Would you now please take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians. We are working our way through 1 Corinthians. We’ve come to the second half of chapter 14. You’ll find it on page 960 and 961 in the church Bibles. Paul is wrapping up his engagement with a series of problems, divisions, that were erupting in the Corinthian congregations, primarily in the context of public worship. He’s wrapping up a discussion of all of that which he began all the way back in chapter 11. You will remember in chapter 11 that he dealt with the breakdown of Biblical role relationships between men and women. He’s going to talk about that some more in the passage before us this morning. And he dealt with divisions at the level of social status, erupting in the context of the Lord’s Supper. The privileged were even getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper while others were being left out and had nothing at all – chapter 11. Then in chapter 12, he turned to the problem of divisions when it came to the way spiritual gifts were being used at Corinth and he used the metaphor of the body with many members to illustrate and explain why we are to value and cherish our unity, we are one body, and to celebrate our diversity with different gifts – we are many members.
Then in chapter 13, he taught us that the operating system that must be installed and running on the desktop of our Christian lives is Christlike, sacrificial love, without which spiritual gifts will always be either useless or outright dangerous. We need Christian love to govern the use of spiritual gifts. That was chapter 13. Then last time we saw in the first half of chapter 14 Paul returning and picking up where he left off at the end of chapter 12, resuming his discussion of spiritual gifts and getting very particular and specific indeed, dealing with the gifts of tongues and the gifts of prophesy, and correcting some abusing and some misunderstandings that were common at Corinth, reminding us that if the church is to be built up, then ministry must be intelligible. It must be the communication of the truth of God, the Word of God, in a manner that everyone can understand. That was last time.
And now this time, he's sort of tying up the loose ends of this whole discussion since chapter 11 about public worship. And he gives us some very important, practical principles about how public worship is to be governed. There are three of them, in particular, I want you to be on the lookout for as we read the passage together. The first principle we’ve already seen. It has been the burden of the first half of chapter 14. It is the principle of edification – building one another up. The second principle is the principle of order. If you look at verse 40, you’ll see it expressed most plainly. Here is the Presbyterian’s favorite verse. “All things are to be done decently and in order.” Okay! So the principle of edification and then the principle of order. And then thirdly, the principle of authority. Our worship life, as all of our Christian lives in their entirety are to be, must be governed and in submission to the authority of Christ speaking through apostolic Scripture. So the principle of edification – building one another up. The principle of order – things are to be done decently and in order. And the principle of authority – things are to be done in obedience to the Word of God.
Now before we dive in and unpack some of that together and read the passage, we’re going to pause briefly to pray. Let us pray.
O Lord, the passage before us is challenging and complex. It has some matters that are still of some controversy, even in the church today. And we pray for grace that we might not be overly distracted by them, but that we might be instructed by it all, that our lives and our church and our worship might be pleasing in Your sight and that Jesus may receive all the glory and the praise. For Jesus' sake, we pray, amen.
You may be aware of the work of the famous American artist, Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock made these enormous canvases and they were purposefully random. He eschewed all composition. He tried, so far as possible, to throw paint at the canvas randomly. And despite his best efforts, of course, there was still order and structure that emerged. But he sought to be random. It was a way for him to talk about the chaos of life and culture at the particular moment in which he lived.
I was thinking a little bit about Jackson Pollock’s painting as I was reading some of the ways that Paul deals with the Corinthian worship services. They were chaotic and random and disordered and formless. They were messy, noisy, chaotic. Everyone was talking at once, drowning each other out, talking over one another. There were sudden, spontaneous outbursts of tongue speaking without an interpreter. When they had the Lord’s Supper, the rich and the powerful were given privileged position and the poor were punted to the margins and the riffraff were kept in their places. The whole thing was a mess and they loved it. They thought their informality and their spontaneity and their randomness and unpredictability was actually evidence of their spirituality. And they were boasting in it and took pride in it. But Paul teaches us here that there are, in fact, some objective criteria, some fundamental principles that ought to shape how Christians worship when they gather on the Lord’s Day. There are three of them that he mentions here. I’ve mentioned them to you already.
