6 March 2015

1 Corinthians 14:13-19

“Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (v. 19)

Psalm: Psalm 119:81-96


In this passage, Paul continues to reflect on "speaking in a tongue". Following on from what he has said about the importance of building up the church, he writes that any one who speaks in a tongue should also "pray for the power to interpret [it]" (v. 13).

However, this is not simply about making tongues comprehensible to others in order to encourage them; it's also about engaging the whole person in prayer and worship, mind as well as spirit. Paul reminds them that "if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive" (v. 14). What is true for prayer is equally true for singing praises. And it applies also even to the saying of blessings, for if said only with the spirit, how will anyone listening but not understanding know when to say "Amen"? "You may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up" (v. 17).

Paul closes this section with another personal testimony which perhaps indicates just how serious an issue this was, not only for the unity of the congregation at Corinth but also for their willingness to accept his leadership, given the presence of others who claimed to a greater possession of spiritual gifts. Paul is quite clear that he can speak in tongues, indeed he thanks God that he does this "more than all of you" (v. 18); but he is equally clear that this is not what the Corinthians most need. His conclusion is that "in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (v. 19).

The close attention which Paul has given to this topic indicates just how important and how potentially divisive the issue of spiritual gifts, and particularly speaking in tongues, can be. What is important for us, reading his letters all this time later, is that Paul doesn't dismiss such gifts, but that in assessing their role he stresses time and again that what matters most is what serves to encourage and build up the life of the Church as an organic whole. 

To Ponder

  • Is the presence of spiritual gifts potentially divisive in our churches today? Why or why not?
  • Do you find Paul's advice about engaging with the whole person in worship, body, mind and spirit, helpful? In what way?
  • How does Paul's testimony affect your understanding of leadership in the church?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Wigley

Stephen Wigley is a Methodist minister currently serving as chair of the Wales Synod. He is married to Jenny, a priest in the Church in Wales, and they have two teenage sons, David and Andrew.