(1Co 14:23-25 ESV) 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
To me, the really interesting part of this passage is not the ban on tongue-speaking in the assembly (unless an interpreter is present), but the insight it provides into the nature of prophecy in the Corinthian church. Evidently, in that congregation, prophecy was not so much about knowing the future as knowing the secrets of someone else’s heart.
Obviously, we have in Acts the example of Agabus, a prophet with knowledge of the future, but that hardly means that all persons called “prophet” had the same sort of prophetic gift.
As we’ve seen in earlier posts, the OT calls “prophecy” not only those messages from God destined to become part of scripture, but all sorts of other Spirit-driven utterances. And sometimes the term clearly refers to ecstatic speech, as in Num 11 and 1 Sam 10. In Acts, there is something about the speech of certain converts immediately after baptism that identified their speech as “prophecy” — although Luke records nothing that was said. Clearly, it’s a mistake to assume that all prophecy is of the same nature as scripture — and 1 Cor 14:24-25 gives a great example of what a prophet might be gifted to do that has nothing to do with doctrine or inscripturization.
But we can see this just from the fact that Paul had to write 1 Corinthians to the church in Corinth despite the fact that the church was filled with prophets. Obviously, these prophets weren’t gifted to give the kind of instruction Paul gives in his letter. And so we really need to stop teaching that God gave the church prophets to provide the church with the same knowledge as is now provided by the NT. It’s just not true. If it were true, most of the NT never would have been written.
Of course, some men were prophets with the gift to write scripture — which is why we have scripture from non-apostles, such as Luke. But “prophecy” covered a wide range of spiritual gifts, and the only prophetic gift that we clearly find in Corinth is the ability to know someone else’s heart — much as Jesus knew the history and heart of the Samaritan woman in John 4.
Again we see Paul being very concerned with the impression left on visitors. The goal insofar as visitors are concerned is for them to “worship God and declare that God is really among you.” And we don’t need the gift of prophecy for visitors to perceive the presence of God in the Christian assembly. On the other hand, neither should we assume that visitors will recognize God among us regardless of how we behave.
And so it’s worth pondering: How in the present age should a church display God’s presence in the assembly?
“Each one …”
(1Co 14:26 ESV) 26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
In my experience, there are two takes on this passage popular in the blogosphere:
* Some argue from this for spontaneous worship. Each member is free to speak, lead a prayer, give a brief talk, or lead a song as the Spirit moves him. There is no planning and no “order of worship.” And many readers here have experienced just such services and found them very moving.
My church has actually experimented with this many years ago — when we were much smaller. The risk you take is that someone gets up and does something just dreadful and embarrassing, of course, but then again, I’ve seen some pretty dreadful leading by paid professionals.
Nonetheless, it’s an idea well worth experimenting with in the right setting. But we should not make the mistake of taking this as a “binding example” and insisting that things must be done this way. There is no such doctrine in the Bible.
* Others argue that this is actually a criticism by Paul of the selfishness of the Corinthians. “Let all things be done for building up” is read as a rebuke against each person doing his own thing.
And grammatically and contextually, it’s hard to say such a reading is impossible — which is another reason not to insist on spontaneous worship as the only right way. It’s not even clear that Paul is describing something that he favors.
One commentary rejects the notion that Paul is suggesting that the Spirit prompts the worship entirely during the assembly.
That each one has one of those things seems to suggest they bring them to the gathering, rather than that they receive them during the meeting.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 710.
In fact, I just checked six premier commentaries, and not a one agrees with either of the above theories. Rather, all conclude that Paul is speaking about inclusiveness. The assembly should include participation by the members according to their giftedness. After all, the subject here is spiritual gifts.
The commentators are careful to point out that Paul is not requiring that literally everyone participate in a leadership role, but that participation be broadly based, using the gifts God has given them, but only in a way that is truly edifying — as he’ll explain in the next few verses. The idea is that the church assembles so that the wide ranging gifts of the Spirit may be shared for mutual edification.
Now, at this point I have to point out a parallel passage, often ignored in discussions of the assembly —
(Heb 10:23-25 ESV) 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering [without turning to the side], for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The author’s point is that, because we can fall away (10:26 ff), we must hold fast to our faith. To do this, we must stir up (the Greek can be used of provoking, even irritating, someone) each other “to love and good works” — which is why we must be diligent in meeting together. Our meetings are to be encouragements to remain true to Jesus until the end.
In other words, rather than “edification,” the author of Hebrews speaks of “encouragement” and stirring up to love and good works — which are, of course, examples of edification. Remember: edification is about becoming like Jesus, and so love and good works are surely at the core the concept.
I said all that to say this: the verb is active, not passive. We don’t consider how to be encouraged or how to be stirred up. Our task is to reflect on how we might encourage others so that the others love and do good works. We attend the assembly to edify others, not to seek edification from others. It’s not about being “fed” but feeding others. It’s not about leaving having been encouraged but leaving having encouraged.
And every church I’ve ever attended has a few members who are powerfully gifted in this way, and I suspect that they are the ones who leave most encouraged — because there is nothing more encouraging than thinking about others. We are far, far too self-concerned when it comes to the assembly. And our self-indulgence discourages us, because the path to happiness is not found in self-indulgence.
Paul’s statement that “each one has …” tells us that Paul expects the members to come prepared to provide something for the edification of others. And while our modern assemblies are not all that participatory, the fact is that much of the most important encouragement in church happens in the aisles, not from the pulpit. It’s those invitations to lunch, to join a small group, to help with the soup kitchen, to host a shower, to visit the hospital, and on and on that the assembly is really all about. This is where we learn to follow Jesus. This is how we encourage our brothers and sisters to love and do good works. It’s not about taking turns at the microphone nearly so much as inviting new and old, young and aged, to participate in the Kingdom work of the church. Even if the sermon is boring and songs are led too slowly.