Saturday, December 12, 2009

1 Corinthians Disorder 4: Spiritual Gifts and Worship

Previous posts in this series, Life Reflections on Paul and His Writings, include:

1a. Born at a Time and Place 1; 1b. Born at a Time and Place 2
2a. A Change in Life Direction; 2b A Change in Life Direction 2; 2c A Change in Life Direction 3
3a. The Unknown Years 1; 3b. The Unknown Years 2; 3c. The Unknown Years 3
4a. Life Beyond Death; 4b. Life Beyond Death; 4c. Life Beyond Death; 4d Life Beyond Death
5a. Disunity at Corinth; 5b. Disunity at Corinth 2; 5c. Disunity at Corinth 3
6 How Not to Have Sex
7a. Disagreement and Disorder 1; 7b. The Lord's Supper. 7c. Women and Worship

Now part 4 of "Disagreement and Disorder":
Spiritual Gifts and Worship
1 Corinthians 12-14 form yet another sequence of thought, this time on "spiritual matters," principally spiritual gifts. [1] While chapter 12 treats spiritual gifts rather generally, Paul returns to two in particular in chapter 14: tongues and prophecy. If you remember, the second half of 1 Corinthians addresses questions that the Corinthians themselves have sent to Paul. The first had to do with sex within marriage and whether virgins should marry. The second had to do with meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Now Paul addresses questions they had about spiritual gifts.

The fact that Paul has sandwiched a beautiful tribute to love in the middle of this discussion gives us a fair sense of the heart of the problem. Those with varying gifts in the community are not showing love and respect for the gifts of others but instead thinking themselves superior because of the particluar gifts they have. After going through various kinds of spiritual gifts a person might have, as well as key roles in the church like apostles, prophets, teachers, and so forth, Paul sets out love as a more excellent preoccupation than all the various giftings a person might have.

When he returns to his answer in chapter 14, Paul gets down to business apparently with the heart of where the divisiveness lies. The entire tenor of 1 Corinthians 14 is to corral the practice of tongues speaking in Corinthian worship and to promote the practice of prophecy as more beneficial. "Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit" (1 Cor. 14:1-2). This sense of correcting and steering the use of tongues continues throughout the chapter, and seems to indicate that it stood at the heart of their division over spiritual gifts.

It thus seems likely that some of the Corinthians thought themselves more spiritual than others in the church because they spoke in tongues. "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1), Paul tells them. It does not matter that you speak in tongues if you are not loving toward others in the church.

He has perhaps already chastised these who think themselves spiritual back in 1 Corinthians 3:1: "I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ." In the verses right before these, Paul spends some energy distinguishing between what a spiritual person is like in contrast to a "soulish" person, sometimes translated as an "unspiritual" or "natural" person. We might even translate it as a "merely animal" person. Given the same use of the word spiritual, it is easy to see a connection with the question about spiritual matters in chapters 12-14.

This suggestion might seem strange at first, that those who "possess knowledge" in 8:1, who think they are already kings on earth in the kingdom (4:8), are the same people as those who boast in their spiritual gift of tongues. Is this not the Apollos group, those who identify with the "university professor" from Alexandria? Is this not the group that knows "no idol in the world really exists" in distinction from the "less intelligent" people who are still superstitious?

What we are getting at is that the Western world pushes us to distinguish the intellectual people who know there is only one God and are not superstitious from the emotional people who have mystic religious experiences and believe in demons and lots of gods. We are not culturally programmed to think of people who speak in tongues as being the same kind of people who are intellectual. However, this way of categorizing people is modern, not ancient. Knowing God in the ancient world was an experiential kind of knowing rather than some Spock-like, dispassionate intellectual pursuit. The philosophies of individuals like Pythagoras and Plato were deeply mystical and religious.

The tongues speaking at Corinth was apparently not too unlike some of the pagan religious experiences that were known in Greece. Paul starts off chapter 12 talking about being "led astray to idols," a reference some think is to the kind of wild, frenzied activity that went along with the festivals of Dionysus (12:2). In 14:23, Paul suggests that an unbeliever coming into their meetings might think you are "out of your mind," which might also refer to some of the ecstatic kinds of religious experiences that sometimes took place in the so called mystery religions. Part of Paul's intention in these chapters is thus to avoid the appearance of pagan worship in the Christian assembly.

Whether this is the right reconstruction of the situation at Corinth, it seems clear enough that Paul's goal in 1 Corinthians 14 is to steer the use of tongues in worship in a healthy direction while not prohibiting its use. He begins the chapter praising prophecy as good for the congregation in contrast to the self-edifying benefit of tongues. He mentions briefly in verse 13 that a tongues-speaker should pray for the power to interpret their language and then returns again for another twelve verses to speak of the barrier creating effect of tongues on insider and visitor alike. Finally he concludes with concrete rules for tongues and prophecy, with the stipulation that tongues should not be used in worship unless an interpreter is present.

