Intelligible speech, Paul has said, is superior to the exercise of tongues in corporate worship because when people understand the language being spoken, they are able to be built up in the faith (1 Cor. 14:1–12). However, this does not mean that the Apostle saw no place for speaking in tongues in the public worship of the first-century church. That is clear from 1 Corinthians 14:27–28, where Paul says that tongues are permitted if someone is present in the congregation to interpret the language. We also see this in today’s passage, where Paul writes that those who speak in tongues should also pray for the ability to interpret them (v. 13). With interpretation, the tongues become intelligible to those who do not speak the language, and thus the body of Christ is edified.
The Apostle goes on in today’s passage to distinguish praying and singing with one’s spirit and praying and singing with one’s mind (vv. 14–17). It is important to note here that Paul is not saying that praying with the mind—that is, praying with a language one understands—means that the Holy Spirit is not at work. The Apostle does not divorce the operation of the Spirit from intelligible speaking and praying. For example, he exhorts us in Ephesians 6:18–20 to pray in the Spirit, offering up supplications that involve our praying intelligibly for the people of God according to the needs we know that they have. The difference between praying and singing with the mind and praying and singing with the spirit in 1 Corinthians 14:14–17 is not in the person who motivates the prayer and singing—in both cases, it is the Holy Spirit—but in the manner of prayer and singing. To sing and pray in the spirit is to sing and pray by using the gift of tongues in the power of the Spirit, and to pray and sing with the mind is to use our thoughts and understandable language in the power of the Spirit. It is better in the corporate setting to pray with the mind because that builds others up.
The Corinthians might have thought that Paul extolled praying with the mind because he did not have the gift of tongues, and in their view that would have made him an unspiritual person. To make it clear that his teaching was not grounded in his lack of speaking in tongues, Paul notes that he spoke in tongues more than any of the Corinthians (v. 18). Yet for benefiting the church as a whole, his quantity of tongues was of no avail. It was better for him to speak five words that could be understood by all (v. 19).