the weblog of Alan Knox

1 Corinthians 14:26ff – normal or particular?

Posted by on Jul 16, 2009 in books, gathering, scripture | 20 comments

I ran across an interesting quote concerning 1 Corinthians 14:26-33. Just as a reminder, this is the passage:

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. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace… (1 Corinthians 14:26-33a ESV) (This is where Morris – see below – ends the paragraph.)

Most agree that this passage gives us a quick (and incomplete) view into a church meeting in Corinth. Most also agree that this church meeting was much more open and participatory than most church meetings today. But, the question is often asked, was this type of church meeting standard for all churches at that time, or was it a particular type of church meeting only in Corinth?

In his short commentary 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) in The Tyndale New Testament Commentary series, Leon Morris suggests an answer to this question:

This paragraph is very important as giving us the most intimate glimpse we have of the early church at worship. It is not complete and, for example, it does not say whether passages of Scripture were read or not. But it is our earliest account of a service and it enables us to see something of what the first Christians did when they assembled to worship God. Clearly their services were more spontaneous and less structured than was normally the case in later days. We have no way of knowing how typical of the whole church worship at Corinth was, but it cannot have been very far from the norm, else Paul would have said so. (pg. 194)

Thus, Morris concludes that “church worship” (what I would call a “church meeting” or “church gathering”) was “more spontaneous and less structured” than was seen later in the church or than is seen today. He also argues that if this was not normal – or at least, very close to normal – then Paul would have said something against this pattern.

Why can Morris make that statement? How does Morris know that Paul would have said something if the way the Corinthians’ met was very far from the norm? Well, he can say this because of the witness of the letter of 1 Corinthians. Let me explain…

Beginning in his address to the Corinthians (in the very first chapter of the letter), Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are not alone – not independent – but instead they are part of something much bigger. Paul addresses his letter as follows:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours… (1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV)

Paul reminds the recipients of this letter that they are the church of God in Corinth, that they are set apart (sanctified) in Christ Jesus, that they are called to be God’s people (saints) along with everyone in every place who call upon the Lord Jesus.

But, Paul doesn’t end with this reminder. In chapter 4, Paul tells the church in Corinth why he has sent Timothy to them. He says:

That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:17 ESV)

Thus, one of Timothy’s responsibilities was to remind the Corinthians of Paul’s “ways in Christ”, the same ways that he teaches to everyone, everywhere, in every church. It seems that Paul’s teachings were consistent.

But, again, this was not the end of Paul’s reminder that the Corinthians should follow the same patterns as other churches. In chapter 7, when teaching about marriage, Paul says:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17 ESV)

Once again, Paul reminds the Corinthians that he teaches the same things in all of the churches, even when it comes to marriage. The Corinthians are not given the opportunity to make up their own rules when it comes to marriage and divorce. Instead, they should follow what Paul taught them – which is the same thing that Paul teaches in all the churches.

Then again, when Paul is discussing how women should pray or prophesy in chapter 11, he says:

If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:16 ESV)

In this case, Paul makes it clear: If the Corinthians desire to be contentious and do things their own way, Paul does not practice whatever they were currently practicing regarding women. In fact, he says, none of the churches practice these things. Once again, Paul calls the church in Corinth back to the pattern that he teaches and is practiced in all the churches.

Finally, in the chapter under consideration (chapter 14), Paul says:

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 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. (1 Corinthians 14:33-34 ESV)

Now, there is a disagreement as to whether the phrase “as in all the churches of the saints” belongs with the preceding statement or the following statement. However, one thing is clear, Paul is once again calling the Corinthians back to the common practice of all the other churches – whether in the area of unruly prophets or the area of women speaking.

Thus, at least five times within the book of 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 1:2; 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33), Paul reminds the Corinthians of the common practices and beliefs of all of the churches. So, it seems that Morris is justified in his statement concerning the practices of the Corinthians during their church meetings: “[I]t cannot have been very far from the norm, else Paul would have said so.” So, along with Morris, I’ve also concluded that 1 Corinthians 14:26ff describes a “normal” church meeting, not a church meeting that is particular to the Corinthians.

Now, when we look at our modern day church practices and the way the church meets, I don’t think we can say that we are close to what we read about in 1 Corinthians 14. In fact, I think we are now “very far from the norm.” I wonder, if Paul wrote us a letter today, would he call us back to what is practiced “in all the churches of the saints”? Or, would Paul be happy with the “development.” That is the one of the big questions of the day, isn’t it?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-16-2009

    Not sure your argumentation holds Alan.

