It would seem that gathering together in Corinth for worship was a boisterous, messy affair and not in a good way. People were outdoing each other, showing how gifted they were with tongues and prophecies, talking and shouting over each other. So Paul wants to address the issue – he wants the gifts, but done well so that believers can be built up, encouraged and comforted (v.3), instructed (v.31) and not-yet-believers convicted and converted (v.25).
Church members shouting in tongues over the top of each other was not helping! Not waiting for an interpretation, so that everyone could understand, was not helping either. So Paul puts some order into the mess and confusion.
Paul spoke in tongues to pray more than any of us do (v.19), but in a church meeting he would rather a few words that everyone can understand than thousands in an uninterpreted tongue. He quotes from Isaiah, who prophesied that foreigners who speak in a different language would speak to Israel in a way they wouldn’t understand and that would be a sign of how far they had gone astray.
He then says uninterpreted tongues in a meeting are a sign for unbelievers, which seems a really odd way of putting it. Paul means it’s a bad sign, you can see how far the church has gone astray – babbling over the top of each other.
A public tongue in a meeting needs to be interpreted, so that all get a sense of what is being said. Paul would rather have more prophecy which will open up unbelievers to the wonders of God – so that they are convicted and converted.
So with that in mind, what constitutes a great meeting?
- You come prepared to contribute – starting a song, bringing a Scripture, prophecy, prayer or the sermon
- Two or three people at most bring a tongue which is then interpreted
- Two or three prophecies, before they are weighed. Then more can come!
Why does Paul say women should be quiet? It seems odd as in chapter 11 he says women can pray and prophesy if they are under authority! The issue is the disorder in the meetings (don’t forget people were also getting drunk in the bring and share meal!) – and v.35 makes it clear that the issue is that questions are being asked in a way that disrupts what is going on. It is likely that men sat on one side and women on the other and the wives were shouting questions to their husbands over the top of the rest of the babbling in tongues and competing to bring a prophecy – a cacophony! So Paul says save the questions for discussion at home rather than disrupting the gathering.