Tongues and unfruitful minds.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 August 2017

1 Corinthians 14.13-19.

This is a passage Christians like to quote. For different reasons.

For Pentecostals it’s to quote the apostles—specifically Paul—when they wrote, “I speak tongues more than all of you.” Then argue, “See? Paul did it. Why can’t we?” And then, more often than not, proceed to do it contrary to everything else Paul taught about building up the church.

For anti-Pentecostals, it’s to point to the statement, “Pray that you can interpret,” then loudly object, “People ought never speak in tongues tongues at church unless they follow up with an interpretation.” Then they proceed to ban even the tongues which might be followed up with interpretation, just to be on the safe side. If they’re full-bore cessationist, they’re pretty sure tongues are devilish anyway.

Well, let’s look at the passage in question.

1 Corinthians 14.13-19 KWL
13 So tongues-speakers: Pray that you can interpret.
14 When I pray tongues, my spirit prays. My mind isn’t fruitful.
15 Why is this? I’ll pray by my spirit; I’ll pray by my mind.
I’ll sing by my spirit; I’ll sing by my mind.
16 For when you praise in your spirit, and the place is full of newbies,
how will they say amen to your thanksgiving, since they don’t know what you said?
17 You did give thanks properly, but others weren’t built up.
18 I thank God—and I speak tongues more than all of you.
19 But in church, I want five words in my mind to speak so I can also instruct others.
(That, or tens of thousands of words in tongues.)

Yes, my translation reads a little different than others you might’ve read. That’s because we have different biases. When others translate this passage, they imagine the apostles were contrasting. To them this passage is about speaking tongues versus speaking ancient Greek—or English, or Spanish, or whatever the locals speak.

That’s not at all my attitude, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the apostles’ attitude either. They spoke tongues; they never forbade it; they ordered the Corinthians to not forbid it either. 1Co 14.19 The issue wasn’t tongues versus no tongues; it was proper versus improper. It was using tongues for personal worship, not group worship, nor to create a “spiritual” atmosphere.

If you’re convinced the apostles were trying to contrast between tongues and no tongues, it’s really easy to make it sound that way by slanting your translation. First of all, the word de/“and.” Ancient Greek used it to connect sentences which had a common theme, much like today’s English uses paragraphs. When you translate, you can drop every de entirely; it shouldn’t change the meaning of the translation any. But when you translate de as “but,” like the KJV and many other translations, you’ve introduced a contrast which isn’t in the original text. And here’s what you get. (I highlighted every word in the passage which translates de.)

1 Corinthians 14.13-15 NIV
13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.

Plus if you translate i/“or” as “than,” you get:

1 Corinthians 14.19 NIV
But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Those four little words make four big differences, ’cause now people have the idea tongues are negative and undesirable—that in our churches, people should speak English only.

Bias, man. It’s a sneaky little critter.

Prayer in tongues: Don’t turn off your brain!

Enough about biased translations. Let’s look at what the apostles taught about tongues. First of all, the concern that when we pray in tongues, our minds aren’t fruitful. (Also true of when we pray rote prayers.)

1 Corinthians 14.14-15 KWL
14 When I pray tongues, my spirit prays. My mind isn’t fruitful.
15 Why is this? I’ll pray by my spirit; I’ll pray by my mind.
I’ll sing by my spirit; I’ll sing by my mind.

This passage isn’t describing what tongues do; it’s describing what the Corinthians did. It’s describing what people do when they pray tongues and don’t realize they’re meant to do something else at the same time. Praying in tongues, in itself, doesn’t turn off one’s brain. We turn off our brains. We sit there and listen to the funny sounds, and contemplate how spiritual we sound. In so doing, we’re not praying!

It’s so easy to pray in tongues, sometimes it’s all certain Christians will ever do. We won’t bother to talk to God anymore; we’ll just babble. Which is actually useful, as an emotional experience. Y’ever notice how worked up some Christians will sound when they’re praying in tongues? The practice really does tap our emotional centers. The Holy Spirit’s using the practice to get some serious stuff out of our systems. Ro 8.26 (So much so, some Christians are embarrassed to be seen praying in tongues, ’cause of how worked up it makes ’em.)

But while prayer tongues might feed our emotions, the mind, as the apostles point out, produces nothing.

