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  1. What to do with Sunday church?

Over the last week the Anglican churches of Sydney have met together in what is called our Synod – it is a little like church Parliament – representatives from all the churches meet together to discuss matters of interest and importance, often beyond the local level. So for instance on Wednesday night we talked about asbestos removal from church property, climate change, and the government intervention in indigenous communities. Tomorrow night we are thinking through the ‘theology of Christian assembly’ – in essence – what do we do, what should we do, what does God call us to do, when we meet together as his people? I’m looking forward to it – I think it will be a tremendous opportunity to think about ‘church’, because it is something that we can always improve, and are constantly thinking about – even here at St Mark’s. So it raises questions like – what should we do as we meet together on a Sunday night – what do you think the perfect church service would look like? Or how do we help people express and use their spiritual gifts, how do we edify one another, how do we show Christ’s love to each other?

            And these are not new questions. Paul addresses some of these matters in ch 14 of his first letter to the church at Corinth. Let’s see what their problems were, how Paul deals with them, and what the implications are for us.

  1. Christian assembly (‘church’) in Corinth?

If you haven’t been with us for a while the church in Corinth had a few problems. We’ve seen over the past few weeks how some of the Christians there were more focussed on themselves than on the other people in the church – they were arrogant and self-centred, they haven’t understood Jesus’ way of love; and they haven’t understood what it means to be truly spiritual, because they focused on the showy, extroverted, spectacular, ‘other-worldly’ gift of speaking in tongues rather than some of the less flashy, but just as important, gifts, such as prophecy. And all these problems seemed to come out as they met together – as we read ch 14 there seem to be problems with people speaking out whenever they wanted.

            And so Paul lays down some thinking for them in understanding how to use gifts, especially gifts related to speech, and especially in their meetings together.

            a) Prophecy and/or tongues?

Primarily ch 14 compares and contrasts the gifts of speaking in tongues vs prophecy.

            Vv1-5 lay out Paul’s basic argument – it is good to desire spiritual gifts (v1), to be eager for what the Holy Spirit will give and do, but if you’re really following the way of love that Paul has set out in ch 13, then you’ll seek especially the gift of prophecy. The Corinthians wanted tongues, and not that tongues are wrong, but Paul urges prophecy.

            Why? V2 – anyone who speaks in a tongue speaks to God rather than people, but v3 prophecy is speaking to people, and does 3 things – strengthens, encourages and comforts people. People who speak in tongues – v4 – edify themselves. But people who prophesy edify the whole church. So which one do you think is better? Prophecy – v5, unless of course the speaking in tongues is interpreted, because then everyone else will understand and be edified.

            Let’s just pause for one moment to try to understand what tongues and prophecy are. And over the next few weeks Marty will develop these two areas further, but a few quick thoughts. Both of them are unplanned, inspired utterances in a meeting, but there are big differences …

            Speaking in tongues - what is it? Ask any number of Christians and you’ll get any number of answers. Some people say it is just speaking a foreign language. But I think as we read this chapter, it is more than just speaking foreign languages. Same word in Greek, and people point to Acts where people heard God’s word in their own language, and say that is speaking in tongues. But Paul says here in v2 – it is speech to God, mysterious speech, unintelligible speech, and no one understands it. Unless of course God has given them the gift of interpretation, but only God can interpret it and give us that interpretation. It seems to be speech that comes from inside a person which is directed to God. It seems to be a blessing for those people who do it – it encourages them in their faith, it may strengthen them in times of trouble or persecution, and so on. But it really acts to build them up, not build other people up, because without interpretation no one else understands it. And interpretation is not just translation, but rather discerning what the Spirit is saying.

            What about prophecy? Again, all sorts of ideas on what prophecy is and isn’t. I think we need to separate the office of prophet from the gift of prophecy. And I think we need to say the gift of preaching and/or teaching is not the same as prophecy, although it may often contain prophecy. And it is not the office of being a prophet – so the Bible tells us that in the last days all Christians can prophesy. So in v1 Paul says to them to eagerly desire the gift of prophecy, in v5 he says he would rather have people prophesy, and in v39 be eager to prophesy – so presumably these things are possible. What then is prophecy – I think Michael Green’s definition is helpful – ‘a word from the Lord, through a member of his body, inspired by his Spirit, and given to build up the rest of the body.’ It’s not then predicting the future, but some instruction and exhortation to the body – it is the proclamation of a message given by God.

