You know something that I both love and loathe are the italicized subtitles that pepper our Bibles these days. If you’re searching for a certain passage, or trying to get an idea of what a given passage is about, they can be really helpful. But at the same time, what you’re doing is judging a book by its cover. Sometimes those subtitles don’t do justice to what’s inside (and to be fair, they often just can’t). And sometimes they even presuppose a particular interpretation that the discerning reader may actually disagree with. One such passage is I Corinthians 14:1-12, which the ESV entitles ‘Prophecy and Tongues.’ Sure, it addresses those two spiritual gifts, but I daresay the passage is primarily about neither of those things, but about love, which was the subject of the famous previous chapter. (Tangentially, this is why I enjoy my RSV bibles for daily devotional reading; they have no subtitles to bias me, or tempt me to skim on the assumption that the subtitle tells me all I need to know!)
But anyway, I wanted to reflect on this passage for a moment, since it was this morning’s epistle reading according to the Book of Common Prayer’s daily office lectionary.
Something that we, in our consumeristic cultural mindset, are often prone to do, is to throw things out the moment something goes wrong with them in favor something new and untarnished. Keeping up with the latest version of the ipod, itouch, iphone, and ipad is a material example, ditching old girlfriends in favor hotter/newer/less boring women is a relational example, and giving up certain devotional habits when they become rote is a spiritual example. For sure, it’s important to keep things fresh and alive as much as we can, but as Christians we know that you don’t just ditch your spouse when the going gets rough. Similarly, a wise spender knows that constantly upgrading technological devices is rarely worth the expense. And similarly, an experienced Christian should know that when a spiritual discipline grows stale that it’s not necessarily time to replace it, but to re-grow into it.
In this part of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, we see a similar sort of teaching. There are times when the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues go bad. If someone speaks in tongues during worship without someone there to interpret, it’s wasted effort, building up nobody except perhaps for the one speaker. And as the beginning of chapter 13 puts it, if we don’t have love, then our prophecies and utterances are nothing! So the obvious exhortation is to pursue love, as the greatest of all spiritual gifts, the crown of all virtue alongside faith and love. If that’s the most important thing, then of course, let us focus on that instead!
Wait… instead? No, that’s not what Paul said. In 13:8-10 he said the imperfect things like prophecy and tongues will pass away when the perfect comes – that is, when Christ returns in the flesh to perfect our union with God – but he didn’t say that we shouldn’t bother with these imperfect gifts. Not at all! In chapter 14, here, he went on to talk about how these imperfect gifts are to be exercised in the context of the greatest gifts of faith, hope, and love. When spiritual gifts go bad (tongues without interpretation, prophecy without love, and so on), we’re not meant to toss them out as worthless and spoiled, but to reclaim them according to their biblical function. We need to preach and prophesy according to biblical truth and in love for the flock of God. We need to offer utterances in tongues in tandem with interpreters, or otherwise keep them for more private edification. These two gifts, along with all the others that Paul named and didn’t name, are for the primary purpose of building up (or edifying) the Church, the Body. Pursuing that goal is an act of love for Christ and His Bride.
That is why Paul can still write “desire the greater gifts” in 12:31. If they go wrong, that’s not because the gifts are bad, but because sinful humans are abusing them. When somebody comes up with a heretical interpretation of part of the Bible, do we throw that passage of Scripture out the window and call it spoiled? Of course not! If part of the Church mistreats the Eucharist with questionable theological statements, should we stop celebrating Communion to refresh our souls? God forbid! If praying the Daily Office gets stale, do we throw it out in favor of something new? I hope not. Instead of replacing these stale things that are in themselves good, we should refresh them; refresh, not replace.
That said, I think there may be a place for a ‘temporary separation,’ analogous to a cool-down period after a fight. If someone has been idolizing the Bible, for example, taking a break from reading it every day might be a good idea. But as we are exhorted not to let the sun set on our anger, said separations should never be long. Chances are that when we mistreat something good, we’re only using part of it. For example, people who idolize the Bible are usually playing favorites with certain parts of it to the expense of others. Thus, the cool-down period of ‘temporary separation’ may well involve reading the formerly neglected parts. We should never be quick to cut off something good but mistreated from our spiritual lives. We’re called to a ministry of reconciliation; casting out the sinner from our midst (or the troubled/stale disciplines) should be our last resort.