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1 Corinthians 14

Decently and in order

This study pertains to how Paul used the word “speak” in 1 Corinthians 14. It is my contention that he did not use the word as we often use it today, as in casually talking to another. Rather, Paul used the word in the context of teaching.

There are two English words I want to consider; they are “say” and “speak.” These two words are similar, but there is a distinction.


  1. The English word “say” is used 27 times in 1 Corinthians. The Greek word legēte is used 33 times in Paul’s letter to the saints in Corinth (KostenBerger, p. 937). In 1 Corinthians 14, the word is used 5 times (14:16, 21, 23, 34), and in the context of the miraculous (chapters 12-14), it is used an additional 4 times (12:3, 15, 16, 21).
  2. This word is defined: to lay, arrange, gather, to say, to speak, to make an address or speech (Perschbacher, pp. 255-256).
  3. Bauer gives a little more than four columns of information in his lexicon to how this word is used in the New Testament (pp. 468-470). He defines it in general terms as: utter in words, say, tell, and give expression to.
  4. Balz does not give as much attention, but thoroughly enough (three complete columns in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, pp. 346-347). The basic meaning is pick up, gather, count, enumerate, narrate, speak, tell, say (“say” being the dominant understanding in the New Testament).
  5. In 14:16 the word is used 2 times: “will say” (epei) and “what you say” (legeis). In 14:21 the word is “says” (legei), in 14:23 “say” (erousin), and in 14:34 “says” (legei).
  6. SUMMARY: the context defines how the word is best understood. In 1 Cor. 14, the word is more closely associated with “utterance,” but is included in a “teaching” context. For instance, in 14:16, “how can one say amen” to that teaching which is not understood (also in v. 23)? In 14:21, “the Lord says;” it is clear the Lord teaches via the Scriptures (also in v. 34).