            Such a ministry is available to every Christian, as the Holy Spirit directs, for remember he is the one who apportions gifts as he wills. And so we can all desire it, but the Spirit will give it as he chooses. Those with the gift of prophecy I take it are those through whom the Spirit more regularly works in this way. There are controls to prophecy, just as there are to speaking in tongues – and we will see those in a few minutes.

            So hopefully that short note will help you understand a little more of what Paul is talking about here. As I say, Marty will explore both issues a little more in coming weeks – so you can save your questions for him!

            b) The problems with tongues - intelligibility

So where are we? Remember v5 – he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. Or skip ahead to v18 – READ.

            This would have come as a great slap in the face to some in Corinth, who would have said tongues were much greater.

            So what is the problem with speaking in tongues?

            i) it is unintelligible (without interpretation): in vv6 onwards Paul says tongues are no good for anyone else, unless they are interpreted. Without interpretation they are just meaningless noise – as bad as a flute or a harp v7 or a trumpet v8, played with unclear notes. Just noise. Gibberish. It is unintelligible – and therefore no help at all to any hearer. So it is v9 with tongues – how will anyone understand what you are saying. You will just be speaking into the air. Which is what they were doing, at least to other people, looking like they were speaking into the air.

            And the problem with that is it doesn’t help anyone else, it doesn’t build up other people, only oneself, and so is not the way of love. Instead – v12 – try to excel in gifts that build up the church. The criteria if you want one for evaluating gifts is love for others.

            ii) secondly, it bypasses the mind: So v14 – if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. I need to involve my mind, and speaking in tongues comes straight from the spirit, without the involvement of my mind working out what I am saying or singing or praying. It is incomprehensible to anyone but God – even to the person speaking it. God doesn’t want us to check our brains in at the door when we come to church. Our minds matter to God. God is a thinking, speaking God. Psychologists do tend to recognize that right thinking leads to right behaviour. Our minds matter to God. He is in the business of transforming them as well, as part of our overall sanctification and being made more like Jesus. And so the command in v20 to stop thinking like children but to think like adults.

            iii) thirdly, it doesn’t help unbelievers. What do non-Christians think when they walk into a church where people are speaking in tongues? I know what I’d think, and it’s not very flattering. So v16 – how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say ‘Amen’; to your thanksgiving since he does not know what you are saying.

            Paul continues with the theme of unbelievers in vv21-25.

            In v21 he picks up a quote from Is 28. In that chapter the Israelites will hear the Assyrian language, as the Assyrians invade the northern kingdom, and that will be a sign of God’s judgement on his unbelieving people in the northern kingdom. So too non-Christians in Corinth will end up judged by God, because they will reject the gospel as being the work of babblers. They can’t respond in repentance and faith to strange words they can’t understand.

            Prophecy on the other hand is for believing people, potentially for all believing people, for all those who want to obey God’s word – v22. It is God’s word to his people to encourage, strengthen and comfort them. Prophecy then won’t undermine faith, or shake faith, or bring about fear, but upbuild, comfort and console, and encourage.

            What about non-believers? When people speak in tongues, non-believers will think v23 – you are out of your mind, you’re mad, you’re ‘possessed’ and so dismiss God and Christianity. But if they hear prophecy - look at the potential impact in vv24-25 - READ.

            Paul has argued then that intelligibility matters – both to edify other Christians, and to enable unbelievers to hear the gospel. This will require some sort of order in their worship.

            c) The answer – orderly worship!

What effect were these problems in Corinth having when they all came together? Look at v26 – READ. All these things – good things all of them, but they have to be done in the right way. It seems as though in Corinth, these things were all happening at once. Some people were singing, while other people were speaking in tongues, and still others were interpreting and others bringing instruction or revelation. All at the same time. Chaotic. Disordered. Done for the self, but really unhelpful for the body. {IMAGINE what that would be like}

            Paul wants public worship that is characterized by love and intelligibility - so how should such worship look? Paul’s answer – orderly worship. Order, as one writer says, is the outworking of love (restraint and self-discipline for sake of others). So Paul sets out regulations on when to speak and when to stay silent, based on what builds up the body, not self:

a)      when it comes to speaking in tongues vv27-28 – only 2 or 3 of them are to speak, so as not to give undue emphasis to this gift, and then only one at a time, and only if they or someone else can interpret it, else they should be silent and just speak in their hearts to God. Which shows that even speaking in tongues can be controlled – else they are not being controlled by the Spirit. And just because someone speaks in tongues, doesn’t mean it is from God – the pagan cults did similar things. We see it sometimes today in other religions. That’s why it needs to be evaluated through being interpreted.

