Here's a question I'd like you to reflect on for a moment. What are you here for this morning? I realise that there may be a number of reasons that you came, and it may be hard to disentangle them. But just try to pin down the one key purpose that motivated you to come this morning. I'm not going to ask you to tell anybody, so you can be honest about it. And God knows anyway, so there's no point in pretending in order to please him. We'll have a bit of quiet thinking time while you ponder that question: What is the main reason that you're here this morning? …
What have you come up with? Keep the answer to yourself, but try and remember it as we look together at 1 Corinthians 14.26-40. That's on p 1155 in the pew Bibles. There's a sheet for you to make notes on if you want. My title is 'Fitting and Orderly'. I'll give you headings as we go through.
But let me speculate for a moment. Here are some possible reasons that you came this morning: out of habit - you always do, and being asked to say 'why?' has disconcerted you a bit because you haven't actually thought about it for ages; you came to meet up with people - perhaps you're a home group leader and you have notes to distribute (if you're a member of my homegroup, do please see me after the service); or you said to a friend that you would see them here; or you're a young man and there's a young woman you think'll be here and you're hoping to have a word with her; or you live alone and felt like some company; maybe you came to make sure that you hold down your job on the church staff; or to get that sense of being close to God that often comes over you in services; or to enjoy the music and singing and praising God; or to listen and try and figure out a bit more what this Christianity is all about that draws hundreds to JPC each week; or to boost your spirits so that you can face the week ahead. One of these reasons or any number of others could have been uppermost in your mind as you closed the front door behind you and set out for church.
But the next question is this: What does God say should be our reason for meeting? God is speaking to us through this letter of the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. And here is what Paul says. He's tieing up the threads of his long discussion of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church in chapters 12-14, which we've been studying in this morning series. This is from verse 26:
What shall we say then brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All these must be done for the strengthening of the church.
What is the primary purpose that should underlie everything that takes place when the church meets? It is that the church should be strengthened.
Or as I have it in my first main heading, which relates to verses 26-31:
First, THE PURPOSE OF OUR MEETINGS SHOULD BE TO STRENGTHEN THE CHURCH
Now let me just make three quick points to start which we should bear in mind when we're applying this passage to our own church meetings.
First, it's helpful and appropriate to apply this to both large and small gatherings. The church meets in these main services on Sundays (though never all of us in one service even now - let alone as services multiply); but the church also meets in much smaller units - for instance, in home groups. So think big and small groups.
Secondly, we need to take note of the fact that we do not have in these verses a comprehensive account of all that went on or all that Paul thought should take place in church meetings. Remember that the context of what he is saying here is his discussion of a problem area for the church in Corinth, which was the use and relative significance of prophecy and speaking in tongues in a bitterly divided congregation. He makes no mention here, for instance, of prayer, or the Lord's Supper (which he's already discussed in chapter 11), or the role of teaching elders, or the reading and preaching of the written Word of God in the Scriptures. But all of those things are important, as Paul makes clear in other places.
Thirdly, what a church (such as the church in Corinth) did then is not necessarily set before us as the pattern we should follow - especially when it was a church riddled with factions and immaturity and disunity as Corinth was. In fact we're probably closer to the mark if we say that the church in Corinth is an example of what a church should not be like. What we need to do is to go for the principles that Paul teaches, and then apply those principles to our own meetings.
We've already seen what Paul's overarching principle for church meetings is: they should strengthen the church. That is to say they should build up the church - edify it. Everybody who comes should leave the meeting built up in love and hope and faith in Christ. But even that is too individualistic on its own. The church as a whole - the body of believers in one place - should be strengthened. And that means that everyone should come to church with that purpose in mind. Of course because we're sinful our motives will inevitably be mixed. But we shouldn't be content with inadequate or even inappropriate reasons for being here. It's not our own interests which should be uppermost in our minds as we come. It should be the growth and upbuilding of the church as a whole and everyone who participates in it.
We want that to be increasingly a reality in this church. Back in 1 Corinthians 14.26-31 we can see that if this mutual strengthening is going to take place then there are further principles that we need to apply. Here are five.
First, everyone should contribute. Verse 26:
When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.
There's no need to think of that as a complete list of possible contributions. And sanctified common sense must apply. For instance imagine what it would be like if everyone brought a suggested song or hymn - or even a newly written one - to the service. By my reckoning even 200 or so songs would take about 15 hours to get through. And that's before the notices.
