The congregation of the church in Corinth were seemingly blessed with the gifts of the Spirit and as we saw in the former parts of Paul’s letter, there was an added emphasis on the gift of tongues by the believers. Paul addresses the need for order in our worship and corrects some of the misconceptions people have about the gift of tongues.
Tongues Over Prophecies
I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.1 Corinthians 14:5
Paul makes a point of telling everyone that the people who speak in tongues are only edifying themselves because they are in a conversation with God. However, the one who hears God’s voice and translates it into intelligible words is edifying everyone who listens to His words. That should be the purpose of the church, edify all the members of the church rather than people deriving self-edification and in the process expecting self-glorification.
The people in the church at Corinth who spoke in tongues either were not able to translate their prayers or did not feel the need to do so. This worried Paul as their Sunday morning services would have resembled the scene at a fish market, with all vendors shouting together creating utter chaos. Such worship sessions where everyone is trying to get one upon each other will lead to confusion and chaos in the church and the purpose of their worship will be defeated. Such worship sessions are not pleasing to God. The only person who will be happy with such a worship session is the evil one.
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace —as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.1 Corinthians 14:33
Intelligibility Key to Communal Worship
Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.1 Corinthians 14:9
The purpose of group worship is to gather together and praise God. If the purpose was for each one to talk to God personally, that could have been done from the comfort of their homes. We gather together to lift others up so that they may also praise God but often people are just lifting themselves in front of their peers. People highlight their status, wealth and also their closeness to God as a means of distinguishing themselves from the crowd. Paul rebukes such people saying,
Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.1 Corinthians 14:20,22
We need to start maturing in Christ and cannot remain babies who feed on milk (1 Corinthians 3:2). Infants do not know when they are hungry or thirsty and simply cry till their parents figure out what is wrong with them. They are given milk if they are hungry or changed if they are in discomfort. A similar pattern can be seen in new believers who hunger and thirst spiritually but do not know what can satisfy their needs. But like a grown child who knows the solution for hunger is to eat something, a mature believer should also be aware of the solutions for his/her spiritual hunger or thirst.
So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.1 Corinthians 14:15 (NIV)
The hymns that we sing or the Psalms that we read were written based on the experience of the author with God. If we have never experienced that we are only signing meaningless words without any understanding of the experience that brought that thought. Our lips may be singing, “As the deer pants for water, so my would long for you…..” but we will be lying as our soul does not really long for God. This kind of meaningless worship is the norm for many of us as we do not realise in whose presence we are singing those songs or reciting those words.
We need to start growing in Christ and not depend only on signs and miracles to rejuvenate our faith. Signs and miracles are something that brings the people who do not know God, into His fold. But dependence on these signs and miracles becomes our crutch and we are never able to walk on our own accord on the path of God. Similarly, tongues are something that makes an unbeliever know that they are in the presence of a powerful God but the gift of prophesies connect people to God. As believers, we should want to know the heart of God and do His Will rather than chasing after temporary blessings.
Harmony during Worship
Paul’s intent of putting prophecies or teachings over tongues is not to put down people who speak in tongues. He in fact encourages people to converse with God in tongues. However, in our corporate worship, an order needs to be maintained so that we don’t alienate people but help them join with us in worshipping our Creator.
Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.1 Corinthians 14:26
Our personal time with God and the time we spend with Him in a group should be different. Our personal time can cater to our needs but in communal worship, the time spent should cater to the needs of everyone gathered.
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church1 Corinthians 14:34-35
To bring back order in the church, Paul in keeping with the social norms of ancient Greece pushes the requirement for women to be silent in churches. This seems odd given he addresses both men and women when he talks about the gift of prophesying and this entire section was about using the gift of prophecy. Then why would he ask half of the people in his congregation to remain silent? Given the ambiguity in the placement of these verses, the popular belief seems to be that another scribe later added these verses to Paul’s letters however we see something similar in his letter to Timothy also.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.1 Timothy 2:11-12
Timothy arrived in Corinth just after Paul’s letter reached the church. So it’s possible that the instruction found in both his letters to the Corinthians and his personal letter to Timothy would be dealing with women of Corinth rather than a universal law. Perhaps he was adhering to the norms of the society as is the case with the churches even today who are the last to bring in social changes within them. We can never truly know what was Paul’s thought process when he instated such a law but we don’t need to. We have seen God work through both men and women in the Bible. If God wanted to punish all women for what Eve did then we would not have women ranging from Deborah the prophetess to Priscilla the evangelist, all working for the extension of the kingdom of God.
Even today in many parts of the world, women do not enjoy the same rights as men. The aim of the missionaries serving in those countries is not to break any social norms but transform their hearts for God. If we live in a country where our daughters, wives and mothers have equal rights as men, in their families, workplaces and community then why do we use these letters to restrict women from serving God rather than using it to correct our mistakes. Let us not use the Bible as a correction tool of what we see wrong in others but a self-edification tool for all of us to draw closer to God.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.1 Corinthians 14:39-40
V5: Why is Paul emphasising that the people desire the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues?
V22: Why are tongues a sign for unbelievers and prophecy for believers?
V34: Should women be silent in our churches today?
Summary: What is the purpose of a Church?