Put Your Ministry Where Your Mouth Is   Leave a comment

It’s safe to say that email is the communication mode of choice in the 20-teens. It’s quick, you don’t have to spend time in idle chatter and you get a receipt that says whether it was delivered and opened. Yet, e-mail is not always the best form of communication. It’s sometimes misunderstood even by people we know pretty well. As the sender, we understand what we meant, but the recipient may not “get” our point or they might read into the e-mail something we never intended.

Image result for image of speaking in tonguesBack when I worked in social work, I appended a wry comment to a response to a coworker’s email. It was meant to be funny and I am known to be quippy. Imagine my surprise when I had to explain my email to the Human Resources officer because my coworker thought I was commenting on her sex life. For the record, I never discuss other people’s sex lives (unless they give me express permission to discuss it on this blog and then I change their names to protect their privacy. The HR officer was pretty sure that was what I meant and the coworker actually ended up apologizing to me, but it made me a lot more cautious of trying to make a joke over email. The inability to include body language and voice modulation in email should cause all of us to carefully read our e-mails and pause before we respond and hit the SEND button.

Likewise, reading a letter to a church that was written 2,000 years ago can be challenging. It’s easy to misunderstand the author’s intent because we may not be aware of what was taking place in the life of the church. Often, God’s people jump to conclusions before carefully studying a biblical passage. Have you been guilty of this? I know I have been. I think we all have. Then, there’s a whole lot of people fairly unfamiliar with the Bible who google Scripture passages and take them out of context to try to score some points in online haranguing sessions.

Christians, our aim must be to understand Scripture in the way God intended. We must try not to read our own traditions, preferences, or experiences into God’s Word. Scripture should inform our choices, not the other way around. This is especially important when it comes to the controversial areas of worship and spiritual gifts.

What does the Bible teaches about what a church worship service should look like? 1 Corinthians 14 gives us some insight into that question. It also calls some of us to task for how our churches currently conduct this important gathering.

If there’s an overriding message for today’s lesson it’s “Put your ministry where your mouth is.”

Clear communication is critical in the church

Paul highlighted prophecy and tongues as important spiritual gifts, but he gave prophesy the greater significance.

Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual giftsespecially that you may prophesy. 1 Corinthians 14:1

Image result for image of prophesyFirst and foremost, Paul commanded the churches to pursue, strive for, and seek after love. This command “pursue” (dioko) means “to pursue or persecute.” It is a strong word that serves to remind us that love can be an elusive thing. We do not find real love by wishful thinking or halfhearted effort. We must pursue it eagerly every day if we are going to find it operating in our lives as it should. As a church, if we make love our top pursuit we will discover that our capacity to minister to those around us grows with every passing year.

Paul then commanded the church to “desire earnestly” spiritual gifts, particularly prophecy. To prophesy is “to proclaim divine revelation” or “to speak on behalf of God.” Prophecy is not necessarily preaching or teaching, but it has elements of both. It can be both spontaneous and prepared. Paul suggests in this passage that all God’s people can exercise prophecy. When we gather for worship, we ought to pray that the Lord will give us a word for someone in the church (see 14:26). Hence, we all come to church to minister. It’s not just the pastor who does this.

Apparently, the Corinthian church had exalted the gift of tongues above the prophetic gift of the proclamation of truth. Paul wanted to restore a healthy balance to the public worship life of that congregation by comparing and contrasting speaking in tongues and prophesying, while explaining why he put prophecy above tongues in terms of importance.

