Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers (I Corinthians 14:22a NIV).
The verse above is a difficult verse to understand. During my previous readings of this chapter it always appeared to me that this verse contradicted the message of verse 23. I now realize that I misinterpreted verse 22. I used to think that this verse was saying that the use of tongues was an effective tool of evangelism that God gives to believers to demonstrate His power to unbelievers and bring them to Christ. However, that is directly contradicted by verse 23, where we see that the use of tongues among Christians actually confuses unbelievers and brings dishonor to the name of Christ.
Now, to explain this verse properly, let me first begin by defining the gift of tongues. The gift of tongues, as used in the letter to the Corinthians, involves a God-given ability for a believer to speak in a supernatural/angelic tongue (I Corinthians 13:2, 14:2). Paul is saying that these tongues should never be used for public worship unless they are interpreted into plain speech, because otherwise they only cause confusion. Paul is saying here that God is a God of truth and logic, and that He communicates with His people clearly, inspiring tangible thoughts. The Holy Spirit is not in the business of spread confusion or miscommunication among his people. Therefore God does not use tongues–at least without a translator–as a supernatural sign of approval of spiritual growth among His true believers. Rather, God uses mass confusion and miscommunication as a sign of His disapproval of the lack of faith in unbelievers. Thus tongues–that is unintelligible speech–are a sign of impending judgment for unbelievers, not believers.
I think this interpretation fits best with the context. We have seen how in verse 21, God had previously used unfamiliar language as a sign of judgment for the disbelieving Jews of the Old Testament.We see similarly in Genesis chapter 11 that God uses “tongues” to judge unbelievers who were rebelling against Him:
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel[c]—because there the Lordconfused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:5-9)
We see here in the Genesis passage that mass confusion was the result of judgment from God. This event was indeed a powerful sign to repent; it was a clear demonstration of God’s power and displeasure. The point I am trying to make is that God punishes disobedience with confusion and disorientation; but true belief is rewarded with enlightenment and clarity of understanding. Those Christians who think that the Holy Spirit is leading them to speak in pure gibberish are wrong: the Holy Spirit would not induce them to do this unless there was an interpreter so that what they are saying could be understood.
Now, some will argue that the events of Pentecost proves the counterpoint: that tongues are a sign of God’s blessing. I agree, but remember, the gift of tongues mentioned in Acts chapter 2 is slightly different from the one we have been discussing here. In that case, the Apostles were not speaking in unintelligable tongues of angels, but rather, they were speaking in real human languages to people who understood them. The “gift” in this case, was the ability of the Apostles to speak in human languages that they did not previous know. God was truly empowering this use to spread the gospel and glorify Himself. In this case the end result was not confusion or miscommunication. Indeed, confusion was the starting point, when the Aramaic speaking believers wanted to communicate with others who did not speak their language. But Clarity was the result of God’s gift here, as the power of the Holy Spirit allowed these men to supernaturally overcome the language barrier.
Therefore, we now have a clear test for the proper use of tongues. The gift of tongues is used properly, only when it results in clear communication of truth. When it results in confusion it is not doing any good; indeed it is probably doing much damage. The Apostle Paul is clear here: tongues spoken in public must be interpreted into real human language in order to be of any use.