Speak in tongues? I think we often forget that 1 Corinthians 12-14 is part of a larger letter that was addressed to an entire community of believers. We tend to take this passage and apply it (or at least large parts of it) to our personal faith expressions and not see it in its community context. Paul’s words here are to an entire community who had apparently written him with some questions they would like to have addressed (as well as some correction that Paul felt needed to happen). This is important to remember. Too much (I feel) of our talk about the subject of “miraculous” spiritual gifts has begun and centered around personal experiences. While experience should never be ignored, it cannot be the litmus test and compass by which we navigate this topic.

Paul’s first words in this passage steer us away from blindly following experience. The people of Corinth may have been familiar with ecstatic expressions of worship to various idols and gods that created the Roman pantheon.  As real as those experiences might be, there is something distinctly different about spiritual gifts incited by the one true God. No longer are we led about by mute idols. There is an active, living God that is at work in our community of faith, indeed in our very persons. When the Spirit of God is at work in the lives, hearts, and minds of people, he will bring out the confessional proclamation “Jesus is Lord!” This confession is a litmus test of sorts, as well as ties together the individual and the community of faith. So, right from the start, we are faced with the communal nature and purpose of the various gifts the Spirit activates in each of us.

All Together Now

The metaphor of a body made of various parts strengthens this idea, as well as points out an important fact: we are not all the same. Not all are given the same spiritual gifts, and this is ok. In fact this is essential. To use Paul’s metaphor, we can’t all be a hand or an eye. The entire community suffers if we all are seeking the same gifts and functions. This is one of the reasons Paul then admonishes us all to seek love above all. If we are loving each other, there is not going to be a scramble to prove our spiritual prowess with spectacular displays of majestic power. When we love, we are patient, kind, not boastful and full of envy. A community that is in love functions with the harmony of a healthy body. Love is the reason behind the gifts, it is what will last into eternal life, and it is the greatest of the things that make up a believing life.

The community and the way of love: these form the back drop for the expression of spiritual gifts. With this context, are we surprised at Paul’s words:

Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in them in order to strengthen the church. (14.12)

The concept here is spiritual gifts are given by the Spirit for the purpose of building up a community of believers so that the confession “Jesus is Lord” is professed and proclaimed by all. Spiritual gifts are not a spectacular showcase of things to be amazed at. They are not designed to bring glory to an individual. Spiritual gifts have one (two-fold) purpose: to manifest the grace of God in the midst of his people and to grow us all up into the kingdom of God.

Tongues that say “Jesus is Lord”

So then, what about tongues? I mean, how does an ecstatic utterance of prayer or doxology serve that purpose?

While I believe that in the proper expression, the gift of tongues has its place in the body, I think that some “experienced based theology” about the gift that needs to be addressed

First of all, we have to understand that tongues are not some divine seal, proving that the Spirit is working through an individual. Tongues are not proof of some divine authority. Neither are tongues proof of some sort of second blessing, an extra dose of salvation. Paul simply does not treat the gift this way in the passage.

Second, the gift of tongues is not a more intimate or direct communication with God. Every believer has the exact same access to God the Father through God the Son, empowered by God the Spirit. Since we have already seen Paul state quite plainly that not every one is given the same spiritual gifts, it would be wrong of us to assume every believer should have the gift of tongues. Since it is not for every believer, why would God give a more intimate or direct communication to some of his people? That doesn’t add up. Hebrews 9-10 makes it pretty clear that Jesus’ sacrifice alone makes way for our direct access to God.

Third (and perhaps the harshest), an expression of ecstatic utterance doesn’t automatically mean someone has the gift of tongues. A wide variety of religions and spiritual practices have a practice of ecstatic utterances. A miraculous sign (such as tongues) does not prove God is at work. Again, we look back to the litmus test: is the gift bringing out the confessional proclamation, “Jesus is Lord!”?

In the interest of honesty and full disclosure, I want to share my experience with the gift of tongues. I grew up around a strong Charismatic/Pentecostal influence. Speaking in tongues was always understood to be the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and was thought to be a normative part of the Christian journey. My views on the gift have changed (I no longer equate it with the baptism of the Spirit, nor do I expect every Christian to have this gift), however it is still a part of my life with Jesus. One night in ’89 or so, I woke up at about 2am speaking in tongues. Ever since then, I have used this gift at various  times in my life for prayer, praying for others. In my personal experience, it has led me to praise and proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!”. Every time I have seen it used to build up the body of Christ, it has led to this confession. When I have seen it abused, it has been about personal glory, jockeying for authority, and/or harmful theology.

Yes, I believe the gift of tongues has an important role in the modern (or even post-modern) church… but I believe that every gift should be rightly expressed and lead us to proclaim to the world “Jesus is Lord!”