    Your premise: The church service was “more spontaneous and less structured”

    You go on to establish this by saying Paul teaches a very strict “pattern that he teaches and is practiced in all the churches.”

    So Paul teaches a very spontaneous pattern with less structure that follows a strict patten that all the churches must follow?

    That makes sense to you?

  2. 7-16-2009

    I have been in a fellowship like Paul describes and it is amazing. Spotaneous worship where everyone had a part moved by the Spirit…it doesn’t get any better than that. But use of the spiritual gifts is crucial to this type of “church” working.

    I think it is wierd that Paul describes the what the “early church” looked like but you do see so few practicing it. Should I Cor. 12 and 14 be utterly disregarded because of one vague reference in I Cor. 13 of the “gifts passing away when the perfect comes.” Why would Paul go into such detail about the workings of the Spirit if it was null and void? We see what we want to see that fits our paradigm of religion to justify what is comfortable for us to believe and practice. But that is a whole different post….

  3. 7-16-2009

    I have over the years found wonderful fellowships, meetings, house churches and small gatherings where this kind of free flow Spirit led dynamic was present.

    I crave them. I want to hear what the Spirit is saying thru others.


    Sadly, when they become “Successful” they deteriorate into formal singing, announcements, communion and a formal sermon hum drum.

    It is a downward spiral that eventually ends in the death of the fellowship, at least for me.

    Paul was right. We must get back to this form. Yes, I am a pentecostal so NONE of the language is foreign to me. It is all part of a wonderful exhilarating flow when it really works.

    When it doesn’t…..I’ll go somewhere else.

    How can we get CHURCH back?

  4. 7-16-2009


    Is the point not that Paul established particlaur patterns of worship and one of those patterns was that the gathering was participatory and spontaneous. Where my family gathers, we know when we are meeting at the chapel and that at 9:30 we are going to have a time of open participation. What is not settled is who is going to speak, or what the topic is or what songs we will sing. The only thing for sure is that we are going to break bread. Thus we have a scheduled but spontaneous meeting.

  5. 7-16-2009

    Just to be “contentious”, if we agree that 1 Cor 14:26-33 is normative for the church today, shouldn’t 1 Cor 11: 2-15 also be normative?

  6. 7-16-2009

    Joe (JR),

    No, to honest, it doesn’t make sense. The premise (or assumption) in this post is that Paul laid down certain guidelines for the church meeting, so there was some form and some structure (although, I still argue, less than we normally see today).

    However, there are many today who suggest that my premise (while true in the case of the Corinthians) was not valid for all churches but only for the Corinthians.

    Thus, my argument demonstrates that (as Morris says) if the Corinthians were going against the norm in their church meetings, Paul would have said something about it.


    One reason that I think few practice it today is because they’ve been taught this this form is not normative. That’s the purpose of this post. If it wasn’t normal church practice, then (as Morris points out) Paul would have said something about that.


    Why do you think some groups move away from this way of meeting?


    Actually, interpreting exactly what the meeting looked like in 1 Corinthians 14 is another difficult task. I certainly agree with Morris and many others that the form was less structured and more spontaneous than we normally see today. But, there is still alot of room from application by various groups of believers.

    The point, of course, is that Paul expected this type of meeting, otherwise he would have said something to bring the Corinthians back to the “norm” (as Morris said).

    Concerning 1 Corinthians 11… which part should be normative? Women praying and prophesying? Or women wearing head coverings while praying and prophesying?


  7. 7-16-2009



  8. 7-16-2009

    “I wonder, if Paul wrote us a letter today, would he call us back to what is practiced “in all the churches of the saints”? Or, would Paul be happy with the ‘development.’ That is the one of the big questions of the day, isn’t it?”

    Oh stop! You crack me up.

    But that IS one of the big Problems of the day. Creating a non-functional laity has suffocated the ministry of 95+% of the saints. Take away 95% of the workforce in anything and you have a HUGE problem!

  9. 7-16-2009


    Actually, it is a serious question. Some believe that the church described in Scripture is the “infant” church and God intended the church to become more developed through history. Thus, what we see today is exactly what God planned… with a few tweaks to make things even better.


