After feeling the love in 1 Corinthians 13, we’re right back into tongues and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14. Keep in mind that Paul is not obsessed with this topic—rather he is having to respond to the Corinthian questions and their obsession with the topic. This is why there is more in 1 Corinthians about tongues and spiritual gifts than there is in the rest of the New Testament combined.
This chapter specifically compares tongues and prophecy as spiritual gifts and discusses the value of the two. In doing so, Paul highlights the value of prophecy while acknowledging the use of tongues. One of the major problems we have today, though, is that the definitions of “prophecy” and “tongues” are debated by many churches and New Testament scholars.
For example, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (mine is the Logos version, so I don’t know what volume), runs through a variety of uses for the Greek word that gets translated as “prophesy” and the real summary is that it is words spoken by one who is a prophet. Seriously. Then it leaves the reader to determine the theology of who is (and isn’t) a “prophet.”
We also see this in theological works today. Grudem’s Systematic Theology places “prophecy” for the New Testament era as similar to Old Testament prophecy, but not exactly alike (and not as perfect). Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith identifies “prophecy” as more akin to preaching, Spirit illumined but not inspired (contrasted with Scripture, which is inspired). He does not come out and say so, but I would suspect he would accept a different translation than “prophecy” because of this. The term comes from simply transliterating the Greek (and Latin) into an English word rather than trying to find the right term. (Same thing happened to “baptize,” from the Greek word meaning “to immerse.”)
So, then, we have two different challenges here. The first is to sort through what “prophecy” and “tongues” are, Scripturally speaking. The second is what to do with them.
Let’s focus on what to do with prophecy and tongues.
Paul instructs the church that “all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” (1 Corinthians 14:40). This is a key concept: church worship is not meant to be sheer chaos. The reason for this can be seen as the chapter unfolds. The gathered times of the church are meant to be three things:
1.) Glorifying to God;
2.) Edifying to the body of Christ, the church;
3.) Explicable to outsiders who come into the church.
Therefore, Paul reminds the Corinthians to ensure their gatherings fall within this parameter.
What does that mean for us?
Well, our worship services, the times we are gathered as a church should fall within the same pattern given to the Corinthians. Not necessarily the exact order and structure, but the concept. Every gathering of the church should aim to be:
1.) Glorifying to God: it should be clear that the focus of the time is the Lord Jesus Christ and the fullness of the Triune God. If a gathering of “worship” leaves one wondering who that service was about, then the primary purpose has been missed.
2.) Edifying to the body of Christ: we should build up one another, not tear one another down. Every gathering should equip, strengthen, and challenge the church to do the things which the church ought to do. Otherwise, why are we together?
3.) Explicable to outsiders who come into the church: not fully accepted by outsiders, but explicable. We should be able to explain what is happening, why it is happening, and who the focus is on. In short, we should be able to point others back to points 1 and 2!
If everything is chaos, if the service is full of people trying to be seen and known for what they do, then the point of gathering together is missed. The Corinthians seemed to have trouble with this, and I know that at times, it seems we have trouble too. Let us strive to keep the focus in the right direction!
I am not going into 1 Corinthians 14:34 about women being silent except to say: study the context, understand the point.
The idea that God is not a God of confusion but of peace does not mean that church is always peaceful—this is no call to go along just to get along. Rather, that the gathering of people requires some planning and thought, so put it in and work through it. At times, the Holy Spirit may just interrupt your plan. That’s okay, but you will not be worse off for having prayed and prepared anyway.