Talking in Tongues? Stupid.

5 Aug

I have been reading through the bible in a very lazy manner this past year and last night I read 1st Corinthians.  In chapter 14, Paul writes to the church in Corinth about speaking in tongues.  I thought it would be a good place, if one were interested, to begin to see scripture as a theological-political work.  I’ve always found the things of scripture to pertain to men, not just to the afterlife of men.  And the most identifying mark of a human is his political nature.  It will be easy for me to write about this passage because no one, well, very few people will be upset if we were to find speaking in tongues an unauthentic expression of faith.

To begin we have to understand what the letter to the Corinthians is, that is, it is a letter from Paul who is a representative of the Spirit of God to the Christian community in Corinth.  His purpose in writing to Corinth is twofold, to keep the peace within the Christian community at Corinth and to instruct them by way of writing, in some truths of the Spirit.

In chapter 14 Paul addresses the habit of some in the community of speaking in tongues.  When the community congregates there seems to be an excessive number of people who speak in tongues while there are others who prophesy and still others who sing.  This hodgepodge of activity would seem to be the primary gathering of Christians on some sort of regular basis.

Paul begins by saying, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries of the Spirit.  On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.  The one who speaks in tongues builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.”  This is an incredibly tactful statement.  He appeases those who speak in tongues by saying that they are truthfully speaking to God while showing the value of prophecy, a value much greater than that of speaking in tongues.  About the value of speaking in tongues, I believe him to be lying.  Or at least sincerely doubting that those speaking in tongues at Corinth were actually speaking in tongues.  Paul knows about the Pentecost, and he knows that what was amazing about the event wasn’t the Apostles speaking jibberish but that the foreigners understood their words because the Apostles were speaking in their language or at least in something they understood.  Paul makes it clear that anyone babbling about incoherently is useless to the community but he does so in a way not to harm the peace of the community over some member’s immature desire for attention.

He continues to keep the tongue-speakers happy by writing, “Thus tongues are a sign not for the believers but for the unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.”  I take this to refer to the Pentecost, where the believers had no idea what the hell was happening but the foreigners heard their language spoken and were amazed and he again shows that prophecy, which is spoken and wise to be beneficial. Immediately after this apparent resolution between prophecy and tongues Paul shows is doubt in the show of the fake-speakers when in the next sentence he writes, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues and the outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?  But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all … he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”  It is spoken wisdom not a mindless show that draws unbelievers into community.  He lets the fake-speakers feel important to avoid trouble but shows to the discerning reader what it is that will benefit their community.

He goes on to finish his discourse on speaking in tongues by laying down a general rule for their gatherings, “[when you are together] let all things be done for building up.  If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.  But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.”  Paul lays emphasis throughout one speech and conversation during their gatherings because these are actual political activities that benefit both the individuals and the whole.  No one benefits from hearing barbaric fake-speak.  And those who do this fake speaking are themselves harmed because they grow accustomed to self-flattery.  Goodness knows how annoyed the church leaders must’ve been with this.

Objections:

One may object along the lines that a little earlier in chapter 14 Paul himself says, “I thank God I speak in tongues…” but this is also the man who in this same letter writes, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

This “all things to all people” really gets under peoples skin but truly it isn’t that different than distinguishing the necessary from the unnecessary.  Earlier in the letter Paul is absolutely pissed that people were dividing in Corinth by saying, “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” about this nonsense and confusion (for while allegiances we may have, they should never be divisive for we are one in the gospel.) Paul tells them, “Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you.  But I will come soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.  For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.  What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”  That’s a man with some steel in his spine.

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7 Responses to “Talking in Tongues? Stupid.”

  1. Jake August 5, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    I think that you need to carefully evaluate whether this is something that should be printed for everybody to read. Paul did not say “talking in tongues is stupid.” There are two possible reasons not to say that: either he did not think that is the case or he thought that it should not be put in print for everybody to read. In either case, I think it is a mistake for you to say what Paul tactfully and carefully avoided saying.

    • Cole August 7, 2010 at 7:14 pm #

      Jake, I feel that speaking in tongues is not revered among the readers of my blog. I doubt I did any harm.

  2. CrystalSpins August 6, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Well, I think you should be able to say that you think speaking in tongues is stupid if you want. However I don’t think Paul felt it was stupid or avoided saying so.

    He was obviously being diplomatic to a point, but I think the issue was (and still is in some cases) that the church was using the speaking of tongues as a qualifying element of faith. Furthermore the church was trying to decide which way of worship was best or meant that a person was most faithful and closest to God.

    Churches still do this in a million ways, but I have a specific example from a Pentecostal church here in Rapid City South Dakota.

    About 17 years ago a friend of mine (the girl who lived across the street from me) prayed to accept Jesus into her heart. You know, John 3:16, the sinner’s prayer and all that.

    A few months later she was all distraught because she thought it hadn’t worked and that she was going to go to Hell. I asked her why she thought it hadn’t worked.

    “Because I haven’t spoken in tongues yet, so I must not have received the Holy Spirit so I’m not really saved.”

    I was Baptist at the time and we didn’t do the speaking in tongues stuff so I was confused. I asked her who had told her that, thinking it must have been a kid who didn’t understand salvation, and she said the pastor’s wife had told her that.

    She fervently prayed to receive the Holy Spirit for years. Then she started faking speaking in tongues and then after a few years of that she left the church.