For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to Godfor no one understandshe is speaking mysteries by the SpiritBut the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself upbut the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish you all spoke in tonguesbut even more that you would prophesyThe one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tonguesunless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened. 1 Corinthians 14:2-5

Some observations:

  • Paul held a high view of speaking in tongues and considered it a viable spiritual gift. Some are critical of tongues because of its divisive nature, but my own belief (drawn from Paul’s words here) are that the only problem with tongues is when Christians abuse the gift and behave in an immature and prideful way. Tongues is a good gift that God has given His church for its edification. The problem doesn’t lie with the spiritual gift, but rather with those who misunderstand and misuse what God has graciously provided.
  • The gift of tongues that Paul referred to in this context is a private prayer language. Ooo, I feel the Southern Baptist Convention looking my way with displeasure. Sorry if that upsets some non-charismatics, but Paul wrote that he would like to see all the Corinthians inspired by the Spirit to speak in tongues, but presumably only in the privacy of their own homes and only if they had been given this gift (see 12:28-30).
  • The gift of prophecy is for today (see 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). Not in the sense of authoritative, inerrant revelation from God, but as a word of “edification, exhortation, and consolation” (14:3). The words “prophet”, “prophecies”, “prophesy”, and “prophesying” are used over 200 times in the New Testament. The whole notion of prophecy and prophesying is a big part of the New Testament. It’s not a minor doctrine. It’s a major teaching of the New Testament.
  • Paul’s primary concern was the edification of the body of Christ (the church). A form of the word “edify” is used four times in this passage. This is the foremost reason why spiritual gifts were given to us (see 12:7). It is important to note that Paul was not being critical of tongues speakers edifying themselves. He was not opposed to edifying oneself. This is one reason we come to church on Sunday, to strengthen ourselves. When we exercise our spiritual gifts, we edify ourselves in a similar way. Nevertheless, there is a double meaning to the word “edify” in this context. Since arrogance was such a problem the Corinthian church, it seems that some were getting puffed up over their use of tongues. Paul’s wish that everyone would speak in tongues is still a genuine desire, but in public worship, we should only engage in what builds up the church. Edification is the benchmark by which we measure what goes on in public worship.

Nowbrothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongueshow will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophesy or teachingIt is similar for lifeless things that make a soundlike a flute or harpUnless they make a distinction in the noteshow can what is played on the flute or harp be understood? Iffor example, the trumpet makes an unclear soundwho will get ready for battle? It is the same for you. If you do not speak clearly with your tonguehow will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the airThere are probably many kinds of languages in the worldand none is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of a languageI will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 1 Corinthians 14:6-11

Paul explained the problem with uninterpreted tongues is no one benefits from something that he or she can’t understand. Paul wanted to be sure that what occurs in the worship service is profitable for all attendees, so he emphasized gifts of clear communication. Paul wanted everything to be done for edification… strengthening … of the church body, not just select individuals who wanted to look good.

Paul gave three analogies or metaphors that expound on the necessity of intelligibility in congregational worship.

  1. In order to be understood or appreciated musical instruments must play a discernible melody. If the musicians playing the flute and harp don’t give a clear distinction between the notes, the audience will not understand the tune.
  2. On the field of battle, bugle calls must be clear enough for soldiers to distinguish “Advance!” from “Retreat!” Trumpets or bugles were often used to summon people to battle or to give a signal for when to charge the enemy or when to stop fighting because the battle was over. Presumably there were different note patterns for each command. But if the trumpeter sounded either an unclear note pattern or a muffled sound so that the soldiers could not clearly distinguish what was being played, they would become confused and not know what they were supposed to do.
  3. Foreign languages remain unintelligible to those who have not learned them. The one who speaks in tongues without interpreting is speaking into the air. It is important to understand that these verses merely serve as an illustration. Paul was not saying the gift of tongues in this context is a foreign language. He was simply trying to say that tongues must be interpreted or they are of no value to those who can’t interpret.

Applying all three of these illustrations, Paul said that it is not the mere sound of speaking that is important, but whether the sounds can be understood by the hearers.

It is the same with youSince you are eager for manifestations of the Spiritseek to abound in order to strengthen the church. 1 Corinthians 14:12

Paul again commanded the church to seek those gifts which would build up the body, particularly prophecy.

Look around your church on Sunday and ask yourself if the congregation you attend matches that instruction. If it doesn’t, that okay, because Paul provided the solution to the problem of uninterpreted tongues.

