As we come to the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul begins to deal with the matter of speaking in tongues. There are a lot of people who do not like this subject. This is true in my own confession; many Reformed churches are against it. That is because they are concerned that if individuals claim to be able to speak under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what they say should carry the full authority of God because the Holy Spirit is God. If this were true it would undermine the authority of Scripture, which is the final authority in the Church, since a person who claims to be speaking by the Holy Spirit would have the same status as Scripture!
I believe this is a legitimate concern, but on the other hand, it also restricts God unnecessarily. It puts God in a box; and if we know anything about him, we know he will not be restricted, least of all by us. Moreover, as I read these chapters I find that Paul actually gives a number of principles for dealing with the practice of speaking in tongues in order to regulate it, not eliminate it. That is perfectly obvious, is it not? If you give statements that are to regulate a practice, you are not banning it. Now, I think it is important to say, I do not think this perspective means that everything that goes by the name of speaking in tongues is actually the Holy Spirit. I am extremely critical of much of what I hear, and I think rightly, but we must not be categorical in the way we handle this issue.
If you look at this portion of 1 Corinthians, you find that the first thing Paul points out is the presence of some counterfeit practices. These practices seem to be of the same nature as the miraculous events that are recorded in various places in Scripture, but they are not, in fact, of the Spirit of God; they are of the devil. These kinds of practices were fairly common in the pagan culture of the Corinthians, so the very fact that those things were going on in the church was not, in itself, proof that the Holy Spirit was active.
The second thing that Paul mentions is spiritual gifts. Speaking in tongues is merely one of the gifts, so he cautions the Corinthians against elevating this gift out of proportion. The third thing he says is that if speaking in tongues really is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it is given to certain believers for the same reason that the other gifts are given. It is meant for the edification, the growth, and the building up of the Church, so that is the way it must function. If the gift serves to build up, that is of the Lord. But if it functions in a divisive way that tears down, it is not of the Lord.
Paul then goes on to list more of the spiritual gifts, and here, as elsewhere in the New Testament where we find Paul’s lists of gifts, speaking in tongues is always at the end of the list. In 1 Corinthians, chapter 14, Paul also talks about the gift of tongues, specifically about the dangers that are sometimes present with it. Disorder in the church is one danger; the lack of intellectual content is another. When he gets to the very end of chapter 14, he gives what we would call “the bottom line” on this particular spiritual gift. He tells the Corinthians that although they should not forbid speaking in tongues, neither should they place too much emphasis on its importance.