In 1 Corinthians 12 through 14 Paul presents his grand exposition on spiritual gifts. In chapter 12 Paul gives us the sense of the diversity of the gifts and their distribution in the Church. He illustrates the arrangement of the gifts in the body of Christ using the metaphor of a body to show us our need for one another. He ends the chapter “But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a more excellent way.” Paul then launches into his famous exposition on love. Paul gives us some great one-liners for weddings, but we mustn’t forget that Paul is presenting these things in the context of a discussion of spiritual gifts. In order to be brief I’ll summarize chapter 13 as follows: Vv. 1-3 the gifts without love are useless. Vv. 4-7 what love looks like. Vv. 8-13 The gifts will end – love never will. We now come to chapter 14 – how to apply these principles.
In 14:1 Paul resumes where he left off in chapter 12 – “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts…” In summary chapter 14 says: Vv. 1-5 uses your gifts to build the church. Vv. 6-12 tongues without interpretation don’t benefit those around us. Vv. 13-19 one who speaks in a tongue should interpret so that others may be built up. Vv. 20-25 prophecy will convict outsiders, corporate tongues will make them think we’re crazy. Vv. 26-40 how to use spiritual gifts so that others are built up.
Now that we have a basic idea of what Paul is getting at in chapters 12 through 14 let me return to the subject of this post – the place of tongues in church. The reason that we attend church is to build up others and to be built up by their ministry (see Heb 10:24-25 for example). But we have also seen that tongues without interpretation builds up none but ourselves. Now we need to build up ourselves, and Paul tells the Corinthians that he does that by praying in tongues more than any of them, but not in church. The way of love is to help those around us, not to focus on ourselves. Paul is pretty explicit here “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
But Paul says “do not forbid speaking in tongues.” So what do we do then? Firstly, we remember the principle – build others up with whatever we do. In v. 27 Paul says that there can be two or at most three tongues given during a church service. These must be interpreted. If the speaker doesn’t have the gift of interpretation he or she isn’t to speak the tongue out (v. 28).
Paul comes out quite strongly against those who ignore this direction. In v. 20 he says, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” And in vv. 37-38 he says, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” So Paul is saying those who ignore the direction in this chapter – the command of the Lord – are immature, unspiritual children who are not to be recognized by the church. Ouch. By the way Paul said this, not me.
To be honest, this has been a difficult post to write. First of all, congregational tongues is my favorite part of a church service. Secondly, most of my friends and favorite ministers don’t believe what I’ve written. I don’t understand why really. There is no debate about the meaning of this chapter. Most Charismatics simply ignore it for some reason. Or if they acknowledge it, they make concessions that ignore Paul’s central point. For example, Mike Bickle has believer’s meetings, on Friday and Saturday nights, which free the church to speak in tongues during the service. Besides being unenforceable, as he doesn’t know the heart condition of the audience, it also misses the point. It also doesn’t help that he rarely mentions this idea leaving those who respect him to believe that he thinks it’s ok to speak in tongues in any service. He doesn’t.
Regardless of what our favorite speakers and friends think, we have to follow God. We must trust that God knows more about true spirituality than this or that popular Charismatic leader. Speak in tongues, hours a day if you can, but in church help your brothers and sisters.