Is there a right way to worship together in a congregation? Certain things, perhaps, feel right; is that simply because we’ve always done it that way, or because these things are right, and should be a rule for every church?
As we approach the end of 1 Corinthians 14, we see Paul beginning to wrap up an argument that stretches back to the beginning of chapter 12. There, he began answering a question the Corinthians had asked about spiritual gifts. Sadly, we have no record of the question itself; we have to infer it from the answers Paul gives. But as we’ve seen, the situation seems to be that certain members of the congregation who spoke in tongues considered themselves to be spiritually elite. Against such arrogance, Paul teaches that (a) the church is one body with many members with diverse gifts, (b) all members have a place in that body and equal value in the eyes of God, (c) the way of love is superior to all spiritual gifts, and (d) everyone, in love, should use their gifts to build up the body.
Reading between the lines of 1 Corinthians 14:26-33, we can guess at just how chaotic things had become. He begins by encouraging everyone to have a role in building up the church (vs. 26). But his imposition of order in the verses that follow hints at the existing disorder:
If some speak in a tongue, then let two or at most three speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. However, if there is no interpreter, then they should keep quiet in the meeting. They should speak privately to themselves and to God. In the case of prophets, let two or three speak and have the rest evaluate what is said. And if some revelation comes to someone else who is sitting down, the first one should be quiet. You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace. (1 Cor 14:27-33a, CEB)
He gives parallel instructions, first, regarding speaking in tongues (the gift they most value), then second, regarding prophecy (the gift he most values). In each case, there should be a limit of two to three instances of inspired speech, only one should speak at a time, and what is said should be interpreted or evaluated. The purpose, again, is edification. Prophecy (and by implication, speaking in tongues) is not a matter of having one’s spirit completely taken over in ecstatic utterance, as the Corinthians were used to seeing in pagan worship: those who speak under divine inspiration can indeed make the choice to sit down, keep quiet, or take turns. (Knowing Paul’s other letters, we might add that self-control is itself a mark of the Spirit — see Gal 5:23.)
Imagine the situation that would require Paul to say such things. The meeting may have had no agreed leadership structure. Several people were spontaneously speaking in tongues, all at the same time, and no one understood what was being said. And quite possibly, unbelievers who visited the congregation were thinking the Corinthian Christians were nuts (vs. 23).
Keep in mind that nowhere does Paul suggest that speaking in tongues is an illegitimate expression of the Spirit. He only says that if it doesn’t edify the group, it should be kept private, between the speaker and God (vs. 28). Remember, too, that this is a church that is still trying to find its way, still making it up as they go along. The Holy Spirit has been moving powerfully among them. But that doesn’t mean anything goes. They still need Paul’s wise pastoral guidance, even if that means hearing things they don’t want to hear.
Paul, of course, doesn’t settle for giving them a list of behavioral rules. What he wants them to take to heart is that “God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.” With this statement, he flings wide the theological windows, opening a vista of what the church can and should be. Whatever the Corinthians do, their life together as a congregation should reflect the character of God.
And in truth, we as a church are still making it up as we go along. Traditions of practice are valuable, but no tradition is absolute. What counts is to embody the character of a God of peace.
More about that in the next post.