bible blog 1742

Today the blog continues its examination of St. Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. Previous material on this topic and on Genesis and Mark, can be accessed from my archive. Biblical references can be placed after as can particular topics eg. John 3:16; or obedience. The daily headlines are reminders of the world we live in.


a Muslim woman reads the Qur'an

a Muslim woman reads the Qur’an

I Corinthians 14

Pursue love!
However, keep on eagerly seeking the things of the Spirit; and especially seek to be able to prophesy. 2 For someone speaking in a tongue is not speaking to people but to God, because no one can understand, since he is uttering mysteries in the power of the Spirit. 3 But someone prophesying is speaking to people, edifying, encouraging and comforting them. 4 A person speaking in a tongue does edify himself, but a person prophesying edifies the congregation. 5 I wish you would all speak in tongues, but even more I wish you would all prophesy. The person who prophesies is greater than the person who speaks in tongues, unless someone gives an interpretation, so that the congregation can be edified.

6 Brothers, suppose I come to you now speaking in tongues. How can I be of benefit to you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7 Even with lifeless musical instruments, such as a flute or a harp, how will anyone recognize the melody if one note can’t be distinguished from another? 8 And if the bugle gives an unclear sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 It’s the same with you: how will anyone know what you are saying unless you use your tongue to produce intelligible speech? You will be talking to the air! 10 There are undoubtedly all kinds of sounds in the world, and none is altogether meaningless; 11 but if I don’t know what a person’s sounds mean, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker will be a foreigner to me. 12 Likewise with you: since you eagerly seek the things of the Spirit, seek especially what will help in edifying the congregation.

13 Therefore someone who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit does pray, but my mind is unproductive. 15 So, what about it? 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. 16 Otherwise, if you are giving thanks with your spirit, how will someone who has not yet received much instruction be able to say, “Amen,” when you have finished giving thanks, since he doesn’t know what you are saying? 17 For undoubtedly you are giving thanks very nicely, but the other person is not being edified. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, 19 but in a congregation meeting I would rather say five words with my mind in order to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue!

20 Brothers, don’t be children in your thinking. In evil, be like infants; but in your thinking, be grown-up. 21 In the Torah it is written,

“By other tongues,
by the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people.
But even then they will not listen to me,”
says the Lord
22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole congregation comes together with everybody speaking in tongues, and uninstructed people or unbelievers come in, won’t they say you’re crazy? 24 But if you all prophesy, and some unbeliever or uninstructed person enters, he is convicted of sin by all, he is brought under judgment by all, 25 and the secrets of his heart are laid bare; so he falls on his face and worships God, saying, “God is really here among you!”

26 What is our conclusion, brothers? Whenever you come together, let everyone be ready with a psalm or a teaching or a revelation, or ready to use his gift of tongues or give an interpretation; but let everything be for edification. 27 If the gift of tongues is exercised, let it be by two or at most three, and each in turn; and let someone interpret. 28 And if there is no one present who can interpret, let the people who speak in tongues keep silent when the congregation meets — they can speak to themselves and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, while the others weigh what is said. 30 And if something is revealed to a prophet who is sitting down, let the first one be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, with the result that all will learn something and all will be encouraged. 32 Also, the prophets’ spirits are under the prophets’ control; 33 for God is not a God of unruliness but of shalom.

As in all the congregations of God’s people, 34 let the wives remain silent when the congregation meets; they are certainly not permitted to speak out. Rather, let them remain subordinate, as also the Torah says; 35 and if there is something they want to know, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for a woman to speak out in a congregational meeting.

36 Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or is endowed with the Spirit, let him acknowledge that what I am writing you is a command of the Lord. 38 But if someone doesn’t recognize this, then let him remain unrecognized.

