Since chapter 11 the apostle Paul has been addressing the subject of public worship and how the believers in Corinth were to conduct themselves and treat one another whenever they met together for worship.
First of all, at the beginning of chapter 11, he wrote that those women in the congregation who prophesied and prayed should wear a covering on their head as a sign of authority.
Then in the remainder of chapter 11, he wrote about the Lord’s Supper. And do you remember how they were abusing the Table of the Lord? In those days, the Lord’s Supper was part of a larger meal; and it seems that some of them were eating too much and drinking too much; some of them were even getting drunk. Meanwhile others in the congregation did not get enough and were hungry. And so Paul wrote to them about what they were doing and he warned them about it and taught them that they needed to examine themselves before they came to the Lord’s Table so that they would not eat and drink judgment upon themselves for abusing the sacrament.
Then in chapter 12 Paul wrote about spiritual gifts. It seems some of them regarded speaking in tongues as the most important gift; and those with that gift looked down on and despised those who did not have that particular gift. And so, Paul wrote to remind them that every spiritual gift comes from God; and every member of the church is important and vital, no matter which gift they have; and the gifts they have received from the Lord should be used, not selfishly, but for the common good.
And then, in chapter 13, Paul wrote about the importance of love. Love is so important that the value of anything we may do in the name of the Lord is undone if we do not possess love. The members of the church in Corinth thought they were so spiritual because of their many gifts; but the mark of true spirituality is love; and Paul taught his readers that we’re to love one another with a love that is patient and kind and which does not envy or boast and which is not proud or rude or self-seeking and which is not easily-angered and keeps no record of wrong. That’s how we’re to treat one another; that’s how we’re to love one another.
And then, the last time, we studied verses 1 to 25 of chapter 4 where Paul returns to the subject of spiritual gifts and where he demonstrated the priority of prophecy over speaking in tongues. They were putting all the emphasis on speaking in tongues; but Paul was making clear that prophecy was better, because unless there’s someone available who can interpret what the tongue-speaker is saying, tongue-speaking benefits no one in the church except the speaker, whereas prophecy benefits everyone. And if an unbeliever comes into church when they’re all speaking in tongues, he’ll think you’re out of your mind. But if an unbeliever comes into church and someone is prophesying — declaring the word of the word — that unbeliever will be brought under conviction and will fall down and worship.
And, of course, I explained that prophecy and tongue-speaking — which we read about here — were for those days only before the New Testament was written and before the Bible was complete. Before the Bible was complete, God revealed his will to his people through the apostles and prophets. Now that the Bible is complete, God reveals his will to his people through the Holy Scriptures which are God-breathed and useful for teaching and rebuking and correcting and training in righteousness.
So, we’ve been thinking about worship; and there really is no more vital topic than this for us to think about, because that’s what we’re for. That’s what we’re here for; and this is the purpose of our life: we were made to worship the Lord and to glorify him. But, since we’re sinners, and since every part of our being has been spoiled by sin, then we’re all liable to go astray in our worship and to corrupt it and spoil it. That’s what was happening in Corinth: the worship of God was corrupted because of their sin. And since we’re all sinners, we’re all liable to go astray in how we worship the Lord. And so, it’s vital that we return to the Scriptures again and again and again to see what God’s will is for our worship and to ensure that we do not go astray, but continue to worship the Lord according to his word.
And in today’s passage, Paul concludes what he has to say about worship. Look at verse 26 for a moment. He wrote in that verse:
When you come together….
When you come together for worship. He’s thinking about public worship, when God’s people come together to worship the Lord. And then at the end of the passage, in verse 40, we have the conclusion which is very clear. Paul wrote:
But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Sometimes Christians like to think that worship must be marked by spontaneity and freedom. They will talk about the freedom of the Spirit and about being led by the Spirit to do things we did not expect or plan. We mustn’t stifle the Spirit, we’re warned. We must leave room for him to move among us in new and unexpected ways. But what does Paul say? He says that everything must be done in a fitting and orderly way. Or glance back to verse 33 where he wrote:
For God is not a God of disorder, but of peace.
