Does Paul Contradict Himself On The Purpose of The Gift of Prophecy and Tongue-Speaking?


In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul issues commands on how members of the Corinthian church are to use their miraculous gifts in the assembly. They were to not abuse the gifts; instead, they were to utilize their gifts with the goal of promoting edification in the church (1 Corinthians 14:1-4).

Some skeptics assert that Paul contradicts himself in 1 Corinthians 14:22-25 as follows: (1) Paul states that tongues (the miraculous ability to speak another known language one has not studied, Acts 2:4-11) are for a sign to unbelievers (non-Christians). (2) Paul states that prophesying is for Christians (believers), not for unbelievers. (3) When the whole church comes together in one place, and the Christians speak with tongues, then those who come who are unbelievers will believe Christians are crazy. (4) Then Paul states that if Christians prophesy, any unbeliever that comes into the assembly has an opportunity to be convinced and convicted by the message of God.

The skeptic would assert that Paul had just stated that tongues are for a sign to unbelievers and prophesying is for believers. But then it is all switched in verses 24-25 when the Christians are exercising the gift of prophesy and they are able to convince and convict the non-Christians with the inspired message of God.

Once again, the skeptic has misunderstood the text.

  1. Paul states that the gift of tongues was a sign to non-Christians. Why was the gift of tongues a sign to them?

  2. There are several reasons: (1) If an unbeliever heard a first-century Christian speak in a foreign language he had never studied, the unbeliever would have adequate evidence to conclude it was a miracle. Many of the Jews on the day of Pentecost were convinced and convicted that the message the Galileans were speaking was true and from God because they heard these formally uneducated Galileans speak in their own language (Acts 2:1-13). 

  3. (2) The sign is also meant to be taken in a negative tone. In 1 Corinthians 14:21, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12. In Isaiah’s context, the Israelites (the northern kingdom) were so hard-hearted and stubborn in breaching their covenant with God that God sent a judgment upon them (the Assyrian nation – who spoke in the Akkadian language – a foreign language that Israel would not have known) by bringing them into Assyrian captivity. Paul’s application from Isaiah: just as the northern kingdom of Israel heard tongues as a sign of judgment, so it would be also to unbelievers in the first century A.D. that God would render His judgement upon them if they did not obey the gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16; Acts 17:30; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).

  4. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 14:22: “Therefore tongues are a sign, not to who believe but to unbelievers.” Paul then states: “But prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.” The question should be asked: “What relationship does tongues have for unbelievers that prophesying does not?” We can fill in the blank: “But prophesying is not (a sign) for unbelievers but for those who believe.” Those in the church already had believed and obeyed the gospel. Therefore, they did not need any confirmatory signs to believe. One of the purposes of a miracle was to help a person come to belief in the message (Mark 16:17-20; John 20:30,31).

  5. In verses 23-25, Paul gives a practical, common-sense illustration that bolsters his argument: If an uninformed Christian (a Christian who is ignorant to the language being spoken and ignorant to the miraculous gift of speaking in tongues in general, see verse 16) or a non-Christian is in a church assembly and everyone addressing the assembly speaks miraculously in a foreign language(s), the uninformed and the unbelievers who are present will think these Christian men who are doing the speaking (see 1 Corinthians 14:34-35) and the church as a whole are insane. The uninformed and unbelievers would not see this as a sign from God to confirm the word preached (Mark 16:17-20), but instead, they would see it more as “a sign” that this church had some issues. In particular for the unbeliever, the “speaking in tongues” had a dual purpose of teaching the unbeliever and confirming that the message was from God; whereas, the prophesying (much like preaching) simply taught and did not, necessarily, always have a detectable miraculous element that would help confirm the word for the unbeliever. The message (through prophecy in this illustration) is always the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16) for Christians and non-Christians alike; whereas, the obvious, miraculous element of speaking in tongues (assuming the unbeliever understands it) is primarily for the benefit of the unbeliever to be able to confirm that the message being preached is confirmed to be a message from the Supernatural One.

  6. In verses 23-25, Paul is driving home the point that there is the superiority of intelligible speech [which would be the gift of prophecy - 1stCorinthians 14:1-4)] because you would not have to have a translator to interpret the message. The gift of prophesy as compared to delivering messages in tongues (foreign languages) unknown to the listeners is of a far superior quality because it will lead to edification for the church and it will also lead to some lost souls obeying the gospel.

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