22 Paul uses this quotation from Isaiah to show that tongues (or foreign languages) are a sign for disobedient and unbelieving men—a sign of God’s power and judgment.
But for believers, prophecy is needed, not tongues. Prophecy is for believers, tongues for unbelievers. Therefore, in the church let there be prophecy instead of tongues.
23 Although speaking in tongues is a sign for unbelievers, the believers shouldn’t all begin speaking in tongues at once when unbelievers enter their presence. Otherwise, the unbelievers will think the believers are out of their minds (see Acts 2:4,13). Speaking in tongues all at once like this can actually turn unbelievers away and harden their hearts, just as the Jews’ hearts were hardened when the Assyrians came speaking strange tongues (verse 21). If men don’t listen to God’s warnings when He speaks to them in understandable ways, they certainly won’t listen to Him if He speaks in ways that are not understandable!
24-25 Although tongues are a sign for unbelievers (verse 22), unbelievers also receive more benefit from prophecy than from tongues. Remember, God first sent prophets to warn the unbelieving Jews; if they had listened to them, they would have been spared much trouble. For it was only after the Jews had rejected the prophets that God sent the foreigners with their strange tongues to attack them.
Therefore, even though Paul has said in verse 22 that tongues are a sign … for unbelievers, prophecy is still usually much more effective in leading unbelievers to repent and turn to God. Sometimes in a church service, God will give a believer a special word or prophecy about an unbeliever who is present, and as a result of that prophecy, the unbeliever will be brought to repentance and faith. Thus, in summary, prophecy is more beneficial than tongues, not only for believers, but for unbelievers also.
26 Paul encourages the Corinthians to use the spiritual gifts they have been given whenever they meet together—whether in church, or in a house fellowship, or in a prayer meeting. Paul says that everyone has one or more gifts of the Spirit, through which the church can be strengthened. Paul again mentions a few examples of these gifts. Two of the examples—the hymn and the word of instruction—can be natural gifts (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). The other gifts—a revelation, a tongue, and an interpretation—are clearly supernatural gifts (1 Corinthians 12:8-10)52
27-28 Here Paul gives clear instructions about speaking in tongues during meetings of the church. In any one meeting, no more than three people should speak in tongues; and they should speak in turn, not all at once. In any church where tongues are spoken, there will usually be one or more persons who can interpret. If such an interpreter is not present at a particular meeting, then the one with the gift of tongues should not speak in tongues during that meeting (unless he himself can interpret what he says). Rather, he should speak to himself and God privately in prayer (verse 28).
Notice that the gift of speaking in tongues is under our control. In accordance with Paul’s instructions and the Spirit’s leading, we can choose either to speak or not to speak; the decision is ours.
29 Those with the gift of prophecy also should speak in turn. And the others should weigh carefully what is said. Why is that necessary? Because there is always the danger that false prophets might come into a church and deceive the believers (Matthew 7:15; Mark 13:22; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Corinthians 11:13-14). We must examine what every prophet says and determine whether or not it’s true (1 John 4:1). In order to help believers recognize false prophets, the Holy Spirit gives to some in the church a special gift of distinguishing between spirits53 (1 Corinthians 12:10). Those who have this gift can thus protect other believers from the teaching of these false prophets.
30-31 Before a prophet speaks, he must first receive from God a revelation of what he is to say. If such a revelation should come to someone during a church meeting, then that person should immediately be given the opportunity to share that revelation with the church. But if someone else is already speaking, that speaker should quickly finish what he is saying and sit down; then the one who has received the revelation can speak. Only one person at a time should address the congregation.54
32 Just as the person who speaks in tongues must control himself, so also the person who prophesies must control himself. God gives the revelation, but the prophet must speak in an orderly way.
The spirits of prophets are the human spirits of the prophets themselves. The Holy Spirit inspires the spirit of the prophet, but the prophet must use his mind and will to keep his spirit under control.
33 Why does Paul give all this teaching about order in the church? Because God is not a God of disorder. He is a God of peace and order, and He wants order to be maintained in His church. The last of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:23). This fruit was lacking in the Corinthian church; that is why their meetings were filled with confusion. From this we can see once more that the fruits of the Spirit are much more important than the gifts of the Spirit. A man may have the Spirit’s gifts, but if he does not also have the Spirit’s fruits, his behavior will be displeasing to God.
34 … women should remain silent in the churches. These days there is much debate among Christians about the meaning of this verse. The verse cannot mean that women must remain completely silent all the time, because in this same letter Paul has written that women should cover their heads when they pray and prophesy publicly in church (1 Corinthians 11:5). Thus, according to Paul’s own statement, it must be all right for women to pray and prophesy out loud in church; otherwise, Paul would never have said they needed to cover their heads.
So what does Paul mean when he says that women must remain silent in the churches? He means that women must not cause a disturbance during church meetings. They are not allowed to speak, says Paul; that is, they are not allowed to chatter. In Paul’s time, the women sat in one part of the church and the men in another. Thus the women would of ten gossip and laugh among themselves and not pay any attention to what was being said in the meeting. They would of ten have small children with them, and the children would create a disturbance on their own. Paul would certainly instruct such women to keep their children under control, or take them outside. Otherwise, no one would be able to concentrate on what was being said.
Therefore, Paul is teaching here that women must not speak in a thoughtless or disorderly way in the church. They must remain in submission to the leaders in charge of the meeting (see General Article: Women in the Church).
This rule concerning women was applied even more strictly among the Jews of Paul’s time. According to Jewish custom, woman were not allowed to speak at all in the synagogue. But because Christian men and women are equal in Christ, Christian women were allowed more privileges in the church. Even so, Paul teaches here that it is usually more suitable for women to remain silent during church services (see 1 Timothy 2:11-12; 1 Peter 3:1-4 and comments).
35 If a woman has a question she wants to ask, she must not suddenly jump up in the middle of the meeting to ask it; that would be disgraceful. It would create a disturbance. Rather, let her wait and ask her husband the question at a more suitable time.
In Paul’s time, most women were uneducated. They couldn’t understand everything that was being said in the church service. Therefore, it was the duty of their husbands to teach them, says Paul. The wives should not remain ignorant of spiritual matters. In spiritual understanding, the husband and wife should be equal. Let us ask ourselves: What is our own church like? Do women come freely? Do they receive teaching? Let the husbands not neglect their duty to teach their wives.
36 The Corinthians were proud. They followed their own rules for their church services. They acted as if their church were the only church on earth. Therefore, in this verse Paul reminds the Corinthians that they aren’t the only Christians in the world. They should be following the rules that all the other churches followed (verse 33).
37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet or spiritually gifted among the Corinthians ought to know that these instructions that Paul has written are from the Lord Himself.
38 If anyone does not recognize or heed Paul’s teaching, let that person be ignored;55 let him be treated as an ignorant person.
39-40 Finally, in spite of all his warnings, Paul does not want to discourage the Corinthians from using the spiritual gifts they have been given. Let them be used! (verse 1). But let them be used in a fitting and orderly way.