Think of Genesis 1 when the Lord created the heavens and the earth. At first there was disorder and chaos, because the world was formless and empty. But then, over the space of those first six days, the Lord imposed order on the world by separating day from night, and by separating the waters below from the waters above, and by separating the seas from the dry land. In the beginning he imposed order on the world. And then, every day he guides and directs all his creatures and their actions according to his plans and purposes, which he is carefully working out in order to accomplish his own ends. So, every day he orders the events of the world according to his plans and purposes. He’s not a God of disorder, but of order and peace. And our services of worship ought to reflect that.
But the influence of the charismatic churches is so strong, that even Presbyterians are tempted to think that spontaneity is necessary for worship and the true mark of spirituality is freedom of expression; and that planning out and preparing an order of service only kills the Spirit. But what do we find in this chapter? God is not a God of disorder; everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. And because that is true, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth because he had serious misgivings about the way they were conducting their worship and he wanted to impose order on what they were doing.
And so, after verse 26 where he begins his closing remarks on this subject, he gives them rules concerning speaking in tongues; then he gives them rules concerning prophecy; then he gives them rules about women; and then we have his conclusion.
And so, in verse 26 he begins his closing remarks:
What then shall we say, brothers?
He’s saying to them: Bearing in mind everything that I’ve said since chapter 11 about worship, what then shall we say about this subject of public worship? Well, he first outlines what their services were like. When they came together for worship, everyone had a hymn, or a word of instruction, or a revelation or a tongue, or an interpretation. Now, this was a congregation with a super-abundance of spiritually gifted people; and among their membership where those who were able to bring hymns for them to sing and those who were able to instruct the others and those who could prophesy and those who could speak in tongues and those who could interpret or translate tongue-speaking. What a church!
It’s not clear whether those who brought the hymn composed the hymns themselves or whether they were using hymns that were composed previously by others. The Greek word which Paul used and which we translate as ‘hymn’ is actually ‘psalmos’ or ‘psalm’, but it’s simply a word referring to a song, and doesn’t necessarily refer to the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. A ‘word of instruction’ presumably refers to teaching the people from the Scriptures so that they congregation was able to grow in the knowledge of the Lord and his will. We’ve thought about prophecy and tongue-speaking on previously Sundays, and so you’ll recall that it refers to Spirit-inspired speech by which God revealed his truth to his people in those days before the Bible was complete. And since tongue-speaking could not be understood without a translator, there needed to be someone with the gift of interpretation.
When they came together as a church, they have among their membership people who could do all of these things. And presumably this was not a comprehensive list, but was only a sample of the kinds of gifts they possessed. But this is the kind of thing they did; and Paul says everyone contributed in some way.
And look at the end of verse 26: Paul wrote that all of these things must be done for the strengthening of the church. God had given them these special gifts so that the church would be strengthened. In other words, he gave them these gifts so that the believers would be built up in the faith and in holiness and comfort. He gave them these gifts for their benefit and their mutual edification. However, if they’re not using the gifts in the right way, then the church will not be built up. And so, they need to use the gifts in an orderly way.
Verses 27 and 28
And so, in verses 27 and 28 he gives them rules for tongue-speaking. He says that only two or three people should speak in a tongue; furthermore when they speak, they should do so, one at a time; and someone should interpret what they say; if there’s no interpreter, the tongue-speaker should keep quiet.
Well, if those are the rules, then we can perhaps work out what was going on in Corinth. We can imagine that many of them, lots of them, were speaking, not just two or three of them. And they were speaking all at once, and not one at a time. And perhaps often the messages were not interpreted, so that you had many speakers, all speaking at once, in words that no one can understand. It must have been bedlam and no wonder Paul imagined in verse 23 an outsider coming in and thinking they’re out of their mind. That’s certainly what you’d think if you went to their meetings, and everyone was speaking all at once in foreign languages which could not be understood or even heard, because they’re all speaking at once.
