20Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21In the Law it is written:
"Through men of strange tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me," says the Lord.
22Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. 23So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, 25and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"
As a high school teacher I became very familiar with immature behavior. If maturity is the ability to act appropriately to the situation, then most high school teachers will tell you that they are surrounded by immaturity. It seemed especially so in the school in which I taught. The students that we worked with were, on average, not very astute at the social graces. They just had little clue of how to act appropriately to the situation. They would joke around and get loud when they should be quietly working, they would run around and get rowdy at a quiet museum, etc. Part of our job, then, was to teach them the appropriate behavior in each situation so that they could begin to make mature decisions.
Paul begins this passage with the exhortation to stop thinking like children and think like adults. In essence he is saying, ‘grow up’. Of course, true maturity does not mean that one should always act like an adult. There are times as an adult when the situation absolutely calls for us to act childlike. This is what Paul wants in regard to evil. When it comes to evil, the adult or mature thing to do is to be childlike and naive. One does not need to know about the depths of evil in order to be an adult. In this case, being naive is just the right medicine. (This, of course, would not apply to Christian teachers and ministers who must often know what they are dealing with so that, just like a doctor familiarizing himself with diseases, they can know what people are dealing with so that they know how to cure them.) When it comes to the spiritual gifts, though, the Corinthians have been acting immaturely because they do not have a grasp on the appropriate time and place to use certain gifts.
Paul will demonstrate an example of how to demonstrate this maturity. The basis for his point comes from Isaiah 28; a passage in which God declares judgment on Israel. He says that they have not listened to His plain word so they will know they have been judged by the irony of being surrounded by foreigners speaking a language that they do not understand. Thus, Paul demonstrates that the sort of sign he is talking about in this passage is a sign of judgment. This is key to understanding what could otherwise present itself as a difficult passage to understand.
It is also vital to remember that Paul is dealing with the occasion of orderly worship and what gifts are the appropriate choice for that venue. When it comes to worship, speaking in tongues only serves as a sign of judgment for unbelievers. Not only do tongues in the worship service not edify the body, If unbelievers came into a worship service and heard nothing but tongues they would think everyone was crazy because they would have the good sense to realize that no one actually knew what was being said. Like the young boy who declared that the emperor had no clothes, the unbeliever who saw such a spectacle would not be caught up in the emotional frenzy and see this ridiculous sort of display for what it was. The tongues would not bring them to conversion but push them away from it and further along towards judgment.
If, on the other hand, an unbeliever entered during a worship service in which prophecy was being spoken, the effect would be completely different. The judgment and exhortation of prophecy are for believers. Believers can understand, be convicted and edified by prophecy and respond to it appropriately. The mind and the spirit are both engaged. An unbeliever who witnessed this would be able to see that this isn’t a bunch of babbling idiots, nor a bunch of babbling pagans, shouting but never discerning. What is a sign for the believers will actually have a positive effect on the unbeliever as well because it is a mature demonstration of using the appropriate gift at the appropriate time in the appropriate venue.
When the unbeliever sees the power of the prophecy and the impact that it has on the believers they will be moved to hear the message and understand it as well. They will know that they are sinners and will be judged by all , meaning ‘all that has been heard’ not ‘by all the people present’. Once someone has been pricked by the word of the Holy Spirit, the next step is for them to bare their heart. There is no room for guardedness in the truly humble person who has been convicted by the power of the word of God. The response of the unbeliever in this case will cause the precise response that one would desire for any believer in a worship service. They will exclaim “God is really among you.”
The irony here is that the gift of tongues was a gift given for the purpose of praising God in front of unbelievers, but not in the context of a worship service of the body. If tongues is immaturely used in that setting, it will have the opposite of the desired effect. More important than using gifts simply because we can, is the need to use them at the appropriate times and places.
This principle should serve as food for thought in the modern Christian community. There is a tendency on the part of some to think that unbelieving visitors will be drawn to our worshipping communities by worship services that are emotionally moving even to the point of being emotionally manipulative. I would certainly not argue that there is not place for emotion in the worship service but Paul seemed to believe that the worship service should primarily engage our minds and that one of the primary ways that we bring glory to God is by edifying the body of believers in such a way. Perhaps unbelievers would be far more likely to recognize the presence of God through thoughtful and sincere worship services with powerful and edifying preaching rather than emotional displays that are full of pomp and circumstance.
We can often be tempted to use a gift that God has given us because it seems flashy, appears to be impressive, or we just enjoy it. What must be determined, however, is whether or not this is the mature choice at the time. The next time you start to exercise a gift or strength that God has given you, take a minute to reflect on whether you are truly doing the mature thing that will bring God glory, or if you are merely showing off.