Recently I went with my youth group to a conference for worship musicians at a thriving and famous church in central London. Much of the conference I found enormously refreshing, very beautiful, passionate, Spirit-open, and reflective of God's heart. However there was one area in which I had difficulty...enough to take my youth group to one side and have a chat with them over, the difficulty was the practice of communal singing in tongues.
Let me just take a moment to outline briefly my view of the gift of tongues. Yes I do believe in it, I believe in its continuance, its use, its power, its passion, and its theocentricity. I do feel Christians should actively and longingly pursue this gift in Godliness and expectancy. I even dare here to say it’s a gift which I, myself use to pray to and praise God with. However this gift is not available to everybody and does have some guidelines given in the Bible which I feel rule out the practice of communal singing in tongues.
I believe the conferences reasoning is logical. In Corinthians, praying in the Spirit often refers to praying in 'tongues,' so when they read the verse 'sing in the spirit' they carry the logic through and say, Hey, this must mean tongues too, great. However a closer reading of 1 Corinthians 14 would readily and easily contradict this interpretation.
I do not attempt a full exegesis here (for many reasons, but mainly as its 1:20am), rather I point the reader to the odd verse with the odd thought which should be enough I feel to provide strong evidence for my hypothesis.
v.2 - he who speaks in a tongue speaks to God, not to men. It is a personal and private relational gift used one on one between its speaker and God. Note, Paul contrasts tongues in vv.1-4 with prophecy which is to be used openly in the congregation, suggesting with the contrast, tongues is not in the same way.
vv.5-6 - tongues can be openly used in church but when it is interpreted
vv.7-9 - tongues is worthless in the congregation without interpretation - if everyone is singing in tongues where is the interpretation of each tongue? Is this not the indistinguishable sound Paul speaks of?
v.12 - be eager for spiritual manifestations which -build up the church- Paul has just said that tongues only builds up if it is intelligible, i.e. interpreted. So unless every tongue is going to be interpreted, don't do it.
vv.15-17 - what if an outsider walks in? How can he hear the gospel and say 'Amen' to something he doesn't understand? Surely asking him to just jump on the bandwagon is dangerous and irresponsible.
vv.18-19 - IN CHURCH, Paul would rather speak 5 intelligible words than a thousand in a tongue!
vv.23-25 - Open uninterrupted tongues in Church doesn’t only not edify the church, but it also doesn't bring outsiders to Christ; in fact, quite the opposite!
v.26 Let all be done for building up...so see Paul’s instruction for tongues in building up in vv.1-12
* vv.27-28 - for me this is almost the definitive word against communal singing in tongues...'let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.' There is no way communal singing in tongues obeys this command.
So let’s enjoy the gifts God gives us. I know it’s often a conservative thing to react against charismatism in not actively pursuing these gifts, and it’s often a charismatic thing to react against conservatism by over-interpreting these gifts. But if we seek the active manifestation of the Spirit in our churches and our lives and with that submit to scriptures teaching of these gifts, and then we can truly honor and glorify his name through them. Communal singing in tongues is disobedience to the instructions given the church by Paul in 1 Cor. 14...however perhaps not pursuing the gifts at all is just as disobedient. Let’s seek these gifts in the body of Christ, and seek His instruction in how to glorify His name through them