Paul now begins a series of instructions on how spiritual gifts should be used in the assembly —
(1Co 14:27-28 ESV) 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
First, with regard to tongues, he insists that an interpreter be present, that the speakers take turns, and that no more than two or three tongue-speakers speak. Obviously, Paul is being very practical here. It’s not that there is some profound theological reason limiting the number of speakers in an assembly to three. Rather, Paul simply thinks that in that congregation and in that culture more tongue-speaking would not be edifying, and it’s easy to see his point.
(1Co 14:29-33a ESV) 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
As to prophecy, the instructions are very similar. Do not interrupt each other. No more than two or three per assembly. If the Spirit moves a prophet to speak, then whoever had been speaking should yield the floor.
Paul then insists that the prophets (and presumably the tongue speakers) are able to control themselves. “The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” In other words, don’t bother arguing that you were rude and went beyond Paul’s guidelines because the Spirit made you do it.
Rarely commented on is the phrase in v. 29 “let the others weigh [pass judgment] on what is said.” “Weigh” does not mean merely to reflect or think about. The sense of the Greek is to pass judgment on what is being said. In other words, don’t assume that all that is spoken in the name of prophecy is truly from God. The other prophets should judge the validity of the message. This is the same message as —
(1Jo 4:1 ESV) Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
We are not allowed to be naive. We cannot accept as true all that is credited to the Spirit.
(1Co 14:37-40 ESV) 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.
You’ll notice that I’ve skipped the passage on the role of women. We’ll come back to it. For now, notice how well these verses fit immediately after v. 33a. The lessons on women are generally applicable, but Paul reverts here to addressing only those who consider themselves prophets or “spiritual.” “Spiritual” translates pneumatikos, meaning driven or activated by the Spirit, rather than “concerned about religion.” Paul is saying that if you claim your behavior is Spirit-driven, then surely the Spirit will help you see the rightness of Paul’s words.
The NRSV translation places 14:33b-36 in parentheses, as an interjected thought on a different subject, which seems right. This passage does not really fit in Paul’s flow of thought in this location.
And so this tells us what Paul means by “decently and in order.” It does not mean “very formally” or “with great solemnity.” Plainly, Paul’s real point is that the assembly should be conducted in a manner that edifies, and edification requires that we not allow chaos to govern our services. Interrupting a brother to show off one’s gifts or refusing to control one’s gift for the benefit of those present does not demonstrate that the Spirit works powerfully within you. It demonstrates that you are rude.
We err when we imagine that our assemblies are acceptable to God based primarily on whether we conducted them decently and in order. It’s a standard we ought to meet, but it’s a very low standard. The point is to avoid chaos and rudeness. We should strive for a much higher standard: that our services edify, that is, that they build up the body to better follow Jesus.
Therefore, rather than concluding an assembly with a prayer that our worship has been done decently and in order, we’d do better to pray that we leave the service better able to live the life that Jesus lived.