Principle of Edification
The first of them we’ve seen before in the first half of the chapter. You’ll see it again if you look at verse 26. Look at verse 26 with me. It is the principle of edification. “Let all things be done for building up.” “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.” Now pause there for a moment and let’s acknowledge that there are traditions in the wider church that have latched onto verse 26 and extrapolated from that an entire approach to Christian worship. People will say, “The way you guys worship at First Presbyterian Church, that’s not New Testament worship. New Testament worship is free form and anyone can speak and anyone can say anything and they all bring their contributions. That’s New Testament worship.”
And there are traditions in the wider church where they seek to practice that. If you were to go, for example, to a Quaker assembly, they would seek to try and find ways to implement verse 26. They would all sit in absolute silence until someone is moved to speak or to sing or to do something. And sometimes entire services will pass in absolute silence because no one is moved to speak or sing or do anything. Or if you were to attend a Plymouth Brethren service, they have no pastor, and people bring contributions as they feel led. But let me say that it’s unwise to take one verse, it’s always unwise to take one verse and to make extrapolations like that without paying attention to the rest of the data in the New Testament about Christian worship. We know, for example, that the first Christians shaped their worship services based on the pattern you would find in the synagogue. So Acts chapter 2 verse 42, we are told that whenever Christians gathered for worship, there were a number of basic elements that were always observed. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. We know also from New Testament evidence of fragments of hymns, or perhaps of creedal statements, that there are things that Paul is quoting familiar to the churches that they were using as they sang and as they prayed and as they confessed their faith together. So there’s this fundamental, rather familiar, it would look rather familiar even to us, basic pattern of synagogue-type worship where the ministry of the Word, the reading and the exposition of Scripture, corporate prayer and the singing of praise was normative.
And then overlaying that is this secondary strata of charismatic gifts. The New Testament had not yet been complete and God was still giving new revelation to the Church through prophets, for example. And so there needed to be space in the liturgy for those with new revelation to speak and to make a contribution. What was happening at Corinth, it seems, is that that more regular pattern of synagogue-like worship where the teaching of the Word is at the center of everything was being submerged beneath or even pushed aside entirely this more charismatic, freeform element. And it was creating real problems. There were people with spiritual gifts using their gifts for the public display of their own prowess and to make much of themselves. Clarity and truth were being obscured. People were struggling to grow in Christian knowledge and in faithful discipleship. And so Paul says, “Even if in your services there are lots of people with a spiritual gift and they’re all waiting to speak, that doesn’t mean that worship should descend into a free for all!” No, he says, “Let all things be done for building up.”
Teach the Truth
If you need to know what will build up, if you need a reminder, look at verse 31. He tells us in verse 31, “You can all prophesy, one by one, so that all may learn and be encouraged.” That was his major point. That was the burden of his message to us last week in the first half of the chapter. Wasn’t it? The only way to build up the Church is to teach the truth of the Word of God that “all may learn and be encouraged.” What should worship be about? It’s not about emotional, self-expression. It’s not about personal entertainment. Paul says it is about edification, building one another up, mutual encouragement as we learn the truth of the Gospel applied to our hearts in the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Worship that God will bless, worship that will encourage and build you up, is worship that is focused on the truth as we find it in Holy Scripture. That’s the first criteria we need to use as we weigh worship. Has it been faithful? Has it been helpful? One of the things I love most about First Presbyterian Church is our deep commitment, in all our many and varied ministries, to Word-centeredness, to being a Bible church. You want to be encouraged? You want to grow? You want to be built up? Get into the Word! The principle of edification.
Principle of Order
Then, Paul gives us a second principle. There is the principle of edification; then there is the principle of order. Verse 40 sums it up. “Let all things be done decently and in order.” And his discussion from verse 26 through verse 35 really explains what he means by that principle. Here’s what he means by “decently and in order.” It turns out that in Corinth there are three groups of people who were speaking when they should have been silent. Paul ties all three of them together by using the same vocabulary as he addresses each.
