule is a deduction from the sub-set of rules which follow:

a.               Sub-rule #2a:  Only two, or at the most three people can speak in tongues in any given church service (1 Cor. 14:27).  (I have seen this rule violated in a church service.)

b.               Sub-rule #2b:  If someone speaks in a tongue, he can only do so one at a time.  There cannot be multiple people speaking in tongues at the same time (1 Cor. 14:27).  (I have seen this rule violated in a church service.)

c.               Sub-rule #2c:   If anyone speaks in a tongue, another must translate his utterance into a language that people in the audience understand (1 Cor. 14:27).  (I have seen this rule violated in a church service.)

d.               Sub-rule #2d.  This rule is a corollary to #2c.  If no one in the church service has the ability to translate the language in which a tongues-speaker might speak (this would be a Spirit-given ability to translate, not a self-learned ability), the one wishing to speak in a tongue must remain silent.  In that event, he should sit there silently and in his mind speak to himself and to God (1 Cor. 14:28).  (I have seen this rule violated in a church service.)  There are a couple of implications here:  (1) A potential speaker in a tongue must determine ahead of time, before a church service begins, whether or not someone else in the service who has the ability to translate a tongue is present.  If no one with that ability is present, there will be no speaking in a tongue in that service.  (2) Someone who speaks in a tongue has control over his own mind and faculties.  Biblical speaking in a tongue is not a frenzied seizure during which the speaker gives up control of his own body to some force external to himself.  This is a rational process, not an irrational one.

3.               Rule #3:  Only two or three prophets should speak in any given church service (1 Cor. 14:29).  Prophetic utterances are to be distinguished from teaching.  A prophetic utterance is a fresh, immediate revelation from God.  Teaching is a studied, mediate explanation or exhortation based upon Scripture or prophecy already revealed.

4.               Rule #4:  When prophets speak, the others (presumably other prophets) in the audience must sit in judgment on what he says to determine if his message is from God or not (1 Cor. 14:29). 

a.               In support of the view that “the others” refers to other prophets rather than to other people generally in the service, let me offer two evidences.  (1) Paul used the plural of allos, meaning others of the same kind, i.e., other prophets.  He did not use the plural of heteros, meaning others of a different kind, i.e. non-prophets.  (2) Furthermore, Paul used the article “the” as in “the others.”  This means he was being more specific than generic.  If there are three prophets who speak one at a time in a service, the other two are to “pass judgment” while he speaks.

b.               What does it mean to “pass judgment”?  Paul used the verb diakrino, meaning, in this context, “evaluating the difference between things discern, distinguish, differentiate” (Friberg Analytical Lexicon of the New Testament).  The other prophets were to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic messages.  Paul used the corresponding noun, diakrisis, in 1 Cor. 12:10, “distinguishing” (of spirits).  It was of critical importance to Paul to know whether messages were actually from God or not.  They must always be evaluated.  After all, false prophets and false teachers did plague the early church as they do the modern day church (Matt. 7:15; 24:11; 24:24; Mark 13:22; Luke 6:26; Acts 20:28-32; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 4:1).  Paul would later warn this same church to beware of false apostles.  He would remind them that even Satan masquerades as “an angel of light,” so it is no small wonder “if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13-15)!

c.               Rule #4 implies the possibility that someone who states he has a prophecy from God actually doesn’t.  Any prophecy must be subject to scrutiny to see if, in fact, it is genuine.  Does it meet the standard of previously revealed truth?

5.               Rule #5:  “But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent” (1 Cor. 14:30).  If another (allos) prophet receives a revelation from God while he is seated in the service, the prophet who is speaking must quit speaking and allow the prophet with the most recent revelation to speak.  Presumably in this case the first prophet had received his revelation from God at some time prior to the service.  A second prophet, having received a revelation from God during the service, had “the right of way,” so to speak.

a.               Sub-rule #5a:  “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted;”  The purpose of all prophesying one by one is so that all in the service, including all the prophets, might learn something and be urged to obey (1 Cor. 14:31).