Think what it’s like when the teacher goes out of the classroom, and slowly but surely the noise in the classroom begins to rise, when one pupil after another realises the teacher has gone and there’s no one to tell them to be quiet; and soon you have 20 or 30 children, all talking away, noisily. Or we’ve all been to meetings, when two or three or four people are speaking at once, and it’s hard to follow what’s going on. You’re trying to listen to one person, but you’re been distracted by this other person who is speaking. That’s the kind of thing that was presumably happening in Corinth: too many people were speaking, too many were speaking all at once, and no one was translating what was being said. It was bedlam.
So, says Paul, restrict the number of tongue-speakers to two or three. Make sure they speak, not all at once, by one by one. And make sure there’s someone who can interpret what they say. That’s how to do it.
Verses 29 to 33a
Then in verses 29 to 33 he gives them rules about prophecy. Once again, only two or three prophets should speak, while the others should weigh carefully what was said. This could mean that the others are to decide whether or not the one who spoke is a true prophet or not. However, it’s more likely that Paul means that the others are to think carefully and reflect on the message which God has revealed to them through the prophet and even to test it to see whether or not it is a word from the Lord.
Furthermore, when a prophet is speaking and a new revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. In other words, Paul forbids them from allowing more than one person speak at a time. You can’t have people speaking over one another, or fighting with one another for attention. They’re to take turns so that — Paul says in verse 31 — everyone may be instructed and encouraged. God was revealing some truth to his people in order to instruct them in the faith and to encourage and comfort them in their afflictions. He wanted them to hear this message which was for their benefit; but they won’t hear or benefit from the message if there’s more than one prophet speaking at a time.
Well, we can imagine someone objecting and saying that when the Spirit comes upon them with a message from the Lord, they’re compelled to speak. They can’t be stopped. They’re in the Spirit and they’ve got this inner urge to speak which cannot be resisted: ‘When the Spirit comes, I have to speak! This impulse to speak comes over me and I have no control over it!’ Not so, says Paul in verse 32, because the spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets. Isn’t that interesting? When he refers to the spirits of the prophets, he’s referring to the divine influence which enables them to prophesy. However, when the Spirit of the Lord comes on them to enable them to speak, it’s not as if they lose all control of themselves. No, the prophets can still control themselves and they’re able to wait their turn and to be silent when necessary. After all, God is not a God of disorder, but of peace.
If many prophets all stood to speak and they all spoke at once, it would be chaos. It would be bedlam. No one could hear properly what was being said; there wouldn’t be opportunity for careful reflection; all you’d have was a noise, a chaotic, disorderly noise. Well, instead of disorder, there needs to be order; there needs to be peace, and not chaos, in the church of Jesus Christ.
Verses 33b to 36
If you look at verse 33, you’ll see that it’s split into two; and most commentators believe that the second half of the verse belongs with the verses which follow rather than with the previous verses. So, Paul’s saying:
As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.
In other words, Paul is saying that the universal rule and practice in all the churches is for women to remain silent.
Well now, when I was preaching on chapter 11, I mentioned the name of B.B. Warfield, a very influential theologian who died in 1921. He wrote an article on Paul’s view of women speaking in churches; and in the article, he wrote:
What must be noted in conclusion is [that] the prohibition of speaking in the church to women is precise, absolute, and all-inclusive. They are to keep silent in the churches — and that means in all the public meetings for worship; they are not even to ask questions….
B.B. Warfield was very certain: Paul taught that women should never ever speak in church. And if that’s the case — if God’s word forbids women from speaking in church and if God’s word insists that woman must remain silent in church on all occasions — then that means women mustn’t sing in church or even say ‘Amen’ in church at the end of a prayer. They can’t say anything or make any kind of sound in church. They must remain silent.
But what about what we read in chapter 11? Do you remember? In chapter 11, Paul wrote about women who prophesied and prayed in public. And the thing is: in chapter 11 he didn’t forbid the practice, but only said that when women do so, they should cover their head. So, is Paul contradicting himself? Is the Bible contradicting itself? In chapter 11 it allows women to speak in public and in chapter 14 it forbids women from speaking in public? Is it contradicting itself?