You see the first group there in verse 27 if you’ll look there with me. Verse 27, the first group are the tongue speakers at Corinth. They’re making a terrible racket. All of them are talking in tongues at the same time. Well no, says Paul, verse 27, “only two or at most three” should ever be permitted to speak in the church and only if there’s someone to interpret so that everyone may be encouraged. If not, verse 28, they should sit down, close their mouths, and pray. “Let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.”
And then the second group are the prophets and the same rules apply to them. Do you see that? Verse 29, "Two or three prophets should speak, and let others weigh what is said." Now, remember, at this time, new revelation was still being given to the church. The New Testament was not yet complete. And so God was sending His Word through prophets to the church. And it was vital then that the churches understood and had a place for the prophetic ministry as God ordained it. But those who claimed to be prophets had to be carefully evaluated. What they said had to be carefully judged in light of everything God had already revealed in holy Scripture. Otherwise, a so-called prophet might begin to exercise a terrible tyranny over the consciences of those in the church with all kinds of crazy ideas passed off as a Word from the Lord. That still sometimes happens even today. Doesn’t it? Some charlatan with a winning personality and the gift of the gab begins to claim special insight and he leads people astray. But Paul wants us to be like the Bereans. You remember the Bereans? Acts 17:11? When Paul went to Berea he was preaching Christ, and the Bereans, we are told, “searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Paul wants us to practice Biblical discernment, to study all that we are hearing in the light of the Word of God that we might not stray from the truth.
But then look at verse 30. Apparently, the prophets at Corinth felt that they had to compete for airtime and they began speaking over the top of one another, interrupting each other. Instead of edification and encouragement then, they were generating frustration and discord. No need for that, verse 30 – each can speak in turn and the others can be silent. Like any well-mannered conversation, when I'm talking, you're listening. And then when I'm done, you can speak, and so on, until everyone gets to say what they need to say and everyone is properly heard. And so, verse 31, "You can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and be encouraged."
And then he says something important. Look at the end of verse 31. "The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets." Notice that phrase carefully. There is a very common idea out there that the spiritual gifts in the New Testament were ecstatic utterances beyond the control of the speaker. Something sort of overtook you so that you could not help yourself and you would erupt in ecstatic speech. Well, that may have sounded good to the Corinthians, and it's certainly how some people in the charismatic movement today still think of spiritual gifts, but it is not at all the teaching of the apostle Paul. The spirits of prophets are subject, they are in submission to the prophets themselves. You ought never to be out of control. "For," verse 33, "God is not a God of confusion but of peace." The word for confusion means something that is chaotic and disorderly. Confusion, disorder, chaos is never a product of fidelity to the Scriptures. Peace is. That's what the Word of God will create in your life or the Gospel will do for you. It will bring you peace with God and peace from God to guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It's what it will do in the life of a church. It will make people who have no earthly reason to live together in harmony, it will generate peace between us and peace within us. The Word of God creates peace when it has its way.
The Corinthians thought they recognized, in the chaos of their worship services, evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. But Paul is reminding us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When the Holy Spirit works by His Word, this is what He creates. Here’s one of the great evidences that the Holy Spirit is at work. He creates peace – peace with God and peace from God as we embrace the truth and submit to the truth and as we are enabled to live in light of the truth. The beauty of Christlike character and the sweetness of Christian peace. So tongue speakers and then prophets are having their speech corrected and curtailed and redirected.
And then there’s a third group. Here’s where I am liable to get myself in trouble. This is what Paul says. It’s not what I’m saying, okay! Take it up with the apostle Paul! Paul has to also address a continued problem with the way women were functioning in the worship services at Corinth. Look at verses 33 through 35. We’ve seen one manifestation of this problem already, as I mentioned in the beginning, back in chapter 11. And there, we saw that the women of Corinth were likely overreacting to the radical freedom and dignity that they have discovered in Christ when they believed the Gospel. They were no longer second-class citizens as the culture around them told them that they were. They were now heirs together of the grace of life. They found new unity and new equality in the service of the Lord Jesus. There is, they discovered, Galatians 3:28, “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free. There is neither male nor female; all are one in Christ Jesus.” That is what the Gospel does, you know. It makes people who otherwise are divided and it brings them together in unity and it restores to us dignity when the world undermines it and distorts it and warps it. And as you believe in the good news and as you submit to Christ and bend your knee to Him and trust in Him and find your identity in Him, we are enabled to submit to one another. No longer to stand on our rights but to begin to serve.