  1. The English word “speak” (speak, speaking) is used 32 times in 1 Corinthians (NKJV), 24 times in chapters 14, and 3 times in the context of chapters 12-13 (12:3, 30; 13:1). The Greek word laleō is used 34 times in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 24 times in chapter 14 (with 4 additional uses in chapter 12-13; they are: 12:3, 30, and 13:1, 11). The word literally means to speak, to express oneself, especially “in contrast to keeping silent” (Bauer, p. 463). Does this word mean the same as the English say? It does have some overlap in meaning, but a distinction between the words is there. “Laleō is distinguished from legō in that it only rarely means say that...or is followed by indirect discourse” (Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 366).
  2. The NKJV does not translate laleō as speak It is say in 9:8; spoke in 13:11; and spoke in 14:5. The translation variance is but little.
  3. How does Paul use the word?
  • 14:2. The word is used 3 times in this verse (lalōn, lalei). The words in this verse are used in a teaching and non-teaching setting. For instance, the word lalei (speak) is used in relation to God, but one can’t teach God, for He is the teacher of all people everywhere. The one who does speak to God, however, is communicating cognitive thoughts (even though he himself may not understand the particular utterances). On the other hand, the one who speaks in a tongue to man (anthropois) is teaching, for that is the purpose of speaking in languages not known (cf. Acts 2:6-11). To buttress this point: “Although [laleō] and [akouō] are regularly translated broadly to mean respectively to speak and to hear, the issue in these verses clearly turns on intelligible communication or effective communicative action between speakers and listeners” (Thiselton, p. 1084). In other words, teaching.
  • 14:3 (lalei). The word in this verse simply supports what was said in the previous. When edification, exhortation, and comfort are accomplished, the words spoken teach, educate, etc.
  • 14:4 (lalōn). Paul makes clear what tongues do – they edify (teach). In the context of the first 4 verses, Paul clearly understands the word to communicate cognitive thoughts to others (that is, teach). It is also clear there might exist a lack of understanding with those who had the capability, and thus a lack of teaching. The words used, when spoken to another, were nothing but unintelligible thoughts. Considered further: if “no man” (ASV) understands (14:2), then the one who spoke did not understand either. It is possible, I admit, that the “no man” can have application to all, but the one who spoke (14:4).
  • 14:5 (lalein, lalōn). Since tongues (languages) edify, those who are edified by that which the tongue (muscle) speaks are taught. Prophecy and tongues/interpretation are used in edification, teaching.
  • 14:6 (lalōn, lalēsō). Does Paul make a distinction between the speaking and teaching in this verse? Williams New Testament translation: “But as it now is, brothers, if I do come back to you speaking in ecstasy, what good shall I do you, unless my speech contains a revelation or new knowledge or a prophetic message or some teaching?” ESV: “Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” In other words, Paul is making a distinction when the hearers on the other end of the word spoken (if you will) understand not a single thing spoken!
  • 14:9 (laloumenon, lalountes). See above
  • 14:11 (lalounti, lalōn). See above
  • 14:13 (lalōn). The next 5 verses are concluding thoughts to what Paul said previously. When one speaks in a tongue, he is to desire (and pray for) the ability to interpret; this is for edification (teaching) purposes. If he speaks in a tongue, but understands nothing about that which he said, he is not edified (taught), but only speaks to God. To that degree, then, he glorifies God, but nothing beneficial in the way of teaching for himself. “What Paul urges upon those who are zealous for gifts is that, if they have the gift of tongues, they also pray for the gift of interpreting whatever they may be given to speak with a tongue. The reason for this has already been stated, namely that the church may receive edification, v. 12” (Lenski 590).
  • 14:18 (lalōn). The word speak in this verse can be understood to be capability, but not capability apart from the end toward which tongue speaking was used by the Lord. In other words, Paul said, “I have the ability to speak with tongues more than you all…”
  • 14:19 (lalēsai). Continuing the thought: Paul said, “I have the ability to speak with tongues more than you all, but in a congregational setting, I would rather teach with few words that people can understand, than to show that I had the capability to speak with many words in a foreign language, but others are not edified (taught) by that which I said.” The B. Phillips translation reads: “I thank God that I have a greater gift of ‘tongues’ than any of you, yet when I am in church I would rather speak five words with my mind (which might teach something to other people) than ten thousand words in a ‘tongue’ which nobody understands.”
  • 14:21 (lalēsaō). The Lord says through His word a particular teaching (lalēsō).
  • 14:23 (lalōsin). The church gathers together, and someone comes into the confines of the church’s gathering, and all are speaking (teaching) in tongues (languages), what is the visitor to think? Whether in an orderly or disorderly way, that which is not understood (the words spoken), the visitor will dismiss what he observed as madness.
  • 14:27 (lalei). The hypothetical Paul speaks of in vs. 23, he now addresses particularly in vss. 26-32. With the spiritual gifts “in hand,” and with the church gathered together, let things be done orderly. If one has the ability to speak (teach) with the tongue (language), then let him do so, but only if an interpreter is present for edification of the church.
  • 14:28 (laleitō). If there is no interpreter, then let him speak to God only. Clearly, God is not taught anything when one speaks to God.
  • 14:29 (laleitōsan). The prophets who speak (teach) are to have that which they say judged by those who hears. “Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said” (NET). The speaking is teaching.
  • 14:34 (lalein). Silent in this context, therefore, pertains to teaching, and not to something other than that (an important point not to be missed). It does not address whether or not the women had the miraculous gifts that came from God; it only addresses that which pertains to what is done in an assembly context. The women are not to teach (speak) in the assembly in this context. This comports and compliments Paul’s words to Timothy in his first letter to him (1 Timothy 2:12).
  • 14:35 (lalein). This verse is, admittedly, difficult to interpret. We can begin, however, with continuing the theme that women are not to speak, that is, teach in the assembly context under discussion. The context, thus far, in no way addresses women uttering audible sounds, like putting words together to make a sentence. Perhaps here we have something different (though this is not certain). Maybe their “speaking” was an effort to teach. If the word “speak” is to be understood exegetically in the context as “teach” (and I maintain that it does), then there needs to be an adequate reason for why it does not mean the same in this verse. In any case, the Holy Spirit gave His teaching for the church then (and today). I offer the following as a reasonable interpretation: First, there seems to be a special assembly (14:26) wherein those capable of exercising the gifts that came from God did so. Second, evidently some women (wives) were present. Whether this was normal or not is unstated, but it seems reasonable to me it was. Third, there was teaching taking place. Fourth, with this teaching taking place, the women “want to learn something.” There is given to us nothing in the text concerning how much (if anything) was learned by the women. Presumably they had desire for further elaboration; maybe there was something said by a teacher that was not understood (but that is not something we gain from the text). Fifth, the women were not to disrupt what was going on, but to gain elaboration, additional teaching, or learning of some sort – they were to gain this at home. Brad Price has some very good words on a portion of this verse.


