For the last couple of weeks I have been laying the contextual foundation for what is perhaps the most significant chapter in the New Testament about corporate worship. Last week I demonstrated that Paul’s central argument in at least the first half of 1 Corinthians 14 is that for corporate worship, the gift of prophecy—direct revelation from God—is more desirable than the gift of tongues—a sign meant for unbelievers in the form of speaking praise to God in a known language but one not known by anyone in the congregation.
This argument was very specific to the time and place of the Christians in the Corinthian church; they were abusing spiritual gifts, and Paul was addressing their problem. However, in the way that he builds his argument that prophecy is more desirable than tongues, he implies some key principles about the nature and purpose of corporate worship gatherings that apply for all time.
First, corporate worship is corporate worship, not individual worship. This is the essential difference between tongues and prophecy: tongues is individual expression toward God, while prophecy has corporate benefit.
Notice how Paul describes the purpose of tongues in verse 2: “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but utters the mysteries in the Spirit.” We saw this last week in the book of Acts—the content of tongues was praise toward God. Now in the case of Pentecost there were people from various nations present who could understand the specific dialects, but if someone spoke in another dialect within a corporate worship service in the church at Corinth, no one in the congregation would have been able to understand what was being said.
Instead, verse 4: “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself.” The whole rest of the section highlights the personal and individual nature of the gift of tongues. If someone speaks in a language that no one else in the congregation knows, he might bring individual praise to God, and he might have a legitimate individual experience with God that builds up himself, but he is of no benefit to the congregation as a whole. That would be like if someone came into your service and started praising the Lord in Russian. That person might be genuinely worshiping the Lord, but it would be individual worship, not corporate worship. Paul is emphasizing the importance of the corporate nature of a church service here.
Prophecy, on the other hand, is a gift that edifies the entire congregation. Paul states this clearly in verse 3: “On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” And again inverse 4: “but the one who prophesies builds up the church.”
When the revelation of God is clearly proclaimed to God’s people in words they can understand, that builds up the church, which emphasizes the importance of recognizing the corporate nature of public worship. This is not to say that individual expression is always inappropriate—as Paul says in verse 5, if there is an interpreter, then tongues speaking can be edifying to all. In other words, if there is individual expression in corporate worship, it must be such that has corporate benefit.
Paul’s emphasis here runs contrary to a common way of thinking that has become prevalent in evangelicalism today, even among those who have in a sense recovered a God-centered focus to corporate worship, in which the purpose of the worship service is assumed to be for individuals to have a personal experience with God. Individual praise to God and self-edification are good, but when we gather as the church, our focus should be corporate, not individual.
When you come to corporate worship, are you just expecting to have an individual experience with God, or are you concerned about the whole body? Corporate worship is not the time to close your eyes and simply focus on God alone. Corporate worship is the time to open your eyes, look around, and join with the whole body in worshiping the Lord.