What should we do when we come together on a Sunday morning? What should we do in our mid-week small groups? How should we spend our time when we are gathered together?
Excellent questions. Questions that have vexed Christians for centuries. Important questions.
One mistake to make is to think what we do in our meetings is something the Bible is silent about and it all boils down to our personal preferences. It is equally mistaken to want there to be a single passage that will give us every detail: What time we should start, how long for, what liturgy to use, which songs to pick and so on. The Bible isn’t silent, but neither does it give us our order of service.
What it does is give us principles which we are to apply intelligently. And this chapter gives us plenty to apply, which is why all the sermons on this chapter have a title beginning “when you come together”. Cast your eye down to verse 26: “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together…”
But this is not a chapter in isolation. Verse 1 reminds us of where we are in 1 Corinthians. Paul starts: “Follow the way of love.” That reminds us of chapter 13; God’s priority is not our gifts but our character. Are we loving? But having got that in place, Paul can say “eagerly desire spiritual gifts.” Which is the note he ended chapter 12 on. Chapter 12 verse 31 says, “But eagerly desire the greater gifts”. The question he didn’t answer in chapter 12 is which gifts are greater. Which are the gifts we are to actively seek? And that is what he will be talking about in chapter 14.
Paul is really making two points in the first half of this chapter. First, the gift of prophecy is greater than the gift of tongues. The gift of prophecy is greater than the gift of tongues. And last week we thought about what those gifts are. At which point, let me say that, if you weren’t here last week, you will find it helpful as we look at chapter 14 if you get the chance to catch up what we looked at last time: either by coming to the service this evening, or by requesting a CD, or by using the church website. Prophecy greater than tongues.
And second, there are to be no uninterpreted tongues in church. When we come together, on a Sunday, in small groups, for time away together, there are to be no tongues that are not interpreted.
Before we move to think about why prophecy is greater than tongues, and why there are to be no uninterpreted tongues in church, we need to pause and be careful. We must make sure we don’t mishear Paul.
He’s only comparing prophecy and tongues. Just those two. So when people point to this chapter to say that tongues are the least important gift full stop, they are misusing the chapter. Equally, when people point to this chapter to say that prophecy is the most important gift full stop, they are misusing the chapter. It compares prophecy with tongues. Just that.
The other thing to say by way of caution is that Paul says no uninterpreted tongues in church. He does not say no tongues in church. There’s nothing wrong with tongues in church, provided there is an interpretation. Equally, he does not say no uninterpreted tongues. In private, that’s fine. He says in verse 18 that he speaks in tongues more than any of them. But he is emphatic. In church, he would never speak in a tongue without an interpretation.
So let’s not mishear Paul, and make him say things he’s not saying. What he is saying is that prophecy is greater than tongues, and there are to be no uninterpreted tongues: when we are gathered together.
The question is, why does he say these things?
And that question brings us into the detail of the chapter. What we find is that Paul has three main principles in the verses we are looking at this morning. Three main principles about what we do when we come together. Three main principles about what we do in church.
In church, build up others (2-5)
First, in church, build up others. In church, build up others.
Let me read from verse 2. “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no-one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” Paul is comparing tongues and prophecy. He compares them in this specific sense: Who is being addressed?
With prophecy, other people are being addressed, with the result that they are strengthened, encouraged and comforted. With tongues that are uninterpreted, the only person who understands the speaker is God. Nobody else has a clue what is being said. And so God is being addressed. Prophecy addresses other people. Tongues address God.
So what’s the effect of each of these? Verse 4: “He would speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church”. We’ve seen who is addressed. That leads to another comparison: Who is built up? Who is edified? Which edifice is being built? With tongues, only God is addressed, so the speaker is built up. With prophecy, others are addressed, so that they are strengthened, encouraged, and comforted. The church is built up.
And in verse 5 Paul says that therefore prophecy is the greater gift to use in church. Because the aim is, as he says, “that the church may be edified.” In church, build up others.
I was trying to think what I could use to illustrate this kind of approach to meeting together. The trouble I ran into was that I think this is one of those things that makes the church unique.
I could have talked about the humanitarian charity. The aim is to relieve suffering, to meet the needs of others. When the volunteers meet together it is not for their own benefit but for the benefit of whoever it is they are all there to help. And we do meet, as a church, for the benefit of those who don’t come. But that’s not what Paul’s saying here. He’s saying that we meet together for the benefit of one another. And I can’t think of any charity where the volunteers assemble so that they can all contribute to one another’s needs.