Well, that can’t be right, because the Bible is God’s word and it is free from error. That’s what we believe about God’s word. And therefore we believe it’s free from contradictions. So, how can Paul allow women to speak in public in one chapter and forbid it in another? Well, B.B. Warfield gets round it by saying that it’s not clear what Paul is referring to in chapter 11. Warfield says that we don’t know what Paul means in chapter 11, but we know for sure from chapter 14 that he forbids women from speaking in church.
But is that really what Paul is saying? Is he really forbidding women from making any kind of sound in church? Well, we need to remember the context of these verses. Paul has just been writing about how — when prophets speak — the others must weigh carefully what is said. So, a prophet speaks; and the others in the congregation listen carefully to the message and they reflect on it and presumably they discuss it and they even test it to see whether or not it really is a message from the Lord. And when that’s happening — when the congregation are weighing the prophet’s message — the women must remain silent. So, he’s not talking about women prophesying — which according to chapter 11 he permits; no, he’s talking about what should happen when the others are weighing carefully the prophet’s message.
It seems likely that whatever was going on in Corinth, the women were assuming an authority which was not right and they were not submitting as they should whenever the message of the prophets was being weighed. So, on those occasions — when weighing the words of a prophet — the women were to be silent. If they want to inquire about something which the prophet said, then according to verse 35 they should ask their husband about it at home. So, Paul wasn’t forbidding women from singing in church or from saying ‘Amen’ in church. He was not saying they should be silent on all occasions. But he was forbidding them from speaking when the words of the prophet were being weighed, because when they did so, they were not submitting as they should, but were assuming an authority which they did not possess in the church.
And even here we see that God is a God of order and not disorder. He has determined the order of all things and has determined that men should have authority over women in the home and in the church. And our worship services should reflect that.
Verses 36 to 40
Paul concludes what he has to say about public worship in verses 36 to 40. ‘Did the word of God originate with you?’ he asks. He’s really accusing them of thinking that they know best, that they know better than all the other believers in other churches. No, instead of thinking they know best, the should adopt the practices which are followed in other churches. And they should accept that Paul’s words to them are in fact the Lord’s command to them. Paul was appointed by the Lord Jesus to be his apostle and to preach and teach with the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. So, to disregard what Paul says is to disregard the word of the Lord. And the person who disregards and ignores what God is teaching them through Paul is in danger of being disregarded and ignored by God. And by those word, Paul was warning them about the coming judgment; he was saying to them that if they disregard God’s word now, then Christ the Saviour will deny knowing them on the day of judgment.
And so, what should they do? Well, they should be eager to prophesy. As we’ve seen, Paul prefers prophesy over speaking in tongues, because the whole church is built up through prophesy. So be eager for prophecy; but don’t forbid speaking in tongues. And whatever you do, everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Well, as I’ve said before, the apostolic era has ended; God no longer speaks to us by means by prophecy and speaking in tongues. He now speaks to us and reveals his will to us through his written word. Nevertheless, when we meet together for worship, everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way, because God is not a God of disorder and chaos, but he’s a God of order and peace.
Some Christians believe that things have to be unplanned and unprepared and spontaneous in order to be truly spiritual. You know, if we plan things, there’s no room for the Spirit to move and we’ll only quench the Spirit. But if we leave things unplanned and unprepared, then the Spirit is free to move among us. We’re to let go and let the Spirit move.
But that’s not what the Scriptures teach, because here’s Paul — writing under the inspiration of the Spirit — giving his readers rules about how to conduct their services; imposing limits on who can speak and how many can speak and when they can speak. It may seem strange to us, and it may seem strange to many believers today who prefer things to be spontaneous and informal, but according to God’s word, spontaneity and informality are not marks of true Christianity; order is. And when we meet for worship, everything must be done in a fitting and orderly way, because we’re meeting in the presence of the Lord who is not a God of disorder.
And, of course, when we worship in a fitting and orderly way, we’re able to hear him speak to us through the reading and preaching of his word. And he speaks to us through his word in order to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ and to build believers up in holiness and comfort so that we persevere in the faith and continue in it until the day when we join that multitude of believers in heaven and all his angels; and we will worship him for ever and ever. And in the glory to come, no one will speak out of turn; and no one will boast about themselves; and no one will be demanding or selfish; and no one will distract us from God’s glory.