“That Which Is Perfect”: Are Tongues for the Mature?

tongues.jpg1 Cor. 13 may not tell us whether miracles have ended, but it does clearly tell us that the ability to speak in tongues or even to prophesy is no proof of spiritual excellence! Rather, these are given as crutches for the immature to help bring them to maturity.

Consider–

(1 Cor. 12:22-25) 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.

Paul’s point should be obvious. Most of us want desperately to be seen only clothed, not because of our modesty so much as our vanity. We just don’t look that good naked!

Now, we don’t really mind showing our faces, our feet, and our forearms. But very few of us want to go around with our guts or butts exposed to the world! Rather, we treat our least presentable parts with “special modesty.” That is, the embarrassingly ugly parts get the prettiest covering!

Just so, Paul says that God “covers” the un-pretty members with special gifts to help them look better. Those who are “presentable” need no special gifts. He is quite plainly saying that if you have a miraculous gift, it’s to help cover your weakness. Therefore, rather than taking pride in your gifts over against the ungifted, realize that gifts are remediation for those who need extra help!

But neither should the gifted be ashamed of their blessings. Rather, our giftedness is provided to bring us to equal concern for each other, not to create hierarchies of Christian maturity.

The obvious counter-argument would be based on Paul’s declaration–

(1 Cor. 14:18) I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.

If tongues are for the immature, why would the very mature Paul speak in tongues more? Well, tongues could well be given for more than one reason. The apostles had the gift of tongues on Pentecost in order to communicate God’s message across language barriers and to show that Joel’s prophesy of the Spirit’s outpouring had come true. Perhaps Paul spoke in tongues as part of his apostolic ministry.

And that being the case, I couldn’t insist that tongues or other miraculous gifts are always for the immature, only that they typically are (or else Paul’s arguments in 1 Cor. 12-13 make no sense).

Another objection might be lodged based on Paul’s statement–

(1 Cor. 14:5a ) I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy.

If tongues are for the immature, why would Paul want them all to speak in tongues? Well, you don’t have to read much of 1 Corinthians to see a desperately immature church. It’s easy to imagine Paul wanting them to have any and every gift God could give! And it only makes sense that prophecy would be a more-needed gift given their sadly immature state.

Finally, we have to balance these statements with the rest of the Pauline corpus. We see no further references to tongues in Paul’s writings–all written after 1 Corinthians. He certainly speaks of spiritual gifts, but the emphasis changes very discernibly.

For example, by the time of the writing of Ephesians, considerably later, Paul only refers to gifts given to church leaders–

(Eph. 4:11) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers … .

In Romans, Paul speaks of the ordinary Christian having God-given gifts, but the gifts are much more mundane than those mentioned in 1 Corinthians–

(Rom. 12:6-8) We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

Other than the gift of prophecy, the other gifts show no obvious evidence of being miraculous. On the other hand, both books refer to the continued gift of prophecy.

Tongues, therefore, are not the ultimate crown of the spiritual. They are not God’s mark of excellence. They do demonstrate God’s favor–just not any special favor.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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