And that was Paul’s message to the women of Corinth in chapter 11, and he continues to address a similar and related problem among them here in chapter 14. These women, it seems, really understood the radical freedom and dignity that is theirs in union with Christ. But some of them seem to have misunderstood the implications of all of that. They seem to think that it meant the end of all distinctions of gender whatsoever. And so here in chapter 14, they were going so far as to interrupt the services. They were inserting themselves into the ministry that was taking place. They’re asking questions and interrogating the prophets who are speaking and undermining the leaders of the congregation and generally disrupting things in a way that verse 35 calls “shameful.” And so they too, verse 34, are to remain silent. Instead of speaking out in the services, he says, they are to “be in submission.”
That’s the same word, same word precisely in Greek that Paul used to describe the spirits of prophets that are subject to the prophets. In other words, the women, just like the prophets, just like the tongue speakers, are to exercise godly self-control. There was a wrong time and a right time for the women to speak, just as there was a wrong time and a right time for the prophets and the tongue speakers. So he says, verse 35, “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home.”
Now, at the risk of opening an even bigger can of worms, I think it’s wise for us – let me revise that. When I wrote this, I thought it would be wise for us to deal with one, somewhat controversial issue. Those of you who have been paying attention will remember that Paul, in 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verse 4, recognizes that the women of Corinth were praying and prophesying when they gathered for worship. The problem there wasn’t that they prayed and prophesies; it was that they were not wearing head coverings as was part of the custom acknowledging the gender difference that God had given to us. “Male and female He created them.” They were rejecting that gender difference and the customary way to acknowledge that difference in the way that they were dressing. That was the problem, not that they were praying and prophesying. So in chapter 11, it seems that women were speaking in the churches. Now here in chapter 14 verse 34, he says women are to be quiet in the churches. So which is it? Has Paul finally lost the plot? Has he forgotten what he’s written in chapter 11? Is this a contradiction? Which is it? Can they speak or can’t they?
Well, yes and no, is the answer. Yes and no. Clearly, women participated in prayer just as you have been doing in the church. It says nothing about them leading in prayer; it simply says that they prayed. The problem was, they weren't wearing the appropriate head covering that was part of the culture and custom of the time. Likewise, also, we know in the New Testament women had the gift of prophecy. Acts 21:9 – the four daughters of Philip the evangelist prophesied. Acts chapter 2 when Peter is explaining with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit he quotes the prophet Joel. "Your young women shall dream dreams and your old men shall prophesy." The gift of prophecy was now something both men and women could exercise. And it's clear there were women prophets at Corinth. And Paul has no problem with them exercising their gifts.
What we mustn't do, however, is what some are trying to do today. We mustn't take the mere fact of women who had the supernatural gift of prophecy in the New Testament and to extrapolate from that fact a general warrant for women preaching or leading in the worship of the church in any way that we choose. The gifts of prophecy and tongues have ceased. There is no new revelation from God. God does not give the gift of prophetic utterance to women or to men anymore. And so we cannot press 1 Corinthians 11:4 into service in support of an egalitarian agenda. So taken together in my view, chapter 11 and chapter 14 teach us that the Spirit-inspired gift of prophecy accepted, women were not to insert themselves into the leadership of the worship services of the congregation. That doesn't mean that a woman can never be heard under any circumstances saying anything ever. It doesn't take back with one hand the freedom and the equality between women and men that the Gospel gives with the other. But it does place the oversight and the conduct of public worship into the hands of the men that God has called and equipped to lead and to teach His Word. But the Corinthians women, it seems, disregarded authority and were shaming themselves and their leaders by their conduct.
Now, you may take exception with that. You are to be a Berean, remember. So search the Scriptures to see whether these things are so. Judge for yourselves and dig into the Word and see if that’s consistent with the teaching of holy Scripture in other places.
