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1 Corinthians Chapter 14, Part 1

by Karl Kemp  
6/14/2012 / Bible Studies

This two-part verse-by-verse study on 1 Corinthians chapter 14 was taken from my paper titled "A Verse-by-Verse Study of 1 Corinthians Chapters 10-14; Philippians Chapter 3; and James 3:1-4:6. In the original paper and the version on my internet site I was able to use bold, underlining, italics, and footnotes. I always use the New American Standard Bible, 1995 edition, unless I mention otherwise. Sometimes I will use double brackets [[ ]] and (( )) to make them more obvious.

One reason I feel a need to teach on this chapter is that I believe quite a few of these verses are often misunderstood by many Pentecostals and charismatics. All errors of interpretation lead to confusion and disunity in the body of Christ, and some errors lead to worse results. Some of the Christians who do not believe the charismatic gifts are for today torture 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14.

"Pursue love [These words complete the apostle's important discourse on love that he began in 1 Cor. 12:31b. Compare 1 Cor. 16:14.], yet [or, "and" (Greek "de")] desire earnestly spiritual gifts [1 Corinthians 12:31a says, "But earnestly desire the greater gifts." The Greek verb behind "desire earnestly" here in 1 Cor. 14:1 is exactly the same as the Greek behind "earnestly desire" in 12:31a. The NASB has "gifts" in italics here in 14:1. A more literal translation would be "the things of the Spirit, but I believe "spiritual gifts" communicates the apostle's meaning well. (See on 1 Cor. 12:1.)], but [I would translate "and" (Greek "de")] especially [I prefer the KJV's "rather."] that you may prophesy. [[I believe we would better understand Paul if we had a comma after "that you may prophesy" instead of a period. (We don't have Paul's original punctuation.) If we miss the strong linkage between what Paul says here in the second half of 1 Cor. 14:1 and what he says in 14:2 (this linkage is demonstrated by the "for" at the beginning of 14:2), we probably will misunderstand 14:1. We will probably end up thinking (as many do) that Paul teaches here in 1 Cor. 14:1 that prophecy/prophesying is the greatest gift.

I don't believe Paul intended to say that prophecy/prophesying is the greatest gift. He certainly didn't intend to say that the charismatic gift of prophecy (understanding prophecy in the sense of speaking messages under the anointing of the Spirit [see under 1 Cor. 12:10]) is the greatest gift. (The word "prophecy" is used in 1 Cor. 12:10; 13:2, 8; and 14:6, 22.) And even if we understand the prophesying spoken of here in 1 Cor. 14:1 (and in 14:3-5) in the fuller sense pictured in 14:30, 31, which we probably should do, I still don't believe Paul intended to say that this is the greatest gift. (Understanding prophesying in the fuller sense pictured in 14:30, 31 would include speaking forth revelations that were received from the Spirit. I assume that these revelations could include words of wisdom, words of knowledge, and distinguishing of spirits; these three gifts were listed in 1 Cor. 12:8-10.) All that Paul intended to say here, if I understand him, was that prophecy/prophesying is, in some ways, greater than speaking with tongues. Compare 1 Cor. 14:39, "Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues." We will discuss this point further as we continue.

With the words "[and] especially [rather] that you may prophesy," the apostle begins a lengthy discourse designed to contrast prophecy/prophesying with the misuse of the gift of tongues in the church at Corinth (a primary concern was the public use of tongues without interpretation). In this chapter Paul contrasts prophecy/prophesying with the misuse of tongues at Corinth; he does not compare prophecy/prophesying with the other gifts. Throughout this chapter, Paul uses prophecy as an example of a gift that edifies. Prophecy is greater than tongues without interpretation because prophecy edifies those hearing it, whereas speaking with tongues without interpretation doesn't (see 1 Cor. 14:3-5). (In this chapter Paul demonstrates that speaking with tongues without interpretation is not appropriate for church gatherings.) He repeatedly hammers away at this point throughout the rest of this chapter. It is almost unbelievable how much time he takes to demonstrate that speaking with tongues without interpretation doesn't edify the church. He must have known that some at Corinth were rather obstinate regarding their misuse of tongues. There was too much public speaking with tongues; the attitude/motivation of at least some of those speaking with tongues was far from (the required) love; and, significantly, the tongues (at least much of the time) were not being interpreted.]] (2) For one who speaks in a tongue [cf. Mark 16:17; Acts 2:4, 11; 10:46; 19:6; 1 Cor. 12:10, 28, 30; 13:1; 14:4-39] does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands [[It is good to speak to God, but it is not appropriate to speak out loud in a tongue in a church gathering unless it is interpreted because no one will understand what was said (even if God does). There is room for exceptions to this rule. (There is room for exceptions to most rules.) God could, for example, speak a word through a Christian in a tongue to someone in the church, knowing that that person understands the language (like on the Day of Pentecost). In a case like that the interpretation of the tongue would not be required, but in such cases it would be appropriate to inform the church regarding what had taken place when it becomes known.

