In the midst of his discussion on the use and misuse of the gift of tongues, Paul reminds the Corinthians: "be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature." The maturity that Paul indicates here is one that can discern between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behaviour. While all things are lawful, not all things are helpful. There is nothing wrong with speaking in tongues, for it is a gift of God, but it can be used inappropriately if we ignore the contexts. As in all things, contexts determine the appropriateness of an action.
So, as in earlier discussion of eating meat that has been offered to idols, there is nothing wrong with eating this meat if it is bought from the market, or when it is served in homes: "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.... If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience" (1 Cor 10:25,27).
However, eating the same meat in the temple will raise issue of misinterpretation of our actions, plus the fact that we might be participating in a feast to demons:
- 1 Cor. 8:10 "For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he ot be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?"
- 1 Cor. 10:19-20 "What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons."
In other words, while the meat offered to idols is neutral in itself, the contexts in which it is done makes all the difference: if bought directly from the meat market, or eaten in the homes--it has no religious implication. However, when eaten in the temple, it might stumble a new believer. Or worse, we might actually be participating in a feast to demons--which is idolatry.
So, we can carry the same principle of "context determines the meaning" to speaking in tongues. In and of itself, speaking in tongues is a good gift, for its primary purpose is self-edification (building ourselves up spiritually). But it also serves as a sign for unbelievers to convince them of the reality of the presence of God's Kingdom: "Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers" (1 Cor 14:22). Like on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:4, the 120 spoke in various tongues, drawing in the crowds of unbelievers who were marvelling at what was happening. It was a sign of supernatural activity among the believers.
I remember about 12 years ago we ran our first workplace Alpha in an office at Golden Shoe Carpark on Market Street. Among the few pre-believers was a lady from China. Raised to believe in communist ideology and atheism, there was no God in her worldview. She said she tried to read the Bible, but it didn't make sense to her--it was just another religious writing. However, her opinion changed when she attended the Alpha Day where the participants heard about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Then came the prayer ministry. When she saw some people receiving the gift of tongue, she pulled me aside and said: "If there is no God, I can't explain what is now happening here. I am now convinced there is God." So she accepted Christ and did Bible study with her lawyer colleague who invited her. She was subsequently baptised and attended an Anglican church in the western part of Singapore for many years.
But the same phenomenon occurring within the church would be anathema! Because tongues is not for believers, but for unbelievers. For believers, tongues that is not interpreted is for private use. Like when I visit countries that don't use English in their worship (say, Myanmar, Thailand or Vietnam), if I were to pray aloud using English, I would be as good as speaking in tongue to them. It would be inappropriate. So, what I normally do is I pray in English but privately and quietly to myself. I don't raise my voice to be heard. Nothing can stop me from praying privately, but it would be inappropriate in that context to pray out loud.
But to ban speaking in tongue would be equally inappropriate. It's like the Burmese or Thais or Vietnamese telling all foreigners they cannot pray to God if they cannot speak their language. But unfortunately, there are churches which try to ban speaking in tongues--even privately. This violates Paul's command: "do not forbid speaking in tongues." Those who insist on speaking in tongues aloud in church without interpretation and those who forbid speaking in tongues at all are equally immature in their thinking. They have forgotten the principle of contexts.
So, be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
Father, teach us to become mature by using our mind, not emotions, to make decisions that are appropriate and rational. In Jesus' name, Amen.