Singing in the Spirit

Sep 2020    

Does the practice of “singing in the Spirit” in charismatic worship services contravene the Bible’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:13–20?1

Several years ago, I visited a charismatic church. Halfway through the contemporary worship set, the congregation was invited to sing in tongues. Everyone broke out in glossalalic singing for a minute or so. That was my first experience of what is commonly known as “singing in the Spirit”. I had just that afternoon received the gift of angelic tongues (not at the charismatic church but at my own church), and coming from a church that did not permit speaking in tongues without interpretation during services (and rightly so), I found the experience refreshing.

But how does the practice of singing in the Spirit square with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:13­–20?

Before diving into this passage, it is important to get one thing straight—Paul recognised both human tongues (i.e. a foreign language) and angelic tongues. In 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul referred to “speaking in tongues of men or of angels”. In case you think Paul might have been granting them a point and not actually affirming angelic tongues,  he went on to say in 1 Corinthians 14:2 that “anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.” Too often, sincere Christians have dismissed the biblicity of angelic tongues by referring to the episode of speaking in human tongues at Pentecost in Acts 2. Paul also expressly said, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor 14:39), so he was definitely not against the practice. When it comes to human tongues and angelic tongues, it is not either or–it is both/and.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was a corrective to a church that had not fully learnt how to follow Christ: amongst its problems were the overemphasis on personal rights and ecstatic experiences.2 The Corinthians lived in an era where it was universally accepted that spiritual gifts accompanied those who were “specially in touch with the divine…Their ‘enthusiasm’3 was the mark of the presence of the divine spirit within them”.4 The Corinthian Christians eagerly sought spiritual gifts as evidence of their spiritual maturity, and were practising their Christian faith in an emotional and enthusiastic manner, engaging the spirit but bypassing the mind. Some spiritual gifts (such as speaking in tongues) were elevated over others. Those who had the “better” spiritual gifts were lording it over others, creating division in the church (cf. 1 Cor 12). They were more concerned about the power of the Spirit that they exercised, than the community of the Spirit. Such actions were symptomatic of a bigger problem: their lack of love for each other was what made them act in selfish ways that were not conducive to building community (cf. 1 Cor 13). Paul needed to recentre the Corinthian church on what mattered in God’s eyes: building a loving community.

So in 1 Corinthians 14, after establishing the centrality of love, Paul described what that love looked like when practised in community. He established the importance of love in pursuing and practising spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14:1–12). He instituted rules for worshipping in community (1 Cor 14:24–40). Worship was to be (i) accessible to everyone and no one would feel excluded, and (ii) useful for building up all believers.

How does Paul’s words for the Corinthian Christians apply to our Christian context today? Let’s start by noting a major difference between worship in the Corinthian church and worship in the church today. Historical descriptions of secular gatherings show a pattern of eating together, and then guests taking turns to lead in song.5 It is likely that the worship of the early Christians followed this format, sans bawdy jokes and free flow of wine. These Christians would have written or rehearsed spiritual songs (“spiritual because they are inspired by the Spirit and manifest the life of the Spirit”6) and sung them to one another for the purposes of edification.7 This is different from most modern day worship (both traditional and contemporary) where a select group of people lead in the worship service. Paul’s concern with not speaking in tongues during worship–in a context where worship can be “led” by anyone in attendance–is ensuring that worship is always orderly and accessible.

In other words, if we go by the spirit (as opposed to the letter) of what Paul said, it is not that singing in tongues is verboten, but how it is done that is key. For Paul, the principles of worship that cannot be compromised are:

  1. worship must never be self-indulgent because it is for the edification of one another (1 Cor 14:1–5, 12, 17);
  2. worship must never be individualistic—we worship as a united body (1 Cor 14:6–11);
  3. we must be sensitive to those amongst us (pre-believers or those who do not speak in tongues) who may be stumbled by strange practices or feel awkward because they are excluded (1 Cor 14:16);
  4. worship must engage spirit and mind so that it is fruitful for the believer (1 Cor 14:13–15); and
  5. worship must be orderly (1 Cor 14:40).

What does this mean for our context today? Here are some questions we can ask ourselves when considering whether there is room for singing in tongues in worship services:

  1. Does my singing in the Spirit during worship come from a self-indulgent spirit? Is it symptomatic of an individualistic faith?

In worship, we are not just worshipping God. The purpose of worship is also to encourage and build up one another. My faith is not just between God and me, but held together in community. We worship as a community of faith, and not a collection of individuals who happen to share the same faith.

  1. Does my singing in the Spirit during worship make those who have not received the gift of angelic tongues feel like outsiders? Will it make pre-believers feel awkward or stumble them? Does it prevent participation?

The key here is love, and we have the choice to love others by curtailing our freedom to worship out loud in angelic tongues. Who is doing it is also important: if the worship or service leader were to pray audibly in tongues for an extended period of time, there’s no way for the people to say “Amen” to what (s)he is saying.

