Paul has a corporate worship in mind in 1 Corinthians 14, and as the Apostle addresses the problem of tongues in Corinth, he at the same teaches us something very important about Christian worship.
Earlier in the book, Paul asks, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16). The church as a temple and a place of God’s presence means that a church gathers as a place of worship. Paul echoes this theme in 1 Cor 14:25. The pagan unbeliever who is converted through the ministry of the prophetic Word declares, God is really among you. Indeed, as a result of his conversion, Paul says, he will worship God. These words explicitly describe Christian assemblies as places for worship. Worship is clearly the context of Paul’s remarks.
If this was not enough, the things that Paul describes the believers doing in the services are among those elements of Christian worship consistently found throughout the New Testament. Paul alludes to “prophecy” and “teaching” in 14:6. In 14:15, he speaks of praying and singing praise in the assembly. In verse 16, he speaks of giving thanks.1 Those who are listening in this assembly are expected to say “Amen” in their own verbal expression of spiritual concord and worship with the one leading the assembly. Again, the fact that the believers in 1 Cor 14 are doing those things they in other passages are authorized to do in worship further confirm that Paul is speaking to Christian assemblies for worship.
What does 1 Corinthians 14 teach us about Christian assemblies for worship? The message that repeatedly comes across is powerful: when Christians gather for worship, the corporate nature of the gathering necessarily ought to shape the form of its worship in Christian love. Building upon the call for the Corinthians to love each other in 1 Cor 13, Paul says in 1 Cor 14:1a, Pursue love. That love means that corporate worship, as a corporate activity, ought to have a regard for the spiritual good of the whole in the grace of God. This, of course, was the main problem with tongues. Speaking in tongues was a sin against love.2
This raises one of the paradoxes of Christian worship. When we come to worship the King of Heaven, we do not expect anything in return. We do not worship in order to “get,” anymore than husbands should compliment their wives in order to extract some good from them. Tozer defined worship, “Worship is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient mystery, that majesty which philosophers call the First Cause, but which we call our Father which art in heaven.” Worship in its truest form never comes expecting anything from God. Worship comes giving. As Paul asks (using the words of Job 37 and 41) in Romans 11:35, Who has given a gift to [the Lord] that he might be repaid?” God is worthy of our gifts, and our worship is never anything that holds God and his grace hostage, as if our worship gives us the right to put God in our debt. At the same time, it is our immense blessing and joy to worship. Worship conforms us to the image of Christ (1 John 3:2; cf. Psalm 135:18). Worship builds up our love for God, our faith in God, and our hope in God, all which are acts of God’s sanctifying grace through the Holy Spirit. God is to be worshipped because he is, not because we get. Yet, as we worship, God blesses us and gives to us his grace. The Scriptures teaches both these aspects of worship.
Returning now to the main point, one of the things Paul is teaching in his rebuke of tongues in Corinth is that the church ought not deliberately leave anyone behind when it gathers for worship. The Apostle keeps returning to this idea. Since the Christian church is a corporate gathering, strictly individualized and personal spiritual experiences are forbidden. The key word he uses throughout the chapter is build up or edification (cf. Eph 4:12). Those who speak in a Christian assembly should seek the “upbuilding” of the people (14:3). Those who seek individualized experiences (e.g., tongues) only “builds up” himself, but truly loving Christian worship will seek to “build up the church” (14:4). Any speech uttered should be understood by those present, “so that the church may be built up” (14:5). If they are eager for manifestations of the Spirit3, they should “strive to excel in building up the church” (14:12). We should be alarmed when people engaged in activities where others are “not being built up” (14:17). Again, edification or upbuilding is supposed to flow directly out of the love that Christians have for one another. If we seek personalized worship experiences (like tongues) in an assembly at the expense of others, we are being selfish and unloving. There are certainly times for strictly personal worship, but the Christian assembly is not one of them.
The point is that Christian worship is corporate, and, as corporate, it ought to have a corporate character. Those who lead in worship should lead the whole assembly (as much as is practical) to worship God together. As we all gather to offer the Lord our worship, the structure and form of the service should be such that all who share a genuine Christian confession can offer their worship to the Lord. In this way, all who are worshipping are together receiving the gracious blessing that redounds upon those who together offer their devotion and “Amens” to the Triune God. As a result, they are all built up in the grace of the Lord Jesus.
Let’s be churches where the corporate character of worship is taken seriously. Those of who shepherd the flock of God should guard against individualistic and privatized expressions of worship. We should seek to bring the whole church along in the worship of God, and not put up hindrances to the members’ worship of God, either deliberately or unwittingly. Love for God and others demands we do this.
- First Corinthians 14:15 is most likely a reference to a verbal giving of thanks, not a reference to the “Eucharist” or Lord’s Supper. [↩]
- I understand the extraordinary gift of tongues in 1 Cor 12-14 to be the same as tongues in the book of Acts: the supernatural ability to speak a foreign language not previously or “naturally” learned by the speaker. For more on tongues, see Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost (P&R); O. Palmer Roberston, The Final Word (The Banner of Truth Trust); and Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. [↩]
- literally, since you are eager for spirits [↩]