Paul's words here have sometimes been wrongly understood to teach that all words spoken in tongues are words directed to God. Acts 2:11, for example, demonstrates that tongues can be words directed to people, not God. This is confirmed by many examples from our day, examples where God has spoken to people through tongues in a language they understood and examples where the tongues were interpreted.]], but in his spirit he speaks mysteries [cf. 1 Cor. 13:2]. [[The word "his" is in italics in the NASB; in the margin it has, "or, by the Spirit." I prefer "by the Spirit," or "in the Spirit," but it is also a fact that the spirit of the Christian is involved when speaking/praying in tongues (see 1 Cor. 14:14). No Christian can speak with tongues without the enablement of the Holy Spirit (I'm speaking of a genuine manifestation of the charismatic gift of tongues), but it is also true that Christians are very much involved in speaking with tongues. Christians must cooperate with the Spirit of God to speak with tongues, as with prophecy, and with most other aspects of the Christian life. We are not impassive robots that God uses like a ventriloquist uses a dummy.

The Holy Spirit doesn't take over and force Christians to speak with tongues, and most Christians who speak with tongues in our day testify that they can speak with tongues at any time. If they wanted to they could speak out loud during a church service, but as the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets (14:32), and those prophesying are not compelled to speak or to keep on speaking; so too for those speaking with tongues, including a devotional use of tongues. This chapter of 1 Corinthians seems to clearly show that those who spoke with tongues at Corinth could, and sometimes did, speak at inappropriate times; the Spirit didn't stop them (but He did correct them through Paul, and He probably tried to correct them directly and/or through others), and there is no indication that the tongues being spoken in the church at Corinth were not genuine.

The words "speaks mysteries" at least include the idea that no one (except God), including the speaker, understands what is being said.]] (3) But the one who prophesies speaks to men for edification ["Edify" and "edification" are key words in this chapter (see 14:4, 5, 12, 17, and 26; and note the similar ideas of profiting in 14:6, instructing in 14:19, and learning and being exhorted in 14:31.] and exhortation [The NIV has "encouragement."] and consolation [The NIV has "comfort."]. [[Many Pentecostals and charismatics use this verse (wrongly from my point of view) to teach that what is often called the simple gift of prophecy (supposedly the gift mentioned in 1 Cor. 12:10) has no revelation content at all. (For one thing, as I mentioned under 1 Cor. 14:1, prophesying here probably should not be limited to speaking messages under the anointing of the Spirit.) I'm quite sure that Paul didn't intend to exclude revelation from the prophesying that he was speaking of here in 14:3 (whether prophesying is limited to speaking messages under the anointing of the Spirit, or not). His point was to show that prophecy, unlike the misuse of tongues at Corinth (public tongues without interpretation), would bless the others with edification, exhortation (encouragement), and consolation (comfort).

To the extent that there would be no revelation in prophecy, it would hardly deserve the name prophecy. By revelation I mean a revealing of something God actually says/reveals to His people. If God just wanted to speak to one person through prophecy and tell them of His love for them, that would be a revelation. (The Bible, of course, is full of revelation, and we are to take it personally.) Such revelations could cover a wide range of topics. God could, for example, call an individual, or a church, to repentance; He could warn the church of a tornado coming to their town and direct them what they should do about it; He could confirm that He has called a particular person into a particular ministry; etc.

I have frequently heard Pentecostals and charismatics use this verse to try to prove that prophecy is out of order and not authentic if it contains any rebuking of people for their sin and calling them to repentance. They say (quite wrongly I believe) that 1 Cor. 14:3 excludes any such content. In the first place this verse is not giving a complete definition of prophecy. Also, words like exhortation include calls for repentance, and calls for repentance, if needed and heeded, will certainly result in the edification of the church. The more serious the message from God, however, the more we would expect the message to come through proven ministers.

