If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1Co 14:23-25)
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged (1Co 14:29-31)
The directions that Paul gives in this chapter regarding all speaking in tongues and prophecy is a source of confusion to many. It is clear that Paul is saying that it is better for "all to prophesy" than for "all to speak in tongues," but what exactly does that mean?
It is interesting how many people automatically assume that Paul is talking about everyone speaking in tongues or prophesying at the same time... but can that really be the case? Let's examine the consequences...
If Paul is taking about the weight of the presence of God that falls in a meeting when everyone prophesies simultaneously, that the unbeliever is convicted there and then, you would think, quite naturally, that this would be a good thing. How then do we understand Paul's instructions just a few verses later which prohibits simultaneous prophecy? If another begins to prophesy, the first must stop. It hardly seems consistent with a desire for "all to prophesy" if this is to be understood as all-at-once.
Also, if Paul is prohibiting the simultaneous speaking of tongues of all in the gathering of believers, how do we explain the day of Pentecost? Did the Holy Spirit break the commandments of Scripture right from the outset? He would not be much of a counsellor and instructor if that was the case!
No, clearly this does not add up. Fortunately, Paul spells out exactly what it means for all to prophesy in verse 30. "For you can prophesy one by one!" And if this is what Paul means when he talks about all prophesying, the obvious symmetry in the passage means we are hard pushed not to apply the same meaning for when all speak in tongues.
Once we realise this the whole passage makes a lot more sense. Paul is not giving a prohibition for all speaking in tongues at the same time, but all speaking in tongues one after another in the same way that all would prophesy one after another - publicly addressing the whole congregation. Imagine a meeting where this was the case: Someone stands up to welcome you to the meeting... and speaks in tongues. Then the worship leader begins to exhort the congregation... and speaks in tongues. The the notices are given... in tongues. Then the preacher... you get the picture! It's no wonder Paul says that unbelievers would think you were out of your mind, I think a good few believers would too! (Even so, an individual message in tongues with an interpretation is a powerful sign to unbelievers.)
But imagine the case where the Spirit of prophecy is moving on all. Where the welcome, the worship, the message... and even the notices are done in a way that communicates the prophetic voice of the one and same Spirit who is speaking to all. Who could fail to be moved in such an environment?
...no one, not even an unbeliever!