Uniform 07.27.2014: Feeling Left Out

1 Corinthians 14:13-26

Because I don’t belong to a tradition that incorporates the speaking of tongues into worship or private devotion, it’s tempting for me to skip over Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14. “That doesn’t apply to me,” I want to say. But in revisiting the text this week, I remembered how dangerous and unhelpful this approach to Scripture can be. Paul’s warning about making people feel excluded applies to any number of situations in modern churches.

Actually, this warning is helpful in many community settings. Any time a group of people gets together, there’s a good chance that someone could be made to feel out of the loop.

I come from a liberal arts family. We are, for the most part, teachers and ministers and musicians. But I married into a family full of engineers. My husband, both of his parents, and two of his siblings hold degrees in engineering. I will admit that there have been many dinner table conversations when I had no idea what anyone was talking about. When they all get going, I often feel like they’re speaking a different language and I need an interpreter.

One such conversation has become a defining moment in Chappell family history. After lunch one day, my brother-in-law mentioned an article he’d read about a concept that would allow people in remote desert areas to transport refrigerated medications without using electricity. What started as a mildly interesting idea quickly morphed into an in-depth debate about the physics involved in developing such a device. All the engineers around the table contributed ideas from their specific disciplines while this English major sat quietly and wished everyone would move on.

But that was not to be. We sat at that table for hours as the debate continued, no one willing to concede anyone else’s point. Diagrams were drawn. Models were fashioned out of household supplies. My father-in-law finally ended the discussion when he brought out a thermodynamics textbook and explained that it would work just like something called a sling psychrometer. Naturally.

Fortunately, none of my in-laws think I’m less intelligent or less capable because I picked a different field than they did. If I ever have a question about something that they find fascinating, they are happy to help me understand. But those feelings of exclusion and ignorance that creep up every time they talk shop remind me how important it is to make sure all the people in the room feel welcomed into our conversations. This is especially important for Christians, who uphold the values of love and inclusion. Whether we’re talking about grace or sling psychrometers, “Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor 14:26).


1. How have you seen or participated in the speaking of tongues? How do Paul’s instructions help clarify the meaning and purpose of this spiritual practice?
2. When have you been made to feel left out? Like you speak a different language than everyone around you? How have those experiences shaped you?
3. How can memories of being excluded help us to reach out and include others?
4. What conversations are we having in our churches that don’t make sense to others? How can we make these conversations more accessible?
5. What practices does our church promote or allow that don’t build others up? What changes do we need to make to ensure that everyone feels welcome and appreciated in our congregation?

Reference Shelf

At this point (vv. 13-19), Paul explains the need for interpretation before the practice of speaking in tongues can serve any edifying purpose for the church. The one who speaks in a tongue should also pray that he or she might interpret the tongue. Paul does not say that the person should pray for someone else to interpret the tongue. He puts the responsibility on the shoulders of the tongue-speaker.

[Paul] gives an example of how praying only in spirit presents problems in v. 16. How can someone say the “Amen” to one’s thanksgiving prayer if that someone does not understand what the prayer is saying? Paul identifies the someone with a phrase that literally means “one who fills the place of the outsider […].” Who would that have been? Some interpret the difficult phrase to mean an unbeliever who is in attendance. The same word is used in conjunction with “unbeliever” in v. 23. But why would not knowing when to say “amen” be problematic for an outsider? Others think it means a person who is sympathetic to the church but not yet baptized, while others hold that it refers to novices in the faith. Still others hold that it refers to anyone who does not understand what is being said when a person prays in tongues. Paul’s point is that the tongue-praying serves no benefit for the other person. That person is not edified in any way.

In v. 26, Paul begins to explicate the implications of what he has argued thus far. When they come together, each one may have something different to contribute, but everything that happens should be for edification. He specifically mentions hymns, teachings, revelations, tongues, and interpretations. This should be taken only as a representative list of worship activities and not an exhaustive one, especially since he does not include prophecy. Nor should his reference to “each” be taken to mean that he sees worship as “pot luck” where everyone always contributes. The variety of contributions to worship simply sets up his basic principle that whatever one contributes, it should be for edification.


Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 375-379.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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