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Orderly Worship

Pastors have the responsibility of planning and leading the congregational worship services in their churches. Does it matter how those services are ordered?

Some church leaders favor spontaneity and freedom in their worship. If someone has a testimony or favorite hymn they’d like to offer at the spur of the moment, then they should be permitted to do so. On the other extreme are those who favor highly prescribed liturgy that never alters from service to service. Which view is right? What does the Bible say?

The New Testament passage that most applies to this question is 1 Corinthians 14.26-40. In context, this passage deals most specifically with tongues and prophesy and how they should be used in corporate gatherings of the Church. Clearly, then, two of the primary issues discussed in this passage do not apply to us today.1 However, two more elements under consideration in this passage have direct application to our service planning, and they represent other similar elements in congregational worship. These are “hymns” and “lessons.”

Evidently at this time the Corinthian Church favored a kind of free, spontaneous worship where any individual could offer a favorite hymn, a lesson, a prophesy, or a message in tongues. Most of the instructions in this passage provide guidelines for tongues and prophesy, but the general principles here help us determine how we should order our congregational worship. Paul lists four general principles that apply to our service planning today, and these principles are summarized by his statement at the end of verse 40: “All things should be done decently and in order.” Paul argues that a corporate gathering of the Church should be orderly – worship services should be deliberately planned. This orderliness has a purpose, however, and Paul’s four principles reveal such purposes.

Worship services should be edifying.

Paul first says in verse 26, “Let all things be done for building up.” Evidently Paul’s opinion of the disorderliness of Corinthian worship was that it was not beneficial to the Body at large. When planning a service, one consideration that must be at the forefront is whether or not the service is beneficial for the entire congregation. What kinds of things should be considered?

First, our order of service should help the congregation deliberately focus on worshiping the Lord. There is certainly much flexibility in service orders because the New Testament does not prescribe an order. But however we do order our service, we should take into consideration whether our service order distracts from truly worshiping the Lord in spirit and truth, or whether it actually helps individuals deliberately focus on God.

Second, our order of service should include the entire congregation. Two problems exists here. On the one hand are churches (contemporary or traditional) that are very performance oriented. Most of what happens in such services is performed by professionals on a stage. On the other hand are churches that orient their services toward a narrow demographic such as 18-30 year olds or those with certain musical preferences. In order to be edifying in our services, we should be sure that what we plan invites every individual in the congregation to participate.

Worship services should be intentional.

Paul argues in verses 29-33 that each service element should be done “one by one” because “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” Elements within a services should not be haphazardly thrown together with no order or deliberateness. Rather, there should be intentional, thorough planning of elements within a service so that they flow “one by one.” Again, there is much flexibility as to how this looks from one service to another. But we who plan services must be intentional in what we include and how we order it.

Worship services should be lead by rightful authority.

Paul highlights the need for respect of church authority in corporate church gatherings in verses 34-35. Evidently Corinthian women had been questioning church leadership in a disrespectful way. Paul’s principle of prohibiting women from questioning their leadership applies to all the leadership structure within the church, especially as it relates to the worship service.

Corporate services should be planned and led by church leaders, and others within the church should respect their authority regarding the service.

Worship services should be Bible-centered.

In verses 36-38 Paul directs our attention to the authority of God’s revelation. How can we know how to order our services or even what to include in them? We must go to the Word of God. The Bible doesn’t give us a prescribed service order, but it does prescribe what elements we may have in our services: preaching, singing, Bible reading, prayer, ordinances, and giving. We must be sure, as those who are charged with planning worship services, that we include only those elements that God has prescribed. And then as we order that worship, we must still apply principles such as those found in this passage to order our worship.

Does it matter how we order our congregational worship services? According to Paul, it does. There is much flexibility from one church to the next or ever among services within one church. But however we plan our services, we must be certain that they are edifying, intentional, rightly led, and Bible-centered. In other words, “all things should be done decently and in order.”

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. If, of course, you’re a cessationist. I don’t have space in this article to deal with the issue, but even if you are a continuationist, these principles will be helpful to you. []

2 Responses to Orderly Worship

  1. I used to think I Corinthians 14 advocated "every member" participation in church worship services. Now, I'm not so sure. Obviously women are completely excluded from everything mentioned in the chapter (vs 34). Perhahps the other statements are more restructive as well. Since it must be known ahead of time if an intrepreter is present, and if not, no one with the gift of tongues may speak (vs. 28), it seems that a little more advance planning is indicated than may be readily apparent at first. In other words, it was apparently not an "open meeting" in which someone able to speak in tongues could speak, and then someone would say, "Is there anyone who can interpret?" Oops. Too late. The tongues speaker has already spoken out of turn, but we didn't know that no interpreter was present until it had already occured. Too bad. We're try to do a little better next time. Maybe what Paul is saying is, "Plan your meeting in advance. Plan a place for those who are recognized by the church to have the gift of tongues to speak, but only if you know in advance that someone known to have the gift of interpretation is present. Have a place for those recognized by the church to have the gift of prophecy, but restrict it to two or three, and let the recognized leaders of the church judge what they say, and gently correct them if they are wrong." May be a lot more "order" here than it seems at first glance?

  2. I agree. I'm always struck with, "The spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet." We often hear the opposite: "If the Spirit leads, we shouldn't 'quench' him!!" I think Paul is advocating for order here, and he's insisting that the Spirit works within order as well.

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