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?