Tongues in the Corinthian Church

THOSE who today claim to experience the Holy Spirit's gift of tongues invariably appeal to the glossolalia in the Corinthian church as recorded in chapter fourteen to substantiate their own position. . .

-professor of Theology and Christian Philosophy, Loma Linda University at the time this article was written

THOSE who today claim to experience the Holy Spirit's gift of tongues invariably appeal to the glossolalia in the Corinthian church as recorded in chapter fourteen to substantiate their own position.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul took considerable time to discuss this particular gift. We find nothing quite like this in other churches or in his other epistles. In the previous two chapters, Paul emphasizes the various gifts of the Spirit, including that of tongues, their place in the work and experience of the church. The Christian church is one body, endowed with a diversity of gifts united under one Head. Here the direction and operation of the Holy Spirit is the decisive factor for unity and order within the church. Such harmony of love and unselfish service was the crown of the Spirit's work.

"Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. ... For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:4-13).

By the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the prayer of Christ is fulfilled: "That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:21).

In the early church there were certain essential requirements requisite to Pentecost and the baptism of the Spirit. The Spirit safeguards the church from division, disorder, and disunity. Pentecost united men's minds, hearts, and service. There was to be no schism in the body.

"And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:46, 47).

Paul's test of the Spirit is to be found in unity by love and edification by the truth. This life-style is closely akin to the life of Jesus Christ. Love is characterized as the most excellent gift of the Spirit, since love so orders the whole life of the church as to create oneness. So impressive was this oneness in Christian love that the world of that day spontaneously exclaimed: "See how these Christians love one another." This is the starting point for the true church, a church united in love.

But this oneness and unity by the Spirit was the one thing that the Corinthian church did not have. They were split wide open. Consequently Paul wrote: "I appeal to you, my brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: agree among yourselves, and avoid divisions; be firmly joined in unity of mind and thought. I have been told, my brothers, by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you. . . . Each of you is saying, 'I am Paul's man,' or 'I am for Apollos'; 'I follow Cephas,' or 'I am Christ's.' Surely Christ has not been divided among you!" (1 Cor. 1:10-12, N.E.B.).*

When church members are more attracted to men than they are to Christ, disunity follows. Idolatrous loyalties to men are established at the expense of church unity and peace. The Holy Spirit's control and guidance of the church is surrendered.

Consequently, when we come to the spiritual condition of the church at Corinth, and when we seek to interpret the nature of the gift of tongues, we are confronted with the fact that some thing is radically wrong. For the first time in the Christian church speaking in tongues had become a problem. This raises the question as to whether this was a genuine gift of the Spirit or whether it was false, either as demonic or some form of hysteria. While Paul does not actually denounce this manifestation, he does seek to sup press it. It had become a source of embarrassment. Are we to believe that in the midst of disorder and confusion in the church, they were Spirit led?

According to Paul another requisite of the genuine gift of tongues is that the church and the hearers might be edified. On this point also the Corinthian church did not qualify. Although he is quite careful not to completely condemn, he does strongly state that their communication was both unintelligible and unedifying. They spoke "into the air" (chap. 14:9); that is, by some incoherent form of sound as distinct from the essential properties of a known language. Because of this the church was not edified (verses 4, 16, 17). Their "understanding" was "unfruitful" (verse 14). There was a lack of intelligent communication. What kind of spirit manifestation is it that actually silences the mind, where the mind is not conscious of what is taking place or what is being said?

"Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue. Brethren, be not children in understanding . . . but in understanding be men" (verses 19, 20).

Paul contrasts his own gift as speaking in tongues more than they all (verse 18). He speaks by revelation, by knowledge, by teachings all of which are gained by the ordinary mental processes under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (verse 6). In this he gives the trumpet a certain sound. He does not speak into the air. He speaks in languages more than they all. This manifestation in the church at Corinth is something Paul knows nothing about. If what they have is the genuine gift of the Spirit, then Paul does not have it. What does Paul mean when he says: "I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all" (verse 18)? Obviously he is contrasting his ability to speak known languages with the incoherent tongue of the Corinthian church.

