In 2010, Chinese authorities undertook a massive campaign to correct thousands of signs in English. A sign that should read, “Caution! Floor is slippery!” instead declared, “Slip and fall down carefully!” “No Smorking!” signs abounded to ban cigarette smoking in certain areas. Instead of “Keep off the grass!” a sign exhorted: “Please don’t disturb me. I am sleeping and will feel pain.” American companies trying to market their products in Chinese haven’t always fared any better. KFC’s “finger–lickin’ good” slogan was translated as “eat your fingers off.” And the original attempt to translate Coca–Cola into Chinese was rendered, “Bite the wax tadpole.”
Cultural miscommunication between speakers of different languages is how Paul describes what was happening in the church of Corinth. The Corinthians were speaking in tongues in their public worship gatherings, but as their speech was unintelligible to one another, it did not benefit the community. Because of the overemphasis on tongues (and what might have been a neglect of gifts like prophecy), their worship gatherings hummed with a noise like a hack with a clarinet to his lips or the muffled bugle call on the battlefront. They don’t promote the encouragement and instruction of the believers.
Paul is not sidelining the gift of tongues. He is not faulting the Corinthians for having the gift or even wanting it. He speaks in tongues and recognizes the value of tongues for one’s personal edification. But he is reminding them of the purpose of spiritual gifts and how they are to function in the public worship assembly. The Corinthians should never use their gifts, especially not tongues, to inflate their own self–importance or to draw more attention to themselves during corporate worship.
Spiritual gifts are given for the common good, and when the community gathers, priority should be given to the gift of prophecy (and presumably, other gifts, such as knowledge and teaching, v. 6). The exercise of spiritual gifts should always have the intent to build up the church.