Public Worship Should be Inclusive and Participatory
Paul returns to the discussion of tongues and prophecy in the first half of chapter 14. It is easy to see the point of this section as the better value of prophecy over tongues. However, in the overall context of the entire essay and in particular the corresponding portion of the chiastic pair found in chapter 12, the thesis of this passage is around the appropriate use of spiritual gifts in public (corporate) worship. Tongues and prophecy happen to be the two examples that Paul picks up and uses in this passage because both involve speaking, and the Corinthian believers (at least some of them) considered one (tongues) more “spiritual” than all other gifts.
A couple of other questionable conclusions sometimes drawn from this passage are: 1) that this passage is defining the theology of the spiritual gift of tongues; and 2) that tongues are less valuable, and possibly even bad/evil, because the use of tongues is selfish and/or does not engage the mind.
The most important contextual point to keep in mind during the reading and interpretation of this passage is that Paul’s parenesis is directed at what happens during public worship. Private devotions are not a concern here.
The first part of this passage (vv.1-5) discuss the purpose of each gift. Tongues are for uttering to God mysteries that human language cannot convey. Prophecy is for uttering messages from God for the edification of the entire community. Since tongues edify only the individual and prophecy edifies the entire assembly, Paul’s preference is for prophecy in public worship.
The reason for prophecy is that it speaks "edification, exhortation and comfort" to the rest of the people. These three words set forth the parameters of the divine intent of prophecy, and probably indicate that in Paul's view the primary focus of a prophetic utterance is not the future, but the present situations of the people of God.
The second part (vv.6-12) provides a number of different illustrations in which Paul shows that intelligibility is necessary in public worship. The parable of the foreign languages is sometimes used as a basis for defining the gift of tongues as the ability to speak foreign languages, but the context does not support this interpretation.
The analogy is not that the tongues-speaker is also speaking a foreign language, as some have suggested, but that the hearer cannot understand the one speaking in tongues any more than he can the one who speaks a foreign language.
In the third and final part (vv.13-25) Paul discusses why intelligibility is necessary in public worship. Worship is a communal experience. Everything that takes place should be done in a manner that invites participation from all present. If some people cannot understand what is going on, they are unable to participate. This goes against the purpose of unity of fellowship through worship. Not only are all invited to participate, but all are expected to participate. In this section also, Paul affirms the value of the gift of tongues, but in public worship it must be made intelligible through the presence of an interpreter.
Verse 22 contains words that pose difficulties for interpretation. It is commentary on verse 21, but its sense is not immediately clear. C.H. Talbert offers one possibility. He sees verses 21 and 22 as assertions being made by some of the Corinthian believers and verses 23-25 as Paul’s response against the assertions. In this interpretation the Corinthians are asserting that tongues are a sign from God as proof to unbelievers of their spirituality. Prophecy, on the other hand, is not for unbelievers because mysteries of God are only for believers. Paul turns their assertion upside down. He writes that when unbelievers see them speaking in tongues, they will associate it with the madness of pagan cultic worship. Intelligible words of prophecy work to convict all who hear, so it is more desirable in public worship.
The other alternative sees Paul’s position reflected in the whole of verses 21-25. In this interpretation, “signs” are a manifestation of God that can mean either blessing or judgment. Paul agrees that tongues are certainly from God, but when unbelievers and outsiders hear it, they won’t understand and instead of drawing them toward God, they will see this as madness and something to stay away from. Thus tongues, instead of having a good effect, has the negative effect of forcing people away from God and into judgment. On the other hand prophecy is also from God, but the utterances are understandable by all. It has the effect of bringing conviction to outsiders and unbelievers (who choose to come to a church assembly – this isn’t about general evangelism outside of a church setting) so that they are moved away from judgment into the community of grace; i.e., building up the church. The “sign” of God’s favor is the building up of the church through the conviction of unbelievers and outsiders, not manifestations of the Spirit.
Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians is about some of the principles of public (corporate) worship. It is not primarily a discussion about spiritual gifts, such as tongues and prophecy. The primary principle is that worship must be intelligible to all. Secondary principles arise out the primary: that it must be inclusive (believers, unbelievers, those who are well-versed in Christianity, and those who are not); and that it should be participatory (there are no spectators, all are invited to preach and teach as God directs). Whatever takes place during corporate worship must be edifying to the entire assembly. No one should be excluded.
For the 21st century church a major application I see is in the form of a question. How do our assumptions about religious topics, liturgy, language (jargon), etc. exclude people from participating in worship? How can we turn corporate worship from a primarily spectator activity into a participatory one?
At the same time Paul's clear preference for prophetic utterances is often neglected throughout the church. By prophecy of course, as the full evidence of this chapter makes clear, he does not mean a prepared sermon, but the spontaneous word given to God's people for the edification of the whole. Most contemporary churches would have to be radically reconstructed in terms of their self-understanding for such to take place.
 That is not to say one can derive part of a theology of tongues from this passage.
 14:4, “build up himself” (ESV). In response Gordon Fee writes (New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, 14:2-4) “The edifying of oneself is not self- centeredness, but the personal edifying of the believer that comes through private prayer and praise.”
 14:14, “my mind is unfruitful” (ESV).
 NICNT, 1 Cor. 14:2-4.
 NICNT, 1 Cor. 14:10-11.
 14:24, “But if all prophesy,” with the implication that Paul assumes all present could prophesy if they so desired and God enabled them to do so – but not that all must prophesy or that all will.
 Reading the New Testament Series: Reading Corinthians, 1 Cor. 14-20-36.
 NICNT, 1 Cor. 14:5