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April 19 On Speaking in Tongues: 1st Corinthians 14

In 1909 or so, Aimee Semple and her husband Robert headed for China to proclaim the Gospel. Aimee had received training in interpreting spiritual tongues, so they believed once they got to China, the Spirit would give them the ability to interpret the people they met there, neither of them having any training in any Chinese dialects. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and they were unable to adequately communicate with those they proposed to proclaim the Gospel to, and struggle just to survive. Both suffered from malnourishment and malaria, as well as dysentery, and Robert died in Hong Kong shortly after. Aimee sailed back to America and had an illustrious career as an evangelist and healer, better known as Sister Aimee, or Aimee Semple MacPherson, having remarried in 1912. She was something of a celebrity during the 1920s and 30s, was a pioneer in the use of media in church (in the early days of radio, but also lighting and décor), and founded the Foursquare Church.
For those of us in mainline denominations, speaking in tongues is one of the most peculiar things from the Bible that is common in other traditions of the Christian Church. Perhaps you, like me, have even tried to speak in tongues, without success, if you are like me. When I was still in the Los Angeles area, I visited a service at a Church of God in Christ meeting, a historically black, Pentecostal church, with some members claiming that speaking in tongues is a mark of the Spirit’s indwelling of a person, with those not being able to speak in tongues outside of the body of true believers. It was a fun worship experience, with great music led by a woman in shiny shoes who danced while the choir sang, the speaking of tongues by the preacher during his sermon, and his wife in the front row dressed to the nines with the biggest, most colorful hat you will ever see in church.
Many of us can tell stories of being considered lesser for not being able to speak in tongues by those who can. This of course is un-Christian, causing someone to stumble, and is proof of how Biblical statements can be turned from glory into division. What original was a sign of the Spirit is often used as a weapon to bring others low, and perhaps, for those who don’t have the gift, as a source of doubt and self-abasement. As Paul teaches, what does not build up the church is to be avoided, and this is one thing that at times is glorious, but at others destruction, depending on who is involved and how knowledgeable of God’s ways folks are (or are not).
No, this is not Pentecost Sunday, we are merely returning to 1st Corinthians, Chapter 14. Yay! Last time, we read how love is the “greatest of these” and now we turn to other gifts. Paul writes:

Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit, he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.

Again, what is most important is that the church is build up, taught properly, and comforted in difficult times. There is no room for harmful pride, even if it is for spiritual things. Although prophecy and the speaking of tongues are signs of the Spirit overtaking a person, prophecy is usually easier to understand by all and doesn’t require an interpreter. But if you have a great gift, but cannot use it in love, then it is no longer a gift to be used, especially in church. Paul continues:

One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.

Now if Paul says that he wishes that all spoke in tongues, I assume that even then not everybody did, and so the lack of ability to speak in tongues should not reflect on a person’s faith or spiritual maturity. As the Spirit moves where it will, so it gives spiritual gifts according to its purposes. We should concentrate on celebrating the giving of those gifts, not in pointing out where people lack. Again, we focus on what is good for the church. Paul clarifies:

But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

Although I have witnessed speaking in tongues, I have never witnessed anyone interpret it, and so there was no spiritual profit in the hearing, although it was impressive. The original purpose of the miracles, signs and wonders of the New Testament was to witness to the power of God and to the authenticity of Jesus’ ministry and sovereignty, so we must ask what purpose there is for such things now, especially among people who already believe. However, missionaries in various parts of the world profess that such wonders still occur in places that have yet to come under Christ. Paul continues:

There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. Therefore, let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen ” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Perhaps problems arise when we focus too much on ourselves rather than on others. We all come to church when we too are in need, but we must always be mindful of others. Even when we are in distress, we still must be aware of the needs of others or we risk causing them to stumble. As all that we do is for the glory of God, all that we do must be for the edification of all. Even if something is used to glorify God, it is tarnished if done at the expense of someone, of if it somehow brings that person into shame or humiliation. Paul continues:

Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord. So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe. If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.

Most of us would probably agree with the non-believers that those who speak in tongues are mad! It is certainly outside of common experience for many. But we shouldn’t judge, for perhaps it is meaningful to practitioners even when they don’t know the interpretation. We should never take that attitude that speaking in tongues is wrong, for it comes from the Spirit, assuming that it is genuine. We who can’t, should never look down our noses at those who can: the full glory of God is beyond our comprehension. Paul explains:

What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.

When we think of people speaking in tongues, it is probably a public exhibition: we might forget that it can also be done privately. As the Spirit hears and understands even the deepest of our longings, even those we cannot put into words, certainly some people have modes of prayer that we do not understand. Each of us is different, and approaches God differently. We should be slow to speak about such things that others do, avoid judging, and always squelch the urge to act superior. Here in 1st Corinthians, Paul’s focus is on what is best for the church. He continues:

And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

A good summation. At the end of a service, the result should be peace, which usually does not happen when we try to prove that we are right or that we are better. When we put God first, as well as the well-being of others, we can avoid pride and showmanship (and one-upmanship) and build everybody up in Christ. We won’t understand everything and will always be confused about how to proceed as a church in a difficult time, but we should try to make decisions as a body and trust each other when we might disagree. As those who live in the Spirit, we must trust that group decisions are better than individual ones, even when “mine” seems right and “theirs” does not. We seek to move forward as one, even when we cannot all agree on how to do so.
This would have been a good ending, but unfortunately, Paul continues:

Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner. (1Co 14:1-40 NAS)

Most of us would certainly agree that all things should be done properly and orderly, but most of us are probably guilty of being among those who are “not recognized” here. Although I certainly believe in the authority of Scripture, times have changed, and we ignore the wisdom of our own folks to our peril. I have benefitted greatly from the women in my life and in the church and am confident the Spirit works through them as much as in men. However, in Paul’s time, when literacy rates were low, women not only had less access to Scripture, but also to instruction. In a time when public speaking and reasoning were highly regarded, women would be at a great disadvantage, not having any way to develop the skills necessary for public discourse. One would like to think that Paul is responding to a certain incident, but this sure sounds like a universal regulation. This, like the speaking in tongues, remains a source of conflict in some parts of the church today, but in ours, where all have equal access to Scripture (this is another reason why Scripture reading at home is necessary for all!) and have equivalent reasoning abilities and training, may we continue to strive to be one people where each person is accepted, valued, and allowed to contribute to the whole. May all who enter our doors be edified, encouraged, and comforted.
For many good people, hearing about spiritual gifts leads to feelings of inadequacy. However, I don’t believe Scripture provides a complete list of gifts. If you don’t identify with one that is listed, it means you have been gifted in different ways. All have been gifted to help in the building up of the church. Each person present is a gift to the church and is there to make the church better. All are special in some way. All have gifts, we just need to discern them. It’s been my experience that the people of God do not realize how capable they are and give up without trying. How much more we could do if folks stopped doubting themselves and just trusted in the Spirit to guide and gift us to do the Lord’s work!

I speak as someone with little experience in speaking in tongues. Comments are most welcome from anyone who has more experience, comes from a different background, disagrees with my conclusions, or just wishes to share a different point of view. In Christ, there is always something new to learn!

About Fern Prairie Admin

Pastor of a small country church, serving a kind and loving church family.