1 Corinthians 14 (together with 2 preceding chapters) has been a point of major debate on existence of miraculous gifts, especially prophecy and tongues. This issue has divided the church for many generations and there is no clear resolution in sight.
1) First of all, we must make it clear that existence of prophecy and tongues is not the main point of chapter 14. The problem was that the Corinthians were not exercising their gifts in love (chapter 13), looking down on some gifts and envying others (Chapter 12). So, the chapter 14 is best viewed as a case study on how these issues can be resolved, taking prophecy and tongues as an example. Paul could have compared other gifts, like teaching and evangelism, or mercy and encouragement, etc. He has probably chosen prophecy and tongues as the ones most abused in the Corinthian church
2) What is Paul’s answer to proper gift use?
- Think how it can edify the church
- Think how it can edify non-believers who happen to stop by your church service
- Everything should be done in orderly fashion
Yet chapter 14 also provides the most comprehensive overview of miraculous gifts in the whole of New Testament and it would be a mistake not to use it to learn more about these gifts. The chapter does seem to provide support for pentecostal/charismatic/third wave view that the miraculous gifts should continue, if read literally. After all, doesn’t Paul say in verse 39, “Be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues”. So how can there be still a debate on this issue, if it’s a direct command from Paul?
Well, there could be several reasons for believing the miraculous gifts have ceased.
- We should not straightforwardly assume that what Paul said to Corinthians should apply to us. After all, Paul also commands women to wear headscarves and be silent in the church, a command very few churches now obey. What was good for church then might not be good now, and gifts exits for common good.
- All Christians believe the canon to be closed, but prophecy (if true) can potentially provide new revelation not found in the bible.
- The Old Testament history suggests periods of miraculous activity followed by periods of silence from God. So we should not assume that even if miraculous gifts exist, we should surely find them in the church now
Yet, despite all these reasons, there is no 100% proof that the supernatural gifts have ceased and there is no proof they should continue in full force.
So, what shall we do in the presence of such uncertainty? I hope the following observations might help:
1) God did miracles, does miracles and will do miracles. The debate is not about whether God can do miracles, but whether there are people who can exercise supernatural gifts consistently and better than others.
2) Each side of the debate must recognize the dangers of their own positions. Churches that believe that the gifts have ceased may make people feel that God does not care for them personally. They may put too much emphasis on other gifts, especially gift of teaching, making less educated members feel inferior. On the other hand, churches practicing prophecy and tongues run into danger of making people who don’t have these gifts fell inferior. Also, since it is difficult to objectively evaluate the miraculous gifts (unlike say the gift of teaching), there is a danger of faking or imagining it, where people start to treat even mundane things in life as miraculous (like miraculously finding a carpark spot).
3) One real danger with pentecostal/charismatic churches is not that they believe in miraculous gifts but that they often provide a fertile ground for many modern day heresies, like prosperity doctrine (God wants you to be rich) or word of faith doctrine (if you pray with true faith God must do what you pray for). These are half-truths and have been deceiving generations of Christians. The reason why these appear most often in the charismatic setting is because of less emphasis on getting revelation from the Bible and more on getting it through prophecy and tongues. This leads to less rigor in studying the Bible and thus potentially deriving wrong lessons from it.