If you spend enough time around me, you’ll hear me talk about the translation of the Bible and specifically how some words were transmitted into modern English. The idiomatic usage of the word “tongue” for language is one of those issues I have with modern versions of the Bible.

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

1 Corinthians 14:1-4

It’s not a bad term, and I understand the poetic choice to select for style over direct wording but in this case, neglecting direct and clear language leaves room for misunderstanding. The term tongues, even used of angelic languages, must refer to speech that has the structure and consistency to be understood.

You see in this chapter and the preceding, Paul is concerned with the effectiveness of the communication of the people at the Church in Corinth. The people were eager to demonstrate Spiritual gifts. They were God-given talents after all, what more appropriate place to show them than in the assembly of believers?

But that was the problem. The assembly is not about individual skills and abilities but about mutual encouragement and edification. In order for humans to create that benefit for one another, they must communicate; this is not possible without conveying meaning.

It’s true: words fail sometimes. People stutter. Vocabulary can be limited. But if we aren’t communicating with one another, how can we say “Amen, I agree” before God and the whole church? The core of Church life and indeed the very existence of the faith is communication.

Ethan Kirl