CHURCH PRIORITIES 1 Corinthians 14
“I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified” (1 Cor. 14:5–6).We gather to worship and build one another up.
More about tongues.
Modern exercise of the gift of “speaking in tongues” has become a divisive issue in many churches. A careful study of 1 Corinthians 14 should correct excesses of those on both sides of this issue. On the one hand, the validity of the gift of tongues was not challenged by Paul, nor was its exercise. On the other hand, Paul offered no support to those who held that this gift is “the” test of having received the Holy Spirit. In fact, Paul’s argument hinged on intelligibility. Whatever happens when Christians gather as Christ’s church must be for the building up of believers. Speaking in tongues does not make this contribution, unless the speaker interprets what he or she said. But perhaps the greatest contribution to settling the controversy was made earlier, in 1 Corinthians 8. There Paul taught that doctrinal disputes do not need to divide Christians if those on each side consider the possibility that they may not have all the answers. Those on each side should constantly express their love for those with whom they differ, seeking to build them up rather than tear them down (8:1–4, see DEVOTIONAL).
Intelligible speech is to have priority in church meetings (14:1–19), where “tongues” has limited value (vv. 20–25). Participation during services is to be orderly (vv. 26–40).
Understanding the Text
“Especially the gift of prophecy” 1 Cor. 14:1–5. The exact nature of the gift of prophecy as exercised in the first-century church is much debated. Some take 13:8, “prophecies . . . will cease,” to mean that after the New Testament writings were complete, special revelations given through members of local congregations were no longer needed. The original “gift of prophecy” has been transmuted into a gift of preaching the Word. Others hold that this is a gift of revelation. Not that prophecy replaces the Word of God, but that it somehow supplements, while remaining subordinate to, Scripture. Paul’s view was clear. “Prophecy” is instruction uttered in plain, ordinary speech so everyone can understand, that builds up believers. Whatever prophecy was, it did the same thing for the church that a mother does when talking about God as she tucks her child in bed at night. It did the same thing for the church that a family does in reading a devotional book and talking about its meaning. It did the same thing for the church that a Sunday School teacher does when explaining how a passage of the Bible applies to daily life. You may not think of yourself as a prophet. But you can have a prophet’s ministry—and reward—as you share your faith with your family and friends. “Speak intelligible words with your tongue” 1 Cor. 14:6–19. What we do when Christians gather is minister to each other. We need this perspective, not just for setting the gift of tongues in proper perspective, but for everything we do in our services. In prayer, praise, teaching, and sharing, God can and does use what we say to build up His church. “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers” 1 Cor. 14:20–25. Here as elsewhere, a “sign” is a visible mark of God’s presence or activity. In saying tongues are not a sign for believers, Paul underlined an earlier point. We’re not to look to this or any spiritual gift as a gauge of spirituality. Tongues might have served, in first-century culture, as a sign to unbelievers who associated such phenomenon with a work of God (see 1 Cor. 12–13). But even then intelligible speech has priority in church. As Paul noted, if an unbeliever visits a church meeting and finds everyone speaking in tongues, he’ll say, “You are out of your mind” (14:23). But an unbeliever who comes and understands what is being said will be convicted of sin, and converted (vv. 24–25). Tongues are a valid spiritual gift. But they really weren’t anything for the Corinthians to get so excited about. “Women should remain silent” 1 Cor. 14:34–36. This is one of the most debated passages in the New Testament. Why? Because: (1) It doesn’t seem to fit the context of Paul’s argument. (2) It doesn’t seem to reflect the attitude toward women that Paul displays in other passages, such as Romans 16. (3) It seems to directly contradict what Paul had said in 11:5, 13 about the right of women to “prophesy and pray” in congregational gatherings. Some have argued, and on strong grounds, that these verses were not written by Paul, but were incorporated from a “gloss”—notes that someone made on an early manuscript. This may be the solution, as surely Scripture does not contradict Scripture, and earlier Paul argued powerfully for the right of women to take an active part in church meetings. There’s another possibility that some have suggested. Perhaps those who upset the orderliness of church meetings in Corinth were women, whose obsessive emphasis on tongues led to outbursts and loud demands. In that case, Paul might not contradict himself at all. First Corinthians 11 would teach that women can participate with men, while 1 Corinthians 14 would correct the abuse of that participation. I don’t think anyone really knows the answer. But we do know, for sure, that when the text says, “It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church,” it is not saying, “Shut up!” to women who have a testimony to share, a prayer to offer, or a truth to relate. Women have spiritual gifts too. And a church needs the exercise of those gifts to be healthy and whole.
Come on In!(1 Cor. 14:26–40)
We knock. The door’s thrown open wide, and we’re welcomed by a smiling slave. One of the brothers. This is “going to church” in the first century, and we know it’s going to be, well, different. Inside we sit down in the largest room with some 15 or 20 others. The meeting starts with singing, and everybody seems to want to start a hymn. The singing is interrupted now and then as one person or another speaks—contributing “a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” We can’t make out just who the pastor is. No one gets up in front and talks 30 or 40 minutes. Instead, almost everyone speaks; some just a word or two, others saying more. There’s prayer too. And, even though we can’t understand the Greek they speak, we sense their warmth and sincerity. This is the picture Paul gives us of a church meeting in 1 Corinthians 14. One that fits perfectly with other New Testament references to Christian gatherings, found in Colossians 3:15–16 and Hebrews 10:24–25. What strikes us most of all is the informality, and the fact that everyone participates. These folks seem to take the teaching that everyone has a spiritual gift seriously! So everyone is given the opportunity to share. Somehow in the nearly 2,000 years that have passed since Paul wrote these words, church meetings have changed. They’re more formal now. Usually only one person, a professional, selects the hymns, prays, and speaks. The rest of us sit there, dressed up, worshiping. Even learning. But not using our gift, and not being ministered to by others. I don’t suppose any of us seriously imagine that we can go back to the first-century church. Or even that we should. But somewhere in your Christian experience and in mine we have to make room for that same kind of quiet gathering of believers who know, love, and minister to each other. Maybe this is happening in your Sunday School class. Maybe in a prayer cell. Maybe even in your own living room, in a home Bible study. But it does need to be happening somewhere. You do have a spiritual gift. Others need your ministry to them. And you need theirs.
You don’t have to go to church to be in church.
“What matters in the church is not religion but the form of Christ, and its taking form amidst a band of men.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer