Sometimes, the apostle Paul is a master of the subtle argument.
And sometimes he’s much, much more direct. He certainly had his detractors in Corinth, who viewed him as unimpressive and even unspiritual, and who probably challenged his authority as an apostle. Every so often in his letters, he addressed these people directly, and his tone could be downright acerbic.
So it is with the end of 1 Corinthians 14, as he put the final touches to three chapters of teaching on spiritual gifts in the church:
Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you? If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order. (1 Cor 14:36-40, CEB)
It’s possible that those first two rhetorical questions — which have the air of sarcasm about them — are addressed only to the women who were commanded in the preceding verses to keep quiet in church. As we saw in the previous post, the NRSV seems to prefer this reading, but other translations leave the matter more ambiguous.
But given what he says next, it seems likely that Paul is responding directly to those who were challenging his authority. He is confident, of course, in his calling as an apostle, having received it directly from the Lord, even if other aren’t so sure. Thus the rhetorical gauntlet: So, you think you’re a prophet, that you speak for God, that you’re one of the “spiritual” ones. Very well, then. You must realize that everything I’ve said — including about prophecy itself! — is straight from God. So if you ignore these words, you yourself will be ignored.
That’s not gentle persuasion. That’s not a teacher patiently checking for understanding. That’s more like, “Put up or shut up.”
And with that, he simply ends the argument, summarizing what he’s been saying all along: if you’re so enthusiastic about spiritual gifts, desire the gift of prophecy, because it’s the most edifying of them all; don’t outlaw speaking in tongues, because it’s still a legitimate gift; but remember that everything should be done in a way that maintains good order.
Does the direct approach work? Consider how a later letter from Paul to Corinth ends:
I’m afraid that maybe when I come you will be different from the way I want you to be, and that I’ll be different from the way you want me to be. I’m afraid that there might be fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, backstabbing, gossip, conceit, and disorderly conduct. I’m afraid that when I come again, my God may embarrass me in front of you. I might have to go into mourning over all the people who have sinned before and haven’t changed their hearts and lives from what they used to practice: moral corruption, sexual immorality, and doing whatever feels good. (2 Cor 12:20-21, CEB)
Apparently, not much changed. That’s not the fault of his bluntness; those who had made up their minds about him (some considered him a “con artist” — 2 Cor 12:16, CEB) would not be convinced no matter how he spoke to them.
He spoke the truth in love, even if he had to wield a rhetorical hammer. I wouldn’t always recommend his way of communicating, say, in marriage. But a prophetic word from a true apostle will sometimes be that forceful.
One only hopes that people are listening.