I could have talked about the sports team. Football, hockey, curling, are not solo sports. The team work as a team. But the aim when they are together is not to benefit each other; it’s to win the match, the title, the medal whatever it is. And actually there is a lot of back-biting and trampling on one another in sport.
So I don’t know. Perhaps you can think of a good illustration. Let me know.
Paul’s point, though, is this: In church, build up others. When we come together, we do so in order to help other people follow Christ.
The more you think about this, the more you realise how radically this affects our view of church.
How do you decide whether to go to church on a given Sunday, or a given midweek evening? If your view of church is that you go to meet with God, you might decide for any number of reasons to give it a miss. Perhaps when it comes to your personal Bible reading and prayer, it’s been a better week than most. Maybe there are people coming to lunch. Perhaps it’s being a taxi for the kids. For one reason or another, God won’t mind if you don’t meet with him this time around.
If, on the other hand, your view of church is that you go to serve other people, to build up others, you will realise that you are letting other people down if you don’t go. It’s not what you may or may not get out of it; it’s what other people need you for.
At which point, you might be saying that that’s all very well, but coming to church rarely feels like serving others. Which brings us to the other side of church that this affects. When we get to church, what are we here for?
Put it this way, why do we sing? Not for God’s benefit. Not for my personal benefit. We sing, Paul says elsewhere, for each other. Why do we have prayers? I mean, we can pray at home. So why do we pray here? Because we can build up each other by leading one another in prayer. And so we could go on. Why do we drink coffee? Not so that we can quench our thirst after the service, but to facilitate strengthening, encouraging and comforting one another.
Which means that what we do when we come together must never be governed by my personal preferences. You hear people say, “Why do we no longer do that? I liked that.” The question instead needs to be: What will others find helpful? Or even better, what will build others up in their faith in Christ? We need to plan all we do when we come together so that it is an opportunity to serve each other.
In church, build up others.
In church, be intelligible (6-12)
Second, Paul says, “In church, be intelligible.” In church, be intelligible.
This comes in verses 6 to 12. Most of this paragraph is taken up with the illustrations Paul uses to reinforce his point. But he does tell us what his point is, if we look at the opening sentence, and if we look at the places where he applies his illustrations to their situation.
So, verse 6: “Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?” Verse 9: “So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying. You will just be speaking into the air.” Verse 12: “So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.”
Paul’s point is clear, isn’t it? We’ve said that our aim, when we come together, is to build each other up. But if I only speak unintelligible words, you won’t know what I’m saying. Therefore when we come together we must be intelligible in what we say; that way we can do each other good, we can build each other up. In summary, if we want to build each other up, we need to be intelligible. In church, be intelligible.
And he illustrates his point for us in two ways.
First, he points to musical instruments. Suppose when it’s time for our next song the musicians strike up. But instead of all playing the song we are due to sing next, they each pick a series of notes at random and play those. We wouldn’t know which song we were on, when to stand up, when to start the next verse, when we were to sing the chorus. Ian wouldn’t know when to change the slide over. It would be chaos. Or imagine the military trumpeter, tasked with waking the troops when there’s a threat to respond to. If instead a clear reveille, he just quietly practices a few scales and arpeggios the army would be decimated.
And Paul says it’s like that with us. If there’s no clarity at all in what we say, if the words have no meaning, then it doesn’t do any good. No-one knows how to respond .We don’t benefit each other.
Or second, he says, think of a foreign language. Swedish, Spanish, any language you like that you don’t speak. Someone could talk Danish to you if they like. What they say is full of meaning. But if you don’t understand Danish, that meaning is lost on you. What he says means nothing to you. It does you no good.
I speak a small amount of French and even less German. But that’s pretty much it. When some friends of ours suggested we might want to use their holiday home in the south of Spain, it didn’t take much enquiry to rule it out. The property is in a deeply rural area, where almost everyone speaks not a word of English. No chance!
So that’s Paul’s second point. Given we should be building each other up, in church, be intelligible.
What does this mean for us?
At the very least we need to aim for clarity in all that we do together. If I preach a sermon, and what I say is not clear, I will be a foreigner to you. That benefits no-one; I need to be intelligible. Similarly, if we choose songs which have words that are confused or don’t quite make sense, that does not build people up either. Our songs must be intelligible. And the same goes with our prayers. We need to have prayers from the front that are clear, that people can follow, as Paul says that we can say Amen to.
And it goes further than just content. The way we do things needs to be clear as well. You’ll be able to think of more applications, but we need to be very careful about jargon. It seems to me that if we are going to avoid talking a foreign language we either need to avoid jargon or we need to explain it clearly and simply.
Likewise we need to use modern English. For most people, Elizabethan English is a foreign language. Although, of course, there are some who grew up with our old English prayer book to the extent that they do speak that language.
And of course we need to be audible. If what is said from the front is mumbled, or is said with a badly adjusted sound system, again, if in a time of open prayer people don’t speak up, it’s as good as a foreign language.
No: We need to work hard to make sure we are intelligible in all we do in church.
In church, engage brain (13-19)
And third, Paul says in verses 13-19: In church, engage brain. In church, engage brain.
What Paul does in these verses is apply what he has just been saying on intelligibility. What effect do unintelligible tongues have on the outsider, the person who doesn’t understand? Very little. Verse 16: “If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well, enough, but the other man is not edified.”
So what is Paul’s answer? Verse 15: I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. Which I take it means I will pray in tongues, but I will also interpret. And I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. I will sing in tongues, but only when I also interpret what I have sung so that others may benefit.
Which means that in Paul’s thinking, the spirit and the mind belong together.
Which makes sense, really. We come to church to build others up. We build others up as we are intelligible, as we do things that others will understand. It therefore follows that the key to building other people up is to engage their brains. If we do things that bypass people’s brains they won’t understand, which means they won’t be built up. That’s what Paul is saying.
There are lots of times when we enjoy things a lot without thinking about them too hard. A nice sunset. A tasty meal. A good friend’s company. A film. And, classically, a joke. All things that you can enjoy without thinking too hard; some of them are even spoilt slightly if you do try and think too hard. Paul is not denying that. What he’s saying is that there is nothing super spiritual about not using our brains. Rather, when we are in church and seeking to build up others, we will do so as we engage their brains.
Which might sound uncontroversial. But there are plenty of people who think that it’s necessary for us to use our brains, but that in an ideal world it wouldn’t be. It’s all well and good to start out the Christian life with mind-engaging activities, but you should look to move beyond it. The more the brain is involved, the less space there is for the Spirit to work.
What kinds of things do people say? You are probably aware that we are half way through a course called Christianity Explored, that invites people to explore the claims of Christ for themselves. I’ve heard that course criticised because it asks people to think about Christianity. Some people think that sermons are a bad idea because they suggest that the way to know God is through our minds. When I was an undergraduate, there were some extraordinary goings on in a number of churches that was billed as the work of God’s Spirit. Any attempt to criticise that assessment was dismissed as too intellectual; critical thought would only get in the way of God’s Spirit.
People can think that the human mind gets in the way of God’s Spirit. Paul says that being spiritual involves engaging our minds. Which means that it is not spiritual to bypass the mind. Rather, God’s Spirit works through our minds.
Which, again, affects what we do when we come together. Take singing. It’s nice to really enjoy singing together. But repeat that slow song too many times it can encourage our brains to disengage. And if that happens, it’s not a triumph that we’ve created a really spiritual atmosphere. No, it’s unspiritual, unedifying to encourage people to disengage their brains.
Or listening to a piece of instrumental music. A nice thing to do, but it’s not clear how that enables us to build one another up through intelligible speech.
And so, Paul says, in church, engage brain.
Let me try and draw some of these thoughts together.
What do we do when we come together?
How much of what we do is things we could do on our own? Indeed, things we do do on our own? It’s just that we’re doing these solo activities in company of others. And how much of what we do is genuinely about building others up?
You see, we can pray at home. We can read our Bibles at home. We can listen to sermons at home. We can sing at home. Even eating bread and wine we can do at home.
Don’t get me wrong. These are all good things to do in church, too, probably. But we need to remember that the purpose of all we do when we come together is building each other up. That’s why we gather. That’s what determines what we do. So insofar as we pray here, it is for each other’s good. Insofar as we read our Bibles here, it is for each other’s good. Insofar as we listen to sermons here, it is for each other’s good. Insofar as we sing here, it is for each other’s good. And insofar as we share bread and wine here, we do it to encourage each other.
And if that’s why we gather, it means that the time we spend over tea and coffee afterwards is just as important as the time we spend over here.
All of which means that we need to think through everything we do. Are we out to build up others? Because making that our goal for our time together will affect what we do and don’t spend our time doing. It will have the effect that all we do is intelligible, and never confused. It will have the effect that all we do engages one another’s minds.
As Paul says, let all we do be done for the building up, the strengthening, the edifying of the church.