Decent and Orderly Corporate Worship

Decent and Orderly Corporate Worship

Corporate worship is corporate worship, not individual worship. Corporate worship is for believers, not unbelievers. Corporate worship has the primary purpose of edification, not merely expression. Corporate worship accomplishes edification through order, not disorder. Corporate worship should be biblically-regulated, not unregulated. And if we do follow these principles as we approach our corporate worship as a church, then our relationship with God will be properly formed and shaped according to his designs and his Word.

Our church’s worship is pretty formal, but I prefer Holy Spirit-led worship.” Such was the comment I overheard recently by a young evangelical describing his church’s worship service, illustrating a very common perception by many evangelicals today—if the Holy Spirit actively works in worship, the results will be something extraordinary, an experience “quenched” by too much form and order. A common perception, to be sure, but how grounded in Scripture is this expectation concerning the nature and purpose of corporate worship?

My goal in this essay is to assess this common expectation, measuring it against what is perhaps the single most important text in the New Testament regarding the nature and purpose of corporate worship. In fact, 1 Corinthians 14 is really the only chapter in the New Testament that gives direct and specific focus to the subject of corporate worship.

However, Paul addresses the subject of corporate worship not exactly directly, but rather indirectly by addressing a problem within the Corinthian church. But in addressing that problem, Paul highlights the central nature and purpose of corporate worship in cultivating our relationship with God.

Corporate Worship Context

Paul’s argument is essentially that the believers in the Corinthian church should desire the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues. Notice what he says in verse 5: “

5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

And again in verse 19:

19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

But notice that the context of the discussion in this chapter is “in church” (v. 19), “when you come together” (v. 26); that is, the context is specifically corporate gatherings of the church. But the specific focus is on the use of such gifts in the context of “coming together” within the gatherings of the church.

So, what the chapter teaches about the primacy of prophecy over tongues within church gatherings provides broader principles for the nature of corporate worship. In other words, the reasons Paul gives for why the Corinthian believers should desire prophecy over tongues in corporate worship help us to understand better the nature and purpose of corporate worship.

Tongues vs. Prophecy

But in order to do that, we need to grasp what, exactly, these gifts were. First, what is prophecy?

To prophesy is to speak the very words of God. Sometimes those words are predictive; more often those words are instructive or exhortative. But no matter the content, prophecy is the delivery of direct, divine revelation to the degree that one who prophesies can always unequivocally say, “Thus says the Lord.”

The gift of tongues is the ability to speak in known languages that the speaker himself does not know. And the content of the speech here in Acts 2 is important for our purposes as well: verse 11 tells us that they were speaking “the mighty works of God.” This is speech that brought praise to God, and it was speech in a known language, but one that the speakers themselves had never learned.

The purpose of the gift was as a sign to the Jews that God was shifting his focus away from them for a time and toward the Gentile nations.

There is, of course, debate over whether these gifts of tongues and prophecy continue today or whether they have ceased. Although I will not be able to offer a complete defense in this message, I will just note that the historically held view through the entirety of the church’s history until the nineteenth century is that that these spiritual gifts have ceased.

But This understanding of the gifts in Corinth sheds some light on why Paul would tell the Corinthian believers to prefer prophecy over tongues. Remember, Paul is specifically focusing on corporate worship, and therefore his insistence that tongues is less desirable than prophecy reveals to us some important principles about corporate worship.

The Nature and Purpose of Corporate Worship

So, Paul’s central argument in at least the first half of 1 Corinthians 14 is that for corporate worship, the gift of prophecy—divine 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 very central argument implies some key principles about the nature and purpose of corporate worship gatherings.

Corporate, Not Individual

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 he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

We saw this 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, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

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 our service this morning 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 in verse 4:

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, 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.

Believers, Not Unbelievers

Second, corporate worship is for believers, not unbelievers. Notice in verse 22 where Paul says that tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers.

22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.

As we see in Acts, God gave the sign of tongues in order to help first Jewish unbelievers, then Gentiles within Israel, and then Gentiles outside Israel recognize that anyone who believed in the name of the Lord would be saved. But the purpose of the corporate gatherings of the church is not primarily to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ; corporate worship is first and foremost a gathering of Christians, which is another reason Paul emphasized the superiority of prophecy—a gift of benefit for believers—over tongues in corporate worship.

This is not at all to downplay the importance of evangelism for the church. Indeed, part of what it means to fulfill the Great Commission is to preach the gospel to every living creature. But evangelism should happen primarily as we go out into the world; when we gather as the church, we are gathering as believers.

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