Temple of Apollo (6th c. B.C.) in Ancient Corinth, Ancient Greece. Credit, istockphoto.com

There are three tongue-speaking events recorded in the book of Acts. Pentecost (Acts 2), Caesarea (Acts 10), and Ephesus (Acts 19). While it is quite possible that there was also tongue-speaking in Samaria (Acts 8), only these three passages record tongues and Luke makes no comment on the purpose or on the details or nature of tongues.

The most that the Scripture has to say about tongues is found in 1 Corinthians. In three chapters (12-14) the apostle Paul addressed the broader subject of spiritual gifts and in chapter 14 focused on the abuse of tongues in the church at Corinth. 1 Corinthians 14 then is the single most important passage in all the Bible on the subject of tongues, in which Paul gave the “only direct and specific Scriptural statement regarding the purpose of the gift of tongues” (verse 22). This verse is indeed very helpful and has enabled us to read the record of Acts with a lot more clarity. Scripture interprets scripture.

It can’t be denied that some of the Corinthians legitimately were given the gift of tongues. Paul outlined certain rules for the proper practice of tongue-speaking (1 Cor. 14:27-28) and he advised them not to forbid it (1 Cor. 14:39).

However, there was something else going on at Corinth, that was unique to that Church. The Corinthian phenomenon was novel and complex. We cannot ignore it, and we can’t dismiss it, as many do, with, “Corinth was a problem church.”  We must find our way through 1 Corinthians 14, and the place to start is to understand something of the religious and moral context of the city of Corinth and the church to which Paul wrote.

In Paul’s day, Corinth was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia, in southern Greece. At the height of the Greek Empire in the 5thcentury B.C., Corinth was a major commercial hub, but in 146 B.C. it was destroyed by the Romans and lay in ruins for one hundred years. Because of its excellent strategic location, however, Corinth was rebuilt in 44 B.C. by Julius Caesar and it controlled overland trading between Rome and Asia. As a major shipping port, Corinth also controlled the Gulf of Corinth on the north side and the Saronic Gulf on the south. The population that this industry attracted to Corinth made it a very diverse and wealthy city noted for its culture, its arts, and architecture, and for sports also, with the famous Isthmian Games ranked only second to the Olympic Games.

The influx of people and religions that came during the period of re-establishment only adding to the existing Greek influence of religion and philosophy. Ephesus had its Temple to Diane, and Corinth had the temple devoted to Aphrodite, situated on the summit of Acrocorinth and visible to all who entered the city. Also, Mystery Cults, so-called because of the initiation rites associated with them and secrecy of belief that were not shared with the uninitiated, was a big part of the religious context of Corinth. Some scholars estimate that in Corinth, there were up to 26 sacred places, and most likely what Paul was referring to when he wrote of the “gods many, and lords many” that were worshipped in Corinth (1 Cor. 8:5).

The Church at Corinth was established during Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 18:1ff). Paul remained there for almost two years becoming acquainted with the religious context of the city. During the apostle’s ministry in Corinth, both Jews (Acts 18:1-6) and Gentiles (1 Cor. 6:10-11; 8:7; 12:2), were converted.  There were “not many noble” called (1 Cor. 1:26), but we are told that there were some more prominent members of the community converted and brought into the church. Erastus, for example, the city treasurer (Rom. 16:23) and Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16), were among the believers at Corinth. There is no doubt that the Lord blessed the church of Corinth under the apostle’s ministry, both in the numbers added and also in spiritual growth. The Lord told Paul that he had many people in that city (Acts 18:10), and Paul later testified of them that they “come behind in no gift” (1 Cor. 1:7).

Corinth was arguably the church that occupied most of Paul’s time and energy. He made three trips to Corinth in total (1 Cor. 12:14, 13:1), and, in addition to the two inspired letters preserved by God—1st and 2nd Corinthians—he wrote at least one other letter to the church at Corinth. Paul had written a previous letter, (1 Cor. 5:9), and evidently, they replied to it with some questions (1 Cor. 7:1). The letter we now call 1 Corinthians was likely written in the spring of AD 55 and was a response to their questions. Paul was also in correspondence with the servants of Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11-12) and he hosted a delegation of three men from Corinth (1 Cor. 16:17-18).

The picture we get from this flow of correspondence is that Paul kept in frequent contact with the believers at Corinth, and furthermore, that his interaction with the congregation was overwhelmingly negative in tone.

The problems at Corinth were as diverse as the city’s population. Despite Paul’s encouraging words at the beginning of the first letter, the church was spiritually immature. It harboured division (1 Cor. 1:10-17), there were lawsuits going on among believers (1 Cor. 6:1-8), abuse of Christian liberty (1 Cor. 8:9-12), head-covering in public worship was an issue (1 Cor. 11:2-16), and the role of women in the church (1 Cor. 11, 14). There was an abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20-30), of the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14), disorder in the worship service (1 Cor. 14:26-40), and among some, a denial of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15).

These problems, substantial though they are, were only the tip of the iceberg. Arguably, the single most prominent problem in the Corinthian Church was immorality. The Greek word used is porneia (πορνεία), from which we get the English word pornography (1 Cor. 5:1-12; 6:9-11; 6:12-20; 7:1-9; 10:6-8; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; 12:20-21). Also, as we study the language of Paul in his two lengthy epistles, it becomes clear that the believers in Corinth were leaning heavily on their pagan past in a number of areas.

Behind the sin, aberrant theology and immoral practice in Corinth was a web of pagan thinking.

This hangover from their past life manifested itself in a number of areas in the life of the Corinthian Church, among them, immorality (1 Cor. 5-7), meats offered to idols (1 Cor. 8) and the confusion of spirituality, particularly related to tongues (1 Cor.12-14).

Before Paul got to the subject of tongues specifically, he addressed, right at the outset and in a very general way, the Christian idea of spirituality (12:1-3). In their pagan past, these people were “carried away” in ecstasies and frenzies by their dumb idols. Christianity, Paul said, is not like these mystery cults, which have no self-control. Christianity is characterised first, by a confession of Jesus as Lord, and, in this context, self-control.

Furthermore, and more specifically, Paul seemed to make a connection between the tongue-speaking of Corinth and the practices of the so-called mystery cults. Paul’s words, “a noisy gong, or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1) may be a reference to the use of these instruments in the mystery cults. If so, Paul is telling these tongue-speaking Corinthians that without love, all their tongue-speaking is not only empty, but it is indistinguishable from the pagan worship they practiced previously.

We learn from 1 Corinthians 12-14 that speaking in tongues is not evidence of Spirit Baptism. It could, in fact, be evidence of “less” or immature spirituality as in Corinth (1 Cor. 3:1, 14:20), or the influence of another spirit (1 Corinthians 13:1, see also 1 John 4:1).