Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (38)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (38)

1 Corinthians 14:26-40

Broadcast: November 29, 1998; Message Number 1500

Rules for Exercising Tongues and Prophesying

The early Christians loved to come together for worship and fellowship. From I Corinthians 14:26-40 we get some idea as to what they did at these services. Paul begins this section with a question: "How is it then, brethren? When you come together, every one of you has a psalm, has a doctrine, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edification."

"Edification" is more than simply teaching or instruction of the mind. Its basic meaning is to build people up. Christians get together on the Lord's day to be edified, instructed, challenged, convicted, comforted and motivated for service. That is God's intention and that certainly was the aim of Christians getting together in the first century. If we are a true church of Christ that is still why we meet today.

In the next section, beginning with verse 27, the apostle deals with three problem areas in the church: the exercise of three gifts which create or have the potential to create problems. First, he addresses the issue of tongues and the way they were being exercised. We saw last time that tongue speaking is the gift of praising God in a language the speaker has not previously learned. Since its content is praise and rejoicing and thanksgiving, it is basically an emotional experience.

One of the dangers charismatic churches face is that their worship services tend to focus too much on the emotions. They often have a lot of hand-clapping, shouting, singing, raising hands, and even dancing in the aisles. People who like that sort of thing look forward to the Sunday service for their spiritual high on which they can live for the rest of the week. Emotionalism was apparently a big problem in Corinth and Paul deals with it.

Then there is the matter of prophesying. Prophesying is the expounding of the deep things of God. The danger is that the mind rather than the heart is addressed and that preaching will go over people's heads. As excellent a gift as prophesying is, it can be misused, and Paul is concerned about that. If Pentecostals are in danger of emotionalism and shallow thinking, other churches run the risk of promoting head knowledge without addressing the needs of the heart.

Third, there was the matter of the freedom of women to minister in the church. This was and still is a difficult issue in the church and one that tends to break down rather than build up a congregation.

It is instructive to see how Paul deals with each of these three problems as they surfaced in Corinth. He does so by laying down several specific rules. His first concern is to bring some order in the matter of tongue speaking. "If any speak in a tongue," he says, "let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God." Unless tongues are interpreted, no one can be edified by them. If there is no one to interpret, Paul says, "let him speak to himself." That means, he should praise God in his spirit or in his thoughts, but not in words. This way he won't disturb the meeting.

Next, Paul turns to rules concerning prophesying. "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said." Prophesying seeks to expound and explain the mind of God. What a prophet says is not necessarily inspired. He has to subject himself, therefore, to the judgment and confirmation of others, and if necessary, even to correction.

Another rule was that prophesying be done one by one. "If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent." In other words, nobody was to take over the meeting, for two reasons. First, because the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet. Someone might have said, "I can't help what I say. The Spirit of God is in me and He is speaking through me. Therefore, everything I say is of God." Nonsense, Paul says! The spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet. You need to have your opinions checked and verified by other to see if they are in accord with the truth.

The second reason Paul gives is that the Spirit of God never creates confusion or disorder. None is to dominate a meeting, to run away with it, or consider himself an inspired spokesman. God does not work that way. Let it be done decently and in good order, allowing others to speak and to share in the ministry. Remember, if there is strife, jealousy, confusion and argument, it is not a meeting led by the Spirit of God, but some other spirit is at work.

That brings Paul to the third major area of difficulty in the church, and that is the ministry of women. He says (and the verse is properly divided here) in verse 33b (allow me to put Paul's words in modern English): "As in all the churches of the saints, let your women remain silent in the churches. They should not be allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

Admittedly, what the apostle says here seems rather harsh. Why should women have to keep quiet in church? To suggest that if they want to know something they should ask their husbands at home sounds very chauvenistic, doesn't it? Certainly, to our modern ears! Also, what Paul says seems to contradict his earlier statement in chapter 11 that women are allowed to pray and prophesy in church provided they wear some sort of head covering. How do we explain this?

Much has been written on this subject. From what I have read I have come to the conclusion that in the New Testament church women did take quite an active part in the worship services. For one thing, they were allowed to pray and prophesy, especially the latter. The Holy Spirit endowed both men and women with this gift, which meant that women also received revelations from God. These revelations the women shared with the congregation, just as the men did. But there was a restriction. They had to submit whatever they said to the judgment of the male leaders. In other words, they had to recognize the headship or authority of the men.

