The Bible clearly states that speaking in tongues is a sign for unbelievers. However, the Bible also clearly states that speaking in tongues is a gift given only to those who believe.
Of course, diverse kinds of tongues is a gift of the Spirit and gifts of the Spirit are only given to those who have received the Spirit of God, which we know no one can receive unless they are a follower of Jesus.
“I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)
Notice, if you are of the world (meaning a non-believer) you cannot receive the Spirit of Christ. You need to be a repentant, believer in Jesus Christ to receive the Spirit of God.
So, since this is true, why does Paul say that tongues are for those who don’t believe in 1 Corinthians 14:22?
Well, let’s look at the passage of scripture where Paul mentioned this so we can get a firm grasp on what he was talking about and see the full context.
1 Corinthians 14:22-25 apparent contradiction
“Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?
“But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.” (1 Corinthians 14:22-25)
At first glance, it appears that these scriptures contradict one another.
Because Paul starts out by saying that tongues are for those who don’t believe and then he continues by saying, “therefore, if an unbeliever comes in when you are all speaking in tongues, he’ll think you are crazy.”
So wouldn’t this mean that tongues aren’t for believers then?
Then immediately after he says this, he says, “but if you all prophesy the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart will be revealed and they will know that God is among you.”
So wouldn’t this mean that prophecy is more for the unbelievers and tongues are more for the believers then? What is going on here?
Why is Tongues a Sign for Unbelievers?
Tongues are a sign for unbelievers because it reveals the lostness of mankind by revealing the carnality of man. Speaking in tongues points to the fact that man is overcome by their five physical senses and is not sensitive to the leading of God.
Paul actually says in this same letter that a carnal man can not receive the things of the Spirit for they are foolishness to him.
“But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
Speaking in tongues reveals this and exposes the carnality and the lostness of man.
This is why Paul quoted Isaiah in verse 21, just before 22-25, who prophecied about speaking in tongues saying,
“With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,” says the Lord.”
Speaking in tongues is a sign of their destruction, their lostness, and their carnality.
Notice in verses 22-25 Paul says that speaking in tongues is a sign for unbelievers, not a gift.
“Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers.” (verse 22)
You see, speaking in tongues is a gift for those who believe, but it is a sign of carnality for those who don’t believe.
This is actually why Paul spent such a long time on the proper order of tongues in 1 Corinthians chapter 14. He understood that (1) if believers speak in tongues with no interpretation the believers around them won’t receive edification, but (2) he also understood that if an unbeliever stumbled into the gathering they would think that believers in Christ are crazy.
So, instead, Paul told them to focus more on prophecy and that when they spoke in tongues there should be an interpretation following the tongue, and if not then they should pray in tongues silently to God.
[Related article: Interpretation of Tongues (Common Questions Answered)].
Another point of confusion in regard to this passage comes with the assumption that when something is for unbelievers we immediately assume that it is meant to be evangelistic.
Tongues are not an evangelism tool, they are a sign of the lostness of man, as previously mentioned.
Now don’t get me wrong, tongues with an interpretation can be used as an evangelism tool because the Bible reveals that tongues coupled with interpretation is equivalent to prophecy.
But tongues by itself, will just cause people to think that you are crazy and that you are speaking gibberish.
We actually see the gift of tongues cause 3,000 people to get saved in Acts 2 right at the start of the Church. But we have to understand that this was not the gift of tongues manifesting by itself, but God gave unbelievers around them an interpretation so they would draw to the scene to hear the Gospel.
I have an entire article that explains this scenario in detail and it will probably answer a lot of questions you have heard about tongues and contradict a lot of teaching you have heard as well. It is titled Is Speaking in Tongues a Real Language? Or is it Gibberish?
I hope you enjoyed this article and that it assisted you in your walk with God!
God bless all of you.
P.S. Some other articles I have on the gift of Tongues: Is Speaking in Tongues for Today? (Yes! Here’s Why) and How to Start Speaking in Tongues (Step-by-Step).