    I have a lot of ideas about speaking in tongues…none of them are very political though. I see how Paul’s letter could be construed as a political attempt at diplomacy, but beyond that I’m lost. Maybe I need to know more about your politics, Cole.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Cole August 7, 2010 at 7:23 pm #

      Thanks for the reply Crystal. I find your first sentence interesting.

      “Well, I think you should be able to say that you think speaking in tongues is stupid if you want.”
      What if I was wrong about speaking in tongues? Wouldn’t it be very bad for me to be wrong in that case? I could do a great deal of damage if, say, a pentecostal were reading this and agreed with me.

      I was confused by the example. It could be construed as a demonstration of the negative effects of holding to false opinion or you could just be showing me that many churches still practice speaking in tongues.

      • CrystalSpins August 7, 2010 at 8:25 pm #

        I do not think that the Bible supports the idea that one MUST speak in tongues to be “saved.” So, my example is indeed an example of the negative effects of holding to false opinion.

        However, I think that the truth one discovers on his own is far more powerful than simply hearing the truths others have discovered.

        Furthermore, even if a man is wrong he should be able to say what he thinks — especially on his own blog.
        Honestly, my opinion is that you didn’t support your idea enough to prove it — say if we were in a debate.

        Paul’s words did devalue the practice of speaking in tongues to a point, but I don’t think you can support the idea that HE thought it was stupid.

        He plainly said that it was useful in building up an individual — that seems quite the opposite of “stupid” to me. He even says that he, himself, speaks in tongues — why would he say he does a thing while trying to make the point that that thing is stupid? The logic doesn’t follow.

        I should probably point out that while I do think I am highly educated about the Bible my education must be from a very different perspective than yours (I was studying specifically to go into the ministry).

        Furthermore, while I am certain that you have read a lot of Biblical analysis and certainly know far more about political concepts than me, I have a small criticism. (I don’t mean this in a mean way, but rather as a point for you to possibly consider strengthening): your Bible analysis seems a bit week and maybe colored by your emotions.

        It’s clear that you have an affinity for Paul and PERHAPS you feel that speaking in tongues is stupid and have therefore projected that idea onto the text.

        Yes? No? What do you think?

  3. Howard Simmons August 8, 2010 at 12:55 pm #

    Several years ago I had a young lady I know tell me she was considering suicide because she went to a Pentecostal Church and believed in Jesus as her savior, but she was unable to speak in tongues and was told she was not saved. After talking to her over several weeks and explaining that the gift of tongues is not for everyone but everyone has a gift and you should let God show you what it is and use it to glorify him in good works. She left the church to find one that preached the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need all three to enjoy a full life.

  4. Cole August 8, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    Most of what follows is open disagreement. Please read in the knowledge that the disagreements herein never roused me to anger and I hope they don’t upset you.

    To begin, yes I only give three examples from the text. That was, though, for the sake of brevity. If you apply this method of reading 1st Cor. 14 I think you’ll find many example of Paul’s hinting. One may look for contradictions; these provide the easiest way of distinguishing the true from the politically necessary. Compare 14:29 to 14:31, or consider one of his closing remarks on the topic, “So my brothers, earnestly desire prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” Here we can distinguish between a positive exhortation and the negative imperative in light of necessity.

    “I think that the truth one discovers on his own is far more powerful than simply hearing the truths others have discovered.”
    I disagree with this sentiment. I have favorite authors for a reason and that is because when I read them the show me things and it’s glorious. No one really comes to truth by themselves. There is a realization that goes on inside oneself that is completely ones own but it doesn’t matter if it’s someone speaking to you or you… well what does one do completely on his own that shows him truth? I often find this sentiment actually means, “It’s much nicer to find truth where one would like to look and truth is no fun if it’s spoken from tradition.”

    “have therefore projected that idea onto the text.” I read with certain questions that sit in my head and with a number of likes and dislikes. When I encounter something that speaks to any one of these affinities I read to see what the author thinks. In this case I don’t think speaking in tongues a sincere expression of the Spirit, that is, unless it’s understood by foreigners. When I came upon the question of speaking in tongues in Corinthians I was pleasantly surprised to find many signs that made legitimate my own notion. There are indeed times where I am not so vindicated. Everyone reads this way unless they hold no opinions in their head, in which case I doubt they’ll be very good readers. Thinking well comes from a tension, from having something at stake. Pretending to read something ‘without bias’ is tantamount to reading it without caring. Nobody really reads in this way and if they do I pity them.

    What evidence from 14 can be offered against my interpretation?
    “He even says that he, himself, speaks in tongues — why would he say he does a thing while trying to make the point that that thing is stupid? The logic doesn’t follow.”
    I believe I addressed this in the post. I don’t like the word ‘logic,’ it’s never used generously but only to say ‘you’re idea doesn’t make sense to me.’ Yet it carries to that understanding the undue weight of breaking an ethereal set of irrevocable rules. I gave a reason at the end of the post, and it can be thought of as logical if one wishes.

    My exegesis may be colored but I can say that it certainly isn’t mechanistic. And under the driest mechanisms of theologians lies the deepest fervor. I find that mechanism, or the biblical-theologians tendency to claim that they adhere to the literal interpretation of scripture is just a method of defense (there are also political reasons, can you think of them?!); the beautiful doctrine of Calvin was imbued with ten times more color than these little musings of mine. And even he spoke of the milk and the honey as preparation for the meat. Even Calvin, the strictest of theologians, knew there were levels of truth to scripture.

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