39 So, my brothers, eagerly seek to prophesy; and do not forbid speaking in tongues; 40 but let all things be done in a proper and orderly way.

speaking in tongues

speaking in tongues

“Pursue love” sounds pretty comprehensive, but Paul knows, as he has set out in chapter 13, that love has a particular shape and includes specific duties. In this chapter he expands the meaning of what he has said earlier in the letter, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” The metaphor of the “house of God” lies behind this whole discourse. The “house of God” in Jerusalem has been displaced from the position it enjoyed in Judaism and its place taken by the Assembly or Body of Messiah Jesus. Here God dwells in believers and they in God. The gift of love includes the duty of building up the assembly which is destined to “grow into the fullness of Messiah.

The question Paul asks about any practice of faith, is: does it build up the house of God in this place? This letter written around 50 CE is our earliest evidence for the practice of “speaking in tongues”. Under the influence of the Spirit, some believers spoke ecstatically using words and phrases that  were incomprehensible to others and perhaps even to themselves. This phenomenon is not unknown in religious experience. In the much later book of The Acts it is held up as a sign of the presence of the Spirit and therefore of authentic belief. Luke, the author of The Acts describes this inspired speech as comprehensible to pilgrims from all over the world as if they were hearing the message in their own language. It is a kind of reversal of the Tower of Babel story which ends with God confusing the languages of the earth in order to make human (evil) unity more difficult. Luke sees the coming of the spirit, and the “speaking in tongues” as pointing to the ultimate unity of humanity in Jesus.

Paul is more suspicious of it; he does not want to deny its authenticity altogether, but he can’t see how it builds up the assembly. Clearly he is temperamentally opposed to it, because it can so easily be used to show off and gain power in the assembly. He takes a common sense approach, asking how something which has no meaning can do anyone any good. He knows there are people who claim to be able to interpret such speech, and he insists that no one should speak in tongues if there is no interpreter. God is a God of peace and order, in Paul’s view, and should be worshipped peacefully and in good order. An assembly which permits disorderly caterwauling will build up nobody and will appear to visitors as a bunch of nutters.

He wants worship to include “prophecy”, which is also a manifestation of the spirit, but a more traditional one. The Jewish prophets had been called and inspired by God’s Holy Spirit to speak  in God’s name to the people. Paul himself, like many of his Jewish contemporaries may have once imagined that the “heavens were closed” and that God had withdrawn his spirit, empowering no prophet after Malachi. But Jesus spoke of the Spirit of God as active in his healings, and the first believers seem to have experienced as a community the presence that the prophets experienced individually. Because of Jesus, the heavens were open.

Paul believed this and thought of the spirit as the creative life of God shared with believers so that they could share in the Abrahamic calling to be a blessing to all peoples. Amongst such people he expected that there would be some who could speak In God’s name, or in Messiah Jesus’ name, to their brothers and sisters, but as this gift also could be misused, prophets are told to wait their turn but also to defer to others who had a sudden inspiration.

Bringing a psalm: Aretha Franklin sings during a memorial service for her father and brother, Rev. C.L. and Rev. Cecil Franklin, at New Bethel Baptist Church, where they were ministers, in Detroit, Mich., on Sunday, June 7, 2015. (Elizabeth Conley/The Detroit News via AP)

Bringing a psalm: Aretha Franklin sings during a memorial service for her father and brother, Rev. C.L. and Rev. Cecil Franklin, at New Bethel Baptist Church, where they were ministers, in Detroit, Mich., on Sunday, June 7, 2015. (Elizabeth Conley/The Detroit News via AP)

Paul puts “bringing a psalm” or a “teaching” on the same level as the other more ecstatic gifts because of his suspicion of show-offs and his vision of an assembly where all have gifts. Perhaps we can excuse his nonsense about women by imagining how he would have reacted to assemblies where ecstatic women babbled in tongues or wailed in prophecy. Along with his traditional Jewish prejudice about women, we may see how he could have arrived at the teaching he gives here. On the other hand when we take into account his view that “in Messiah” all social distinctions are void, together with his recognition of female leaders in all his letters, we may argue that this passage is an insertion into Paul’s original letter, to bring it into line with the practice of later assemblies.

In either case we must be clear that it is sub-Christian nonsense, which has spawned sub- Christian practices in both mainstream and sectarian churches ever since. Wherever the sour smell of male authority lingers in the church we should knock down the doors, open the windows, and get rid of it.

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