In unpacking New Testament teaching on tongues, Lucy Peppiatt observes how Paul combatted pride and elitism in the early Church


Without love, the practice of spiritual gifts is a jarring sound in everyone’s ears

I don’t know what’s on your mind as you enter this new year. Alongside the terrible distress of the international crises in front of us, you may have your own personal strains. For a season of joy, Christmas is often a strangely stressful time. My work on 1 Corinthians is coming to an end and, as it does, I am struck all over again how very real the Bible is. It never sugar-coats anything. This letter gives us a window into Paul’s address to a dysfunctional (one might even say toxic) church. It names all the problems head-on, and this is so helpful to us today.

I sometimes wonder what Jesus would say to our churches if he were to come back now. Given that Paul told the Corinthians their meetings were doing more harm than good (yikes!), what do we think Jesus might say to us? It may be a good question to ask ourselves from time to time.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul offers us some invaluable advice and patterns for a healthy church. As a new year begins, his advice is worth reflecting on. Although the issue Paul addresses here is the use of spiritual gifts, it is not only relevant for the charismatic Church. All of us can learn something from it. 

The Corinthian leaders were domineering, divisive – and super-gifted. And they knew it. They didn’t make space for women or the poor, and my impression is that, rather disturbingly, they despised the weak. Worse than anything, they also believed they had a monopoly on the truth. Paul writes (to the men): “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (14:36). What do you think they were doing to inspire Paul’s question? My hunch is they were going around saying: “God has told us…and now we will tell you.” In addition, whatever they were doing in worship – we assume it was babbling in tongues all at once – they had no concern either for the outsider (the non-tongues speaker) or the unbeliever. Paul comes against both those attitudes: pride and elitism. 

Paul’s principles

In 1 Corinthians 12, he uses the language of the body, explaining that everyone is interdependent and social hierarchies are inverted. In God’s family, the people at the bottom of the pile are placed on the top. In chapter 13, he speaks to them of the essential foundation of Christ-like love. Without this, the practice of spiritual gifts (which is any gift from God) is a jarring sound in everyone’s ears. “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (v1), he says. He then gives them some practical advice for orderly and Christ-like practises. For these to work, they need to be humble, listen to others and be intelligible to the outsider and unbeliever. Paul focuses on tongues and prophecy because this is where their fault lay, but there are principles here that apply to all church leadership. 

Each of Paul’s principles are orientated around a more democratic leadership than the Corinthians were practising, as well as a concern for the outsider. The first half of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of Paul’s preference for prophecy over tongues. This is because he prefers gifts that are more immediately intelligible to the outsider and more clearly edify the Church. He’s still eager they speak in tongues, however, so teaches them how to do this without being exclusive – and this is what he comes to in the second half of the chapter. 

If I do not have love, I am only a clanging cymbal

First, he addresses the idea that the leaders have a monopoly on spiritual gifts. Instead, “each of you” (1 Corinthians 14:26) has something to contribute, but one at a time. Ideally, if someone brings a message in tongues, someone else will bring an interpretation. If no one does so, the person who brought the tongue must simply remain silent (14:28). What does this mean? I think it means we shouldn’t insist on bringing a “message” if it hasn’t elicited a response! Drop it quietly. This is a great word of advice. 

Secondly, there is a very important principle in Paul encouraging the orderly use of tongues in the public assembly. If what we are doing in our worship is not immediately intelligible to anyone coming in from the outside, should we stop? No. But should we stop and explain? Yes!

Thirdly, prophecy is not an ecstatic, uncontrollable utterance but an orderly way of bringing a revelation to the community. The prophets’ spirits are “subject to the control of prophets” (14:32). Like tongues, prophecy should always be tested. Two or three prophets should speak and others should carefully weigh what is said. If someone in the congregation brings an interpretation, the first person should stop. “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace – as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (14:33). 

Some believe that when Paul refers to prophecy in these verses, he is really referring to something more akin to preaching. I don’t personally think this but, if it were true, we should assume that preaching should also be weighed and tested. As preachers also bring revelatory, authoritative messages, this seems like a good principle. 

In summary, Paul comes against authoritarian leadership in all its forms; everything must be submitted to the body. He encourages them to consider the outsider and the unbeliever, and explain everything in intelligible words. This is a great missional principle. He challenges them over their belief that they alone have the word of God. This is not for us to decide about ourselves, but for those around us to confirm. 

In the communities I am a part of, we live this out by offering things humbly to others, saying: “As I was praying, something came to mind. May I share it with you?” I feel Paul might be happy with that! As we consider the impact the Spirit has through us to others in our churches, let’s bear these life-giving words in mind.