Tongues and Interpretation

This past Sunday at church there was a message in tongues with an interpretation.  These occurrences are sporadic in our congregation, while even absent in others.  Thus, when it does happen, it confronts many people with certain questions: What just happened?  What was that all about?  Why was that person babbling?  Is this even Christian?

When this all happened on Sunday, I walked our congregation through a biblical process; however, I didn’t articulate that process verbally.  So for those who may have residual questions from that part of our worship, allow me to take this moment to give us a written walk-through.  The apostle Paul provides the framework for the ministry of vocal spiritual gifts in gathered worship.  He instructs in 1 Cor. 14:26-28 (ESV): “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.

Paul’s concern is for “building up” the congregation, what I would call corporate or mutual edification.  God gives various individuals gifts which he intends for them to use to minister to the entire group of worshippers.  He comments later in this passage that this process of employing spiritual gifts in gathered worship “should be done decently and in order” (v 40).  Sometimes Pentecostal worship, with speaking in tongues in particular, can seem like madness; Paul acknowledges this and says that there ought to be a method undergirding it.  This reflects God himself: “For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace” (v 33).

I have been in worship services in which the minister invited everyone who speaks in tongues to do so aloud at the same time.  The result is a chaotic cacophony of unintelligible noise that creates confusion and disorder.  For every worship practice, there are wrong ways to do it.  Here, Paul warns against these wrong ways while encouraging us not to abandon these ways of worship just because they can get messy: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (v 39).  As a pastor, the tension between verse 39 and verse 40 is a tough place to live, but a place I must inhabit nonetheless.  We ought to be open to the various gifts of the Spirit in worship and yet we ought to find orderly ways for their manifestation.

So back to the incident this past Sunday, we had a good example of what Paul discusses in 1 Cor. 14:26ff.  A worshipper gave a message in tongues at a moment of transition in the service, in which she wasn’t directly interrupting anything.  A few moments later, I invited us to pause to allow space for an interpretation for that message.  In this instance, the interpretation came through the same individual who gave the message in tongues (this isn’t always the case, but sometimes may be).  As I listened to the interpretation, I felt that it not only confirmed biblical truth but was fitting to the themes of our worship that day.  Thus, I followed the individual’s interpretation with a note of thanksgiving that God had spoken to us in this way, encouraging the entire congregation to recognize that God had spoken to us all.

Certainly, this worship practice of tongues and interpretation is unfamiliar to many, because many Christian traditions err on the side of caution and disapprove of the vocal gifts in public worship.  They err on the side of v 40, while losing sight of v 39.  In my denomination and its larger Pentecostal tradition, the error is on the side of carelessness, letting almost anything go.  This is to err on the side of v 39, while losing sight of v 40.  I believe that in our worship this past Sunday we struck a fair balance between openness to the Spirit and orderliness in worship.  Most importantly, we can thank God for the many ways he speaks to us today, and for the many ways he invites us to worship him.

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