1 Corinthians 14:26-40
26 What then, brothers? When you [y’all] come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 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. 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 in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 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. [i]
Since Chapter 11, Paul has been writing about life in the gospel community, the church. He has particularly been hammering on the proper order of Christian worship. He has emphasized each member’s place in contribution to the community through the use of their grace gifts with the others-serving love of Christ. In the previous section he emphasized that tongues without interpretation might bring some kind of spiritual buzz to the speaker but was otherwise useless in worship. The Corinthians, however, loved speaking in foreign languages they did not know since it reminded them of the ecstatic gibberish-speaking experiences they had in the Pagan temples. However, no member wanted to subordinate themselves by being merely an interpreter. The grace gift of tongues was mutually dependent upon the grace gift of interpretation – something the Corinthians ignored in favor of chaos.
In this final sub-section, Paul’s attention turns to the subject of ordering the use of gifts in public worship. Some elements in this section have been controversial. Admittedly, on first reading, something strange, even unsettling turns up. The strong language about the role of women in the public assembly, if it actually belongs in this text, has a particular context that is often misused and misunderstood. If the statement regarding women’s role in worship actually came from Paul, then he is responding to a development in the Corinthian church rather than issuing a general order prohibiting female participation. The occasion of this section is disorder in the worship service as the Corinthians compete for attention by shouting their tongues and prophecies simultaneously. The content of his teaching is order for the sake of freedom that leads to upbuilding.
Christians need to strive for submission to the full council of God’s word. There will certainly be times when our cultural setting and personal assumptions will cause us to be challenged by scripture. The question for us will be whether we allow scripture to challenge our built-in assumptions. Will we allow scripture to say what it says? Will we wrestle with what it actually says in its proper context, or have we predetermined what it is and isn’t allowed to say? Can we tell the difference between our cultural conditioning and the subtle nuances of biblical context? Scripture can butt up against the way modern people see reality. In our case this morning, we need to ask ourselves, “What is Paul really saying here? Why this strong language?” If God cannot contradict our views, we are not in a true relationship with him. So, what is this whole passage about?
The opening paragraph of this section brings the argument of the chapter to its conclusion. Paul begins with a descriptive exhortation (v. 26): Each one has something to contribute, and everything must be done to edify. This is followed by guidelines, first for tongues and interpretation (vv. 27–28) and then for prophecy and discernment (vv. 29–31). The concluding word on prophecies (vv. 32–33) probably functions as a concluding word for the whole section. Christian inspiration is not to be out of control, for God himself is not like that; and this holds true for all the congregations of the saints.[ii] The section is in four parts: an opening exhortation (v. 26) and final admonition (vv. 32–33) surround the regulation of tongues (vv. 27–28) and prophecy (vv. 29–31).
We will reach the more controversial matters in this text in due time. But we’re going to major on what Paul majors on – the way the God of the Bible seeks to bring order out of chaos, particularly as it relates to the proper order of public worship. We will do this in three points that center on order: desire for order; occasions for order; beauty of order.
DESIRE FOR ORDER
Human beings have a desire for order as opposed to chaos. Order contributes to the style and appeal of architecture. Even the smallest projects at their very beginning reflect order in the careful diagrams of electrical circuits and pipe work, in sight preparation and elevation, in building structure and engineering notes. These documents represent the beauty of order in which every wire, cable, door frame, and window has been measured. Though few of us can grasp the meaning of certain symbols and numbers, we can all delight in the presence of such precision and intent. Order is the means by which we make sense of life. We are able to live each day because there are noticeable patterns and routines. We have the order of our workplace, the order of schedules, the order of public transit, and many other types of order. We all desire order, but many of us approach it differently.
Some people reject all forms of order as enslaving. Many creative, artistic types are attracted to this idea. Although everyone is dependent on order whether we know it or not, pursuing individual freedom for the sake of complete personal freedom is anarchy, chaos. There are other personalities who reject all forms of freedom as a sign of weakness. That is an unlivable model because the ultimate order those people seek is out of their reach and uncontrollable. Ordering for the mere sake of order is despotic, tyranny. However, order for the sake of freedom is actually liberating. This third model sees order as a means of achieving freedom and recognizes the necessity of both systemic order and organic energy.
