Problems related to corporate worship in the first-century Corinthian church are Paul’s focus in 1 Corinthians 11–13. We have already seen the Apostle address the issues of head coverings and the right celebration of the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11. Chapter 12 hints that there was contention regarding spiritual gifts in Corinth, for Paul insists that all spiritual gifts are important in the church. This leads in to chapter 13, where Paul corrects an undue emphasis on spiritual gifts by focusing on the primacy of love. Chapter 14 makes it clear that an exaltation of the gift of tongues was the specific problem causing strife in Corinth.
The Apostle has no trouble with the gift of tongues in itself, for he says that he wants all to speak in tongues (v. 5). This does not mean that tongues are for all believers, as some Pentecostal thinkers have argued. Instead, Paul is stressing that he is not against tongues. His original audience might have concluded that he did not approve of tongues, since he stresses the role of prophecy over tongues in today’s passage (vv. 1–5), but Paul wants to make sure readers understand that he is not disparaging tongues when the gift is exercised properly.
It is important to understand what the gift of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia in the Greek, consists of. Based on other texts such as Acts 2, we may conclude that speaking in tongues means speaking in an actual human language that the speaker does not know. When the Jews heard the Apostles speaking in tongues at Pentecost, they heard known languages (vv. 1–13). Some have suggested that the gift of tongues includes also an angelic language not known to human beings, often looking to 1 Corinthians 13:1 to support their view. However, Paul is not necessarily referring to a unique language of the angels in that verse but is more likely using the phrase “tongues of men and of angels” to stress that as great as tongues may be—and they are great if the mighty angels also speak in tongues—love is greater still. That tongues do not represent also a uniquely angelic language seems to be confirmed in 1 Corinthians 13:8, where we read that tongues will cease. If tongues really are an angelic language, why would they ever end?
We will talk more about tongues and prophecy in due time. For now, let us note that Paul’s primary concern for spiritual gifts is that they edify the whole body of Christ (14:4–5). If we focus on using our spiritual gifts to build up others in the church, we will not go far wrong.