At Pentecost the gift of tongues was of coherent, known languages, which the hearers recognized and thereby understood. The astonishment of the Jews was occasioned by the fact that though the speakers were Galileans, they heard them each in his own native tongue (Acts 2:6-11). Peter's discourse came with an understanding and edification in terms that had the force and simplicity of their everyday language and local dialects. Intelligently the apostles gave utterance "to the marvellous doings of God" (ta megaleia tou Theou). Both the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy were an intelligent communication of the truth. Both functioned for the proclamation and communication of the gospel. But in the Corinthian church Paul contrasts speaking in tongues with the gift of prophecy. The one was incoherent and unedifying. The other was by intelligent expression.

God's voice is always a clear distinct word, never a mere sound. Cod always talks with meaning. His communication is governed by principles that respect the human mind. He delights to make Himself clearly understood to men. His communication is orderly, purposeful, and intelligent. In the Bible the voice of God becomes perfectly articulate. We know exactly what God means.

Why does not Paul recognize the tongues manifestation if it is false and denounce it? For one thing, he was evidently not present when speaking in tongues created disorder in the church. If he had been he could have dealt with it directly rather than by letter. The account came to him by way of a report along with all the other problems in the church. Consequently, not being a first hand witness, Paul is reluctant to come right out and condemn it.

Furthermore, at this point it is quite possible that Paul had not yet come to understand the nature of this manifestation. So it is too early for him to formulate a final judgment, even though this glossolalia constituted a serious problem in the church. This is the only account we have in the early church where any of the apostles found it necessary to caution against the manifestation and use of a "divine" gift of the Spirit, if it is that. In all other cases, the gifts of the Spirit were cause for joy and encouragement.

The fact that Paul does not come right out and condemn it does not prove it is of God. Paul himself is a Spirit-filled man. But he does not share in or approve of the spiritistic instability seen in this church. It stands in contrast with the gift he has. This mysterious unintelligent "speaking" that bypassed sound mental activity, seemed to be thoroughly transcendental. Paul's criticism bears largely in this direction.

In seeking to evaluate the glossolalia at Corinth, the basic question is this: did the Corinthian church fulfill the requisites for Pentecost and the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Could men and women in this church stand up to speak in tongues that no one understood, create disorder at the same time, and at that very moment be possessed of the fullness of the Holy Spirit? We are told by some that although this church was involved in the most serious spiritual problems and perversions of true Christianity, the believers were so filled with the Spirit that they spoke in tongues as did the apostles on the day of Pentecost; that what they had was the genuine gift of the Spirit.

Consider now the prevailing immorality that this church at the time of Paul's writing refused to grapple with (1 Cor. 5); the abuse of worship, the perversion of the Lord's Supper and the agape feast (chap. 11), the civil conflicts when church members went to law against each other (chap. 6), the problems of marriage (chap. 7), their opposition to Paul and rejection of his authority. What a contrast with the purity and deep spirituality of the church on the day of Pentecost!

Now this raises very serious questions regarding the work of the Holy Spirit. Do people and churches in this appalling spiritual condition and lapse from righteousness actually receive the baptism of Pentecost? Is not the bestowal of the gifts of the Spirit directly related to the spiritual quality of church members? Or does it not matter at all? Can anyone, regardless of how he lives or how he may be divided from his brethren, actually receive the fullness of the Spirit? Is it really possible for a church to be filled with the Spirit and speak in tongues while at the same time creating confusion and disorder? In that case, then it is the Holy Spirit who is responsible for this spiritual apostasy, confusion, and disorder. But surely, where the Spirit is in control, at the point where there would arise the slightest tendency to abuse, to degeneration, or to perversion, the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit would cease at once. Those involved in such practices or with such a spirit would no longer be fit channels for the fullness of the Spirit.

