Context is everything with Paul’s letters; otherwise it can easily turn into a minefield, by which one can never easily traverse the ground. The letters are difficult, direct, and historically rooted in a culture completely foreign to our own. With this in mind, I’m stunned by the level of arrogance we often argue from their authority without considering our own context is so utterly foreign to the Bible’s context.
As someone who grew up charismatic, I decided a fresh look First Corinthians, chapter 14. One thing I noticed was the following: Paul is addressing the use of the tongue, and it is within that context that the subject of speaking in tongues, as well as prophecy, to underscore his broader point of the churches uniqueness and warmth amidst a culture of religious status and superstition.
Usually, we begin with the gifts of the spirit, and move onto the chapter from that starting point, instead of beginning with the tongue as a “rudder” of life. The tongue in Corinthian culture is a powerful arrow towards status and power, something the Corinthians culture is consumed and happens to be a cultural dynamic that has yet to be purged from the church. In the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Loc 14024) the reader gets this explanation:
“Here Paul addresses the misdirected enthusiasm of the Corinthians by calling for intelligibility during public worship; it is only through interpreted tongues or prophecy that both believers and unbelievers receive edification (vv. 2, 23).”
The call for order in the exercise of spiritual power must be done from a foundation of love, not of status. And how does Paul account for the Corinthians churches uniqueness in such a profoundly religious and pagan culture? As N.T. Wright says: “…in the world of Corinth there were many religions and cults offering different spiritual experiences, some of which involved the worshippers being carried away into ecstatic states and trances…various kinds of speech. Was the young Christian church just going to be another cult like that? (Wright 182)”
1 Corinthians 14 is a case study Pauls uses to make his broader project known to the Corinthian church. His ethics are put on display for the church to grow out of the immaturity of the ecstatic method, and grow up into love. We speak in such a way that all people can access the same truth when our direction, not just our words, are directed towards love.
1. (2016-11-22). Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Kindle Locations 14027-14029). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
2. Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. London: SPCK, 2003.