Speaking In Foreign Languages In The Church? The Adoption Of Business Language In The Church In Light Of 1 Corinthians 14:27

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a psalm, a lesson, a revelation, a foreign language, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a foreign language, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Cor 14:26–33a; rev. from the ESV).

The fundamental problem in the Corinthian congregation from the mid-50s AD and for the next century, according to the early Christian fathers, was arrogance and pride. They turned the house of the Lord into an arena, into a place for contesting for power and control. Remarkably, even though they were addressed powerfully and repeatedly by the Apostle Paul, in a series of four letters, two of which the Spirit of God preserved for us, still the fundamental problem persisted. It manifested itself in a variety of ways during the apostolic period. They were dismissive of Paul’s preaching because he was not sufficiently oratorical, i.e., he did not meet the rhetorical standards of the Greco-Roman world. There were self-described “super Apostles,” who positioned themselves, as their title suggests, above the Apostle Paul. The congregation was wracked with immorality, factions, and schisms as some claimed to follow one apostle or another and still others claimed to follow only Christ.

Tragically, “power moves,” as they are called, i.e., attempts to gain control in the church, continue and shall always be present in the visible church until Christ returns. One recent manifestation of this appeared in a Twitter thread which began when one PCA minister analyzed the problems of his denomination and the tensions experiences in terms that were neither biblical nor ecclesiastical. The language he used appeared to come from the secular therapeutic realm. When HB contributor Brad Isbell observed the problematic nature of the language being used someone else chimed in (such is the nature of Twitter) that the vocabulary being used was “Bowen Systems Theory.” He explained, “It’s well known and applied to church leadership by Friedman, Cuss, Richardson, Bohlsinger and many others.”

Perhaps, but it is not so well known that an experienced PCA ruling elder or an experienced Reformed minister and seminary professor was familiar with it. Perhaps we are out-of-fashion dunderheads but perhaps that is beside the point?

It seems to me that the Apostle Paul establishes a principle in 1 Corinthians 14, which he articulates clearly at the end of the chapter: “But all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40; ESV). Is it decent and orderly to analyze the problems of the church using therapeutic categories or using “systems” language? Certainly not when it is not interpreted. It is speaking a foreign language in the church.

The church already has an agreed vocabulary. Scripture is our principal treasury for this vocabulary but we also have language that has been adopted by our ecclesiastical assemblies, which is published in our confessions and catechisms and in our church order. It is a rule in the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches that, in our assemblies, we conduct only ecclesiastical business and we do so in an ecclesiastical manner.

I am well aware that Twitter is not the church nor is it an ecclesiastical assembly but the uninterpreted use of a foreign language to address issues in the church has made its way into the assemblies and practice of the church. The church growth movement did something similar. They adopted the language of secular business theory and practices and imported it into the life of the church. It was commonplace to hear pastors talking metaphorically about the backdoor, the side door, and the front door of the church. They were talking about people entering the church (through church-growth methods) and then leaving through a figurative side or back door, i.e., they quietly slipped away unnoticed. At the height of the influence of the church growth movement, the rest of us were told to sit down, be quiet, and listen.

Too many of us did and churches paid the price for our silence. In contest between the confessionalists and the progressives in the NAPARC world (chiefly in the PCA) the confessionalists will do well to remember what happened and what continues to happen as a consequence of concessions made to the pragmatists who adopted secular business models and imposed them on the church as a kind of new, practical orthodoxy. Church assemblies were, to some degree at least, marginalized in favor of more “efficient” agencies. Just as the Lord asked Adam and Eve, “Who told you that you were naked?” so too we might ask, “who told us God values efficiency?” The prima facie evidence in the Scriptures is to the contrary. After all, why did Jesus wait 30 years to begin his ministry? Why three years of walking around Palestine with stubborn disciples? Indeed, there is very little about our Lord’s ministry or that of the Apostles that might be deemed efficient. Have you ever studied Paul’s route of travel? Efficient it was not. Efficiency is a terrible rubric in the church insofar as, by it, we should well get rid of preaching. A thirty-minute monologue might not be the most efficient way to communicate. The sacraments are not very efficient are they? We could go on but, dear reader, you take my point.

Consider this an early warning alert about the assumption and importation of therapeutic categories of analysis or “systems” analysis into the church. These are, as was the church growth movement, a “power move.” These were and are attempts to gain control of the argument by way of changing the vocabulary and the terms. Do not do it.

This is not a counsel of obscurantism. Christians should be learning languages from all manner of vocations in this world but we ought to be very careful about assuming them and importing them into the church. It may be that all the cool kids are doing it but when have Christians ever been regarded as cool?

If there are categories of analysis that church ought to adopt that help us understand the Scriptures as we confess them, then let the assemblies of the churches give careful deliberation to such proposals and careful deliberations they should be. Whence this language? What is assumed in the language? Are those assumptions consistent with the faith as we understand it? What are the costs and benefits of the proposed language and categories? These are the sorts of questions that ought to be asked and answered before any such language is adopted by the churches. Whatever we do, let us not sit idly by while we are casually told that everyone else is doing it and we need to get with the new program. That is not the way business in the church of Christ should be done.

© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. All over the evangelical world the language of the social sciences has taken over in a very uncritical way. This is especially true in the pastoral counseling domain but also in the way Christians adopt the language of toxic masculinity and the analysis of society via critical theory. Being a TE in the PCA I’m very concerned that this lazy attempt at making the church relevant will do what it has always done.

  2. “What are the costs and benefits of the proposed language and categories?” – Cost and Benefit Analysis forsooth – Caught yer!

    • Fair point. It illustrates how thoroughly business language has penetrated our vocabulary. I turned to it without even realizing it. Our Lord does say “count the cost” (Luke 14:28) but I cannot say that I was thinking of it when I used the expression. Mea culpa.

    • May you never have a culpa greater than this! (Sorry, forgotten how to put italics into my reply)

  3. Dr Clark, the scripture reference has a typo.
    “1 For 14:26–33” should read “1 Cor”…..)

    Mike, Volunteer Typo Screener (VTS)

  4. As someone who spent his entire career in the secular world, mostly working for large corporations, I have this to say: GOD FORBID that the church should be run like my former employers!

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