So thenone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. If I pray in a tonguemy spirit praysbut my mind is unproductive. What should I do? I will pray with my spiritbut I will also pray with my mindI will sing praises with my spiritbut I will also sing praises with my mindOtherwiseif you are praising God with your spirithow can someone without gift say “Amen” to your  thanksgivingsince he does not know what you are saying. For you are certainly giving thanks wellbut the other person is not strengthened. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct othersrather than ten thousand words in a tongue.  1 Corinthians 14:13-19

What must a person do if God has given him or her the gift of tongues? Paul exhorted those who speak in tongues to pray that they will be able to interpret their own tongues and those of others. He then explained that he prayed and sang in his native language(s) and his prayer language. He sought to experience the best of both worlds—the spirit and the mind. Yet, he was still sensitive to ensure that during the worship event, people understood what was happening. Turns out, my Baptist buddies, Paul was an avid tongues speaker, but out of consideration for others he left his prayer language at home.

Mature thinking is critical in the church

Paul sought maturity in public worship.

Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinkingInsteadbe infants in evilbut in your thinking be mature.  1 Corinthians 14:20

Paul wanted the Corinthians to stop thinking like selfish, prideful children with regards to the gifts. They should be naïve infants with regards to evil, but mature believers in the worship service.

Citing a prophecy from Isaiah 28:11-12 (see also Deuteronomy 28:49), Paul wrote:

It is written in the law: “By people with strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to thispeople, yet not even in this way will they listen to me,” says the Lord. 1 Corinthians 14:21

The point of this Old Testament quotation is that if Israel would not hear the Lord through the prophets, they would not hear even when He spoke in foreign languages to them through foreign people. Why then, Paul asked, the emphasis on tongues in the Corinthian congregation?

So thentongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelieversProphecyhoweveris not for unbelievers but for believers. 1 Corinthians 14:22

I suspect this is one of those Jewish rabbi rhetorical questions that Paul sometimes slipped into his writing. It would be confusing to read it any other way because it seems to say the very opposite of what we would expect Paul to say. In Paul’s mind, tongues are a sign for believers and prophecy is a sign for unbelievers. How do I know that? I read the next few verses. (Context is everything!)

So if the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and unbelievers or uninformed people enterwill they not say that you have lost your minds? But if all prophesyand an unbeliever or uninformed person entershe will be convicted by allhe will be called to account by all. The secrets of his heart are his heart are disclosedand in this way he will fall down with his face to the ground and worship Goddeclaring“God is really among you.” 1 Corinthians 14:23-25

The effect of Christian prophecy on the unbeliever is threefold:

  • He will be convicted of sin (see. John 16:8)
  • he will be called to take account of his sins and examine his sinful condition
  • and he will have his sinful heart and past laid open to inspection (see John 4:16-19)

The triple use of “all” in verse 24 emphasizes that all the church through its prophetic message plays a part in bringing the unbeliever to this place of conviction. For the unbeliever in the church service will recognize that God really is present and dealing with him.

In the modern churches there are two competing groups: evangelicals and charismatics. Both groups are similar, but they do have a different flavor and for many, many years, they were somewhat hostile to one another.

Brad and I are evangelicals. He prays in a spiritual language in his place of solitude (otherwise known as our basement). I do not. God has not given me that gift and I don’t feel deprived because I can’t exercise it. We sometimes worship with charismatic friends who are generally okay with Brad not praying in tongues in their prayer meetings, but some of them get a little pushy with me because they feel I am missing out on something or refusing God’s guidance. Meanwhile, our Baptist friends are concerned that Brad prays in tongues when he’s alone (or sometimes in my presence). Not so much younger Baptists, but a lot of the older ones.

I believe God wants us to move beyond segregation by spiritual gifts to tolerance and even acceptance of the gifts of others. God would have His churches reconciled on this subject. He is calling the two halves of the churches back together again, not just to endure one another, but to delight in one another’s uniqueness and profit from it. God is calling us to a higher level of unity than ever before. He is asking us to embrace the full diversity of the body of Christ.

Remember, in heaven, there won’t be any evangelicals or charismatics. There will only be Christians worshiping with Jesus. We should get used to it now, because we will be worshiping Him in our own ways in heaven.

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