Wagging tongues

Most Christians would agree that God speaks to us through the bible. But, we can have a tendency to use the bible as a sort of horoscope, picking out verses at random and claiming them as a ‘special word from the Lord’. Maybe at times God uses such random verse selection to ‘speak’ to us, but if he does this, it is surely the exception to his normal communication channel, the bible. The bible is a series of writings that convey eternal truth and if we are to benefit much from that truth there is a need to read the bible in a way that simply uncovers the truth, neither more nor less will do.

People write long and complicated books about interpretation of the bible, but the bible is written for ordinary people and it can be understood by using our existing skills in reading and interpreting – there is no magic key or special formula only for the initiated.  

There seem to be a few simple ‘rules’ we can apply to help our interpretation – we already use these every time we read the paper, a book or indeed the bible, but they are worth a reminder. The first relates to the author and the recipient. It’s vitally important to understand who wrote the words and to whom they were written. A simple message ‘I love you’ can mean rather different things dependent on the identity of author and recipient;  it could be a message from a young child to his mother, a husband to a wife, a parent to a child, a man to a woman etc. – each situation allows for different interpretation: the identity of the author and recipient is important. Second, the context is of importance. A letter written in a situation of dispute and strife might be rather different than one written in circumstances of agreement and collaboration – knowing the context will help to establish the meaning. Sometimes literary devices are used that change with time, recognizing this and understanding it can be of importance. I recall once having an amusing discussion with a Japanese colleague about some odd English phrases. We had been in a discussion that day and one of our American colleagues had repeatedly used the term ‘the bottom line’ . The Japanese colleague had been thoroughly confused, what is ‘the bottom line’, he asked, where is it and why does he keep talking about it!. I had to explain. Sometimes we need to be able to spot such literary devices or at least be open to the possibility that they are there and time may have obscured their original use and meaning. One last ‘rule’ relates to the style of writing. We will use rather different interpretative methods when reading a bank statement compared to a personal letter, compared to a piece of poetry. Recognising the literary style could be of great help in uncovering the intended meaning. This is all of no surprise and all rather mundane. But there are some dangers we should avoid. I do worry when I hear people claim to have found the ‘key that unlocks the hidden meaning’. I do not see evidence that there is some mysterious underlying spiritual meaning in the bible account that only a special group of enlightened people understand. The bible is for all of us, and we can all understand it. For sure it contains truths that may take all of eternity to unravel, but God’s communication to us is intended to be understood by ordinary people like you and me.  

When we come to 1 Corinthians 14 I believe there are two pieces of important context that we need to have before us as we attempt an interpretation. First the church in Corinth was in something of a mess. There was division, there was a distinct lack of love and there was gross immorality that was being encouraged and applauded. Second, the church was made up of Jews and non-Jews. It is hard for us to appreciate the complexity of this intra-church relationship of Jews and Gentiles. Many people will point out that Paul indicated in Ephesians that the church was one and that the old barriers between Jews and Gentiles had been broken down. In his letter to the Galatians Paul stated that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. So that’s clear then – no Jews or Greeks? So by the same reasoning there are no males or females? No slaves or free? No. There were still Jews, but in the new agency of the Church, these distinctions were not important, everyone was of an equal standing, but Jewish identity still existed, the promises to the Jews had not disappeared. This adds a significant complexity that we must respect and recognise as we interpret Paul’s letters. At the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians it seems that God still had something to say to Jews specifically (before the judgement that was to come at the hands of the Romans in 70AD).  Failure to acknowledge the existence of Jews in the early church and their particular situation seems to have lead to much misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 and other New Testament passages. You may be surprised to hear this, but failure to sort out the role and place of the Jews in the bible story messes up much of our interpretation. Get this bit right and a lot of tensions are resolved.  One last word on this; the Jews were given a series of specific promises by God, promises of land, dynasty and to be an instrument of mankind’s salvation. They had repeatedly messed up their relationship with God, in Paul’s day they had not long since crucified the Messiah! They were under caution, but God was still speaking to them as we shall see in this chapter.

So as we come to 1 Corinthians 14, let’s keep firmly in view the presence of Jews in Corinth and their continued importance in God’s communication and plans.

  1. ‘Tongues’ versus prophecy

In Acts 2 many of the believers spoke in ‘tongues’.  The result of this was that many of the people who had travelled to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost heard the believers speaking in their native language. Those who spoke in this way were uneducated and yet spoke perfectly in foreign languages. Others who opposed the followers of Jesus and who heard the foreign languages accused the believers of being drunk! There is no doubt that ‘tongues’ is a God-given ability to speak in a foreign language without learning that language. The problem in Corinth was that this gift was being misused. The gift clearly had value in facilitating communication across language barriers. It seems that the issue in Corinth was that the gift was being exercised when there was no one around to benefit from hearing God’s word spoken in their mother tongue. In view of this, Paul contrasts the benefits of ‘prophecy’ over tongues. We tend to think of prophecy as foretelling, but there is good evidence that the use of this term in the writings of Paul related to ‘forth-telling’ (speaking and preaching the word of God) rather than foretelling.  Paul makes a series of contrasts between the two in the context of the misuse of tongues in Corinth: see table below.