b.               Sub-rule #5b:  “and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets;”  Unlike pagan ecstatic utterance (1 Cor. 12:2), in which the speaker was seized by another demonic spirit over which the speaker had no control, both prophets and speakers in a tongue retained control over their own actions.  Each could speak or desist from speaking at will according to the appropriateness of the moment (1 Cor. 14:32).

c.               Warren Wiersbe, in his commentary (Be Wise) on this passage, related the following incident.  “I once shared a Bible conference with a speaker who had ‘poor terminal facilities.’ He often went fifteen to twenty minutes past his deadline, which meant, of course, that I had to condense my messages at the last minute. He excused himself to me by saying, ‘You know, when the Holy Spirit takes over, you can’t worry about clocks!’”  Wiersbe’s reply was to quote from 1 Cor. 14:32, “The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.”  Wiersbe went on to conclude, “Our own self-control is one of the evidences that the Spirit is indeed at work in the meeting.”

6.               Rule #6:  “for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33).  This is the second of three over-riding principles that Paul stated as governing a church service.  It applies particularly to the idea that only one person speaks at a time in a church service.  If a church does not adhere to that rule, there is cacophony, confusion, and uproar.  Church services are not to be that way!

7.               Rules in regard to women speaking (1 Cor. 14:34-36).  This paragraph presents the reader with some problematic issues.  Was Paul forbidding any and all female speaking in a church service (the “No-Speech” position)?  Or were his comments restricted to what he had just stated in the immediately preceding context (the “Restricted Speech” position)?  This is a difficult passage.  At this point in my study, I opt for the “Restricted Speech” position.

a.               The Restricted Speech position:  Paul had earlier implied that a woman could both pray and prophesy, provided she did not do so in a manner that dishonored her head (meaning, likely, both her own physical head and her metaphorical head – her husband) (1 Cor. 11:5-6).  A woman praying in a church service does not wield authority over men.  When God uses a prophetess (Judges 4:1-9; Acts 21:8-9), the emphasis is upon God’s authority that is being wielded, not upon the woman’s own personal authority.  Apparently, when Paul stated, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says” (1 Cor. 14:34), he was not forbidding any and all speaking whatsoever.  Rather, he was prohibiting any women, whether from the general population of the church or from among the prophetesses, from sitting in judgment on the prophets in the church (1 Cor. 14:29).  This might involve asking some questions and asserting one’s own authority.  That Paul did not want.  Instead of attempting to control prophesying occurring in the church, women, if they had questions, were to ask their own husbands at home in order to avoid impropriety (1 Cor. 14:35).  This seems to me to be the best understanding of what Paul was legislating.

b.               Whereas prophesying rests upon the greater authority of God, teaching employs the lesser authority of the human teacher.  It is apparently for that reason that, while Paul allowed women to pray and to prophesy in church (1 Cor. 11:5), he did not permit them to teach in coeducational settings (1 Tim. 2:11-14).  On the other hand, Paul presumed that women would teach their own children (1 Tim. 2:15) and exhorted older women to teach younger women (Titus 2:3-5).

c.               The No Speech position:  If one takes the position that Paul’s prohibition against female speaking in a church service (1 Cor. 14:34-35) forbids any and all female speaking, then he must come to some alternative conclusions about the women praying and prophesying of which Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians 11:5.  Either one must conclude, as John MacArthur has done (MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians), (i) that the praying and prophesying of which Paul spoke was public, but not in the church, or he must conclude, as Charles Ryrie has done (Ryrie Study Bible), (ii) that the female prophesying and praying in 1 Cor. 11:5 actually occurred in the church, but did so without God’s blessing.  It was a bad practice that also happened to include impropriety in dress code.

