I Corinthians 14: 13For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. 16If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? 17You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. 18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. 20Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21In the Law it is written:
“Through men of strange 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. 22Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. 23So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, 25and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
1. What is the gift of “tongues,” and how do they serve believers and non-believers?
2. Since this was an issue mentioned only in the Corinthian churches in the First Century AD, how does this gift, and Paul’s advice, apply to us today?
This sermon comes about thirty-five years late. But I hope you’ll listen anyway. Many of us may remember how, during the 1970’s, the Charismatic movement broke onto the scene and affected more than the usual Pentecostal churches, but also mainstream Protestant and even Catholic churches as well. There were and are also some Mennonite churches that were touched by the Charismatic movement, some of which are still going and growing. But there were concerns and controversies about the Charismatic movement similar to what Paul addresses in today’s passage, twenty centuries before.
For those of us who weren’t there, the Charismatic movement was a renewal movement in which the more extraordinary and spectacular gifts of the Holy Spirit were manifested, most notably, the gift of speaking, praying and worshiping in previously unknown languages. I’m not aware that any were documented to have been languages of other human tribes or nations, and therefore, that the person so endowed went on to preach the gospel in such languages to such people, as what happened in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection. But that’s why this movement was also called “Pentecostal,” because, like that first Christian Pentecost, it involved “speaking in [unlearned] tongues.” And that’s why that gift in particular is a key feature of Pentecostal belief, practice and churches today.
People touched by such a gift say that it connects their spirit directly with God’s Holy Spirit, in such a way as to bypass the normal language processes of our minds, thereby touching us at a level beyond human words. It is, they often say, “their spirit language,” or “the language of heaven,” and praying or speaking in that way deeply enriches and renews their spirits.
That is also the answer that the majority of Bible scholars gives to my first question, “What is the spiritual gift of speaking in other tongues?” That also answers the second part of that question, “How does this gift serve believers?” Paul himself says, “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays,” But he adds, “but my mind is unfruitful.”
Its not only the classical Pentecostal theologians who say that about praying and worshiping in unknown tongues, by the way. Its the majority report of other Bible scholars who are definitely not Pentecostal nor Charismatic, who are high church people like Bishop N.T. Wright, or ancient Orthodox or Catholic thinkers like St. Augustine, or even great Protestant heavyweights like Martin Luther, and, of course, Menno Simons, even though none of them seem to have practiced that gift.
Now I am not in a position today to argue for or against what they say. Advocating for or against the charismatic movement is not the point of this message. As Paul himself said, “Who am I to judge another man’s servant?” Furthermore, I do not want to put myself in the position of telling the Holy Spirit what gifts he is going to give his church or not. Because this is His church, not any one of ours. If praying in other, unlearned language, of heaven or earth, is part of someone’s spiritual practice, and it has the effect that I have described on them, I’ll take them at their word.
Where I do draw the line, however, is whenever anyone says that speaking in other tongues is the only, or the primary, sign that we have the Holy Spirit. Or that those who speak in tongues are better or more God-pleasing Christians than those who don’t. And most Pentecostal or Charismatic theologians worth their salt don’t say that, either. After all, this Corinthian letter is the only one where tongues are listed among the spiritual gifts, and the Corinthian churches seem to be the only ones among the churches Paul planted where that gift seemed to operate.
But Paul also says, in verse 22 that tongues are for unbelievers. That’s a little harder to understand. Because he then goes on to say that if non-believers come into a church service where everyone is speaking in tongues, they’ll consider everyone to be crazy, and look for the quickest way out of the room. Over the years I’ve heard a number of people talk about their experience in a Charismatic or Pentecostal service in that very same way. They were looking for the first exit out, because it seemed so strange and chaotic to them.
So, how can speaking in other tongues be a sign for unbelievers, when, as often as not, as Paul himself admits, it freaks them out? Well, that’s where the minority report comes in. There’s a minority of Bible scholars who say that all that Paul is referring to, when he writes about speaking in other tongues, is the problem that urban, cosmopolitan churches of the First Century must have had with all the different languages represented by their members. To worship together, they would have had to use some language commonly used for trade, government and entertainment, in effect, pretty much everyone’s second or third language, a language that didn’t reach as deeply down into their hearts and spirits as did the language they learned on their mothers’ laps, what we call “a maternal language.” In the case of Paul’s churches, that common language was the Greek of our New Testament.
Pray or meditate or prophesy or teach in the language you learned in the home, and it will touch the deep, deep recesses of the heart. And so a pastor I knew, at a Mennonite Church in Ontario, said that, as he attended aging and ailing members on their death beds, as they prayed their last prayers of release and commitment to God, they often reverted to the Low German of their childhood. The last words uttered with their last breaths, were often in Low German, even though they had functioned throughout most of their lives quite well in English.
But if everyone in those churches prayed and taught and worshiped in their maternal Low German and English, and, let’s see, let’s add the Mohawk Indian members, plus French Canadians, plus members who might have joined from the Chinese and Indian and African and Spanish-speaking immigrant communities, and have them all praying and worshiping and teaching in their own languages, visitors there might indeed walk out shaking their heads and saying, “They’re stark-raving loony!”
Is that all that Paul was addressing in this passage on speaking in other tongues? That some are more gifted than others by the Spirit with the ability to learn other human languages and to translate them for the sake of the church and its mission? And to preach the gospel and translate it into other languages? Like Paul himself, who says, “I speak in tongues more than all of you.” Or maybe he means, “I speak in more languages than all of you.” Which would have been true for him as a missionary.
