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Aspiring to the Least

by Tim O'Hearn

“This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” (1 Tim 3:1) While it is true that the proud shall be abased, and the humble exalted, there is no sin in aspiring to the best. Moses was a great leader, one of the best that ever lived. He was also called the most humble (Num 12:3). Every Christian man should aspire to be an elder. There may be reasons he could not be one, but until then it is not wrong to aspire to such a position. On the other hand, what would we think of a man whose whole aspiration in the church was to sit in the pew and do nothing? If he doesn’t aspire to the eldership, he should at least aspire to growth, to teaching. “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again.” (Heb 5:12)

If we ought to aspire to more than the least, why is it that many in the religious world seem to do just that? To many the apex of spirituality is the ability to “speak in tongues.” Some even go so far as to say that anyone who doesn’t speak in tongues, as they understand the phenomenon, is not spiritual. They aspire to the least, rather than the better.

Without arguing the question of whether such gifts still exist today, it can be argued that tongues is/was the least of the spiritual gifts. The first argument is that it is one gift, if the modern rather than biblical definition is used, that can be performed by those who are not Christians. (The distinction here being that biblical tongues were human languages not learned in the normal way by the speaker and modern tongues are rarely a recognizable human language.) Muslim sufis speak in tongues, as do Hindu mystics, some African animists, and as did the Greek Oracle at Delphi. In schizophrenics, speaking in tongues is considered gibberish; among some Christians it is considered the height of spirituality. Of course, the fact that other religions or the mentally ill can duplicate the phenomenon does not, in itself, show the practice to be false or unspiritual. But just as the Egyptian magicians could duplicate Moses’ turning a staff into a snake and the first of the plagues, it does indicate that speaking in tongues may be the least of the spiritual gifts, rather than the greatest.

Paul, who said the most about the biblical gift of speaking in human languages (1 Corinthians 12-14), places it at the bottom of his list of the gifts. He says there are things that are “more excellent” than even the greatest of the gifts. “And yet I show you a more excellent way. … And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 12:31, 13:13) Even greater than the greatest of the spiritual gifts, whether tongues or any other, is the simple faith of a Christian. The person who sacrifices his own interests for another, even if he doesn’t have a spiritual gift, is greater than the one who can raise someone from the dead or speak in unlearned human languages. This seems to be a fact forgotten by many who pride themselves in their speaking in tongues. Some who claim the gift do so in such a way as to make one who doesn’t have the ability feel inferior. Some condemn others as unsaved simply because they lack the gift. These people lack the greater gift of love. That is what Paul was telling the Corinthians.

It seems that the Corinthian church had the problem that they were aspiring to the least, at least where spiritual gifts were concerned. The whole fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is telling them that they could do better than speaking in tongues. “Desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.” (1 Cor 14:1) “I would rather speak five words with my understanding than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor 14:19) Paul is saying that it is not good enough to seek the least. Seek the best. If you never attain it, at least you will attain what you can. If you never try for more than the minimum, you can’t be giving God your maximum.

Paul wanted the Corinthians to seek the best, rather than the least. Why, then, do some today reverse that? Shouldn’t we rather seek the greater? Shouldn’t we seek love?