In 1936 T.C. Hammond published his famous book “In Understanding Be Men.” Its title came from the King James translation of 1 Corinthians 14:20: “in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.” Today it is translated “Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.”
Paul had already contrasted childish and adult ways in the previous chapter: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” The adult differs from the child in speaking, thinking and reasoning. Thus in chapter 14 we read the commands to “not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.”
It is usually a sign of childish unspirituality when people accuse some churches of being too cerebral.
It is true that our response to God must not be limited to the mind for we are also to love God with all our heart, soul and strength (Mark 12:30). It is also true that knowledge has the danger of puffing up in contrast to love, which builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1). Furthermore Christian understanding can be contrasted to worldly wisdom.
But the New Testament teaches the importance of the mind in the Christian life. We come into the gospel of truth by being “taught” the word of God (e.g. Ephesians 4:21, Colossians 1:6-7). One of the major concerns of the Apostle’s prayers and thanksgivings is for Christian understanding (e.g. Ephesians 1:17f, Philippians 1:9f, Colossians 1:9f). Furthermore it is one of the concerns of writing to the churches that they not be ignorant but understanding (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:17, 2 Timothy 3:1 2 Peter 1:12f). Even, and especially, in the area of “the spiritual” we are not to be uninformed but must have understanding (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). It is a false dichotomy to place the spirit over against the mind.
The command to adult thinking in 1 Corinthians 14:20, comes directly after the appeal to speak intelligibly in church rather than speaking in tongues that are not understood. “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (v19). The activity of building each other and the church requires the adult reasoning and mind and therefore intelligible speech. Talking like infants does not lovingly serve or edify other people.
Immediately Paul presents some “mature”, “adults only” thinking from the Old Testament about the place of tongues. As I preached through 1 Corinthians 12-14 in the last five weeks, it was interesting that this section seemed to create the most reaction. Paul’s argument here is as foreign to 21st century Christian thinking as any part of the three chapters.
Speaking in different tongues is seen in the Old Testament as the judgement of God upon sinful people. It first arises in the Tower of Babel episode in Genesis 11. There, in order to judge and disperse the peoples of the world, God confused their tongues (“languages” in most English translations). On a much later occasion in Babylon there is the classic scene of the announcement of judgement when Belshazzar is told of his impending destruction by a message written in a strange tongue, which needs interpretation/translation by Daniel.
But the passage Paul refers to is Isaiah 28. There in the context of childish speech and adult understanding, God promises to send his message in a foreign tongue upon unbelieving Israel so that they may hear and not understand. As Paul expresses it in 1 Corinthians 14 “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”
It is a simple observation that victors impose their language on conquered nations. When your language is no longer spoken in the community, your nation has been defeated. God’s judgement could be heard when Assyrian was the language of the streets and villages of Israel. Thus speaking strange tongues was a sign to unbelievers of the judgement of God upon them.
It is not a sign of their salvation but of their condemnation. So when Paul talks of tongues in church being a sign to unbelievers, he does not mean a sign of their salvation but one that will confirm them in their unbelief. He illustrates this by citing an outsider attending a church when everybody is speaking in tongues. The outsider will not be saved by such behaviour – just the reverse. He will leave thinking you are out of your minds. Only a group of madmen would gather together to speak to each other in tongues that they do not understand!
This is in contrast to the spiritual activity of prophecy. For whoever prophesies “speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:3). So, even an outsider coming in and hearing your prophesying to one another will be challenged by your activity. Rather than calling you mad he will declare, “God is really among you”.
The contrast of tongues and prophecy is that tongues condemn the unbeliever while prophecy builds the believer and even can save the unbeliever.
It is therefore something of an unspiritual childishness to insist on speaking in tongues in church, or to make it the hallmark of our spirituality or church life. That it is not to be forbidden (1 Corinthians 14:39) is hardly a ringing endorsement for its encouragement. To build a church and its reputation on the Pentecostal/Charismatic experience is an infantile failure to understand the work of the Spirit or the work of Christ in building his church through our loving service of each other.