But we should be ready to contribute when needed. We should come to church with an attitude of giving rather than taking. Of course there'll be times when we're not on the welcome team or a sidesman or a singer or helping on creche duty or helping with one of the youth groups or whatever. But our positive participation in the service and our desire to be of help to those we encounter will rub off on others and be a blessing. There is always a way to contribute, formally or informally. Everyone should contribute.
Secondly, everyone should exercise appropriate self-restraint. That's the underlying point of verses 27-30. Paul talks there about prophecy and speaking in tongues, and he says there should be very few speakers, and they shouldn't speak over each other. We should all be ready to put the brakes on our desire to make a particular contribution if it isn't appropriate - not least for reasons of time. Such restraint is completely compatible with being led by the Spirit. And there are wider applications of this principle. For instance, we should all be all be ready to forgo our preferred musical style for the sake of those with appalling taste. Everyone should exercise self-restraint.
Thirdly, everything should be intelligible. By which I mean everything should be easy to understand. This is from verses 27-28: tongues must be interpreted; if there is no interpreter then there should be no tongues; and in any case Paul says very pointedly, back in verse 19:
in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Why? Is it because he's anti speaking in tongues? No! In private he speaks in tongues himself. It's a gift from God that he values. It's because the church is strengthened by a message that is understood! So if you're speaking, try and be clear. Words of solo songs should be printed out. Bibles should be available. Don't natter during the service in such a way that you distract those around you from following what's being said. And so on. Intelligibility is key.
Fourthly, everyone should learn. And fifthly, everyone should find encouragement. They are there in verse 31:
For you can all prophecy in turn [in other words our understanding of the word of God should be communicated by one person at a time and not in a chaotic babble] so that [- here comes Paul's concern-] so that everyone may be instructed [that is, learn] and encouraged.
Whether we learn depends on those who teach. But learning also depends on the learner. Take sermons for instance. With what attitude do you listen to a sermon? Do you mentally sit back and cross your arms and dare the preacher to try and slip something past your defences? Or do you work with the preacher to try and extract as much as you possibly can from the Word of God? If you think like that, then even if the preacher is completely unhelpful you've still got the Bible passage open in front of you and you can work at it yourself directly. Everyone should learn.
I move rapidly on to the more comfortable subject of encouragement. Everyone who comes to church, or to a smaller group meeting, should go away encouraged. How can that happen? It happens as each of us takes on board what God is saying to us. And it'll be a reality if we all come not only looking to be encouraged but looking out for opportunities to give encouragement. After all, there is nothing more encouraging than being an encouragement to others.
So there are the five principles under the over-arching principle that the purpose of the meeting is to strengthen - build up - the church. Everyone should contribute. Everyone should exercise appropriate self-restraint. Everything should be intelligible. Everyone should learn. And everyone should find encouragement. All that I find in verses 26-31.
Now we come to the second of Paul's over-arching principles for the meeting of the church. So this is my next main heading:
Secondly, THE CONDUCT OF OUR MEETINGS SHOULD BE ORDERLY
This is to be found first in verse 32 and the start of verse 33:
The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
Then again at the end of the chapter, verses 39-40, where Paul sums up his discussion:
Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Now there are two opposite tendencies in relation to church services which need to be addressed here. I'll caricature them both so that at least I upset everyone equally.
The extreme of one view is that the more dull a service is, the more spiritual it is. Any show of emotion is quite out of place in a church. God is happiest when he's addressed with words from a book. Hymns should be long, turgid and at least 150 years old. God after all is himself very old and so must like the old music best.
The extreme of the other view is that the Holy Spirit is nothing if not spontaneous. The absolute ideal would be for us all to turn up at church with no preparation at all, and see what happened. The Holy Spirit would just love that. At last he could actually do something rather than be shut out by all that planning. But the clergy (being, naturally, of the other tendency) won't wear it, so our informal services will have to do as a poor second best.
You will not be surprised to hear that both views are wrong. Paul makes it quite clear that there is no justification for identifying the work of God's Spirit with the spontaneous rather than with the planned. That doesn't mean there's no place for the spontaneous. It does mean that to plan and prepare is a Holy-Spirit-filled activity when it's done for the glory of Christ and under the Spirit's direction. Spontaneity is no more spiritual than planning.
