In the latter part of his first letter to Corinth, the benefit of the body is a component of Paul’s sustained focus on the issue of speaking in tongues. He writes: “There are probably many kinds of languages in the world, and none is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of a language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. It is the same for you” (14:10-12a). There might be a tendency to get hung up on these words, with an attempt to discern if Paul is indicating that the ecstatic speech (speaking in tongues) is more than just a string of incomprehensible syllables. This mention of “languages” may prod some to compare the ecstatic speech being practiced in the Corinthian church with the events of the second chapter of Acts, in which the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them” (2:4), seeing a proof text for justification of the practice. It is not likely that Paul had justification of the practice in mind. It was an accepted religious practice, and it did no harm unless it caused divisions in the church. Therefore, legitimating the practice was not Paul’s abiding concern.
With the words quoted, It is Paul’s use of “foreigner” that should grab our attention. Because he is dealing with activities that take place within the assembly, someone being made to feel like a “foreigner” would be extremely problematic. An attendee may feel cut off from the proceedings, feeling as if there are components of what is there taking place of which they may be unworthy in some way. Any feelings of isolation or distance from the fellowship of the assembled church would militate against unity. Of course, this commentary by Paul runs back to a question asked in the sixth verse, which is “Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or prophecy or teaching?” The issue, as Paul sees it, is whether the speaking in tongues or the speaker in tongues is being helpful to the body. This question is nicely bookended by the remainder of verse twelve, which reads “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church” (14:12b). Indeed, if there is a desire to abound in manifestations of the Spirit, those manifestations should abound in such a manner that the church is strengthened. This is Paul’s abiding concern.
Paul is not surprised by the ecstatic utterances, nor is he about to limit the manifestation of the Spirit to the same. For Paul, the evidence of the presence of God’s Spirit, regardless of the activity in which one is engaged, is the strengthening of the church. This can be accomplished in an unimaginable number of ways, which is what makes it absolutely impossible to create lists of the gifts of God’s Spirit. To the end of strengthening the church in connection with speaking in tongues, Paul goes on to write “So then, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret” (14:13). To that he adds: “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unproductive” (14:14). This is not new ground. Speaking in tongues, as an accepted and widespread religious practice that was understood to be the result of a god taking over the mind of a worshiper, was looked at in this way. So Paul asks: “What should I do?” (14:15a) He answers his own question with “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing praises with my spirit, but I will also sing praises with my mind” (14:15b). Paul is not devaluing speaking in tongues by contrasting mind and spirit, nor is he elevating activity that is mind oriented. He is simply discussing tongues as they were then widely understood.
Paul then makes his rather familiar point about the strengthening of the church by writing “Otherwise, if you are praising God with your spirit, how can someone without the gift say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are certainly giving thanks well, but the other person is not strengthened” (14:16-17). It always returns to this. Paul wants to see the church strengthened through every activity that is said to be rooted in the gifting of the Spirit of God. He wants every member of the body (to take up language from chapter twelve) to be able to participate equally, on equal footing, with nobody feeling like a foreigner, with nobody marginalized as second-class spiritual citizens of the kingdom of God, and certainly nobody being held up or looked to as a superior within the body of Christ simply because they engage in one or more particular activities that have been pre-designated by that body as gifts of the Spirit.