Saturday, September 27, 2014

Speaking In Tongues (part 20)

Why?  The reason is at least two-fold.  Paul wants all to prophesy because it leads to the strengthening, encouragement, and consolation of the entire body of believers, whereas ecstatic speech, historically among other religions and within this early church, generally leads to the elevation of one person above the rest.  With this sensibility created, it feels as if Paul engages in a bit of shaming of those that are vaunted or vaunting themselves owing to their glossolalia, writing “The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened” (1 Corinthians 14:5c).  With this, it becomes apparent that interpretation was not a regular component of the glossolalia in Corinth.  Without interpretation, there could be no strengthening of the church, only of the individual, for it is interpretation that turns the ecstatic speech into prophecy.  Commensurately, the necessity of interpretation reduces the honor of the ecstatic speaker, as the interpreter is elevated in honor as well. 

Paul’s concern is with that which is good for the body, and ultimately, with that which brings honor to Jesus as Lord of all.  A strengthened body, rooted in equality and preference of others and completely unconcerned with honor and shame competitions, would accomplish this quite well.  With what can be heard from Paul, it becomes clear that some of the members of this church had highly elevated that which they referred to and classified as the “spiritual gifts,” which is reflected in what was probably their own list recited by Paul in chapter twelve.  Owing to the extensive treatment that it is going to receive, it appears that the ability to speak in tongues was the most prominent of those abilities---affording the highest degree of honor to those engaging in the activity. 

As has been made clear throughout this study, this particular spiritual activity was in no way confined to Christian gatherings, as it was an accepted religious practice of the day and for quite some time before Pentecost or the phenomenon of the church, so this does appear to be an instance of the believers of Corinth importing the values of their society into the gathering that was supposed to reflect their life in pursuit of the Creator God’s kingdom. 

It was not the practice that was problematic, or even the issue, or even Paul’s concern.  Rather, what was of concern to the Apostle were the values (pursuit of individual honor and status) that stood behind and motivated the practice that were the cause for concern.  As was said earlier, a common feature of religious assembly was the belief that a god could possess a believer or worshiper with their spirit, leading that person to communicate directly with the god in what sounded to onlookers and gathered hearers like unintelligible speech.  Paul echoes this common understanding with “the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God.” 

Unfortunately, what appears to be happening in this church is that the believers were allowing for the establishment of a new social hierarchy not unlike that with which they were familiar, and allowing for this on the basis of spiritual abilities---with those capable of speaking in tongues receiving the greatest honor.  Paul, as has been observed, takes great pains to repudiate this practice of creating social divisions on the basis of spiritual ability, while strongly emphasizing that these spiritual activities (even the limited list to which the Corinthian church seems to have confined and contented itself) are gifts from the Creator God and evidences of the presence of His individual-honor-eschewing kingdom.  

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