It’s like the person in the prayer group who listens to everyone else’s prayers, but never has a prayer request, and never pray themselves. Less profitable, really; tongues are in an intelligible language, and we don’t know what’s been prayed. There’s no new knowledge. No education. No intellectual development. Not gonna learn any more about God. Not gonna get any new revelation either.

The apostles brought up singing. Literally psálo/“I’ll twang,” as in strumming a harp or guitar, but in the first century also meant singing. It’s the word we get “psalm” from. It’s also where Pentecostals get the idea of “singing in the Spirit” from: If you can sing, and you can pray tongues, you can sing tongues. So some of us do. (And some of us do badly, ’cause we can’t actually sing.) But like prayer in tongues and rote prayer, plenty of Christians are likewise in the bad habit of singing our hymns or worship songs with our mouths, while meanwhile our minds are far away. In high school I used to think about where we’d go for lunch after the service. Nope, not about the words. Nor Jesus. Just going through the motions; maybe feeding the emotions. But my mind wasn’t fruitful.

And that’s a huge problem. There are a lot of churches where there’s a cancer of anti-intellectualism plaguing us: This arrogant assumption that since we have the Holy Spirit, we needn’t do any more study, for “righteousness” means we now think rightly about everything. No we don’t. Our minds still have a lot of growing, reforming, and renewing to do. Praying with our minds, not just our lips, goes a long way towards keeping our minds from going fallow. God wants to minister to the whole Christian; not just our hearts.

So when the apostles—namely Paul—met with the church, he wanted God to drop five useful words in his head. 1Co 14.19 Not for himself, but the church. Not to bless him personally, but to bless the whole group; to challenge and grow them in a way where tongues just isn’t enough.

Although he was okay with myríus/“myriads” of tongues as a substitute. Tongues aren’t worthless, but you notice 30 minutes of a lesson is roughly equivalent to 24 hours of group prayer. It’s not wasted time; it’s just not that efficient a use of it.

Don’t forget the newbies!

In every healthy church, there’s gonna be new Christians. The apostles used the word idiótu/“idiot,” a word which used to mean “ignorant,” but nowadays means “stupid.” (The KJV went with “unlearned.”) Which indicates the usual problem with newbies: They’re not entirely sure what’s going on, and if we don’t teach ’em, they’ll try to figure it out on their own. And guess wrong. Like I did when I was a kid.

1 Corinthians 14.16-17 KWL
16 For when you praise in your spirit, and the place is full of newbies,
how will they say amen to your thanksgiving, since they don’t know what you said?
17 You did give thanks properly, but others weren’t built up.

(The ESV rendered verse 17, “For you may be giving thanks well enough…” 1Co 14.17 ESV inserting a “may” where there isn’t one, and I leave it to you whether Christians are gonna figure that’s meant sarcastically. The KJV’s “For thou verily givest thanks well” 1Co 14.17 KJV does a far better job.)

Let verse 17 sink into you a moment. “You did give thanks properly.” A roomful of Christians, praising God in tongues, with confused newbies among them, not sure what’s going on, not sure where to say amen, nor whether they even can say amen. Your average anti-Pentecostal would be outraged at the very idea. But the apostles stated this church did praise God properly.

Praising God wasn’t the problem. The problem was this is supposed to be group worship, but it’s leaving out part of the group. The newbies can’t follow along. Might not yet be able to pray tongues, so they can’t even participate. They’re not built up. Just the opposite.

It’s like when Pentecostal worship pastors tell everyone, “Okay, if you have a tongue, sing in tongues!”—and not everyone can sing tongues, so they gotta just stand there while everyone else makes a joyful noise. It’s as if there aren’t enough hymnals or prayerbooks to go around, so you gotta just stand there, feeling awkward, mouthing what you hope are the right words, ’cause you don’t know ’em. If this is your first time in church ever, you may not even wanna come back. You see the problem?

Group worship should never leave people out. Or leave ’em behind. It should be as inclusive as we can get it. Again, the apostles weren’t banning tongues; if you can pray tongues, go do it by yourself, off to the side. But leaders should never get up and proclaim, “Now everybody do it!” when everybody can’t.

