In the moral realm, the supernatural is natural; the paranormal is normal. Creation is loaded with manifestations of God’s glory and power. Why stop with spooky stuff? Human existence is filled with things that man’s intellect could never understand. If we only knew all the ways our Father has worked through His Creation to care for us!
One of the most contentious and poorly understood issues falls under the label of “spiritual gifts.” Our first problem is the ambiguity of English translations of the New Testament. For example, in Romans 12 Paul refers to various temperaments as spiritual gifts, but the translations seldom make that clear. There is a prophetic temperament, for example, which is not the same as a serving temperament. In Ephesians 4 Paul refers to actual people as gifts of God, rather like the plunder a conquering Roman general might toss to the cheering crowds as he rides triumphant into Rome. Of course, it refers to various roles in the church family structure.
However, most people tend to think of Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 12. First, notice that early on Paul warns that there are different categories of “gifts,” using Greek terms not easily translated into English. Starting in verse 4 he uses the word charismata — what most people call “Charismatic gifts.” Then he mentions diakonia in a form that means particular services some folks perform in the church body. Next, he refers to energema as a reference to how the Lord works through people to produce certain effects. Finally, he sums it up with the word phanerosis to indicate that the Holy Spirit manifests Himself in many different ways, so stop trying to be so didactic and precise about the terminology.
Paul was warning the Corinthian Christians to avoid thinking in the binary and linear logic that characterized their materialistic orientation. You can’t pin God down to what your senses detect and your reason can analyze. This tendency of theirs naturally results in strife because they overly analyzed the stuff they experienced and reduced God to a source of entertainment. Then they began ranking themselves according to things God did through them. As you might expect, the biggest thrill was speaking in tongues — the precise theological term is “glossolalia.”
We know from Acts 2 what glossolalia meant the first time it popped up. These mostly uneducated hicks from Galilee were able to preach in a variety of languages they could not have learned. The effect was a solid outreach to all those Disapora Jews who grew up in various locations throughout that part of the world speaking different local languages. So it stands to reason God would manifest a similar gift in Corinth, where sailors from all over would pass through with all their native languages. We don’t hear too much about this kind of stuff taking place in the other churches Paul planted around the Mediterranean Basin because it wasn’t that useful. It’s a good place to start if you have a high density of foreign ears to reach in a short time, but glossolalia is not a long term strategy.
The Corinthian Christians easily forgot the obvious reason for such a manifestation of God. There were other side effects from this miraculous gift and that was the focus of Corinthian obsession. As we might expect, it was a moment of ecstasy to have divine power coursing through your tongue like that. It was emotionally addictive, and the Corinthians knew a thing or two about addictive experiences. What they didn’t know so well was the heart-mind that ordered all things properly, and the Corinthians made too much of the experience itself, forgetting why God used them that way. Further, a false sense of what was important produced a false sense of who was important in moral terms. They were like children jockeying for attention and refusing to grow up.
Thus, they were abusing a gift of God to create a very worldly atmosphere that turned things upside down. In moral terms, they had become a monstrosity of perversion. They were making the work of God spooky instead of normative.