Use your Head!

1 Corinthians 14:1-19

After meditating on the great and eternal gift of love, Paul downshifts and encourages the Corinthians to “pursue love,” but also to “strive for the spiritual gifts,” especially prophecy.  At first blush, this seems to be an odd turn in Paul’s argument; we might have thought that he would continue to talk about the complete gifts of faith, hope, and love, rather than the partial spiritual gifts that had divided the Corinthian community.  Paul’s objective, however, is to place these charismata in a new context, so that they will bring unity instead of division to the Christian community.  The apostle specifically distinguishes between prophecy and speaking in tongues, which was one of the spiritual gifts that was most valued by the Corinthian community.  Paul argues that since the person who speaks in tongues is speaking directly to God, no one in the community can understand that person.  The person who prophesies, however, speaks to other people for their edification, encouragement, and consolation.  In other words, the one who speaks in tongues benefits himself, while the one who prophesies benefits the entire community.  Thus, the one who prophesies is “greater” than the one who speaks in tongues, unless there is someone available to interpret, so that the tongue might build up the community.

Paul observes that a tongue can only be useful to the community if it can be made intelligible and contains some revelation, knowledge, prophecy, or teaching.  Paul is not claiming that speaking in tongues is necessarily a bad thing.  He is, however, suggesting that the Corinthians had given undue weight to this gift of glossolalia; those who possessed the gift would be overcome by the Spirit and interrupt the assembly entirely for their own benefit.  Paul likens this to striking random notes on a musical instrument or sounding an indistinct call on a bugle; these instruments are not serving the purpose for which they were created when they are used to make unintelligible and indistinct sounds.  In the same way, those who have been given the gift of glossolalia are not using their gift correctly when the community cannot understand them.  Paul summarizes this point well when he suggests that sounds must have meaning, especially within the context of worship.  He then asserts that he does not intend to tear down the spiritual gifts of the Corinthians, but to make them as useful and edifying as possible: “since you are eager for spiritual gifts [like glossolalia], strive to excel in them for building up the church.”

Paul suggests that those who speak in tongues should pray for the power to interpret, because when one prays exclusively in the Spirit, one’s “mind is unproductive.”  He calls the Corinthians to pray with the Spirit, but also with the mind; if they fail to do this, no one except the person praying in tongues will have any idea what he or she is praying about.  Paul notes that those who speak in tongues may pray adequately for their needs, but fail to build up the community if they do not interpret those tongues.  In a somewhat snarky conclusion, Paul thanks God that he speaks in tongues more than everyone in the Corinthian community, because he can model the importance of praying intelligibly with one’s mind.  Overall, the point that Paul makes in this passage is that spiritual gifts in the Christian assembly are intended for the greater good, rather than for self-edification.

“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.  It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.  It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.” — Dorothy Sayers

If you have been following the whole arc of Paul’s argument throughout this letter, the conclusion of this passage may be a little surprising.  Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul has made it very clear that knowledge is not as important to the Christian community as the Corinthians might imagine.  Indeed, he implies that knowledge must be cleaned out from the community (8:1), just as leaven is cleaned out in preparation for the Passover (5:7).  Nevertheless, Paul concludes this passage by encouraging the Corinthians to use their minds when they are praying in the Christian assembly.  It might seem that Paul is being inconsistent, but it is important to note the the apostle’s reasoning.  Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to use their minds so that their spiritual gifts might build up the church.  In the same way, Paul downgrades the significance of the Corinthians’ knowledge in order to foster church unity and tear down the walls that divide the community.  In other words, Paul’s primary concern is cohesion within the Church, and his objective as an apostle is to encourage everyone in the community to work toward that goal.  In this passage, Paul posits that Church unity can only be acheived when those endowed with gifts of the Spirit use their intellects to make those gifts useful to the community.

In the Curate’s Study on Monday nights at Heavenly Rest, we have been focusing on the work of Christian apologists.  Apologetics is a branch of theology that involves making a reasoned case for the truth of Christianity, one that does not rely entirely on revelation.  Early in the course, one participant mentioned that there are some churches who wouldn’t approve of the project of apologetics; these denominations might assume that it is more important to be a “heart Christian” than a “head Christian.”  My response was that God was calling us to be “whole body Christians,” but this snarky response doesn’t necessarily answer the concern of these other denominations.  I think Paul, however, does respond to these concerns.  He notes that an individual spiritual experience does nothing to build up the community.  It may be authentic and important for that individual, but this experience cannot be translated to others in the community.  In the same way, an emotional experience of faith can be vitally important, but it is something that is completely individual.  No one else can have the same experience of the Divine that I have; it is, by definition, my experience.  On the other hand, we can use reason and our intellects to connect with people, both within the Church and outside of it.  Dorothy Sayers puts this very clearly: we cannot expect people to believe the plausibility of Christianity if we do not believe that “it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.”  Anglicanism has always asserted that reason is a critically important component of our faith, and this has never been more important than it is in our world today.  The world is increasingly ignorant of the tenets of Christianity; part of what we are called to do as Christians is preach the gospel, not as something that makes me feel good, but as something that makes sense of the world where we live.

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