Consider the streets that we walk down every day in our city. The pedestrian needs to know whether a street is one-way or two-way, whether there are stop signs, traffic lights, walkways, speed limits, crosswalks, and walk signals. If traffic followed the model of chaos, streets would be dangerous and unusable by both motorists and pedestrians alike. There would be gridlock and multiple accidents and injuries. If we embraced the model of tyranny, the streets would be unpleasant. They might be orderly, but individuals would tend to avoid them because no one could be out and about simply to stroll around. However, when the model is order for the sake of freedom, cars and pedestrians can live in relative harmony. People could get where they need to go in a decent amount of time. Or, if they wanted to stroll and window-shop, they would be able to enjoy themselves. Our text embraces this harmonious dance between freedom and order.[iii]
Paul writes in verse 26, “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.” “Each one” is invited to participate fully. That invitation is not limited only to men. It is a beautiful picture of each member of the gospel community making a meaningful contribution. Echoing his previous teaching, Paul lists a variety of grace gifts that build up the gospel community, such as singing (possibly “praying the Psalms), teaching, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation. Again, Paul’s emphasis is that when Christians exercise their grace gifts, the main goal is the upbuilding of the community rather than props for the performers.
Paul is not discouraging freedom and participation in worship. For all the troublesome ways in which the Corinthians had been using their grace gifts of tongues and prophecy, he continues encouraging them to desire and practice those gifts. He writes in verse 39, “39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” but he wants to provide guidelines to ensure that worship doesn’t descend into chaos. A well-functioning street needs the proper design, signs, and traffic flow. A well-functioning church needs to pursue order for the sake of freedom. Paul continues in verse 40, “40 But all things should be done decently and in order.” While Presbyterians love to apply that verse to everything they do, Paul is writing about what the worship service ought to look like.
OCCASIONS FOR ORDER
As we have been reading in chapters 12 through 14, Paul is dealing with two occasions that need order in congregational worship: 1) tongues with interpretation, and 2) prophecy with discernment. Verses 27-28 read, “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.” We infer from what Paul writes that worshippers were speaking over one another in an effort to be recognized as possessors of the really “cool” gifts. If those who are tongue speakers have no one to interpret for them, then they are to stay silent instead of creating the kind of disorder and confusion typical of ecstatic, babbling pagan temple worship. Demons love to mimic spiritual ecstasy and did so frequently for idol-worshippers. But the one true God is the God who spoke order into chaos. The character of one’s deity is reflected by the character of one’s worship.
The greater controversy involves instructions about the practice of prophecy in verses 29-33, “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.” Men and women are free to exercise the grace gift of prophecy, but they’re giftings are subject to the need for order. There was a great deal of participation in prophecy by both men and women. They were to prophesy one by one and limit the number of prophecies to two or three before the prophecies were weighed and discerned to be accord with scripture.[iv]
Personal silence was preferable to shouting over a brother or sister and being disrespectful. Profits are intended to remain in control of their faculties (v. 32.). Biblical prophecy is not an uncontrollable feeling like pagan temple ecstatic experiences. The order of freedom is based upon God’s character. God is a God of peace, not confusion. Just as tongues needed to be interpreted, prophecies need to be weighed and discerned. “29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.” Gordon Fee explains that the verb weigh “is the verb for ‘distinguishing between spirits’ in 12:10… this is probably to be understood as a form of ‘testing the spirits,’ but not so much in the sense of whether ‘the prophet’ is speaking by a foreign spirit but whether the prophecy itself truly conforms to the Spirit of God, who is also indwelling the other believers. Other than in 12:3, no criterion is here given as to what goes into the ‘discerning” process,’ although in Rom. 12:6 we are told that prophecies are to be ‘according to the analogy of faith,’ which probably means ‘that which is compatible with their believing in Christ.’[v]
That brings us to the most difficult of Pauline statements in verses 33b-35. Whatever else these verses may mean, Paul is not saying that women ought to remain silent at all times in the church. He has already encouraged them to pray and prophesy! His argument from verse 1 has been directed in the second person pleural, “Y’all.” In 11:5, Paul mentioned women who prophesy should do so with their heads “covered” (probably meaning their hair pinned up). So, whatever these two verses mean, they cannot mean women are not allowed to speak in church. Grammatically and logically, they do not fit with Paul’s main argument. Gordon Fee notes:
…there is “substantial evidence that vv. 34–35 are not authentic, and therefore that Paul could not have intended it to go with what he did not write. In any case, the very early textual evidence in the Western church indicates that this phrase [33b, “As in all the churches of the saints”] was not considered to be part of vv. 34–35. (b) The two rhetorical questions in v. 36, both of which begin with “or,” make best sense when understood as referring directly to this statement. That is, “All the churches of the saints are intended to be orderly as we have just described, or did the word of God originate with you?” This seems to be the proper understanding of the rhetoric of v. 36, even if vv. 34–35 are authentic.[vi]
These two controversial verses are found in all known manuscripts, ether in this very place or at the very end of the chapter. That does not mean they are Paul’s words. “On the whole, therefore, the case against these verses is so strong, and finding a viable solution to their meaning so difficult, that it seems best to view them as an interpolation. If so, then one must assume that the words were first written as a gloss in the margin by someone who, probably in light of 1 Tim. 2:9–15 [11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet], felt the need to qualify Paul’s instructions even further. Since the phenomenon of glosses making their way into the biblical text is so well documented elsewhere in the NT (e.g., John 5:3b–4; 1 John 5:7), there is no good historical reason to reject the possibility here.” [vii]
Though there is no true satisfactory answer to the textual issues, the fact remains these verses have been in the biblical text for quite some time, and we have to come to some satisfactory understanding of them in their context. Verses 33b-35 read, “As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” The best attempt to explain these verses is that Paul is talking about the authoritative weighing of prophecies. If so, there was likely a situation in Corinth where, when the prophecies were being weighed (presumably by the male leaders/elders of the church) certain women were interrupting, asking questions, and perhaps even challenging the rulings. In the broader cultural context, married women generally did not talk to men to whom they were not married. It could then be considered dishonoring to her husband to challenge the male elders weighing prophecies. If this interpretation is correct, then Paul encourages the women to ask their questions in a more appropriate context. Paul appeals generally to the “Law,” likely referring to Genesis 2 and 3, as he does in 1 Tim. 2:9-15.