This was not so bad. The male prophets had to have their prophetic utterances verified by others too, as we just saw. Therefore, women could speak in church with certain restrictions too. But what does Paul mean in our text when he says that they have to be silent? I believe the answer is this. As the context makes clear, Paul was concerned about the disorder and confusion that was threatening the peace in the congregation. Part of that confusion was due to the behaviour of some of the women. They could not handle their new freedom in Christ, especially the freedom to minister in the church. Both the Jewish community, and to a large degree the Greek community, put down the ministry of women. Certainly, the Jews did; they did not allow it at all. But in the church of Christ, women were permitted to minister under the authority of men.

The problem was that some of these Christian ladies were taking this freedom and this privilege too far. They were asking questions and offering opinions on all kinds of issues that were being discussed in the meeting. Some, as Paul indicated earlier, had abandoned the head covering, which in that culture was an indication that they did not recognize the principle of male headship. They were thus creating what Paul calls a "shameful" situation. Their pagan neighbours were rejecting the Christian message because of the conduct of these ladies.

Paul was very concerned about this and he meets the problem head-on. Notice that he does not say, it is forbidden for women to minister in the church. Nor does he say, it is forbidden for women to prophesy or to pray, or to teach. He does not apply that term to any of these things. Women are forbidden, he says, to speak: "the women should keep silence; ... they are not permitted to speak." The Greek word here is laleo, which is the common word for talking, or more precisely chattering or even gossiping. That was the problem in Corinth. Women were not just taking part in the discussions; some of them got so carried away that they turned the meeting into a regular coffee klatch.

Of course, women are not the only ones who like to talk. Men can be loose-tongued and run off at the mouth too. But maybe it is fair to say that women tend to have this problem just a little more often. The place, Paul says, for lengthy discussion about spiritual and other issues is obviously the home: "Let her ask her husband at home." That is where these discussions and debates ought to take place; not in the church meeting. That does not edify; it gets off the track; it digresses from the purpose and focus of the meeting. That is what Paul is warning against.

In verses 36 through 38 he anticipates the reaction of these sisters when he says: "What! Did the word of God come out from you [or originate with you], or are you the only ones to whom it came?" Paul is clearly using satire here. He knows that some in Corinth thought that they had a kind of private pipeline to God and that they had gifts no one else had. Therefore, rather sarcastically, he asks them, "Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones who received it?"

The apostle goes on to say: "If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord." In other words, the truly spiritual people always recognize the authority of Scripture. Some people claim to be led by the Spirit and when you point out from a passage of Scripture that what they are saying is contrary to it, they still insist that what they feel or experience or understand is superior to what the Bible says. Paul says that is not true. The Spirit of God never operates contrary to the written Word. Never! Anyone who is truly Spirit-minded and Spirit-filled will recognize the authority of the Word of God.

The third thing he says to them is in verse 38: "If any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant." This does not mean that Paul wanted these people to remain ignorant; otherwise he would not have written this letter and answered their questions. What he means is this: if anyone ignores my authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he himself will be ignored by me-Paul--and the churches generally. Christian fellowship is based on the Word of God. Those who willfully reject that Word automatically break the fellowship (I Jn.2:18-19).

Paul sums up the main teaching of this chapter in these words: "So, my brethren, covet or earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but let all things be done decently and in order." That has been the thrust of the whole passage. Choose prophesying, he says; it will build people up, it will strengthen them, it will edify them. That is the real ministry when the church comes together. Do not forbid speaking in tongues, he adds. He recommends the former and merely tolerates the latter.

Both these gifts, however, were soon to cease. Prophecy, in the sense of revealing new truth ceased when the New Testament canon was completed. Prophecy in the sense of expounding the written Word, however, continues. As far as tongues go, they ceased altogether after the death of the apostles. Many dispute this, I know, and they insist that tongue speaking is still God's gift to all who seek it. I believe, however, that this claim is unfounded. As I said in the last study, much of present day tongue speaking is a psychological phenomena and should not be attributed to the agency of the Holy Spirit.

The saddest thing about tongues, however, is that many people are deceived into thinking that they are an index of spirituality. I Corinthians 14 makes it very clear that whatever function tongues served in New Testament times, it was not a sign of exceptional piety. Rather, the opposite was the case. The tongue speakers tended to be the worst troublemakers in the church. And they still are in many congregations.

The real work of the church is to preach the Gospel to the lost, both in and outside the church, and to build up believers in the faith, equipping them for God-honouring and faith-building service. May we be such church members, worshipping according to the divinely prescribed rules, always considering our fellow believers and submitting to the leadership appointed by Christ, the Head of the Church.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 130522570
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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