1. Corinthians 14. - The Church Gets Together

Erkki Koskenniemi

In chapter 13, Paul made it clear that love is the basis for all Christian activities. God-given spiritual gifts are useless without love. If someone boasts about their own gifts, they only cause damage. They do not build up the Church, but rather they cause it to rot from the inside. If Christ is the head of the church and love connects Christians with him and each other, everything is different. Used in this context, the various gifts are the greatest blessing of God.

Chapters 12 and 13 needed to be written by Paul in order to give the Church detailed instructions on how to use the spiritual gifts. Without these chapters, his instructions would certainly have fallen on deaf ears.

Prophesy and Speaking in Tongues in sermon 14:1-25

At the start of this chapter, Paul discusses two spiritual gifts, prophesy and speaking in tongues, in detail and gives guidance on using them. Speaking in tongues is the ecstatic utterances from the Spirit himself. It occurs mostly as prayer or in the worship of God. No one, not even the speaker, is able to understand what is uttered until it is made clear by another gift, the gift of interpretation; that is the ability to interpret what is said to listeners in a way that can be understood.

A person who has the gift of prophecy, on the other hand, speaks in linguistically understandable words. Prophesy is similarly affected by the Spirit and the speaker might also be in an ecstatic state. The words do not come from the person who prophesizes. The spirit of God reveals to him something that does not come from his own ideas. Prophesy is not necessarily about forecasting the future. Rather, it is God opening up someone’s eyes to see what others do not see, including the current state of a human being. For example, in verses 24-25 Paul shows how a prophet can see even the most hidden thoughts of another person. How were these gifts used in Corinth, and how should they be used according to Paul?

Speaking in tongues is unintelligible utterances without interpretation, and that is problematic. In Corinth, this does not seem have caused anyone concern, but it bothered Paul. He takes a simple example: Even his own visit to Corinth would have been of no use, if the Corinthians had not been able to understand a single word he said. If all speak in tongues the service is like a meeting of foreigners, and no-one understands the other.

The use of the gift of tongues at the worship services sometimes led to strange situations. One person might speak in tongues for a long time, and another could confirm his words saying ‘Amen’ without having understood anything. No-one, neither speaker nor listeners – knew what was being said. That is why speaking in tongues does not make anyone a believer (21-22).

One consequence of this, according to Paul, is that everyone speaking in tongues must pray for the gift of interpretation, the skill to tell to others what they are saying. Paul says this, although he too, like some in the Church in Corinth, has the gift of tongues. Without despising his own gift, he says that he will not use the gift of tongues to bring teaching to the Church, but prefers to speak intelligible words of instruction that can be understood. With regards to prophesy, the situation is, however, different. According to Paul there was a place for prophesy in Church meetings. When heard by the listeners, words of prophesy build them up, offering calling and comfort. In contrast to the incomprehensible speech of tongues, prophesy is thus useful to the Church in this context.

Paul offers an example: If there are many prophets in the Church and someone without faith walks in and hears them prophesying, even their most secret thoughts will become public. It would clearly show to the person walking in, that God really is in the midst of the Church. Even an outsider, a non-believer, can understand the prophetic words and thus this gift is what makes a non-believer become a believer. Speaking in tongues – without interpretation- on the other hand, will only cause confusion and lead to a person walking out of the church and rejecting faith.

Instructions for Worship 14:26-40

In Chapters 11-14, Paul has given guidance and rules to the Church. In verses 26-40, Paul offers a summary of all the topics he mentions in v26: namely the
a) speaking in tongues and its interpretation
b) revelation (prophesy)
c) teaching.

Paul unfortunately does not give any instructions regarding hymns.

a) With regards to speaking in tongues and interpretation (v27-28) the guidelines are clear. Every service may have only two, or a maximum of three, people speaking in tongues. When one speaks, another cannot speak at the same time. If there is no one to interpret, there is no place for the tongues.. Paul made this very clear at the start: they could talk to themselves and God in tongues, if there is no one to interpret, but when someone is listening, they must speak in a way that the audience can understand!

b) Revelation (prophesy) may also be part of the service and Paul has shown his appreciation of it before. There must, however, be an order for things. Only two or three prophesies may be given in the worship service. An important part of the prophecy is “testing it”, i.e. an assessment as to whether or not in the prophecy is in accordance with the apostolic faith, must be made. If a second prophet begins to speak simultaneously with another, the first one must immediately be silent. Racing speeches are not to be enjoyed in a sermon. The one giving a word of revelation or prophesy must be able to be silent and wait for their turn.

c) Teaching is the subject of verses 33b-35. Paul turns to the behaviour of the women during the sermon in the Church of Corinth. In chapter 11 he allowed that they could take part in the sharing of a prophecy and public prayer, but insisted on them keeping their heads covered. Apparently, earlier when the Corinthian women had had a revelation, they had taken off their veils and thus indicated their freedom to teach. Paul did not accept this. The reason is seen in this chapter: Paul did not permit women to work as teachers or preachers. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul often writes quite diplomatically, but here he nails down the issue: the ban is unequivocal.

According to many researchers, Paul’s teaching here is contradictory, because first he allows women to share prophesy or public prayer (chapter 11) and then he is prohibiting them to speak (chapter 14) . However, if both chapters are read carefully, there is actually no conflict there. In the 11th chapter, Paul allows women to prophesy and take part in public prayer. In the 14th chapter, however, he prohibits any other forms of speaking by the women in the service. The Apostle is definitely not talking here about women whispering or chatting with each other and thus disturbing the preacher: Paul would not have needed to use all of his authority to address that kind of issue (v. 37-38).

The questions in verse 35 help us understand what Paul was saying: Sermons in the early Church were usually dialogues, where the teacher asked questions of the congregation. The person asking the questions was the one leading the discussion. One of the listeners could, however, try to “steal” the teacher’s position by asking questions. This had obviously occurred in Corinth. This is why Paul sternly asks the women to refrain from asking questions in the Church, and instructs them to ask their husbands these questions at home. The meaning is clear: The women at the Church are not allowed to preach in worship.

At the end of the 14th chapter Paul gives clear instructions to be followed. The Corinthians cannot solemnly decide for themselves whether they will follow these provisions, or not. God’s word did not come from Corinth, but it has been brought to there, as it has to countless other cities. One local Church cannot act in opposition to the other Churches. Corinth clearly valued the revelations and prophesies and the power of the spiritual leaders. For this reason Paul does not hold back any words: He writes that these rules for orderly worship are the Lord’s commandment. Verse 38 must be translated thus: “If someone does not confess this, God does not recognize him.” The ruling is clear: What the Lord’s Apostle, Paul, writes here (to the Corinthians) is the Lord’s commandment, and whosoever does not confess to this, is outside the Church.

None of the prophets were so spiritual that they could invalidate or disregard this law. Therefore, Paul instructs them that everything must be done in a dignified manner and in good order. What acting “in a dignified manner and in good order”, is thus not left to the Corinthians themselves - or indeed any other local Church - to decide, but rather has been pronounced by the Apostle of the Lord who has mediated the Lord’s Commands to them.