SPEAKING IN TONGUES

Paul ached to visit the new church at Corinth once again, but the opportunities in Ephesus were so obvious that he had to delay his trip there while sending Timothy on ahead of him. Shortly afterward he received disturbing reports about the Corinthians, as well as a long letter from them posing many questions about the faith. The church in Corinth, it seems, had neatly quartered itself into a Paul Faction, an Apollos, a Peter, and a Christ Faction. As if this were not enough, the Christians there were reeling under a variety of problems. One supposed convert was living in incest, others in open immorality, and still others were feuding in the pagan courts. Their letter also raised questions about food sacrificed to idols, the role of women in the church, and the nature of glossolalia and charismatic gifts.

Paul answered such queries in his incomparable documents, later called 1 and 2 Corinthians. In a book on the first Christian Pentecost, however, it may be well to emphasize what the apostle had to say about glossolalia, for speaking in tongues is an important hallmark of the current neo-Pentecostal or charismatic movement.

The two most prominent instances of glossolalia in the New Testament, precedent-setting as they certainly became, are the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and the practice of the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 12-14). Clearly, two differing forms of glossolalia occurred on these occasions. At Pentecost three correlated phenomena appeared: a rush of wind, tongues of fire, and speaking in recognizable foreign languages, not irrational or ecstatic utterances. At the Corinthian church, on the other hand, not one of the three Pentecostal phenomena transpired. Instead, glossolalia there was of the irrational utterance variety.

To be sure, attempts have been made to equate the two instances, one school insisting it was foreign languages on both occasions, another claiming it was irrational utterances both times—but without much success. It seems obvious, however, that practitioners of glossolalia across the centuries since then—and currently—have followed the Corinthian form, unintelligible speech, not the experience of Pentecost.

A vivid picture of the practice at Corinth shows up in chapters 12 and 14 of Paul's first letter to the Christians there. Those who claimed the gift of tongues would stand up during services and pour out a flood of unintelligible syllables, ecstatic prose presumably inspired by the Spirit. When the glossolalia had ended, someone with the gift of interpreting tongues would translate them, if he could.

Many religious historians deem the phenomenon a carryover into the Corinthian church from pagan backgrounds, especially the Greco-Roman mystery cults in which such religious ecstasies and glossolalia were common. In this view, Paul tolerated the phenomenon at Corinth in his vast adaptability to be "all things to all men" that none be lost.

Many of the people in the Corinthian church were recent converts of the regional Bacchus cult, which encouraged ecstatic babbling, and Paul understood this. Greeks considered madness an important aspect of worship. Women in particular responded to Bacchus (also known as Dionysus), the god of madness; ’him of the orgiastic cry, exciter of women, Dionysus, glorified with mad honors’. (Plutarch, Moralia 671c). Ancient Corinth was a center of Dionysiac worship and pagan babbling was considered a norm in Corinth during the advent of the church age.

Paul, however, goes into much detail in dealing with glossolalia, and no one today should engage in the practice, or fault it, without first reading 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. The apostle does establish common ground with practitioners of tongues by claiming to have the gift himself, but he uses it only on a personal (Paul-to-God) basis, not publicly in the church, where it is patently unedifying because unintelligible (14:18).

The practice, to Paul, is certainly the least of the Spirit's gifts, offering opportunities for pride and ostentation and offense to others. He would rather speak five words plainly than utter 1o,000 words in a tongue (14:19). If everyone in the church practiced glossolalia, outsiders would consider Christians a pack of madmen (14:23). Accordingly, if tongues had to be used, not more than two or three were to speak, in order, and then were to wait for interpretation in each case. If no interpreter were present, silence was to prevail (14:28).

To any fair-minded reader these chapters show Paul's attitude toward glossolalia as decidedly negative on balance. Reading between his otherwise diplomatic lines, the message is clear: he would be a happy apostle if the Corinthians simply dropped the practice on any public basis, although he did not put it that badly for fear of offending any new convert.