Seeker Friendly, New Testament Style (Part 2)

A common assertion made in debates about church meetings being seeker-friendly is that the use of charismatic gifts is off-putting to outsiders.

If that is the case, perhaps it is because we do not really see many expressions of charismatic gifts being exercised in local church life in the way the apostle Paul envisaged. That is, involving the active participation of all members in the use of the gifts they have been given for the common good. Instead, we may see at best a platform-dominated use of prophecy or healing and the occasional use of tongues sung or spoken corporately.

Perhaps it is this latter use of spiritual gifts that is reportedly off-putting to the outsider rather than the usage that Paul envisaged when he wrote to the believers in Corinth about the administration of spiritual gifts.

Paul's guidance for regulating the use of spiritual gifts in church meetings is twofold: their use should be both intelligible and edifying. The manifestations of the Spirit must be understood by those present so that they can be built up by them. For this reason, Paul gives some practical guidance in 1 Corinthians 14 on how the gifts should to be exercised in an intelligible and edifying way:
  • tongues should be interpreted (13-17) and spoken one after another (27)
  • prophecy should be delivered one after another rather than blurted out at the same time (29-31)
  • prophecy should be weighed (29)
  • women should not disrupt the meeting by chatting out of turn (34)
It is in this context that Paul applies the same principle of intelligibility to the needs of the non-believer who might be present in the meeting:

The key passage - and one that often proves difficult to understand - is 1 Corinthians 14: 20-25:
Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written: "Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me," says the Lord.

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"

At first glance, the passage appears to contradict itself in several places. In v. 22, firstly, Paul says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers but in v 23 he says that when unbelievers hear the gift of tongues in the meeting, they will think the church is mad. Hardly a convincing sign, we might think.

In v. 22 and 24, Paul appears to make another contradiction. On the one hand, he asserts that prophecy is for believers but in 24, its use appears to be instrumental in convincing unbelievers of God's presence and their own guilt.

How do we resolve these apparent contradictions?

What is a Sign?

Firstly, we should understand what Paul means by "sign" in this passage. It is often assumed that the apostle is asserting that the gift of tongues is an evidence of the truth of the gospel that will lead unbelievers to faith in Christ.

Actually, the context of the passage requires us to see the use of the word sign in quite a different way. The quotation from the Old Testament is taken from the book of Isaiah. In that passage (Isaiah 28: 11-12) the prophet is predicting the impending invasion of the Assyrian army as a judgment on Judah and Jerusalem, an event which subsequently took place c. 700 BC. The "strange tongues" described by Isaiah are therefore the voices of Assyrian soldiers as they lay siege to Jerusalem and their presence indicates God's judgment on the nation.

The "sign" that Paul is referring to, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 14 is not a sign that confirms the truth of the gospel to the unbeliever, but is rather a sign of judgment upon him. When a non-believer hears the gift of tongues used without interpretation in a church meeting, that event signifies God's judgment on him. He is, to use another Pauline term, an "unspiritual man". The gift of tongues without interpretation highlights this fact and results in the seeker drawing an incorrect conclusion about the phenomenon he is observing.

Paul does not say that the presence of this sign is a good thing! Rather, Paul's point is that it serves no value to the outsider beyond confirming him in his ignorance of spiritual things. Therefore, implies Paul, tongues without interpretation is definitely NOT seeker-friendly!

Who is Prophecy For?

The second apparent contradiction can be resolved in a similar way. Paul does not say that prophecy is a "sign" for believers. Rather, he simply states that it "for believers." In other words, believers (rather than seekers) are the intended recipients of the gift of prophecy.

This being the case, the use of prophecy, unlike the use of uninterpreted tongues, is intelligible to both believers and outsiders. To the former, it serves to build them up. To the latter, its revelatory element serves to highlight their own guilt before God because they can understand it. A message in tongues may well be full of revelation (Paul earlier describes it as "uttering mysteries with your spirit") but, because it is not intelligible, the believers are not edified and the outsiders think you're all mad.

Prophecy, by contrast, which is also full of revelation, is intelligible to both saint and sinner. Its effect, therefore, is to edify the former and convict the latter.

Paul's conclusion should not come as a surprise in verse 39:

Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Paul saw the use of spiritual gifts as a positive thing in the life of the local church, both for the sake of the believers and for the benefit of the outsider. The key was that they should be exercised in ways that are understandable to both.


Paul Hunnisett said...

Excellent post. Do you think that corporate spoken or sung tongues are wrong/unhelpful?

atlanticwriter said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for reading and commenting.

My own view, having thought a lot about this specific issue over the years, is that if the congregation sings or speaks out in tongues all together as a natural overflow of their life together in the Spirit, they would do well to look to God (and to themselves, in the sense of taking responsibility) for an interpretation of that manifestation.

The interpretation could be spoken or sung and, following the principle of intelligibility, I think there would be great value in someone making it clear that "this" is an interpretation of "that".

I think an occasion when this might not be necessary is at the point when an individual or group are being filled with the Spirit for the first time, ideally at or close to the point at which they come to saving faith. In that instance, if we take the Acts narratives as normative, there appears to be no assumption that when such a person or group spoke in tongues (if they do so) that an interpretation would be forthcoming.

So in essence, I do not think that the corporate use of tongues is either wrong or unhelpful. But, I think it should be interpreted in most cases.

Hope that helps.