Paul states a few very important caveats regarding the practice of tongues. For starters, it is not an ecstatic gifting where the speaker is completely out of control. Paul states that the tongue speaker has the ability to start and stop (1 Cor. 14:27), and he states that unless there is an interpreter an individual should refrain from speaking all together (v. 28). The gift of interpretation is especially crucial and often completely ignored in modern expressions of the gift. The gift of interpretation is vital to the practice of tongues within the corporate worship service.
We have stated previously that tongues are a God-given gift of speech in a foreign language otherwise unknown to the speaker (that language may be an earthly human language or a divine language). We have also argued that the gift has direct benefit to the speaker in his own relationship with the Lord. But the practice of tongues within the corporate gathering has certain limitations and restrictions. Paul’s primary concern in 1 Corinthians 14 is that all things be done in an orderly fashion and for the purpose of building up the church (v. 26). Therefore, he mandates that without interpretation tongues should not be expressed in the gathering. Sam Storms argues that interpretation may be the “most neglected gift in the body of Christ,” and yet it is “one of the most important gifts insofar as it alone makes possible the introduction of tongues-speech and its obvious blessings into the gathered assembly of believers” (The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 153). Without interpretation, then, tongues are purely a ministry of self-edification (1 Cor. 14:2-5).
Interpretation is the gift of understanding, discerning, and explaining a foreign language that is otherwise unknown to the interpreter (that language may be a real human language or a divine one). Sam Storms defines the gift as the “Spirit-empowered ability to translate a public utterance of tongues into the language of the congregation” (154). The idea behind interpretation is to give people insight into someone’s communication with God in order that they too might be blessed from it. If tongues are communication from man to God (1 Cor. 14:2), then interpretation is giving the congregation a chance to listen in on this unique worship, prayer, or praise and to receive the corresponding blessing from it. In other words, while many have rightly drawn connections between prophesy and tongues the two gifts are clearly not identical (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1076). Prophecy is God’s communication to man, while tongues are man’s Spirit-empowered communication to God. But without interpretation it has no benefit to the congregation as a whole (1 Cor. 14:6-12).
Interpretation itself may take many forms. There can be a literal word-for-word translation, or simply a general paraphrase of the content. There may be concrete literal interpretation, or there ma be a rendering that captures the essence or gist of the expression without an exact articulation of every word. This helps to explain why an utterance may be long but an interpretation brief. In fact the latter type of “translating” is often the practice of even interpreters of earthly human languages who have mastered and practiced the skill of interpreting a specific language. Judgments and assessments of interpretations, then, should be evaluated with this knowledge.
The gift of interpretation is frequently neglected, which raises much concern about the practice of tongues among the contemporary church. Much of what passes for tongues does not correspond to the Bible’s restrictions and limitations of the practice. Often in local churches that express the gifts, tongues are uttered by multiple people at the same time – in violation of 1 Corinthians 14:27. They are spoken in a sort of ecstatic and uncontrolled manner, and without an interpreter – in violation of verse 28. We ought to be suspicious of public expressions of tongues that do not conform to the Biblical standard, and we ought to be conscious of those who persist in violating those principles as outlined by Paul for the expression of tongues. Interpretation is essential to the expression of tongues in the corporate gathering. Without it we not only fail to bless the church, but we actually sin against God. So, while many are obsessed with attaining the gift of tongues, for the sake of the church many more ought to be pursuing the gift of interpretation.