In the first three parts of this series (“Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 1“, “Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 2“, and “Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 3“), I discussed the context of 1 Corinthians 14 and summarized the chapter in various sections. In this post, I would like to give some concluding remarks concerning the entire passage.
When we try to understand what Paul is saying in this passage, we should always remember the context. In the first few verses (vv. 1-5), then scattered throughout the remainder of the passage, Paul continually reminds his readers that he is talking about how spiritual gifts should be exercised when the church comes together. This context – the gathering of the church – is extremely important. If we do not remember this context, then it can appear that Paul is saying that speaking in tongues without interpretation is never allowed. This is not what Paul is saying at all. Instead, he is saying that, when the church comes together, believers should not speak in tongues without interpretation.
Paul does not lift prophecy above speaking in tongues because prophecy is generally better than speaking in tongues. Paul says that prophecy is better in this context – that is, the meeting of the church – because the church can be edified through prophecy, but not through uninterpreted tongues.
Paul does not distinguish between different types of church meetings. While modern churches may set different rules for speaking in different types of church gatherings, Paul expects his teaching to be followed “whenever you come together”. Similarly, Paul does not set different rules based on the number of people meeting together. While I have heard arguments of pragmatism and efficiency against keeping Paul’s instructions, those arguments are absent from Paul’s presentation. By the way, there are no other instructions in the New Testament concerning how believers should conduct themselves specifically when the church gathers.
I would suggest that in this passage, prophecy and tongues are used as “example” spiritual gifts. Any spiritual gift that directly edifies others (for example, teaching) would fall under the same guidelines as prophecy. Any spiritual gift that does not directly others would fall under the same guidelines as speaking in tongues. Were the Corinthians believers abusing either prophecy or tongues? Possibly, but please note that Paul does not say this at all. It has to be inferred. Instead, we see Paul repeatedly commanding the Corinthians and us to exercise one gift (prophecy) because it edifies the church, and not to exercise another gift (tongues) because alone it does not edify the church.
Usually, when this passage is quoted in the context of evangelical churches, the only phrase that is commanded is “let everything be done decently and in order”, while all other commands are relegated to culture. Instead of dismissing everything else in this passage and maintaining our understanding of “decently and in order” as under control or as planned, I prefer to interpret this passage a little differently. I believe that when we follow Paul’s guidelines for exercising spiritual gifts when the church meets, the Spirit himself will guarantee that things are done decently and in order. And, where someone is disobedient, this should be handled with gentleness and humility by the others present. Does this allow for abuses? Of course. But, the current method of one person speaking also allows for abuses. And, if as this passage indicates, Paul commands more than one person to speak (he commands two or three prophets to speak, what if we add teachers to that?) when the church meets, then we are often quenching the work of the Spirit if we only allow one person to speak. In fact, I would suggest that many believers do not think that God wants to use them to speak, because they think that God requires education and ordination in order to speak during the meeting of the church.
Here are a few more comments on the entire chapter: 1) Paul does not forbid speaking in tongues. In fact, he says that he wishes all the Corinthians spoke in tongues. 2) Paul does not condemn or chastise the Corinthians because they each desire to speak during the meeting of the church. Instead, he directs their desire towards what is important: building one another up. 3) This may seem shocking at first, but exercising spiritual gifts is not the most important thing. Paul recognizes that speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift. However, since the church is not edified, he says that spiritual gift (a gift from the Holy Spirit himself) should NOT be exercised during the meeting of the church. Thus, we should understand that tongues and other gifts are from the Spirit, but there are certain context where the Spirit does not want us to exercise them. 4) Preparation is important, but it is not most important. There may be times when a person who has prepared to speak, and is speaking, should sit silently while someone else speaks something that may seem less significant, important, intelligent, or even theologically sound. Why? Because edification is most important.
Perhaps you don’t agree with how I have interpreted this chapter of 1 Corinthians. I will be happy to listen to other interpretations of this passage. I would also love to hear how you have seen these principles implemented when the church gathers.
Series on 1 Corinthians 14:
Prologue 1 – What do we do with 1 Corinthians 14?
Prologue 2 – 1 Corinthians 14 and the Leadership
Context & Verses 1-5 – Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 1
Verses 6-25 – Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 2
Verses 26-40 – Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 3
Concluding Remarks – Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 4