What is more, disorder is not the work of the Spirit of God. Paul says the very nature of God is to be ordered. No one could doubt that who's begun to understand God's intricate plan of salvation through Christ which is unfolding step by step over 1000's of years. God has been planning from before the creation of the world. I remember hearing about an alternative worship service which had been called 'Holy Disorder'. That is a contradiction in terms. For God is not a God of disorder.
On the other hand, neither is he a God who should be communicated with in a way that is dull and grey and lifeless and passionless. We should all of us dread making the gospel boring. But for all that, the conduct of our meetings should be orderly.
Well, there's not a lot of danger of the next few verses being boring. On to my next main heading:
Thirdly, THE PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT OF WOMEN IN OUR MEETINGS SHOULD BE UNDER AUTHORITY
This is from the second half of verse 33 to verse 35. Let's jump straight in at the deep end. Here they are:
As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.
This is a difficult passage! I'm tempted to ask why anybody should want to preach when you have to handle passages like this. But I won't. Why is it difficult? To be sure it treads hard on twenty-first century secular certainties. But so do virtually all the main tenets of biblical Christian faith. If we don't get used to swimming against the tide as Christians nowadays, the church will simply be swept away. No, there's a much more specific problem. It is that just three chapters earlier, in chapter 11.3-16, Paul clearly approves of women publically praying and prophesying in the church meeting. 11.5 speaks of 'every woman who prays and prophecies'. But here in chapter 14 he says 'women should remain silent in the churches'. What is he saying?
We must rule out flat self-contradiction on two grounds. First, Paul was not stupid. He wouldn't contradict himself in such a crass way. And secondly, God does not contradict himself. This is the Word of God as well as the words of Paul (which is point 4, coming up in a moment). Don Carson surveys the alternative views on this passage very helpfully in his book 'Showing the Spirit'. I commend that to you if you want to look into this in greater depth. His conclusion seems to me make good sense. It's on these lines.
It is vital that we look at the context here. The context is the public weighing of prophecies - verse 29:
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.
This kind of prophecy is clearly not infallible. It needs to be assessed as to whether what is said is in line with God's Word and can be endorsed (so to speak) by the leadership of the church. In that context it is appropriate for women to keep silent.
Why? Because of the underlying principle of male headship and female helpership in the leadership of the church. The issue, in other words, is that of the appropriate exercise of authority within the church. God's creation order is breached, according to Paul, if women exercise church-recognised, church-wide authority over men when it comes to teaching the Word of God. This is nothing to do with intelligence or educational level or local cultural conditions. This is an absolute biblical principle.
Why has God established things in this way? For the good of us all. But let me just say again that this is not forbidding women to speak in church gatherings under all circumstances. Indeed Paul envisages and encourages very active roles for women. But for him, headship and submission, properly understood, are non-negotiable. Hence my summary heading for this point: The public involvement of women in our meetings should be under authority.
Now don't imagine that that teaching has only become controversial relatively recently. Paul is saying it precisely because it's not what's happening in the Corinthian church. And he knows that at least some of them won't like what he's telling them. Which is exactly why he says what he says next. And that brings me to the fourth and final main point. It's obviously highly relevant to our attitude to what Paul says here, but really it applies to the whole of this letter - indeed all of Paul's letters. It relates to verses 36-38, and it is this:
Fourthly, THE GOD-GIVEN AUTHORITY OF THE TEACHING OF THE APOSTLE PAUL SHOULD BE ACKNOWLEDGED
In fact this is an absolutely crunch issue for the church today - especially in the West. Let me read those verses:
Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted [the word there really just means 'a spiritual person' so we're talking about every Christian], let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.
What is the nature of the authority of Paul's writings? It is the authority of God himself. Such is Paul's unique apostolic role. His authority towers over that of any provisional prophecy or preaching or teaching or interpreted speaking in tongues. That is why those things fall away in significance in comparison with the importance of the written Word of God - the Bible. It is right that when we meet, whether in small groups or in large gatherings, we give our undivided attention to the Bible. Here, we know, the Lord speaks.
Finally, then, let me bring us back to the question we began with. What are we here for this morning? Paul's answer - and through Paul, God's answer - is simple but revolutionary. We must allow it to control the way we think and what we do. We are here to strengthen one another, and to build up the church, to the glory of God.
Lord pour out your Spirit on us when we meet together. Give us your gifts for work and service. Speak to us. Change us. Strengthen us. Give us deep love for one another and for the lost world you have sent us to reach. And enable us to grow up into Christ. For his sake. Amen.