It is argued by some that in the Corinthian church there were those who were truly Christian, godly men and women, who had no part in these sinful and abusive practices. No doubt this is true. These Christians constituted no problem. They created no disorder. Paul does not direct his re marks to them. But it was those who spoke in tongues who were responsible for the disorder. Spirit-led Christians abuse no gift of God nor pervert the truth and the standards of Christ. The Corinthian church was the number one problem church of Paul's day and continued to remain so. Clement of Rome, writing around A.D. 100 wrote to this effect, that the church of Corinth had not improved or eradicated the abuses since Paul's day.

Again, if it is maintained that this tongues manifestation is genuine, then does not the Spirit give His approval and place His seal upon a church regardless of the kind of lives believers live? On what basis does any other church such as our own call people to come out of Babylon if the Spirit has set His mark upon them? On what basis do we teach and pray for the latter rain? This so-called Pentecost of tongues at Corinth did not heal the divisions or the conflict and problems within the church. There is something radically wrong with a supposed gift of the Spirit that does not lead to unity, purity, peace, and love. It is incredible to believe that while experiencing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit does not at the same time triumph over their immorality and correct their abuses in worship.

If the baptism of the Spirit keeps company with the libertine, the disunity of believers, and the perversion of Christian worship, what then is the standard by which to test the work of the Holy Spirit? Is Pentecost simply the excitement of being pushed over the brink emotionally? How could it persuade them that this was something altogether different from what their own pagan religions offered them? Surely there is something far beyond euphoria, mysticism, and Greek hysteria by which we are to determine the genuineness of the Holy Spirit's presence.

If we are to be sure as to what Pentecost means, while the question may not always be easy to answer, at the same time we had better stand on Bible truth and morality, on the unity of the Spirit, and on the life that possesses all the fruits of the Spirit. In a clear understanding of the gift of the Spirit, such things as immorality, disunity, incommunication, and division in the church, have no place whatsoever. If all churches and professed Christians can now share in Pentecost regardless of what they believe and the spiritual quality of daily living, then we are simply wasting our time with some kind of special message by which all men are supposed to be tested.

Pentecost was not a happening lifted out of life's daily context. It is not a spiritual encounter peripheral to the Christian life. Rather the Holy Spirit permeates life itself and diffuses into every corner of life where the believer comes close to the image of God the way He intended it.

At last we have come down to this: the work of false spirits in the world threatens the foundation of the Christian faith. Far be it from me to sit in judgment on those who speak in tongues. There is a genuine gift of tongues and there is a false. Notwithstanding these spirit manifestations, I venture to say that the spiritual life we esteem precious is Christ in us, with its supreme value for moral and spiritual character. It is not upon the low ground of any ecstatic temporary euphoria or religious hysteria that we build our faith. Our stand must be taken upon the righteousness of Christ and the life He lived, for "the Spirit was not given unto Him by measure." There is nothing sensational or overdone in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Nothing less than an exalted moral obedience to the will and to the law of God will suffice, em bracing total allegiance to Him at any cost. When loyalty to all the truth of God is placed upon her throne by the church of God, when purity, virtue, and integrity for their own sake are recognized as part of that loyalty, when righteous love and the compassion of Christ prevail to save the lost, then despite all professed Spirit manifestations, we are secure in Christ. Behind all the life we live, Christ's life is given to us, lived in us. When we are controlled and led by the Spirit, then being endowed with such life and power, with an intelligent, conscious knowledge of the truth of God, we press on undaunted toward the fulfillment of our calling and destiny. Within this power our lives have real purpose, full, unmeasured, a resistless love, joy, and peace, and the great depth of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.


* From The New English Bible.© The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1970- Reprinted by permission.

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-professor of Theology and Christian Philosophy, Loma Linda University at the time this article was written

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