Epistles: One at a Time, Please (1 Corinthians 14:26-39)
What did first-century believers do in their worship meetings? The Bible gives us only a few glimpses into the details. Paul gives a description in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” Every believer had a part to play, each according to the way that God had gifted them.
Speaking in turn
However, it seems that all the believers in Corinth wanted to use their gifts at the same time, and their meetings had become chaotic. One person was singing, another speaking in tongues, a third trying to deliver a message—but no one was listening to anyone else. Everyone was empowered to speak, and that was good. But when everyone spoke at once, the gifts were not producing the desired results.
So Paul gives them a basic principle: “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” Spiritual gifts are given for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7), and they should strengthen the church. People should be taught, and a sense of community should grow.
Based on this foundational principle, Paul gives instructions: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God” (vv. 27-28).
When God inspires people to speak, he does not cause everyone to speak at once. Rather, he expects them to restrain themselves so that their gift is used at a time when it can be effective. It may mean waiting for someone else to finish, or until an interpreter is present.
Tongues are not appropriate in church, he says, unless someone is there to interpret the words. And do not expect everyone to speak in tongues—no more than three should speak at each meeting. If more people feel inspired to speak in tongues, then they can wait until the next week.
Not a God of disorder
Paul gives similar guidelines for the gift of prophecy: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (vv. 29-31).
How do people “weigh carefully” what is said? The Greek word means to discern, to make a decision. People are to decide whether these are words of God, or not. Was this done by each person silently, or did it involve discussion? We do not know.
The first speaker must be willing to cut the message short if someone else is inspired to give an additional message. The meeting is not an oratory contest or an endurance contest, but a time for instruction and encouragement, a time to serve others rather than to seek attention for one’s self.
Paul gives another basic principle when he writes, “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets” (v. 32). He has already implied that tongues-speakers should control their own gift; each person should use wisdom when using their gifts. Being “inspired” does not mean that everyone blurts out whatever they want, whenever they want. God gives gifts, but he also wants us to think about how and when we use those gifts.
“For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (v. 33). Paul’s other congregations were orderly, and he wanted Corinth to be orderly as well. He did not tell people to stop using their gifts, but his guidelines would make their gifts more effective.
Women should (not) be silent
Paul also calls for orderly worship among a third group—women—and these are among the most controversial words Paul ever wrote: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (vv. 34-35).
I cannot discuss all the details of the controversy here, but briefly, we may note that Paul already implied in chapter 11 that women were allowed to prophesy, presumably in public meetings. When he writes that women are to be silent, he did not mean a total and permanent prohibition, just as he did not mean a total prohibition when he used the same Greek word for tongues-speakers and prophets.
The problem in the Corinthian church meetings was not a problem of who was speaking, but of when. When everyone spoke at once, it was chaotic. Part of the problem was that women were talking. So Paul tells them to stop talking in church. He did not mean that they could not sing along with everyone else, or that they could not interpret tongues for someone else, or that they could not prophesy. Rather, just like everyone else, they were to cease all out-of-turn talking. (For more details, see our more detailed study of this passage, posted at https://www.gci.org/articles/women-should-remain-silent-a-study-of-1-corinthians-1434-35/.)
Paul seems to express some frustration with the Corinthians when he asks, “Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (v. 36). The Corinthians claimed to be inspired, and acted as if they did not need any guidance from Paul or anyone else. They were using “inspiration” as an excuse for their own excesses.
Paul wants them to see the bigger picture, that they are not the only believers on the planet, and they do not have a perfect pipeline to God. Just as God can inspire the Corinthians, so he can also inspire Paul—but that does not mean that the Corinthians were responding to the Spirit just as accurately as Paul was. Paul had a special conversion, a special commission, and many more years of experience with the Spirit.
“If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored” (vv. 37-38). Paul is invoking his God-given authority over his churches.
Paul concludes the chapter: “Be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (vv. 39-40). We might summarize it this way:
- Be eager to speak words that instruct, encourage, and build people up.
- Tongues are not wrong in themselves, but they can (like most other gifts) be used wrongly.
- Meetings should be orderly, so they can strengthen the church.
The Greeks Had a Word for It
Taxis comes from tassō, which means “to arrange.” Taxis usually conveys the idea of a sequence. We get the English word taxonomy from this word.
In Luke 1:8, taxis is used to say that Zechariah’s division was “on duty.” It was the turn for his group to serve. Taxis is used more often in Hebrews, to say that Jesus is a priest in the “order” of Melchizedek.
Paul uses taxis in 1 Cor. 14:40 to say that worship meetings should be orderly. The context shows that Paul is concerned with sequence—that people speak one after another, each in their own turn.
Dr. Michael Morrison teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at: www.gcs.edu.
Author: Michael Morrison, 2011