The gift of tongues divided the early church.
If you have not read my article on the gift of Biblical theology and the gift of tongues, please take a few moments to read it before continuing here.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 12, the apostle Paul addresses the topic of spiritual gifts. Throughout the chapter, he stresses that the members of a church make up a complete body just like the parts of our physical body (1 Corinthians 12:12-26.
In verses 27-31, Paul asks, are we all to desire to be the same? There seems to be a sense of envy among the members about one another’s gifts. I am sure there is competition in our churches today over who plays the piano better, sings better, cooks better, teaches better, or decorates better, to name a few. It may not be an open competition, but there can be envy in people’s hearts. That is not how it is supposed to be, so Paul knows a better way.
But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.1 Corinthians 12:31
In chapter 13, Paul speaks about how love will keep us from having disunity over our gifts. Love will teach us how to work in harmony, not envy.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.1 Corinthians 13:4–7
We all think we know the best or the better way to do things. However, we need to be humble and consider that God is in control and He will bring about His will. We don’t have a complete understanding of everything. Music is an area I could use to illustrate this. Music is very subjective, and there can be many disputes over music and which instruments should be used. Paul reminds us we only know in part.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.1 Corinthians 13:9
When we are resurrected and stand before our Lord, there will be no more questions about our gifts and the right way to do things, but we can now unite with faith, hope, and charity.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.1 Corinthians 13:13
Paul’s discussion on gifts and unity continues right into chapter fourteen. Again, if you have not read my article on Biblical theology and tongues, please do so before reading this. I have tried to help people understand what is being said here. We know that tongues are human languages God gave to cause divisions among the people. That was not to be the final act in the story. God would bring the world back together with the gospel, so being able to communicate with each other is important. So we have the gift of tongues.
I want to take chapter twelve and insert some words so that it would become apparent to those who have trouble seeing what I understand Paul is saying. I will use Mandarin because I am sure most of you do not understand it. But let’s say that you have Chinese refugees come to your community, and some come to your church. These Christians wanted to participate but only knew how to speak Mandarin.
For he that speaketh in Mandarin speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh only thing he understands. 3 But he that speaks in a way everyone understands, speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. 4 He that speaketh in Mandarin edifieth himself; but he that speaks in a way everyone understands edifieth the church.
5 I would like that ye all spake in different languages, but better that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh Mandarin, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying. 6 Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking in Mandarin, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? 7 And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? 8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? 9 So likewise ye, except ye utter by the language that is easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.
10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. 11 Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a foreigner, and he that speaketh shall be a foreigner unto me.
12 Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church. 13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in Mandarin pray that he may interpret, so the prayer can be understood by all. 14 For if I pray in Mandarin, my spirit prayeth, but what I understand is unfruitful to them who do not understand Madarin.
15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. 16 Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room that don’t know Mandarin say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? 17 For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.
18 I thank my God, I know more languages than ye all: 19 Yet in the church I had rather speak five words that everyone understands, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in Mandarin.
20 Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men. 21 In the law it is written, With men of other languages and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord.
22 Wherefore languages are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: (language are used to reach the lost, those who have never heard the gospel) but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.
23 If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak in Madarin, Korean, French, German, or English , and there come in those that are who does not know all these languages, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? 24 But if all speak in a language common to all, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:”1 Corinthians 14:2–24
So to recap this, Paul wanted the church of Corinthian to use their gifts in unity, which would be impossible without faith, hope and charity. Tongues had become a problem in the diverse community of Corinth. But the gift of tongues, if used correctly, would bring the gospel to people of all languages.