And there should be classes, or times of instruction, where the newbies are taught how. If your church doesn’t have one, it needs to create one. Teach the newbies how to ask the Holy Spirit for the ability to pray in tongues. Teach ’em it’s okay if he doesn’t grant ’em the ability; he may have something else in mind for them. If he gifts ’em, show them how and when to do it properly. If he doesn’t, discourage them from faking it so as to “fit in.”

Build up your group. That’s the whole point of this chapter, y’know.

Paul prayed in tongues a lot. Probably needed to.

Pentecostals love to quote verse 18:

1 Corinthians 14.18-19 KWL
18 I thank God—and I speak tongues more than all of you.
19 But in church, I want five words in my mind to speak so I can also instruct others.
(That, or tens of thousands of words in tongues.)

That’s right; Paul spoke tongues more than all the Corinthians put together. Considering Corinth held worship services which entirely consisted of tongues-speaking, that’s a lot of tongues!

And this might be the apostles’ jab at those Christians who never speak tongues till they get into a church service. In other words, they never pray, never praise God, never practice any religion whatsoever, till they’re in church. Worship is a lifestyle, but to them it’s only a Sunday morning activity. But once they’re in church, they’re louder than everyone.

I dunno. But either way, Paul spoke in tongues more than the Corinthians. It bears repeating.

No, this doesn’t mean Paul was a better or stronger Christian than the Corinthians. If anything, it means he was weaker. Tongues are meant to build us up individually, 1Co 14.4 and emotionally. Praying tongues a lot tends to mean we have an awful lot of stuff to work out.

If you’ve ever read Acts or Galatians, you might notice Paul was sometimes a bit of a hothead. People really pissed him off sometimes, and he’d respond to them crudely. He had to get his emotions under control. You know what helps great with that? Tongues.

Anyway, the apostles included this statement in their letter lest anyone get the idea they were anti-tongues. ’Cause cessationists certainly do get this idea. The typical cessationist interpretation of this verse goes like yea:

Having said that he has the ability to speak in foreign tongues more than all of them (an ability he could properly use), Paul hastens to add he would rather speak a few words in a language the church knows so that they might grow spiritually (katecheo, the word for catechize, Luke 1:4), than to speak volumes in a tongue that does not communicate. Expositors Bible Commentary at 1Co 14.18-19

Didja catch that? The commentator, W. Harold Mare, said it’s not prayer-tongues. It’s foreign tongues. Paul’s claiming the ability to speak Aramaic or Latin or biblical Hebrew better than the Corinthians, but it seems he figures it’d make much more sense to speak to them in Greek.

In the face of such willful stupidity, I’m starting to feel that Paul-style rage coming on. ’Scuse me while I go pray in tongues a bit.

And I’m back. In context, the foreign-tongues interpretation is simply moronic. Mare figured he could make a case for it by interpreting verse 11—

1 Corinthians 14.11 KWL
Still, when I don’t know the meaning of the sound, it’ll be like saying bar-bar-bar to me.
The one speaking to me will sound like bar-bar-bar.

—to say the bárbaros/“bar-bar-bar” talk (from whence we get our word “barbarian”) means the apostles were writing about literal barbarian languages, and not about the fact any unknown tongue sounds like gibberish. Mare believes all tongues are known languages, like we see in Acts 2, and doesn’t allow for the idea of supernatural tongues. EBC at 1Co 12.7 Most cessationists insist likewise; that their theory trumps Christian experience.

To the cessationist, Paul pointed out he spoke tongues only to point out how prophecy is way more important. And I should remind you the cessationist redefinition of “prophecy” is either the ability to expound scripture, or to predict the future by interpreting various End Times visions. They don’t even mean new messages from God. To cessationists, such messages are devilish tricks, meant to undermine the bible. As are tongues—especially when they’re not immediately translated into English.

But any idea that Paul thought tongues irrelevant, takes 1 Corinthians out of context. He did pray in tongues. Encouraged the Corinthians to do likewise. Didn’t forbid it. But in church, he didn’t wanna speak tongues; he wanted to teach. Build up the individual on your own time. In church, build up the group.

When I brush my teeth, I do it alone. It’s not a group activity. But just because it’s not a group activity doesn’t mean I stop brushing. And tongues is meant to work the same with us.