We continue in our study of the gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 with a discussion of the gift of tongues. There are many who see this gift as controversial. I say that when God heals a sick person, or gives a person a divine word of Knowledge it is just as revolutionary as this gift of tongues. Others have said that this gift is a lesser gift. But Paul doesn't mention any sort of hierarchy of the Holy Spirit's manifestations. What is at view here is the Spirit manifesting himself in the gathering of believers. (You will recall that what Paul writes about from chapter 11 through 15 is regarding their behavior and decorum when "gathered together"). These corporate manifestations are for the blessing of all. So what Paul has in view here, indeed, what the Holy Spirit is speaking about is the common expression of speaking in tongues in a corporate gathering. He is not speaking of personal prayer language, though, he does reference it in chapter 14, but here in chapter 12 he is mentioning the practice of one or another of the brothers or sisters in the fellowship being moved upon by the Spirit and speaking out in a language that they have never known. This may be a language from around the world somewhere (whether known or not) or the language of angels that he references in Chapter 13. I remember speaking to a dear sister in the Lord and she was at a Bible college where the gifts of the Spirit were not welcome (shame!) and a representative from Africa began to great the congregation in his native language. It consisted of clicks and pops and ticks. She confessed to me that she could only think amusingly that some poor soul had that prayer language!
Paul recognizes the power of a word form God irrespective of it's source and sets some guidelines in order. He wishes that all men would speak in tongues as he does, but recognizes that this isn't the case. He also encourages the leadership of the assemblies to welcome and not to forbid the speaking in tongues. He tells us in 14.2 that this language is distinctively for praise (though it is most beneficial when interpreted) because it is between God and man. (This, by the way, rules out the foolish understanding that God imparts supernaturally the language without learning for the purpose of preaching) No, tongues is God-ward and not towards man. In the case of the use of this manifestation gift in the gathered people of God it would be a sort of turbo charged prayer- that all believers would be able to say amen to- but only as it is interpreted. And so Paul's instance upon the gift of interpretation being practiced and demanded that this should be in place or the public use of tongues is of no value in the gathered assembly.
Of course, many of us have witnessed the distracting even self-seeking elements of the flesh at work in the church. God's purpose is to edify the body through these manifestations. Only then will they truly be gifts to the church.