In my previous two posts I have written about understanding and exercising our gifts, motivational and spiritual. In this post I want to focus in further on what Paul has written below to understand how to function in and respond to spiritual gifts in a group or congregational context.
26 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. 30 But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. 32 And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. 33 For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 (NKJV)
I have written and spoken often of the need for revelation, interpretation and application. I believe Paul had that in mind when he laid out a framework for the use of spiritual gifts. In essence, he says that when the church comes together they all have something they can offer, however not everything can be given. Paul thus says only 2-3 people should give a message in tongues or a prophetic word and that these words should be judged. He also says “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” His points are that we can choose whether or not to share what to have and that the body is responsible to discern and apply what has been shared – Revelation, Interpretation, Application. Another important piece is that if we view what is given as spiritual food, then just like natural food, we need to take in and digest what we have eaten before eating more.
In laying out the guideline of 2-3 people speaking Paul was not creating an absolute that meant that someone had somehow deeply grieved the Holy Spirit if four people shared. Paul’s point was order and being clear and understandable. We as a body are to do those things which build up and support one another and help to mature the body of Christ. This was Paul’s motivation as is clear in the tone and tenor of 1 Corinthians.
A piece I want to address in a bit more detail is the use of tongues as it has often been divisive, both in how people use and respond to the gift. I think it is important to consider context. When someone asks that worship in tongues be followed by an interpretation what are they really asking for? Are they seeking to defend a particular perspective or view of scripture or seeking to hold fast to the scriptures? These questions are important because as John Wimber used to say, “God often offends our minds to reveal our hearts.” A corollary being something the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart when I knew something was going to be taught at a group that was new and unfamiliar to many of the members. He prompted me to ask/share with the group the thought, “Just because something is unfamiliar does that mean it is unscriptural?”
While I believe that if a message is shared in tongues with a group of believers or a congregation, there should be an interpretation given, I do not equate someone worshipping or praying in tongues as doing the same thing. Their communication is not directed at the group but at the Lord.
While 1 Corinthians is the only clear teaching we have in scripture on the congregational use of tongues, there are other passages that reference tongues. Acts 2:1-8 is often used as a corrective for those who want to worship in tongues because it tells us that the languages were understood. See the passage below.
1 When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Acts 2:1-8 (NKJV)
Yet this passage (2:6) specifically informs us that the multitude was confused by what was happening, and while different ones understood different dialects, because this first use of tongues was known languages, those who spoke different dialects understood their language, they did not understand the rest. They did not all understand all that was being said, does this mean Peter should have silenced them and called for interpretation so everyone understood everything? That is the inference if every instance of someone speaking in tongues requires an interpretation. Yet in fact what we often confuse is interpretation and translation.
The next clear instance we have is Acts 10:44-46, we again have a group spontaneously speaking in tongues as the Holy Spirit falls on them but no suggestion at all that all that was said was interpreted for the rest of the group. The next instance is Acts 19:6-7, again we have the whole group speaking in tongues and no hint of any interpretation. What do we make of this? The answer is in 1 Corinthians 14:1-4, Paul is correcting a problem in the church at Corinth and the context of these first verses makes it clear that when Paul uses the term “speaks” he is referring to someone addressing the congregation, everyone assembled. It is in this context that he says a message in tongues must be interpreted.
If we look carefully in 1 Corinthians 14:13-15 Paul refers to three different uses of tongues, speaking, praying and singing in tongues and only requires an interpretation for the speaking that is addressing the congregation. This is the plain meaning of verses 27-28. Another thing to reflect on, if we want every instance of someone praying or singing in tongues to be interpreted then why are we not insisting that the contents of every sermon be publically assessed as per the directions in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31 and why do we not encourage everyone in every meeting to prophesy as this passage says we should do? If we are going to apply a standard to one gift, then to be consistent we must apply what we perceive to be the scriptural standard to the other gifts, particularly since these instructions are provided in the same context as the teaching on the use of tongues.
We need order in the church; we just need to make sure it is His order and not ours! We need to exercise the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us, seek a greater release of gifts, and seek to build up the rest of His body through their exercise.