The entire tenor of the chapter is thus away from the use of tongues in public worship with the exception of those instances where an interpreter of the "languages" (the meaning of tongues) is present. This thrust is clear enough when Paul says tongues are not to be forbidden (14:39), which indicates that he has been limiting its practice but does not wish to eliminate it. A comment like, "I would like all of you to speak in tongues" (14:5) is like the young woman who tells a young man interested in her, "I like you, but I don't want to date you." The first statement is meant to ease the pain of the second. So also it would be great if they all spoke in tongues, but intelligible speech is really what is appropriate in worship. "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you," Paul says to affirm the value of tongues. But only to go on to say, "nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (14:18).

The rules that Paul lays down are to bring order to Corinthian worship. "All things should be done decently and in order" (14:40). Two or at the most three people should speak in tongues in any one worship time, and only if someone who has the gift to interpret is present. They should speak one at a time. The same applies to prophecy. As it is, Corinthian worship is chaotic: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation" (14:26).

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, speaking in tongues has gained incredible prominence in Christian worship around the world. In fact, the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the world is the charismatic movement, particularly in the southern hemisphere. Some charismatic churches are careful to have interpretation of tongues speaking in worship, others are not. Clearly speaking in tongues is, as Paul said two thousand years ago, edifying to the person who has the experience.

What is happening when a person speaks in tongues? Is it an angelic language? Is it a psychological phenomenon that some brains are simply wired to experience? Different individuals will no doubt have different opinions on the question, and of course brain research might weigh in at some point with scientific evidence.

But what we know is that the experience is a blessing to the person so "gifted," and we should rejoice with those who rejoice as fellow believers. Paul's concern that a worship service be uplifting to everyone present and that it not be a bad witness to outsiders who visit also seem concerns that carry through to today. It may be possible, for example, that we have the benefit of so many different church options that those who attend tongues-speaking churches may actually find it uplifting to watch another believer speak in uninterpreted tongues. And such a church will rarely if ever be the sole representation of Christianity to the unbelievers in town. In other words, it may very well be that the limitations Paul places on tongues in worship may not apply in some charismatic churches.

By the same token, there may be some churches where the presence of tongues-speaking would be so divisive that Paul would encourage tongues-speakers there to practice their gift at home. The use of tongues in worship is not needed for the body and will only cause disorder. They can surrender their "rights" so as not to put a stumblingblock in front of the church.

Are tongues today the same as tongues so long ago? After all, tongues speaking was very rare in the two thousand years since the Corinthians till the Azusa street revivals of the early twentieth century. Some would say that tongues were purely an early church phenomenon to spread the gospel at first to people who spoke other languages. But we have no clear biblical basis on which to claim such a thing. [2] It is true that the tongues speaking in Acts 2 seems to be other human languages, but the tongues speaking of 1 Corinthians 14 may very well be conceptualized as angelic languages (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1), in any case languages not known to the congregation.

Some would say that those who speak in tongues are serving as conduits for demons and often curse God in other languages. These stories are often repeated with such a similar form that we suspect they are mostly urban legends with little or no basis in fact. In general it is dangerous to attribute to Satan what is actually the work of the Spirit. This is actually a sin Jesus says is unpardonable, so we should probably avoid such accusations (cf. Matt. 12:32).

I personally like to think that just as God often amplifies certain natural talents we have for ministry and Christian service, perhaps some people's brains are wired to have this experience in general. After all, we hear of these sorts of experiences not only among Christians but among other religious groups as well. [3] Perhaps God then "sanctifies" or amplifies this natural potentiality for such individuals, giving them a personal sense of blessing through the Holy Spirit. In any case, we cannot look down on this spiritual gift any more than we can think ourselves more spiritual than others for having it.

The lesson of the Corinthians is thus for the tongues-speaker--or in fact anyone with any special gift from God--not to think less of others in the community who do not have that gift. We are not more valuable to God because we have some particular gift. We may serve different functions in the body of Christ, but we are all of the same status, whether social or spiritual.

[1] 14:1 does not actually have the word "gifts." It simply says, "spiritual [matters]." However, the content of the chapters makes it clear that spiritual gifts are primarily in mind, especially tongues and prophecy.

[2] Some used to reference 1 Corinthians 13:8 as an indication that tongues would cease as a gift, but that is clearly not what the verse is saying. It is simply saying that languages come and go over time.

[3] It is hard to know when to date the Testament of Job, but it depicts the daughters of Job speaking in angelic tongues. That portion of the book may be influenced by Christians, but if it was part of the non-Christian Jewish part of the book, then we have an indication that some non-Christian Jews spoke in tongues.

1 comment:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I do think that there is much danger in religious experience, because we do project our own "stuff" into our conceptions of God. Our needs are projected as 'God's" purposes. Humans need to feel special, so humans define themselves as God's special instruments. Or that their particual religion is a 'special revelation".

There are no 'special instruments'. There are only human needs, and individual values.