If so, that would certainly explain how and why “tongues are for unbelievers.” Because Christian mission often involves overcoming hurdles between people and cultures, like language. There’s a big part of me that would like to say that this is all that’s at stake in Corinth: that the Corinthians must accept the fact that, if all of them with all their different maternal languages are going to get along and edify each other, many of them will have to operate in another “tongue” or language besides the one that speaks most deeply to our spirits: our maternal languages. And if we do speak or pray or worship in our maternal language, then pray, or make sure, that someone interprets for the others. Or translate for yourself. In the world of Biblical scholarship, that would be what I call “the minority report” on the gift of tongues.
But while that explanation answers a few questions (like How can the gift of other tongues be for non-believers?) it raises a few others. Like, how can Paul say, “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful,” when the mind is made quite fruitful by anything said in our mother tongue? And then, as I read and researched on this passage, I kept wondering, who am I to differ with the likes of N.T. Wright, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Menno Simons and perhaps a quarter of a billion Pentecostals and Charismatics worldwide and counting? That would be beyond saying, “We have a disagreement here,” to saying, “You’ve deluded yourself.” I’m not ready to go there, not on that matter at least.
Especially not since the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have often had a noteworthy and powerful history of mission. They seem to have the most power and impact upon societies in which sorcery, magic, divination and other occult arts are rampant. Also in areas where such things are tied in with political and economic injustice and oppression, like Haiti, much of Africa and Latin America. Their dramatic clashes between devil power and Holy Spirit power seem to do more to rescue prostitutes, dope dealers and career criminals than do polite and intellectual coffee klatches about the latest book on spirituality. Then there’s the indisputable historic fact that, whenever Charismatic renewal has happened, it has often shaken up and broken down barriers of race, class, education and ethnicity among Christians and denominations. When the modern Pentecostal movement began in Los Angeles, in 1906, the Azusa Street tent meetings were one of the few places in the country where you would find Anglos, Mexicans, Native Americans, Asians and African Americans together, in warm, friendly and equal ways. That first generation of Pentecostals was even pacifist, even during the war hysteria of World War I.
In fact, it would be safe to say that Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians and even the Mennonites in much of the Two-Thirds World in the Southern Hemisphere today are Pentecostal. Not that they all speak in tongues and buy the whole doctrinal Pentecostal package. They don’t. But being face-to-face with the undeniable realities of spiritual “principalities and powers and wickedness in high places,” demonic and human, they’re half-way Pentecostal in practice. Having no economic or political resources to defend themselves and overcome these challenges, they rely on the Holy Spirit through dreams, and discernment of evil spiritual presences and powers. They rely on Him just as much for courage and healing and power for witness, where half the time, for them, Christian witness is something done under duress. And so our Mennonite brothers and sisters in Ethiopia are often called, “Pentes,” for “Pentecostal.” As we also enter a society that is increasingly magical, mystical and spiritual in neo-pagan, occultic and shamanistic ways, we too might just need to become more “Pente,” that is, like our African brothers and sisters in our reliance upon the Holy Spirit for special gifts of power, discernment and witness.
So I’m not about to challenge the majority report on what constitutes the gift of speaking in other tongues. For now, suffice it to say that the majority of me, personally, goes along with the majority report: about 55 to 44%. Five to four if I were the Supreme Court. But let’s imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to go along with the minority report and say that this passage is really about the problems of teaching, preaching and worship in a common language when there are so many maternal languages represented among a church’s members. Now, where have we ever encountered a church like that?
Let’s see, in the back of our hymnals is an insert that we use once a year, the closest Sunday to Christmas. Its the song, “Silent Night,” and it has the first verse in seven languages including English: Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Vietnamese and Amharic. These represent the maternal languages of many of our members. Next Christmas we could have the numbers to sing an eighth and ninth verse– in American sign language, and Portuguese. We have members who could also sing it in Chinese and Arabic, and in the African languages of Tigrinya, Fulani, Yamba, Hausa, Kiswahili and Dioula, to name a few. Among our neighbors are those who could sing it in Somali, and in the Native American languages of Dakota, Lakota, Ojibwe, Mohawk, Guarani, Mayan, K’ichua and K’echi.
Going with the minority report this morning, this church is very strongly endowed with the gift of speaking in other tongues. And maybe we’re under-using them. We have at least six fairly fluent Spanish speakers among us, with others pretty far along the way toward fluency. Could some of them be in ministry to our large, Hispanic community? Could one or more of them even help form the nucleus of a new Spanish-speaking church some day? Are there other missionaries to other language groups and cultures yet to emerge from among us?
Barring that, what about learning at least a few words of the every day polite greetings and thanksgiving in, say, Spanish, Hmong or Somali, so that when you know you definitely are dealing with a Somali or Hmong or Hispanic cashier or neighbor or nurse or police officer, we can at least greet them or thank them in their language? Most of the time, whenever we do that, they beam with delight, even if we botch it up terribly, just because we’ve honored them by making some effort, taking some step, to honor them, their language, and their culture. Many of our newest neighbors are hearing things from long-term residents like, “Why don’t you go back to your country?” and “I shouldn’t have to press 1 on my telephone for service in English.” Those attitudes are getting more visible and more strident lately. We can break a lot of ice, show a lot of respect, and gain a hearing for ourself and for Christ by showing we care enough to at least learn how to say, “Hello” and “Thank you,” and “Goodbye.” That reflects well on the Christ who gives us such love and concern.
That moves us in the direction that Paul points us in verse 20, when he says, “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” By that, he means what he said in the passage before, about all the spiritual gift, when he said, “Try to excel in gifts that build up the church,” and the church’s mission.
Some gifts work best at building us up personally, individually. Paul includes tongues in that category. So its best to practice it that way: personally and individually. Other gifts work to build us up together, corporately and communally, like the gift of prophesy. So share it with the community. But any gift can become a grief when it is misused just to build up our own personal honor and status. The greatest of all spiritual gifts is love. And love is the truest sign of being spiritual adults.