  10. 7-17-2009

    Alan, I think the most interesting part of the quote you gave in your post is the part that acknowledges that this account in 1 Cor 14 “is not complete.” Yet Morris goes only to say that “clearly..” this passage tells us about the organization and structure of the entire early church service. So which is it? Is 1 Cor 14 an “incomplete” picture or a “clear” picture. If language is to have any meaning, we cannot be both. If anything, we must conclude that 1 Cor 14 is “clearly incomplete” in telling us about the early church worship.

    If we are going to be honest about our hermeneutic, all we can say is that Paul gives insight into only one small part of the service.

    It seems the goal of this post is to say that Paul’s passage in 1 Cor 14 is normative for all churches in all times… I agree with you that it is for all churches, but I am not sure we agree on how it is “normative”?

    First, it is worthy of mention that 1 Cor 14 is not a systematic treatise on church worship. Paul is answering specific problems and specific questions. He does not give a full orbed picture of all the things happening because that is not his purpose; he only focuses on a small part of the service which is out of control.

    Second, I don’t even think we can honestly say this passage speaks of “spontaneity” vs. “order” That is a false dichotomy created by interpreters, not the text. Paul’s emphasis in 1 Cor, is not about encouraging spontaneity at all. I would challenge anyone to show me where Paul’s concern in 1 Cor is that the church was not being spontaneous enough or show me one place where he criticizes the use of structure and order in the service!

    The entire context for 1 Cor 14 is order, love and orchestrated-participation. There is an order of the service, all things must be done in respect to the order that is becoming of the church, and every member, or at least the ones led by the Spirit, must use their Spirit-gifting for the betterment of the entire congregation. Not everyone must, can or should participate in every service to make it meaningful. Where does Paul ever say that it is normative for everyone to participate in every service? Nowhere, that is assumption based on flawed reasoning.

    Finally, I am reminded of my experience in the Pentecostal/Charismatic world where the “mind” and “order” were taught to be the enemy of anything “spiritual”. I think the demand that “spontanious=Holy Spirit pure worship” and “organization=Fleshly corruption of true worship” comes from a flawed Gnostic thinking that somehow for the HS to be in charge, Men cannot plan or organize. That is not an accurate reflection of NT church. Quite the opposite. Paul’s point throughout the letter is that if the HS is leading, there will be order and structure. Does that mean every church today is justified in all they do? No! But let us not go the way of the Shakers and think that disorganized, unplanned, pandaemonium is NT church.

    There is flexibility in all Paul speaks of here, in that some church communities are happier with a bit more structure and some are happier with less. Cannot we agree that not all church must look the same to be faithful to what the NT teaches? I am a fan of diversity in our worship and allowing the HS to build different communities that minister to different people in unique ways.

    Sorry so long Alan. I realize not all my stuff speaks directly to your post or directly to what you yourself teach… it just all kind of fits for me to lay it out this way.

    Arthur, I think you are right. If we are saying Paul was outlining what is normative and expected of ALL the churches, then we must take the less convenient parts as well.

    Paul does not mention instruments being used in worship… why do we play guitars or piano?

    The church did not rent facilities or hotel meeting rooms, so why do we depart from the NT pattern?

    Paul states, clearly without ambiguity, that the woman’s head MUST be covered, but this part of his clear “normative” teaching is dismissed as “cultural” and 1 Cor 14 is somehow magically not cultural, but normative for all times.

    It seems to me that most hermeneutics are inconsistent for the sake of convenience.

  11. 7-17-2009


    I realize your post Alan was only about “particular” or “normative” as you say clearly in your post that most agree the passage is a “quick” and “incomplete” expression of NT worship. So probably most of my previous rant has little direct application to your post, but I still appreciate the opportunity to rant once and a while on your blog 🙂

  12. 7-17-2009

    Joe (JR),

    I don’t mind a good rant. I think the key to understanding what Morris is saying is in recognizing that he doesn’t say “completely spontaneous” and “no structure”, but “more spontaneous” and “less structure” than what arose later in the church (and I would add, what we typically see today). Obviously (from reading the remainder of the chapter and book), Paul was not encouraging chaos.

    I agree that once we determine that this passage is normative, we still have a long way to go to understand exactly what is normative. I agree with Morris (and you apparently) that this passage does not give us a complete picture of a church meeting. I believe the normativity is found in Paul’s exhortation “Let all things be done for edification”, following the guidelines he gives for activities that are directly edifying (prophecy) and indirectly edifying (tongues).