  1. Does my singing in the Spirit during worship engage my spirit and my mind? Can I sing in the Spirit and still engage all of myself (mind included) in the worship of God?

The engagement of spirit and mind does not need to be simultaneous: it will suffice so long as there is adequate room given to both during worship. As Paul himself said, “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.” We can do both! There is certainly room for the congregant to sing in tongues at intervals (e.g. in between worship songs, during musical interludes, during “free worship”). Engaging the mind happens when we read the lyrics in the hymnbook or on the projection screen, proclaim God’s truth through song, and we hear it proclaimed by our own voice intermingled with other voices. Singing in the Spirit should not be a substitute for engaging one’s mental faculties.

  1. Does my singing in the Spirit during worship make it difficult for my brother- or sister-in-Christ to engage his/her spirit and mind? Does it edify my brother- or sister-in-Christ?

In a group context where everyone has the gift of angelic tongues, a period of singing in the Spirit together may not be out of place. The group may feel edified at the end of it because tongues do edify (1 Cor 14:4). However, we must be mindful of those who do not have the gift of angelic tongues, and ensure that adequate time is devoted to engaging the mind fruitfully.

  1. Does my singing in the Spirit during worship cause disruption to the service?

If done in a fitting and orderly way (1 Cor 14:40), a case can be made for singing in the Spirit during worship. For example, it is okay if it is done quietly without disrupting the singing of hymns or worship songs, or the congregational prayer. Another possibility is when the worship leader goes into a non-protracted time of “free worship”, as a congregation member I can sing in tongues so long as it does not make it difficult for those around me to worship.

Paul’s words in 1 Cor 14:13–20 are more about the big picture of loving your neighbour and less about the parochial debates about angelic tongues. The problem with angelic tongues was not that they were angelic tongues but what it did to the community of believers. Paul’s words are a corrective for Christians today who over-emphasise the individualistic, experiential aspect of Sunday services. As Gordon Fee said, “The point of everything in corporate worship is not personal experience in the Spirit, but building up the church itself.”8

When we come to worship on Sundays, we ought to prepare our hearts and minds to engage with God and with one another. It is the engagement with one another in worship that we often forget. In the words of bible scholar Andrew T. Lincoln, “Being filled with the Spirit involves not simply private mystical experiences but corporate worship and relationships…the fullness of the Spirit can only be properly experienced in community.”

The other danger to avoid is a “flesh-led” attitude to worshipping in the Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, the people spontaneously broke out in tongues when the Holy Spirit descended upon them. When we are singing in the Spirit we must ask ourselves whether we are responding to the move of the Holy Spirit or we are willing ourselves to do it.

Finally, we also need to understand and respect the traditions of different churches. Perhaps what is more important than examining and critiquing another church’s beliefs or practices that differ from ours, is that we have the humility to examine and critique our own in the light of the Gospel, and to learn from other churches.

The views expressed in this article are personal and might not necessarily reflect the official position of The Methodist Church in Singapore. This version of the article has been edited for brevity. A full version of the article can be found at http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/index.php/resources/bible-matters?layout=edit&id=262

1 Since Paul was addressing speaking in angelic tongues during worship in 1 Corinthians 14:13-20, we will be focusing on the angelic tongues aspect of “singing in the Spirit”, and not the “free worship” in intelligible words aspect of it.

2 Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 14.

3 Not to be confused with the more contemporary use of the word to mean “a feeling of energetic interest in a particular subject or activity and an eagerness to be involved in it”. “Enthusiastic” comes from the Greek word enthousiasmos, meaning “inspiration or possession by a god”. Someone who was enthusiastic in those days would have “behaved in unpredictable ways, threw themselves about, spoke in a frenzied manner, and so on.”

(Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 7, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985], 161.)

4 Morris, 161.

5 Alikin, Valeriy A. “Singing and Prayer In the Gathering of the Early Church,” The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010), 211–54.

6 Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, vol. 42, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1990), 346.

7 It is worth noting at this point that Ephesians 5:19 (in particular the phrase “songs from the Spirit”) does not provide the basis for the practice of singing in angelic tongues. This phrase could just as easily mean “songs composed with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”. This latter interpretation becomes even more likely when one considers that the terms “psalms”, “hymns”, “songs from the Spirit” have been used interchangeably to mean the same thing in the Septuagint (an early Greek translation of the Old Testament that predates Ephesians by about 300 years, which the writer of Ephesians would have had access to). In my opinion, 1 Corinthians 14:15 provides a far stronger scriptural support for singing in angelic tongues.

8 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 667.

Ps Joey Chen has been the Assistant Pastor at Methodist Church of the Incarnation since entering Trinity Annual Conference as a Member-on-Trial in 2018. She enjoys good movies, good coffee and good books.


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