Speak to strengthen
“All must be done for the strengthening of the church” (v.26). What an excellent principle for our meetings as believers. There is no mandate that we do anything as God’s people together which is not aimed at building one another up. If our sermons don’t build up, our conversations don’t encourage, our Life Group contributions don’t serve others, and our tongues and prophecies – well, perhaps we should stay at home. Paul commands that only a small number of tongue-speakers should be given a hearing, if their words have an interpreter. No interpretation, no edification, is his principle (v.28). Ministry matters, but only ministry which truly builds up.
Resist the spectacular
Exciting as it must have seemed at Corinth when prophets stood up to bring their messages, Paul gives principles for their input which establish that the prophets are to be listened to, but not given undue licence to act and speak just as they want to. If God’s grace can’t be understood through prophets, then the prophet’s job is over (vv.29-32). Again, edification is essential. The prophets need to be assessed as to whether they are bringing an authentic and encouraging word (v.29). Nor must they be allowed to drone on, if others have something encouraging to bring (v.31). Paul wants to see orderly, considerate ministry, not a worship time dominated by long-winded ministry enthusiasts! Such gatherings must reflect the Presence of the God of peace and order (v.33). Pagans love chaos, Christians aren’t addicted to order, but we should have the maturity to recognise that order is the best place for learning and growth to flourish.
Paul next returns briefly to the issues of gender and headship (vv.33-36).The context here is to be the assessing of the ministry of prophets (v.34). Language of “must be silent” and “not allowed to speak” strikes us harsh and, yes, let’s say it, sexist; but understanding the place of prophecy in the churches (as well as the often chaotic worship in Corinth) helps smooth things out. Paul is calling the church to observe the God-given distinctives for men and women in the church. Men are called to lead, and that includes the evaluation of prophecy. Paul wants the recognised male leaders to step up and take responsibility for the teaching ministry in gathered worship. For them to sit passively behind their wives is a coward’s way out which Paul will not tolerate. Leadership is a gift to the church, and Paul wants men and women to embrace it, with men leading and women recognising that leadership.
Paul brings them another challenge at this point to recognise his own apostolic authority (vv.36-38). There is never justification for us to follow our own convictions, however strongly held they may be, when they dishonour the church or depart from apostolic Christianity. God has given us commands, and leaders to serve those commands.
Love the Word
The chapter closes with Paul’s enthusiasm for tongues and prophecy – despite the problems associated with them at Corinth (v.39). He wants them to pursue the correct use of those gifts (v.40). Why? Because, rightly used, alongside the few letters and maybe portions of Gospel they had at Corinth, tongues and prophecies were Word of God to the church. Ignore or abuse them, and they were missing out on what God was saying to them.
This perspective is vital for us to remember when we bring this chapter to our own day and practices. We have all of God’s Word today, which is sufficient (more than sufficient!) for our needs. This has big implications for how we view other claims of revelation. Nothing which claims to be the Word of God can ever stand if it contradicts God’s written Word. But more than that, the question must be asked, is the Word of God given to us in any other form today that in God’s enscripturated Word? I have my doubts.
My own view is that tongues and prophecy are precious gifts, but not gifts which continue in the church today. As the Apostles were men given for the church’s establishment, so these gifts were given for the time of the church’s infancy, before the canon of Scripture was completed. Far from being Spirit-quenching, I think it’s one which honours the Spirit, since it brings us back at all times to the Word He has inspired, and daily brings to us, the Word which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119.105). God has given us His Word for the same reason He gave tongues and prophecies to the first believers, to make us strong in faith in His Son.
If we have different views on spiritual gifts, we have one calling, to live in peace together as we pursue what God has clearly revealed in His Word. On that we can and must agree, and share the joy which comes in knowing the Living God together.