  13. 7-17-2009

    I just wish this was normative. Having tasted it, I certainly want more. How do we know that this doesn’t give a complete picture of of what “church” was like in the 1st century? This model certainly caused the church to grow and thrive during the best and worst of times. It wasn’t until the Catholic church caused things to be regimented and scripted and we lost the intimate fellowship aspect of “church.” “Pagan Christianity” by Viola really points out the origins of how we do “church” now…it is very sobering. Would ya’ll be OK if this scripture was all that church should be? Would it be missing anything?

  14. 7-17-2009

    I also don’t think this style is “spontaneous” but rather would say it is Spirit-directed. Spontaneous has a feel of “no direction” and nothing could be further from the truth…the Spirit has an agenda to be accomplished within the body of Christ….if we allow it to happen.

  15. 7-17-2009


    In 1 Cor 14:26, Paul lists several things that each person might “bring” to a church meeting, but he then only discusses 3 of them in detail (tongues, interpretation, and prophesy). Earlier in 1 Cor 12, Paul lists several other “speaking” gifts (i.e. word of wisdom, word of knowledge). But, in 1 Cor 14, he doesn’t explain how these work during the church gathering. He also doesn’t mention prayer, but we know from Acts and other places that Christians often prayed when they met together.

    So, 1 Cor 14 is incomplete in that it doesn’t give details about everything that can or should happen when the church meets. On the other hand, I think 1 Cor 14 in complete in that it gives the purpose of believers gathering together (edification), and guidelines for two forms of service that which is directly edifying like prophesy, and that which is not directly edifying like tongues.

    “Spontaneous” seems to have two definitions: #1) arising without external cause (this is not what I mean by spontaneous) an #2) said or done without having been planned or written in advance (this is what I mean by spontaneous).

    Of course, according to 1 Cor 14:26, some came to the gathering of the church ready (with planning) to serve in some manner. Others served (through speaking prophesy or perhaps other means) without planning ahead or preparation.


  16. 7-19-2009

    You wrote, “I believe the normativity is found in Paul’s exhortation “Let all things be done for edification”, following the guidelines he gives for activities that are directly edifying (prophecy) and indirectly edifying (tongues).”
    Amen to that brother.

    My problem with services today are not that they are over-planned or organized, it is that they are not Spirit-led!

    I wont sidetrack the thread here with discussions on Frank’s book “Pagan Christian”… there are some parts that I loved and some I disliked. I think if you search here, Alan did a review at some point. If your post was asking my opinion, then please check out the interview I did with Frank some time ago on my blog..

    One thing I will say is that I think you are right-on about preferring “Spirit-led” to “Spontaneous”!!

  17. 7-19-2009

    Joe (JR),

    As a leader in the church, I’ve found its easier for me to plan a church meeting than to let the Spirit lead it. However, I’ve also found that the Spirit always leads a church meeting better then me, although he may take the meeting in different directions than I may have planned.


  18. 7-20-2009

    With respect, my experience is that I needed to learn how to let the Holy Spirit BOTH plan AND lead. I find it better to let the Spirit inspire my plans all week long. When I spend time praying through the service and making plans that depend upon the Holy Spirit, He shows up between gatherings and inspires the whole process. If we let Him, the Spirit will work in us more than just one hour a week during a worship service… yes, He can even inspire plans! And the best plans always leave room for last minute changes from the Spirit.

  19. 7-20-2009

    Joe (JR),

    “He shows up between gatherings and inspires the whole process.” I agree. In fact, I’ve stopped asking him to inspire me to plan the meeting or plan my teaching, and I’ve simply asked him to change me. I find that when the Spirit uses the Word to transform me, I never have to worry about what to say on Sunday, or any other time that I get together with other believers.


  20. 12-12-2011

    Another of Alan’s posts which eluded me. While I must read all of the comments, I think the prescriptive/descriptive question surely comes to bare. Are there key words, such as the examples that you gave, calls to action, or mere descriptions of what was occurring. For me it is a simple process, find all of the verbs and adjectives in the passage in question. Then see how they relate. Are the adjectives describing the event or are the verbs ascribed to the event. While this method isn’t flawless, it does bring clarity.

    I don’t particularly think that these passages are prescriptive, but I sure do like their description of how the church was operating.


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