A clear sign, part 2

In the previous post, we noted our occasional wish for a sign from God.  There is, of course, biblical precedent for this: sometimes, when God called people to undertake particular missions, they responded by saying, “But God, how do I know it’s really you?  Give me a sign.”  But we need to be honest with ourselves: is my desire for a sign a way of avoiding accountability to others, or bypassing Scripture?

Here again, however, is one place in Scripture where we’re given a clear sign:

So then, tongues are a sign for those who don’t believe, not for those who believe. But prophecy is a sign for believers, not for those who don’t believe.  So suppose that the whole church is meeting and everyone is speaking in tongues.  If people come in who are outsiders or unbelievers, won’t they say that you are out of your minds?  But if everyone is prophesying when an unbeliever or outsider comes in, they are tested by all and called to account by all.  The secrets of their hearts are brought to light.  When that happens, they will fall on their faces and worship God, proclaiming out loud that truly God is among you!  (1 Cor 14:22-25, CEB)

“Clear”?  This is a notoriously difficult passage to interpret; as soon as the first sentence is done, Paul seems to reverse himself.  If tongues are a sign for unbelievers, why do they run out of the church thinking Christians are nuts?  If prophecy is a sign for believers, why is the example about unbelievers coming to faith?

In context, Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to back off their fascination with the gift of tongues.  He puts prophecy forward as a superior alternative, not because prophecy is intrinsically more spiritual, but because it’s better at building up the whole church.

And that’s probably where much of the confusion lies.  We want to read the passage as if “tongues are a sign for those who don’t believe” is the same as saying “tongues are edifying for those who don’t believe.”  Obviously, that’s not what Paul means.

Rather, if we take “signs” as revealing God in some way, Paul’s words make more sense.  Tongues are a sign for unbelievers, but a negative one.  “Imagine,” Paul suggests, “that outsiders who knows nothing about the gospel visit the congregation, and everyone starts speaking in tongues — without any interpretation.  How would they respond?  Overwhelmed by the chaos, they’d think you’re crazy.  And they would probably conclude, ‘If this says anything about the god they worship, I’m outta here.'”

Prophecy, however, is a sign for believers.  How?  Again, think of what happens when an outsider visits.  Believers are prophesying in an edifying (and one presumes, orderly) way.  Paul paints a picture of conviction and conversion, in which the unbeliever is compelled to fall down in worship, proclaiming that God is truly in the house.

The Corinthians wanted to take the gift of tongues as a sign of God’s special favor on individuals.  But that orientation was undermining the unity of the church.  Without denigrating tongues as a legitimate gift, Paul reorients their thinking: You want a clear sign of God’s favor?  Then here it is: when unbelievers see the way you edify each other, they know that God is present in your community, and they believe and worship.

It’s not the sign they were looking for.  It’s not the sign we may seek.  But it’s one of the clearest ones we may be actually be given.  Does it make a difference to how we think about church and the spiritual life?