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The Holy Spirit and decent and orderly worship

In the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul rebukes the church for its chaotic worship. It seems that the problems included women teachers (14:33b-35), the incoherence of foreign langues (14:13, 19, 27-28), and even people speaking over each other in the services (14:27-32). Paul rebukes them strongly for this. As he wraps up his discourse, the conclusion of the chapter in v. 40 is pointed: But all things should be done decently and in order.

But all things should be done decently and in order.

In the immediate context, this verse encapsulates one of the vital principles guiding the disorder Paul has been addressing. To speak over others in a worship service, is confusing and rude (cf. 1 Cor 13:5). It hinders edification (see 14:31). Women teaching men tramples upon the order given by God in the Law (see 14:34b). Discourses spoken in foreign languages remaining untranslated (i.e., tongues) give no benefit to those who hear the message (14:3, 5, 9, 17, 22, etc.). Such practices turn worship into a farce. God is not honored with the kind of worship due his glory, and others are not lovingly edified as a result of that worship.

Old_New_England_churches_and_their_children_(1906)_(14765479964)Paul’s rebuke of this disorder is not without profound theological underpinnings. He is not merely uttering cultural preferences. He clearly lays out the foundation of the believer’s behavior in worship in 14:33a: For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. The “God of peace” is something of a favorite title that Paul uses for God throughout his writings (e.g., Rom 15:33; 16:20; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 5:23; Heb 13:20-21; cf. Judg 6:24; 2 Thess 3:16; ). This attribute of God is seen most clearly in that, while we were actively against God, he graciously and mercifully offered us terms of peace in giving up his own Son Jesus Christ (who is our peace, Eph 2:14; also see Col 1:20). That is, God is intensely interested in making peace, taking the initiative to bring about our reconciliation and provide the terms whereby his own wrath would be propitiated. Moreover, the God of peace is actively continuing the work of salvation in us graciously through sanctification and ultimately when he brings us into our Savior’s kingdom of peace. With this mighty theological foundation, Paul is incredulous towards the Corinthians’ chaotic and disorderly–that is, unpeaceful–worship. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. 

For Paul, the theological reality of the peace of God ought to shape our worship in observable and tangible ways. Indeed, this theological reality ought to shape the aesthetic of Christian worship, for the order or orderliness of a Christian worship service is an aesthetic concern.

We can go further still. If it is true that the character of God, particularly that he is a God of peace, must control Christian worship, then why should we stop there? Peace is certainly not the only attribute of God that has a bearing on our worship. The implication of what Paul is saying is that the whole character and all the attributes of God ought to inform our worship’s aesthetic. Our worship ought to be a reflection of who God is. Holiness, love, order, knowledge, joy, truth, goodness, and beauty should be represented in both the content and forms (again, note the emphasis on order in the passage) of all Christians do in their times of corporate gathering. That which God is not ought to be absent. Sensuality, rebellion, manipulation, error, banality, frivolity, and the like, as they do not reflect God’s character, should be absent. In my judgment, this verse, 1 Cor 14:33a, is absolutely devastating against contemporary worship.

Again, this context theologically informs the reason Paul adds at the end of the chapter: But all things should be done decently and in order. Paul sees decent and orderly worship as reflections of the character of God. At this point, I can do no better than give you representative observations on this passage from past theologians. First, note Charles Hodge’s remarks on 1 Cor 14:40:

The exhortation therefore is, so to conduct their worship that it may be beautiful. – Charles Hodge

Decently, i. e. in such a way as not to offend against propriety. The adjective, the adverbial form of which is here used, means well-formed, comely; that which excites the pleasing emotion of beauty. The exhortation therefore is, so to conduct their worship that it may be beautiful; in other words, so as to make a pleasing impression on all who are right-minded. And in order …., not tumultuously as in a mob, but as in a well-ordered army, where every one keeps his place, and acts at the proper time and in the proper way. So far as external matters are concerned, these are the two principles which should regulate the conduct of worship. The apostle not only condemns any church acting independently of other churches, but also any member of a particular church acting from his own impulses, without regard to others. The church as a whole, and in every separate congregation, should be a harmonious, well-organised body.1

Second, hear the observations of Matthew Henry on the same verse:

Manifest indecencies and disorders are to be carefully kept out of all Christian churches, and every part of divine worship. They should have nothing in them that is childish, absurd, ridiculous, wild, or tumultuous; but all parts of divine worship should be carried on in a manly, grave, rational, composed, and orderly manner. God is not to be dishonoured, nor his worship disgraced, by our unbecoming and disorderly performance of it and attendance at it.2

It should be soberly noted that this passage, in its greater context addressing abuses related to spiritual gifts, even makes clear that we are not even allowed to claim the Spirit’s guidance for worship practices that are contradictory to the character and attributes of God and the Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit, when he comes to a man, gives him the gracious gift of self-control (see Gal 5:23), so he leads his own to control themselves in the way they go about their worship. Yes, the Spirit pours out fervent holy affections in the hearts of believers. But this zealous adoration never contradicts the Spirit’s character and nature.

Thus the Scriptures demand a comely aesthetic to Christian worship. Scripture expects us to reform our culture and habits to conform with its pattern, not the other way around.

Our worship does not need to be Baroque or ornate, but it should be, even in its simplicity and clarity, beautiful. This is consistent with the spirit of love and worship that comes from the Spirit, who leads us to worship and act in a way consistent with the character of the God of peace who redeemed us for his glory.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. Charles Hodge, Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York, 1860), 307-8. []
  2. Matthew Henry. []