A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece on raising one’s hands in worship. I’ve worshipped in different churches of vastly different traditions, from congregations in which people raise their hands and freely sway or even dance to the music, to those in which people would almost rather have their arms amputated. Frankly, by temperament, I tend toward the latter. But I still have my arms, and am much more free raising them in church than even two years ago.
Is that “better”? Well, let’s just say it’s less of an issue.
The tension I have felt inside myself is one that gets played out in congregations as a whole. If a church leans toward more charismatic expressions, will a visitor from a more staid tradition feel welcome? If a church leans in the opposite direction (“leans” is figurative here — they would probably prefer to sit upright), will our more charismatic brothers and sisters feel free to worship? Indeed, can people of different backgrounds and temperaments worship together, in a way that is edifying for all?
Something similar seems to have been at work in the church in ancient Corinth. Many believers there had the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, and employed the gift freely when the congregation was together, possibly in a large gathering of all the Corinthian house churches, with outsiders present. But when this happened, no one understood what was being said, and it was causing confusion — especially given the pro-tongues party line some were promoting.
Paul argued for the importance of intelligibility: if no one understands what you’re saying, you’re just needlessly “speaking into the air” (1 Cor 14:10). You’ll be like “foreigners” to each other, lacking a common language (vs. 11; the root of the word “foreigner” suggests meaningless babble). Intelligibility, of course, is not an end in itself. No interpretation is needed if one speaks in tongues to God privately, in prayer; but in corporate worship, the words must be intelligible if others are to be strengthened and built up in their faith.
But Paul said something else that still has a peculiarly contemporary ring:
If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind isn’t productive. What should I do? I’ll pray in the Spirit, but I’ll pray with my mind too; I’ll sing a psalm in the Spirit, but I’ll sing the psalm with my mind too. (1 Cor 14:14-15, CEB)
We who are of a more western mindset, without consciously meaning to, often take some form of fractured understanding of human nature for granted: the mind is one thing, the body another, and the spirit possibly something else entirely. And we may think of these separate parts as being in competition with one another: mind vs. emotion; spirit vs. mind; everything vs. body.
Paul’s words above aren’t either-or, but both-and. Worship, whether in prayer or song, is not of a matter of being so overcome by the Spirit that reason, understanding, and mental activity become irrelevant. Many of the Corinthians, it seems, had had legitimate experiences of speaking in tongues, for which they could be properly grateful. But they went a step too far, letting such experiences stand in for the whole of spirituality, worshipping in ways that failed to account for the effect of their behavior upon others.
We could imagine, of course, Paul writing a different letter to a different church, one in which cerebral reflection ruled the day, and worship entailed little more than thinking elegant thoughts about God. The point is that in worship we bring our whole selves to God. Not just our spirit, but our mind; not just our mind, but our spirit.
And what we bring to God in worship is given back to us, whole.