Does the Bible teach that we should have completely open, spontaneously Spirit-led church meetings where everyone contributes? Many would say “Yes!” and point to one specific passage to support this teaching:
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV
Now, we face a bit of a challenge with this verse because—by itself—it’s a little ambiguous (both in English and the original Greek). It could mean that, for the church to be built up, there needs to be freedom for all of these various ministry gifts to be shared with the body when we all come together. If this is our understanding, we would tend to read the last sentence as: “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up [emphasis added].” This is the way many do read the text (and the way I once read it). They then go on to discuss a number of serious implications for church ministry: e.g. the way church meetings are structured, the way they’re led, what size church gatherings should be for everyone to participate, etc.
But if this is what the verse means, we have an immediate problem. Because right after this verse, Paul begins to limit the involvement of people using their gifts during the church gathering. If the people were going to speak in tongues during the meeting, there could be only two or at the most three. If there was no interpreter, they must not speak in tongues. If anyone was going to prophesy during the gathering, again only two or at the most three could share with the rest of the body what was revealed to them.
At best, this is awkward. What of the fourth person who wanted to pray in tongues or share a prophecy? Was their gifting not part of the “everything [that] must be done so that the church may be built up”? What happened to the “each of you” that is apparently supposed to participate? This seems to be oddly contradicting what Paul just wrote. We need to take a closer look at verse 26 to make sure we’re interpreting it in context.
Let’s step back a little and get some more perspective. To whom is Paul writing this? To the church in Corinth. And what do we learn about these people in this letter? In the first few chapters, we see the Corinthians didn’t lack any spiritual gift, but they were very immature spiritually, fighting and quarreling with each other and causing division in the church. They seem proud of their giftedness, their wisdom and eloquence, but they’re really behaving like spoiled children. They’re fighting with each other over a number of different issues, and writing to Paul to settle these debates. Paul addresses each of their issues, every time correcting wrong thinking on both sides.
One of the issues they’re quarreling about is spiritual gifts. They’re eager to use their own spiritual gifts but suspicious of what others want to contribute. Paul responds to this problem in chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians. In chapter 12, he carefully explains to them that they are each part of the body, but they are each only one part of the body. They are all needed, and they all need each other. No part of the body is irrelevant, and no part of the body can function by itself.
Right in the middle of his response to this issue (in chapter 13), he interrupts his discourse on spiritual gifts to movingly insist on the preeminence of love—especially as it relates to using one’s spiritual gift in the church. The Corinthians were rich in giftedness but were decidedly lacking in love for each other. This is the heart of their problem.
This emphasis on love flows naturally into chapter 14. Paul shows here, over and over again, our criterion for what is done in the church gathering must be what most edifies the whole body. Why? Because of love! We love each other, and so we’re not seeking to gratify ourselves spiritually when we’re gathered with the rest of the church but to do only what will lovingly edify the whole body.
Yes, we see in verses 1-25, this gift is good and that gift is good—but the most important thing is to edify the body, to lovingly build up each other. For the use of a gift to be edifying, it must be clear; it must be discernible and meaningful to those for whom it’s intended; the use of the gift must be orderly and not chaotic; it must be in harmony with the rest of the body; etc.
Now we come to verse 26. Paul tells them:
When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.
Notice he doesn’t say ‘when you come together, you must each have . . .’ This isn’t an instruction, it’s an observation; it’s not prescriptive, it’s descriptive. Remember who he’s writing this to. These are people who are eager to show their gifting, but not so good at loving each other and edifying each other. Of course these people are all going to come with something they want to share!
Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
Now, again, the way this is worded can be understood in a couple of different ways. We can understand this to be saying: ‘You must do all of these things so that the church may be built up.’ Or it can mean: ‘You have all these things you want to share in the church gatherings. Whatever you do must be done so that the church may be built up.’ The emphasis would be on “so that the church may be built up” rather than on the “everything.” Which better fits the context of 1 Corinthians and especially chapters 12-14?
In the following verses Paul immediately begins limiting the gifting that will be shared during the church assembly. Paul’s main point in verses 27-40 is the same as it has been throughout the rest of the chapter. He’s not saying: ‘Here are a couple of restrictions, but otherwise everyone go for it!’ The emphasis he has come back to again and again throughout this chapter is: ‘Do what is most edifying for the body.’
Why should only two or three speak in tongues or prophecy? Because any more wouldn’t be edifying to the whole church. Why shouldn’t someone speak in tongues if there wasn’t an interpreter? Because it would only edify the speaker and not the whole body. Why must prophecies be evaluated? To make sure the content is true and edifying. So is Paul only restricting the use of these two gifts? No, the Corinthians were fighting specifically about tongues and prophecy. So, throughout chapter 14, Paul continually uses these particular gifts to illustrate his repeated point: The edification of the whole church is more important than everyone expressing their Spirit-gifting in the public gathering.
I appreciate the way the NLT translates this verse, making it very clear:
Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you [emphasis added].
I’m not endorsing everything done in traditional church services. (That’s a different post.) But we need to see how Paul concludes this whole section. He affirms for the Corinthians the great value of both tongues and prophecy. (Does he affirm these gifts for us today? That’s another post!) And then ends by instructing “be sure that everything is done properly and in order [14:40].” This is a clear command. But, as we’ve seen, to use verse 26 as some kind of command for open, spontaneous church meetings is to take the verse out of its context and misinterpret and misapply it. (And there is no other scriptural passage that teaches completely open church meetings.)
Ironically, some have forcefully insisted on this wrong understanding in ways that are unedifying and divisive. By seeking to live out this passage without first making sure we correctly understand it, we can actually end up opposing the very message of this Scripture! Let’s make love our primary motivation in everything we do as a church. Let’s be ready and eager to use our spiritual gifting to bless and love others, but let’s make what is most edifying to the whole, gathered church body our standard for how we participate in and how we order our church meetings.