b)      When it comes to prophecy – likewise, be controlled. So vv29-33. Only 2 or 3 prophets should speak, again one at a time, with the rest of the church weighing carefully what is said. And again, just because someone claims to be speaking from God doesn’t mean they are – there are controls that need to be applied, and evaluation that needs to happen – it needs to be interpreted correctly, and so the whole church (v29) is to weigh up what is said, not just the leaders, and Scripture, the word of God is the standard (vv36-37). And if they are truly prophesying and another one has a word of prophecy, the first one is to be silent. God won’t send more than one prophetic word at a time, for God is a God of order and peace, not confusion, chaos and disorder.

c)      And thirdly, women. Strange to put this in here isn’t it? What does it mean? It can’t mean women must never speak in church because back in 11:5 Paul has recognized that women can and do pray and prophesy. We need to remember the context of these verses - Paul is addressing the questions of tongues and prophecy, and especially interpreting these. Is Paul then prohibiting women from making final decisions in evaluating the legitimacy of any given prophecy? Certainly authoritative evaluation would have been up to the church leadership, who in the first century would have been male. The women in view here are married women, hence the call to talk to their husbands at home about such things. Perhaps also they were talking or disagreeing with their husbands during the service, or with other women’s husbands, tongues and prophecies and their interpretation, and not being submissive as wives are called to be.

                  We need to be careful that we don’t build a whole theology of the role of women on these few verses. They are just a small part of a much bigger picture. They come in the context of orderly worship, and people behaving helpfully in church.


And so in summary we can say there are times when people ought to speak in church, and times when it is more orderly and helpful to remain silent.

            d) In conclusion – 3 instructions

Which brings Paul to his conclusion there in vv39-40, which he precedes by a re-statement of his authority – he is writing to them the Lord’s command, and if they really are prophets they will acknowledge it as such, otherwise there prophecy is not from the Lord.

So 3 closing instructions

- be eager to prophesy, seek what is helpful for building up others

- do not forbid speaking in tongues, meaning do not hamper or hinder them. Paul is not against tongues, he speaks in tongues himself, but they need to be put in their proper place in the life of the church body. Don’t rule out any spiritual gifts, but on the other hand don’t make any gift the criterion of anything else.

- do everything in a fitting and orderly way, for the benefit of non-believers and so each Christian can function as God intended, in his or her place in the body. Mutual edification is the abiding goal.

  1. What should we do – ‘church’ at Roundabout7?

Well what does all this mean for us? A few comments to get you thinking ….

a) services

- what are those areas of our service where we have meaningless, or mindless, worship today? Songs (if we don’t think about what we are singing, or sing dah, dah, dah words), preaching (if we don’t concentrate on what is being said and not open to it), Communion (again if not think about what doing)

- as we think about the limitations of tongues for non-Christians, we need to ask - are there things we do here that would put non-Christians off coming to church, or taking further the claims of Jesus?

- are there times when we contribute to disorder in the service rather than order; those times perhaps when we distract other people, often by talking incessantly and mindlessly, just to put the focus on me?

- am I seeking to praise and honour God with my mind, or just my heart and emotions?

- how do we include spontaneity in our services?

- our times together are supposed to build up Christians in faith and discipleship. Do they? Are there things we need to do differently?

- having order in church is not disregarding the Spirit, but rather gives a much more loving way for the expression of love and respect that the HS brings; structure restrains self-centredness for the good of others.

- how do we express the gospel so others can hear it? Are we always clearly proclaiming God’s word in our meetings?

b) gifts

- the Corinthians wanted the flashy, exciting spiritual experiences, rather than the revealed word of God. Are there times we want those things, and get bored with hearing God’s word preached or revealed? What gifts are we praying for? And why? Do we think building up others is actually that important?

- how do we encourage the exercise of all gifts in our time together, even the more charismatic ones? How do we include every Christian in our services – not all at the same time, but giving each person opportunity to exercise their gifts?

- when I come to church, do I come with the intention of edifying just myself or edifying others? Will I use my gifts, my time, my energies for myself or for the other person? How can you edify us? How can we help you use your gifts? Your gifts matter, they are given by God to build us up, so please get involved.

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