Essentially all Pentecostals and charismatics that I am familiar with agree that any revelation given by God today would not be on the level of Scripture and would not be permitted to compete with Scripture. Significantly though, God can help us understand the Bible through revelation gifts.]] (4) One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. [[It is important to know that speaking in a tongue does edify the one speaking; it is a good thing for Christians to be edified. Paul's primary point here, however, is that it is wrong for the one speaking in tongues in church to be concerned for his own edification in a setting where he should be concerned for the edification of the church. It does not make sense (and it certainly is not being motivated by love) for one person to be edified at the expense of the others. For one thing, while he is speaking in tongues and is the center of attention, other necessary things (like prayer, worship, preaching, teaching, ministering to those who have needs, and prophesying) cannot be done.]] (5) Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues [[This wishing by Paul does not change the reality that it is God who determines how the charismatic ministry-gifts are to be distributed. Paul, of course, had no desire to go beyond the will of God. The verb "wish" is sometimes used in a rather limited sense; see 1 Cor. 7:7; cf. Num. 11:29; 1 Tim. 2:4 ("[God] who desires [using the same Greek verb translated wish here in 1 Cor. 14:5] all men to be saved").

It seems probable to me that devotional tongues are available to all Christians in our day (I'm certainly not being dogmatic on that point), but Paul was not speaking of a devotional use of tongues here; he was speaking (at least for the most part) of tongues that would be spoken in the church and interpreted (a ministry-gift of tongues). (See under 1 Cor. 12:10, 28, 30 in the article on 1 Corinthians chapter 12.) Although speaking with tongues was widespread in the early church ((I had a footnote: See Mark 16:17; Acts 2:4-42; 10:44-48; 19:5-7; and 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14; also to be considered are Eph. 6:18 and Jude 1:24, verses that speak of praying in the Spirit, which includes tongues (cf. 1 Cor. 14:14-16). Many agree that it seems rather clear that they spoke with tongues in Acts 8:15-19 even though Luke doesn't clearly state that they did. Also, Paul probably first spoke with tongues when he was filled with the Spirit (mentioned in Acts 9:17; we know that he did speak with tongues, a lot [1 Cor. 14:18].)) The New Testament certainly doesn't clearly show that all Christians will speak with tongues when they are filled with/baptized in the Holy Spirit or that devotional tongues are available to all Christians. I am not saying, by the way, that the apostle made a clear distinction between a charismatic devotional gift of tongues and a charismatic ministry-gift of tongues, but there is a difference between speaking with tongues in a person's devotional life and speaking with tongues in church, tongues that are to be interpreted.]], but even more that you would prophesy [[Many Pentecostals and charismatics believe that these words, and the words of 1 Cor. 14:1, and especially the words of 1 Cor. 14:31, teach that all Christians can, and should, prophesy. I believe this widespread teaching that all Christians can, and should, prophesy has caused substantial damage to the body of Christ. If we tell Christians (especially immature Christians) that the Bible teaches that all Christians can, and should, prophesy, and it is not really so - and I do not believe the Bible does teach this - we are in for some big trouble. We have opened a big door for the flesh, or even for demon spirits. Based on what I have observed, I believe that at least half of that which goes under the name of prophecy in some circles is not really prophecy. There is a lot of flesh, and I am afraid there are some demonic counterfeits too. I believe there are demonic counterfeits for tongues too. We must humble ourselves before God and let Him lead us to the balanced truth and keep us in the center of His will. We have a dedicated, subtle enemy who wants to lead us astray and to destroy us.

1 Corinthians chapter 12 does not fit the idea that all can prophesy (and this is true whether we think of prophesying as speaking forth under the anointing of the Spirit [see under 1 Cor. 12:10] or of prophesying in the fuller sense discussed under 1 Cor. 14:1). God distributes the ministry-gifts as He wills. What I said above regarding Paul's wish that all spoke in tongues applies equally to prophecy. Regarding 1 Cor. 14:1, I have heard Christians say that Paul would not tell Christians to desire earnestly the things of the Spirit, especially (rather) that they might prophesy, unless prophecy was available to all. However, in 1 Cor. 12:31a, Paul told the same people to earnestly desire the greater gifts, and it is clear in chapter 12 that this does not mean that each gift is available to each Christians for the asking. Regarding 1 Cor. 14:31, which says, "For you can all prophesy one by one," I stand somewhat amazed by how often I have heard this verse used to supposedly prove that all Christians can, and should, prophesy. It has always seemed clear to me that when you read these words in context with 14:29-32, Paul was speaking to the prophets - these words (of 14:31) were not addressed to all the Christians at Corinth.]]; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. [These words continue Paul's contrasting prophesying with speaking with tongues without interpretation that continues throughout this chapter. Based on these words, we can see that tongues, when they are interpreted, are the equivalent of Spirit-inspired prophetic utterances. The one who speaks with tongues need not be the one who interprets (cf. 1 Cor. 14:27, 28).] (6) But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues [[For one thing, it is important to know that the great apostle did speak with tongues. Not only that, in 1 Cor. 14:18 he said, "I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all." But in 1 Cor. 14:19 he said, "however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind [in other words, five words in a common language], that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue." The apostle could edify them by speaking five words they understood, but he could not edify them by speaking ten thousand words they did not understand.

