In the current 3-year series there is a lectio continua from from the letter of 1 Corinthians. This series of readings encompasses chapters 12 through 15, and includes the familiar sections on spiritual gifts, the body metaphor for the church, tongues, and the resurrection. Although I am not preaching on these texts this season, it has been a challenging area for our local Greek Study Group. Today we worked on the epistle text for February 4, which includes selected verses from chapter 14, the chapter where Paul talks about the place and purpose of "speaking in tongues," also known technically as glossolalia, a transliterated term from the Greek.
While our group is in no way sympathetic to the charismatic or neo-Pentecostal movement, nor did any of us claim to have possessed or sought the so-called "gift of tongues," we did struggle among ourselves as to how to define this so-called "tongue" or language to which Paul refers. Charismatics and Pentecostals have long defined it as a kind of "prayer language" spoken only to God. Perhaps it is the opening verse of chapter 13 that gives rise to this: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels...." (RSV) It has enjoyed a highly elevated status, especially among Pentecostal denominations, and has often been used to define the spiritual state or maturity of a believer.
But what exactly is the "tongue" to which Paul refers? It does not appear to be the phenomena from the Pentecost event in Acts 2, where Peter's words are instantly understood by others who spoke different languages. Furthermore, it seems to be rather isolated to Corinth when one compares the other letters of Paul. One member of our group saw the issue Paul was addressing more in terms of an actual foreign language. This is appealing, but I am not sure it entirely fits the context of what Paul was addressing. The issue at stake was a very self-centered one, with tongues-speakers speaking out in public worship in a loveless way with no concern to those who might be in the assembly. Paul shows concern for the unbeliever who can only come to faith by hearing the clear intelligible Word of God. He talks about "building up" the body through the proclamation of the Word (prophesy), as contrasted with the unedifying result of the tongues-speakers.
In the CTCR document Spiritual Gifts (1994), the following is mentioned regarding this issue:
"This [gift of tongues] is mentioned last [in chapter 12], perhaps to highlight the Corinthians' special interest in this manifestation of the Spirit, which occasioned Paul's entire discussion of gifts. This gift 'in the case of the Corinthians, apparently had reference to a 'language,' unintelligible to others as well as to the speaker, by which a Christian praised God.' St. Paul obviously regarded it as an authentic gift of the Spirit, but he emphasizes that it 'can be useful in the church only if it is supplemented with the gift of interpretation (v. 5), for only then will it edify the church.' It should also be 'carefully noted that the apostle in 1 Corinthians 12 to 14 is not discussing the gift of tongues for the purpose of encouraging or assisting the Corinthians in acquiring this gift.' In this specific context 'his purpose is rather to point out the dangers and abuses that have resulted from its misuse and to encourage the use of other spiritual gifts, especially prophesy." (Quotations taken from the CTCR document The Charismatic Movement and Lutheran Theology from 1972)
Determining exactly what this language is of which Paul talks is not the key critical matter in the text. Other issues take precedence. Nevertheless, it does speak to the issue that still exists among us today in what is now called the "Renewal Movement." Many within all the major denominations claim to be tongues-speakers, and to value the gift as important to their faith. Within the LCMS the predominant renewal movement went out of public existence a couple of years back. They said that their goals had been accomplished. This still concerns me. Has the charismatic experience become so mainstream among us that it no longer requires a "movement" to promote it? I believe that may be the case. Look at how the LCMS actively promoted "spiritual gifts inventories" and other stock-in-trade tools of the movement throughout the last 30 years in its stewardship programs. Although we spoke against it with one voice, we embraced its language with the other. Ultimately we have been in the process of recreating ourselves into what was termed by someone as a "methobapticostal" denomination. Now with a national evangelism program sporting a Methodist symbol, we are well on way to strengthening what we have so dutifully crafted in the previous decades.