Again, the main context of the chapter is the need for ordered freedom arising out of the slavery of chaos. Paul writes in verses 36-38, “36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 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.” The Corinthians loved their cooler, hipper, version of worship because it reflected what T-bone Steak Night looked like at the Apollo Temple – feasting, drinking abundantly, and ecstatic gibberish said to be the prophecies of the Greco-Roman gods.
The Corinthians believed they had received a unique word from God and knew better than the apostle. Maybe they thought if their worship looked enough like T-bone Steak Night at the Apollo Temple, they would be more acceptable to the broader culture. Regardless of their specific thought, they were certain they had arrived at a better way to worship than the way the apostle Paul had taught them. It was better because everybody got to speak in tongues, a few got to prophesy, and all of them felt that spiritual shiver in their livers from their self-cultivated excitement. They were certain their worship was “contempervant” – contemporary and relevant. But Paul says that if they are unable to receive his words as a command of the Lord, then they are not actually who they thought they were. How can they weigh their own prophecies against the Word of God when they are refusing the Word of God from an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Chances are, most of us are caught somewhere between order and chaos. Corporate worship is extremely ordered, while personal worship is chaotic because our lives are often chaotic. Others long for corporate worship to be more chaotic or free because they find personal worship to be dry and boring and believe worship should entertain them. What we really crave is the unique intervention of God to bring about an order that serves freedom. We want neither anarchy-driven traffic jams nor a police state. We want a place to live, a street to stroll down, an order in which we can come alive. But where do we get that?
BEAUTY OF ORDER
The beautiful order of freedom comes from the creative and redemptive work of God. “33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” We see God’s creative activity in Genesis 1:1-5 where the Spirit hovers over the chaotic waters, where God speaks light into darkness, separating night from day. God created order out of chaos. He fills the void and brings form, his creative work produces ordered freedom. His design is neither anarchy, nor tyranny, but well-ordered freedom. The order and design of the universe compel his people to exercise their freedom in an orderly way.
His order of freedom is also the result of God’s redemptive work. There is perfect harmony within the three persons of the Trinity. It has a particular focus. The Father purposed to save those whom he will out from under the curse of Adam’s sin. He sends the Son, and the Son submits to being sent to live the perfectly holy life Adam failed to live and to die the eternal death our condition of sin demands. The Holy Spirit is sent by the father and the Son with the mission hub testifying to the love of the Father and the Son. This is the ultimate picture of an ordered free community in which the persons of God give themselves freely for the good and the joy and the peace of others.
When we get a picture of this beautiful harmony, it is difficult for us to misunderstand our own place in the ordered freedom of corporate worship as being restricted and restrained. The Son is God in and of himself. He is not less than the Father because he willingly submits to him. The Son’s greatness is highlighted by his willing submission. Believers can trust God’s design for ordered freedom because they see it at work in the persons of the Godhead. Christ Jesus was willing to slog through the chaos of our anarchy and the evil of our tyranny to free us from our slavery, to place us in an ordered, beautiful, free gospel community where we can come alive to who we were intended to be.
Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice is a testament to his greatness, not his weakness. And when we are willing to submit to the authority that God has established within his church for the sake of ordered freedom in the bounds of corporate worship, then there is harmony and peace within the church. Our king rules as a servant, not a tyrant. When we grasp the reality of his service and apply that to our worship, it is absolutely glorious. As St Author of Hebrews writes:
18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. [viii]
[i] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 14:26–40.
[ii] Fee, 688.
[iii] Um, 249-250. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Fee, 693.
[v] Id., 693–694.
[vi] Fee, 697–698. Italics mine.
[vii] Id., 705.
[viii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 12:18–24.