1)              With all respects to John MacArthur, I do not understand how one can conclude that public prophesying and praying by females outside the church is legitimate but public prophesying and praying by females inside the church is illegitimate.  Furthermore, how can it be argued that a church service is not public?  If praying and prophesying by a woman in public is admissible, it is admissible in a church service because a church service is public.  Additionally, it appears that 1 Corinthians 11:1-14:40 are all about order and disorder in public worship.  The first section deals with impropriety in dress code as it reflects erroneous theology on the part of female worshipers (1 Cor. 11:1-16).  The second section deals with the church’s dysfunctional observance of the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:17).  The third section is a primer on the importance and distribution of spiritual gifts as they relate to the diversity yet unity of the Body of Christ.  This section (1 Cor. 12:1-31) was a necessary foundation for a discussion of the distribution and importance of spiritual gifts and, eventually, how they would impact public worship.  The fourth section was an elevation of love as a better reflection of God’s values than the use of speaking in tongues or prophecy in public worship (1 Cor. 13:1-13).  The fifth section (1 Cor. 14:1-40) included a discourse on the superior worth of prophecy above speaking in tongues in public worship (1 Cor. 14:1-19); a revelation of the judgmental significance of speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:20-25); and finally a set of rules to correct abuses in speaking in tongues and prophesying in public worship (1 Cor. 14:26-40).  In my judgment the burden of the proof lies with MacArthur to demonstrate that the prophesying and praying of women in a public church service was not that which was being scrutinized by the Apostle Paul.  I do not believe he has met that burden of proof.

2)              With all respects to Dr. Ryrie, if female prophesying and praying in the church was an illegitimate practice, why did Paul not comment on it in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16?  This would have been the perfect place to do so.  Under Ryrie’s interpretation, Paul made considerable effort to rectify a dress code (no feminine hair covering), but left untouched a much more egregious sin, female usurpation of male authority by praying and prophesying in the church service.

d.               If one takes the No-Speech position – that Paul was forbidding all female speech in the assembly, then female public praying is forbidden, female public prophesying is forbidden, female public teaching is forbidden, female public speaking in tongues is forbidden, and female public interpretation of speaking in tongues is forbidden.

e.               As is true with many difficult passages, virtually any position taken has its own difficulties.  The difficulty with the Restricted Speech position I have chosen is that all prophets, whether male or female, do convey a certain amount of personal authority.  Certainly Barak accorded Deborah authority (Judges 4:4-10), although in all fairness, Deborah was not only a prophetess, but also the judge of Israel, occupying a role similar to that of Margaret Thatcher in Britain some years ago.  So neither position is without its difficulties.

f.                Assuming the Restricted Speech position, women are not to stand in judgment over other prophets, and are not to ask any questions in the church service about the authenticity of the prophets’ messages (1 Cor. 14:34).  By way of application, women should not question the authenticity of a Bible teacher or preacher’s message in public either.  If they wish to inquire about something that is being taught, they should ask their own husbands for clarification at home (1 Cor. 14:35).  It is easy for a woman to change from asking questions publicly for informational purposes to asking questions in order to teach her own viewpoint.  I have seen that happen, and it does a disservice to the woman, to her own husband, to the teacher, and to the church.  There are no winners.

8.               As Paul neared the end of his discussion of spiritual gifts, he chided the Corinthian church for taking the position that they were the ultimate authority on revelation (1 Cor. 14:36).  If any one among them considered himself a prophet or a spiritual person, he was to recognize that what Paul was writing had the authority of none other than Jesus’ Himself (1 Cor. 14:37)!  If anyone of their number did not recognize what Paul had written, that person was not to be recognized (1 Cor. 14:38)!

9.               Paul concluded his whole discussion in 1 Corinthians 14 by encouraging these Corinthians to desire prophesy instead of tongues because prophecy produced edification.  At the same he ordered them not to forbid speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:39).  Paul concluded with his third of three over-riding principles that governed a church service – “But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Cor. 14:40). 

10.           In summary, here are three over-riding principles which must be observed in the conduct of a church service.  All the various rules Paul laid down fit under one or more of these three categories:

a.               “Let all things be done for edification.” (1 Cor. 14:26).

b.               “God is not a God of confusion but of peace …” (1 Cor. 14:33).

c.               “But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” (1 Cor. 14:40).

Part J: What is the Significance of Speaking in Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14? Part L: Evaluation and Conclusion

This study is based on, and the links to Scripture reference the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE , Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. (

(Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.  Used by Permission.)

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Updated July 22, 2019