The word ask (eperotao) is a present tense verb that meant “approaching an authority for answers” (CBL, GED, 2:511); this same word and meaning are found in Luke 2:46; 9:45. This term may also “indicate intensity since it can mean ‘demanding’ rather than just ‘asking’” (ibid). The present tense plus the CBL [The Complete Bible Library] definition indicates women were being disruptive at worship. The point is clarified a little more by the fact that “speak” is a present tense verb (women were asking questions on a regular basis). Perhaps women justified their interruptions by saying they just wanted to “learn” (manthano. Paul also used this word in verse 31). Since the interruptions were leading to “confusion” instead of “peace” (verse 33), and they did not harmonize with a woman’s being “in subjection” (34b), Paul said ladies with questions had to “ask their own husbands at home. (E-Sword)


  • 14:39 (lalein). In not forbidding to speak in tongues in the assembly, Paul has in mind teaching.


  1. The conclusion of this study is that Paul had in mind teaching when he addressed these thoughts in the chapter. Thus, the speaking was not pertaining to some talking as one would talk with another in the church pew sitting beside one another. The miraculous gifts from God were given for two reasons, and one is addressed in this chapter, namely the edification (building up). Those who had gifts from God were to teach, instructing the local church, the local body of saints. Some useful words, again, from Brad Price:


Verse 40 again affirms that the Corinthians could use whatever abilities they received from the Holy Spirit if they abided by the rules governing these gifts. Paul ended the thought by saying “all things” were to be done (present tense) “decently” and “in order” (compare this point to the word “unseemly” and the discussion of this term in the commentary on 13:5). Decently (euschemonos) literally meant “of good external appearance.” In other words, there should have been “good behavior” at worship. This adverb occurs only here, Rom. 13:13 and 1Thess. 4:12. The church has never been a place for people to “cut loose” and behave in whatever way they want. The phrase in order comes from a single term (taxis) that meant “in an orderly manner.” Josephus used the negative form of this word to say “the Roman army did not erect its camp in disorderly parties” (Rienecker and Rogers, p. 438). Paul wanted these Christians to conduct themselves in a way that would end all the confusion and disorder (compare verse 33). If this were not done, non-Christian might have been puzzled or frightened (verse 23) and the Corinthians would not have received as much instruction and edification from the services as God wanted. Today worship still needs to have a good external appearance and be orderly. Two things that help accomplish these goals are good organization and planning. Good leadership (elders) is also necessary (for some information on these men see the commentary on 12:27-28).


  1. Not only did we consider the context and a proper application of that context, it is a misuse of the passage (14:40) to apply these words to females when females speak “between the prayers” (opening and closing of the worship service), unless, of course, the (or a) female is teaching. This is not to say that any female or any male should be talking in a way that disrupts worship of God, but the particular verse has no application to some saint who is talking to another. It can, however, have application if when the saints are engaged in worship, there is an effort by one (male or female) to be disruptive. The saints are participating in that which is sacred; thus, all attention should be on the Lord, not on the temporal, which in this context is disruptive. In an effort to make sure that things are done decently and in order, don’t run past the horse, putting the cart first.


  1. Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. University of Chicago Press, 1958.
  2. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 3 volumes, Edited by Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider. Eerdmans. 1991.
  3. Kostenberger, Andreas and Bouchoc, Raymond. The Book Study Concordnace of the Greek New Testament. Broadman and Holman Publishers, Nashville. 2003
  4. Perschbacher, Wesley, J. The New Analytical Greek Lexicon. Hendrickson Publishers. Peabody, MA. 1990.
  5. Price, Brad. First Corinthians. http://www.abiblecommentary.com. 2010.
  6. Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, MI. 2000.