Paul could, of course, have spoken in tongues and then interpreted the tongues, but he did not suggest that option here. The point he is making here is that when he is with the Corinthians he communicates with them in words they can understand (in Greek) so they can be edified.

It seems clear that tongues with interpretation were not part of Paul's public ministry; at the most tongues played a very minor role in his public ministry. Paul must have done his extensive tongue speaking as part of his devotional life. Why did he do it? For one thing, he was edified, and I assume the Spirit used this gift to substantially enhance his time spent in prayer and worship.]], what will I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? [There is much overlap in meaning between the four items listed here. For example, the apostle's "teaching" was saturated with "revelation." "Prophecy" here could be limited to speaking messages under the anointing of the Spirit] (7) Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? (8) For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? [There can be no music without a proper distinction in sounds, and the bugle cannot communicate the intended message without producing the required, predetermined sounds.] (9) So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear [The NIV has, "intelligible words."], how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. [Unless you speak words understood by the hearers, very little detailed communication takes place through your words, and that is exactly what happens when you speak to/before others in tongues.] (10) There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages [The Greek noun behind "language(s)" here in 1 Cor. 12:10, 11 is different than the Greek noun translated "tongues" in this chapter. The Greek noun (glossa) that is translated tongues in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 can also be translated languages.] in the world, and no kind is without meaning. (11) If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. [Men cannot directly communicate with one another in a detailed sense unless they use a common language. These two verses were just a small part of Paul's lengthy discourse aimed at convincing the Corinthian Christians (those who needed to be convinced) that it was inappropriate for them to speak out loud in tongues in church unless the tongues were interpreted.] (12) So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts [As in 1 Cor. 12:1 and 14:1, a more literal translation would be "the things of the Spirit," but the translation of the NASB communicates the intended meaning well.], seek to abound for the edification of the church. [It is good to be zealous for the gifts/things of the Spirit (cf. 14:1), but the charismatic ministry-gifts must be used for the edification of the church. This is a dominant message in this chapter; see under 14:3.] (13) Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. [[When the tongue is interpreted, the church will be edified (cf. 1 Cor. 14:5). In context Paul was dealing with a public use of tongues. (It is far less important to interpret devotional tongues, but that can be done as God wills.) Paul was addressing a situation where (often at least) no one was interpreting the tongues. If others had been interpreting, it would not have been nearly so important (if required at all) for the one speaking with tongues to pray for the gift of interpretation.] (14) For [[I would omit this word in the English translation. If we include "for" it tends to (wrongly I believe) force the words "pray with the mind" of the next verse to mean interpreting what was prayed in tongues. The Greek conjunction "gar" that is translated "for" here is included in brackets in my Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, Fourth Revised Edition). The brackets show that there is doubt regarding whether the word was included in the original Greek text written by Paul. Gordon D. Fee argues against including for here ("First Epistle to the Corinthians" [Eerdmans, 1987], pages 667, 669). In a footnote on page 667 he says: "This gar (not found in p46, B, F, G, 0243, 1739, 1881, pc [referring to ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts; the next two listings refer to ancient Latin manuscripts], b, sa) is by all counts not original. Its omission [if it had been in Paul's original manuscript] would be almost impossible to account for, either accidentally or deliberately - even more so independently across two early [Greek New Testament manuscript] traditions (Egyptian and Western). One can easily account for the [later] addition [of gar in some later Greek manuscripts], given both the frequency of this conjunction [gar] in this letter and the apparent awkwardness of the asyndeton [the practice of leaving out the usual conjunctions between coordinate sentence elements]...."]] if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays [The "Amplified Bible" has, "my spirit [by the Holy Spirit within me] prays."], but my mind [The KJV has "my understanding."] is unfruitful. [[What the apostle apparently means here (in context with 1 Cor. 14:15-19) is that my mind/understanding (using the word mind/understanding in the sense that I speak words with my mind/understanding before others in a common language) is not bearing fruit in others if I pray in a tongue before them (since they don't understand what I said).

