It’s time to finish the series on 1 Corinthians from a few months ago. We left off ready to begin chapter 14.
Chapter 14 is famously difficult for us in the Churches of Christ because it deals with spiritual gifts such as prophecy and tongues, and we aren’t even entirely agreed on what these gifts were — or whether they’ve died out.
We covered much of this back in the materials on chapter 13, especially —
(1Co 14:1 ESV) Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.
In 14:1, Paul begins to draw conclusions from chapters 12 and 13, especially 13. It’s a mistake to read chapter 14 as a list of laws and commands handed down from from on high, like the Law of Moses. Rather, this is Paul applying gospel principles to the practical problems of life in the church at Corinth. We can learn a lot by asking how Paul reaches his conclusions.
Paul’s first point is the importance of pursuing agapē. The Greek word translated “pursue” has a sense of urgency to it, with the primary definition in BDAG being “to move rapidly and decisively toward an objective, hasten, run, press on” — the pursuit of agapē is urgent.
As much as we might prefer that Paul say something like “Pursue love rather than spiritual gifts,” he actually tells us to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” In fact, in chapter 14, it quickly becomes clear that Paul favor prophecy over many other gifts. What he doesn’t tell us is how someone who desires to prophesy should go about seeking the gift.
(1Co 14:2-4 ESV) 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.
Notice what’s not said here. Paul says nothing specifically about the assembly. Chapter 12 was about spiritual gifts. Chapter 13 focused on love. And suddenly Paul is talking about the assembly, and yet it’s not until v. 4 that he says anything that let’s his readers know the subject (“builds up the church”). Why? Well, because Paul thinks he’s been talking about assembly since the beginning of chapter 11, where he discussed women praying and prophesying in the assembly.
Next, notice the question is Paul answering. The church in Corinth was struggling with the use of spiritual gifts in the assembly. Obviously, someone wanted instructions regarding the use of tongues and prophecy in the assembly. And yet not once does Paul ask whether tongues or prophecy are authorized by command, example, or necessary inference. The question of authority doesn’t arise at all — although the modern Churches of Christ would insist that whether tongues or prophecy is authorized must be the starting point of the discussion.
Paul does not check tongues and prophecy against a list of five pre-authorized “acts of worship.” Rather, he asks whether the practices under consideration build up (edify) the church. And the standard is that if the practice builds up the church, it’s permitted, but if it doesn’t build up the church, it’s not.
Prophecy builds up the church, and so it’s permitted. Tongues, as a rule, do not build up the church, and so, in general, they aren’t allowed. However, as we’ll soon see, prophecy done in a way that doesn’t build up the church is not allowed, and tongues done in a way that does build up the church is allowed. Hence, the question isn’t whether Act X is or isn’t authorized but whether Acts X may be done in a way that edifies the church. Hence, the question is pragmatic, to be answered in terms of the purpose of the assembly, not what’s on a supposed list of authorized acts.
(1Co 14:5 ESV) 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
Despite Paul’s emphasis on faith, hope, and love as greater gifts, Paul does not dismiss or look down on tongues. In fact, he plainly encourages the gift, but prefers prophecy over tongues.
We’ve covered the nature of these gifts back in these posts —
Part of striving for [spiritual gifts], apparently, is praying that God would grant them to you. While other texts in this chapter indicate that praise, prayer, and thanksgiving were part of the worship of the church, this is the only verse that clearly refers to a specific request that might be made in prayer. It is not surprising that the request, while ostensibly being a request made on behalf of oneself, is actually a request that the one praying might be enabled to more effectively build up and bless the others gathered for worship. It suggests once again that our fundamental orientation in worship should not be that of seeking to receive something that will be good for us, but seeking to bring greater benefit and advantage to others.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 688.