But here is, I think, the big takeaway when you step back and look at this section of the letter as Paul teaches us about good order. He's saying acceptable worship, worship that is pleasing to God and good for us embraces an orderliness to it. It embraces the good order of mutual respect and self-control as different ministries give place to one another for the good of all. It embraces the good order of men and women, not circumventing but celebrating their gendered differences in appropriate and Biblical patterns of leadership and submission in the church and in the home. And it embraces all of this in the good order that the Holy Spirit creates when He works by His Word and gives us not confusion but peace.
Principle of Authority
The principle of edification, then the principle of order, then finally and briefly, the principle of authority. Look quickly at verses 36 through 39. The Corinthians thought they were special. They thought they had found a way to worship that was better than anyone else, more spiritual, more powerful. And Paul is correcting them. Verse 36, “Was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” “You think that you are unique and special and in this privileged status; that you have insights no one else has?” It’s a problem, actually, we continue to wrestle with, don’t we, and each new generation struggles with what C.S. Lewis once called “chronological snobbery.” We think we’ve got privileged insight that no one else has ever seen and that the new must always be better than the old and we become iconoclastic toward tradition. Paul wants to say, “Don’t be daft to the Corinthians. Don’t be daft. The really spiritual folks among you aren’t looking for the latest, coolest, trajectory; the new thing. No, the really spiritual among you, verse 37, will immediately recognize in what I am saying the very command of God.” You don’t know better than God. Submit to the command of God communicated in apostolic Scripture. That’s the mark of real spirituality. It’s not innovation; it’s obedience. It’s the mark of great worship. Is it worship by the Book? Is it worship under the authority of the Word? Does it conform to the command of God?
And before we’re done, do notice carefully the warning in verse 38. Here’s what’s at stake. You see the warning in verse 38? Here’s why all of this matters so much to Paul. It’s not that he’s bothered about the messiness of their worship especially. He’s upset because he knows that a refusal to submit to God Himself speaking in His Word, a persistent and obstinate refusal to recognize the authority of apostolic Scripture, to bend before the authority of Christ, will result in more than confusion and chaos and frustration on a Sunday morning in Corinth. It will result in not being recognized. And not just by the church, but if it is a persistent life pattern of obstinate refusal to bend the knee to the authority of God speaking in His Word, it will result in not being recognized, even by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself when He comes to judge the living and the dead. To all who finally refuse His authority, who reject His Word, who refuse to bend the knee, even to those who use His name only to make much of themselves, He will say on the last day, “Get away from Me. I never knew you.”
And that is the great burden of the apostle Paul for us. He wants us to be people of the Book, people of the Word, people under the rule of Christ to cultivate that Berean instinct that runs to the Scriptures to see if these things are so, that never strays from the Word, from the truth of God revealed in the Book. That’s how we will be edified, how we will be built up. How all that we may do, both when we’re together in public assembly to worship the Lord and when we seek to serve Him day by day on our own and in our families, that’s how it will all be to the glory of his name that we bend the knee to His great authority.
And so we need these three principles today as much as ever the Corinthians did. Don’t we? The principle of edification – we are to seek to encourage one another by learning and by being in the Scriptures. We are to seek appropriate order in our relationships with one another – in the way that we serve and give place to one another. And in the principle of authority – embracing the truth and bending the knee to the truth. Learning to say with the Savior, “Not my will, but Your will be done.” As we do that, He will be glorified in our midst. May the Lord make it so. Let’s pray together.
Father, there are truths here that are not easily understood and even when they’re understood we often protest against them or apply them as seems best to us, at times most convenient to us, and ignore them at other times. We confess, I confess, often, that the authority before which I bow is not the authority of Your Word, not the authority of King Jesus, but the authority of my own pleasures and whims; the authority of devilish temptation. The authority of pleasure or laziness or pride. And so as we bow now before You, we ask You please for forgiveness. We pray for cleansing and renewing grace. Grace to embrace the truth as it is in Jesus that we as a church and as individuals, as families represented here, might be to the praise of Your glory. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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