It is not true, as I have heard it said, that this verse shows that man's mind (understanding, thinking, and knowing) is something totally separate from his spirit; I don't believe Paul intended to communicate any such idea here. See my paper titled, "Some Things We Should Know About the Meaning of the Words, 'Spirit' and Soul,' " published in April, 2012.) The spirit of man is involved with the mind (understanding, thinking, and knowing). The Holy Spirit is also very much involved with the mind/thinking of the Christian as the Christian walks after the Spirit by faith. The Holy Spirit enables us to think right. He is especially interested in the thinking we do in our hearts/spirits/inner man. (See pages 118-120 of my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin" on Rom. 8:5-9; and see note 32 on page 138 of that book.)]] (15) What is the outcome then? [I prefer the NIV's "So what shall I do?"] I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. [[To "pray with the spirit" here means to pray in tongues, by the enablement of the Holy Spirit. To "pray with the mind" here means to pray in our own language, the way we normally speak. (Some say that to pray with the mind here means to interpret the tongues.) For us to pray in English, with our mind (understanding, thinking, and knowing) involved, does not mean that the Spirit is not involved. He is involved as we walk after the Spirit (not the flesh). The primary point the apostle makes here, as 14:16-19 confirm, is that there are occasions where we should "pray with the mind," that is, there are occasions where we should not pray with tongues.

To "sing with the spirit" means to sing with tongues (by the Spirit); to "sing with the mind" is to sing, as we normally do, in languages we know. The "spiritual songs" of Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16 may refer to (or at least include) singing in/with the spirit/Spirit. It does not follow that the Spirit is (necessarily) excluded from our worship if we sing before God with our minds (in English). We are called to walk by/in/after the Spirit all the time (cf. Gal. 5:16).]] (16) Otherwise if you bless in [or, with] the spirit [in tongues by the Spirit] only [[I would omit this word, which the NASB supplied in italics. The translators apparently assumed (wrongly I believe) that Paul was referring to the need to interpret the tongues after blessing (praising/giving thanks) in/with tongues. I assume that Paul brought up this topic because he had learned that some were blessing with tongues at Corinth. I believe Paul was saying here that there are times, like with such a blessing, that it should typically be spoken in the language of the people to begin with (and all the more so, when there are people there - including those who haven't become Christians yet - who don't have any idea what is happening). The NIV has, "If you are praising God with your spirit."]], how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted [In the margin the NASB has, "unversed in spiritual gifts." Instead of "one who fill the place of the ungifted," the margin of the NIV has, "one who finds himself among the inquirers." The Greek noun translated "ungifted here is "idiotes."] say the 'Amen' at your giving of thanks, since he doesn't know what you are saying? [[It is not clear exactly what persons the apostle was referring to by the "ungifted" here (or however we translate this Greek noun), nor is it very important for us to know. (The plural of the Greek noun that is translated "ungifted" here is translated "ungifted men" in 14:23, and the singular is translated "ungifted man" in 14:24.) People cannot give a wholehearted Amen if they do not know what was said. Even those who have received the Spirit and are well-versed in spiritual gifts could have trouble giving a wholehearted Amen with such blessings (thanksgivings). How much more so for those who are somewhat on the outside regarding these things. There probably would be occasions when they would not even have any idea that an Amen was appropriate (until they heard the others say Amen), much less would they be able to give a wholehearted Amen.]] (17) For you are giving thanks well enough [by giving thanks in tongues]], but the other man is not edified [and that is not acceptable]. [[I find these words, "you are giving thanks well enough," to be extremely interesting and informative. If the Spirit will enable Christians to give thanks in tongues (though we typically would not give thanks that way in a public gathering), it seems a reasonable deduction that He will help us pray in other areas, for example, about specific problems where we hardly know how to pray; in praise and worship; in intercessory prayer; etc. I am speaking, of course, about praying in our personal times of prayer (devotional tongues), not about speaking out loud in church gatherings.]] (18) I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all [The NIV has, "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you."]; (19) however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind [[On the interpretation of these verses, see under 1 Cor. 14:6, 15-17. It certainly is interesting and informative to know that the apostle Paul viewed the use of tongues in his prayer/devotional life so highly. As in 14:14, the KJV has "understanding" instead of "mind." Paul is referring to speaking five words the way men typically speak to one another, in a common language. As I mentioned, the fact that he is speaking "with [his] mind" does not mean that the Spirit is not behind what is being said (and especially when a person like the apostle Paul is speaking).]] so that I may instruct others also [and the saints be edified], rather than ten thousand words in a tongue [and Paul be edified, but not the saints].

We will continue this verse-by-verse study of 1 Corinthians chapter 14 with verse 20 in Part 2.

Copyright by Karl Kemp Karl Kemp worked as an engineer in the space field throughout the 60s. He became a born-again Christian in 1964. He received an MA in Biblical Studies in 1972. He has been a Bible teacher for 45 years. See the website for more info on his books, papers, etc.

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