Limited to speaking  to GodSpeaks to all the people
Not understood by peopleUnderstood by everyone
Only  the speaker benefitsEveryone benefits
Of limited valueOf great value
5 words……is worth 10,000 words

I attended a wedding last weekend in Romania. The minister spoke in Romanian and we sang songs in Romanian. The words in the Romanian tongue seemed to have no distinction to my untrained ear, it all blended into a garbled noise. That’s how a foreign language appears to one who is not familiar with it. In contrast when we boarded the flight from Munich to Sibiu we heard the captain speak in German, I know a few words in German and I could pick out something of the meaning. Paul says if a flute is played and the notes are not distinct then no tune emerges, so it is with a foreign language to an untrained ear – there is no communication. What’s the point of that asks Paul! There is no point – you might as well speak to the air, it’s a waste of time. Paul accuses the Corinthians of valuing a gift that was of no value. Stick with gifts that build up the church says Paul.

So what if someone spoke in a foreign language? Get someone to interpret it says Paul. At our Romanian wedding last week there was a translator who patiently and skillfully translated the spoken word of English to Romanian and vice versa. Suddenly everyone understood. Paul would rather have 5 intelligible words spoken that 10,000 spoken in a foreign language – and this seems to be entirely sensible.

  • What are tongues for

If this gift of tongues compared to prophecy is helpful to the church in Corinth in a ratio of 5 to 10,000, it begs the question what is tongues actually for?

Many commentators have suggested that the ability to speak in tongues was of great benefit in the spread of the gospel. The message could be heard by speakers of any language, the language barrier offered no barrier to the gospel. This might be true, but it’s hard to find biblical evidence to support it. When we do see tongues spoken, the picture is of a sign. In Acts 2 it was a sign to the Jews of the Holy Spirit being given and in other incidents in Acts it seems to signify the giving of the Holy Spirit to other specific groups: Gentiles and followers of John. We may well ask to whom was the signal given and for what purpose. Paul seems to give us a big clue in verse 21 of this chapter. He quotes Isaiah 28: 11 and 12. ‘With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord’. Now we need to remember our rules of interpretation, who said this to whom and in what context? These are the words of the Lord to Israel and the context was Israel’s continued refusal to do the right thing. God had promised Israel blessing and to be a blessing and whilst the promises given to Abraham were unilateral in nature and were not dependent on obedience, other promises of prosperity were contingent on Israel’s obedience; obey and be blessed, disobey and be cursed was the message. God is slow to become angry – but eventually the time comes for his judgement and Paul is indicating that tongues were that very sign of impending judgement. Paul says ‘tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers’. The unbelievers he was referring to were unbelieving Jews (as indicated by Paul’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy). The trouble was that this sign was being corrupted by the way the Corinthians were behaving. Their meetings were chaotic and lacked structure and order. If an unbelieving Jew were to come in the sign would mean nothing to them, rather they would conclude that the Corinthians had lost their marbles!  We see the right pattern In Acts. The disciples spoke in tongues and Peter explained the sign, then there was prophecy as Peter preached to the assembled Jews. In contrast to tongues, prophecy helps unbelievers and outsiders (could they be unbelieving Gentiles?) to come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit as they hear and understand the message of the gospel.

The key message to the Corinthians was that their meetings had to be structured and in order. They should have a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation. The purpose of the meeting was to build up. If tongues were spoken they were pointless unless interpreted. God is not a God of confusion but a God of peace.

  • A structured meeting – what about women

Paul makes a rather startling statement in verse 34. ‘The women should keep silent in the churches’. This is a surprising statement as in chapter 11 Paul talks specifically about women prophesying and praying. Paul has for sure not forgotten what he just said in chapter 11! We know that it was actually OK for women to pray and prophesy – they were not to keep silent in this regard. Since this piece of advice from Paul comes right in the middle of his discussion on disorderly meetings it seems that in these meetings women were contributing significantly to the lack of order.  They can pray and they can prophesy, but anything more seems to have been unhelpful. We noted in Paul’s discussion on head gear for women that there seemed to be a rejection by women in the church of their role, and this advice now seems to be building on Paul’s concern for general unruliness amongst the Corinthian church in general and amongst the women in particular. Thus the advice has much to do with the role of women and men in the context of the disorder at their church services.

Having dealt with this Paul in the next chapter gives a substantial reminder of what the gospel actually is all about.