“ …since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” — 1 Cor. 14:12b
THE key to understanding the purpose of the gifts and the purpose of the gift of speaking, according to Paul, is to build up God’s people. It is to bring that which had been divided by sin and evil back together again by the Spirit of God. Why did God give human beings the ability to communicate? Genesis 1 is a crescendo of speech that rises to the creation of human beings in God’s image and thus with the ability to communicate and it is in Genesis 2 that the gift of speaking allows for Adam to respond to God to fulfil his will for creation.
Unlike other animals, God’s will for man would not to be realised through mere instinctual obedience to nature’s law. True fruition for humankind was only possible through the gift of speaking with and responding to God as persons. And here lies the awful calamity of sin. Rather than a means of truth and order, the gift of speech served to alienate humanity from God and each other through their lies.
The depths of estrangement are reached in the futility of Babel. Babel means “tongues” and bespeak of our inability to heal the breach between man and God as well as between man and man. It is the cacophony of alienation that the Spirit is overcoming in Corinth, according to Paul.
As he argues in 1 Corinthians 12-14, through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, God is re-uniting that which was torn asunder by calling the Corinthians to “pursue the way of love”.
This pursuit, according to Paul, should guide all the gifts and particularly the gift of speaking. Nearly every gift involves to some degree the gift of speaking. Yet it is precisely here that the danger to our unity dwells. Because the gift is by nature diverse, apart from the power and unity of the Holy Spirit, it threatens to divide rather than bring us together.
When the gift becomes self absorbed, used to build up our own self rather than the community, the gift actually begins to tear the church apart. Even tongues, prophecy, or preaching can divide if they merely are used for individual spiritual fulfilment.
Rather than building up the body of Christ, the tongue can quickly become an instrument to attack, degrade and divide. Such division reflects not the Kingdom of God but the division of Babel. This is the problem Paul faced in the church at Corinth. The very gifts bestowed upon the church to re-establish the bonds of unity were wrongly dividing the church.
The problem was not the gifts but their disorderly use. Thus, Paul affirms speaking in heavenly tongues even as he gives preference prophecy wherein God’s clear communication is manifest. In prophecy God helps the church in difficult circumstance through foretelling, exhortation and edification so that the church can address its challenges with boldness. It also includes words of consolation when we suffer. Here prophecy provides God’s solace, comfort and love during hard times.
Prophecy is clear. It is revelation thus making manifest what was previously hidden. Whereas tongues leave mystery as mystery, prophecy makes the vague comprehensible providing guidance so that the church can pursue the way of love. This is why prophecy is the orderly and appropriate word for God’s gathered people in worship.
WORDS cannot console, cannot edify, cannot exhort unless they are clear words that we understand. These are the words that help us to ride through the storms of life or to grasp the challenges before us. Thus in both foretelling and forth-telling, prophecy is the better gift, according to Paul.
Clear and articulate, prophecy tells us about God, ourselves, the world or the situation we find ourselves in. For the more we know about God, the more we love Him, and the more we love Him, the more we want to know Him better. This path of knowing and loving God requires clarity, not mystery.
There is certainly a place for mystery in that we can never know everything there is to know about God and even the greatest theologians reach the point where they must fall upon their knees in praise of God because they know God is beyond their ability to fully know Him. On the other hand, what God has revealed we are to strive to understand.
Thus, we begin to see the purpose of the gift of speaking. God in restoring creation to its true beauty draws us back into unity with Him through the word. The purpose of the word is to order the wonderful diversity of our world according to the peace of God.
The Rev Dr Thomas Harvey, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, works with the Presbyterian Church as a Partner in Mission from the Presbyterian Church (USA).
THE TONGUE CAN DIVIDE
‘Rather than building up the body of Christ, the tongue can quickly become an instrument to attack, degrade and divide. Such division reflects not the Kingdom of God but the division of Babel. This is the problem Paul faced in the church at Corinth. The very gifts bestowed upon the church to re-establish the bonds of unity were wrongly dividing the church.’