Open church meetings?: Misapplying 1 Corinthians 14:26

jriordan26z-eDoes 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.

UnknownYes, 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!

He continues:

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 Holding-Handsunedifying 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.

Review: “40 Questions About Elders and Deacons” by Benjamin Merkle

0004464_40_questions_about_elders_and_deaconsThis book is a helpful resource and a welcome volume on the pastoral leadership of the church. Tom Schreiner wrote the foreword, and he doesn’t mince words when it comes to explaining the importance of this subject:

“The church is not a human institution or idea. The ordering of the church is not a matter of our wisdom or preference. The church is not a business where the brightest executives brainstorm on how it should be organized. Too many conceive of the church as a human organism where we innovatively map out its structure. God has not left us to our own devices. He has given us instructions on the nature and design of the church in His inspired and authoritative Word. To jettison what God says about the church and supplant it with our own ideas is nothing less than astonishing arrogance.”

Merkle doesn’t shy from emphasizing this significance either. He cautions that unbiblical models of church leadership can lead to unbiblical church leaders, and describes how this affects the nature of pastoral ministry and also the life and health of the church body. He effectively shows from Scripture that God intends for the local church to be pastored by a council of elders and why the common practice of distinguishing a senior or lead pastor from the elders is not biblical.

As you might have guessed from the title, this book is divided into 40 questions, each of them addressing a specific question regarding elders and deacons. (Technically, there are 39 questions since the author devotes two chapters to one of the questions.) This book is well-written, and I don’t see any reason why most people won’t read it from cover to cover. But the way it’s organized makes it especially helpful for those who need to quickly locate an answer to a particular question.

It’s difficult to think of a pertinent question the author doesn’t cover. The first few chapters explore church polity in general. He explains how the New Testament terms “elder” and “overseer” (or “bishop”) refer to the same church office. Merkle notes that while most evangelical pastors and scholars would agree with this conclusion, it’s all too rarely applied today in the local church. He does a great job of describing the different forms of church leadership in their historical contexts, and showing scripturally why Acts 15 doesn’t support the episcopal or presbyterian models. I deeply appreciate the strong stand he takes against making a distinction between the elders and a pastor or senior pastor.

The next chapters focus on the role of the elder. This is excellent material, and the author makes it accessible and understandable. He devotes one chapter to Timothy and Titus, nicely clarifying the apostolic nature of their ministries. In the following section of the book, Merkle examines the qualifications for elders. I thought his treatment demonstrated extensive knowledge of the material, spiritual wisdom and balanced application. He capably handles questions regarding the “husband of one wife,” whether an elder must be married and whether his children must be believers. To require that an elder—even one who serves as a primary teacher/preacher—have a seminary degree is to go beyond God’s standards for elders and to artificially add our own. The author explains this. He spends three chapters discussing whether women can be elders, and his handling of the key biblical passages is superb, particularly his distinguishing between cultural applications and transcultural principles. I also appreciated his explanation of the difference between prophecy and preaching. Some have mistakenly assumed that prophecy is preaching, and this has led to ministry practices that are confusing and unhealthy.

With questions 21-28 Merkle moves to the plurality of the church elders. He points out that the ‘one elder per house church’ idea is purely conjectural, not found in Scripture, and that we shouldn’t base our polity on such speculative ideas. He shows the clear, consistent biblical model of a plurality of pastoral elders in each church, and also the complete lack of scriptural examples or precedent for a sole or senior pastor. He discusses practical issues such as whether there should be a fixed number of elders and if the elders should require unanimous consensus when making decisions, giving pros and cons for each practice. The author describes real advantages to plural pastoral ministry, reasons why more churches aren’t structured this way, and gives some helpful thoughts on transitioning to this kind of leadership model. He warns against using terms such as “lay elder” or “lay pastor,” and also cautions about having too little overlap between the church elders and the staff, essentially creating a third church office. (I think many large churches with an eldership structure need to seriously consider this last point.) In this section, Merkle makes a statement I find to be true and a cause for concern:

“The organizational structure of many churches today bears almost no resemblance to the pattern found among the New Testament churches.”

That should give us all pause.

Questions 29-33 cover more practical issues concerning elders such as: How should elders be selected? How long should they serve? Should they be ordained? etc. In chapters 34-40, Merkle examines the role of the deacon. And I suppose this is as good a place as any to note a few of the author’s minor points with which I would disagree. Scripture never defines the exact role of the deacon, and I see great wisdom in this. Ministry needs arise that are important and that must be addressed, but which would draw the elders from their specific, God-given role. In such cases, it’s wise to appoint other church leaders to oversee these areas of responsibility. Because this will vary greatly from church to church, it makes perfect sense to me that the New Testament doesn’t give us a normative description of the ministry role of the deacon.

But Merkle disappointingly assumes that all deacons were focused on the physical needs of the people. He bases this (as others have) on the account in Acts 6:1-6. I don’t think anyone would disagree that caring for the physical needs of the people fits within the scope of ministry for deacons. But should the entire range of appropriate ministry options for deacons be defined and limited by this one, solitary example in a narrative account? Is it only the elders who can provide teaching and leadership to youth, children, women’s ministries(!), men’s ministries, etc.? Can only elders lead in counseling ministries or working with people with addictions? If these are legitimate ministry needs—with a need for leadership that often goes beyond the scope of those who pastor the whole church—and if these ministries somehow can’t fit within the role of the deacon, aren’t we back to a nebulous third church office that we wanted to avoid? If these people who are serving in some leadership capacity aren’t elders and they aren’t deacons, what exactly are they? How many categories of church leaders are there? I just don’t see how we can extrapolate a comprehensive pattern for ministry from one narrative detail that may very well have been occasional in nature. This is why many of us feel that all church leadership responsibilities beyond the specific role of the elders fall into the intentionally undefined role of the deacons, under the oversight of the elders of course. (I also find the author’s arguments against female deacons unconvincing.)

In a few places, Merkle expresses concern about an overly democratic model of congregationalism, and shows the benefits of reaching genuine consensus as opposed to congregational voting. He also repeatedly brings out the necessity of not just an informed congregation, but one involved with the actual process of reaching consensus. This all resonates with me, and is reassuring to many who have been turned off by the democratic model of church votes. But then, in other places, he seems to drag out the old, highly conjectural arguments that are usually used to support the democratic model. Some of these arguments represent the exegetical over-reaching that caused many of us to reject congregationalism in the first place. (I should clarify that I’ve returned to a modified, consensus-based form of congregationalism.) Not only are these arguments not necessary for his main conclusions, I don’t think they’re borne out by the texts. I found all of this confusing, even placing a few of his descriptions of the role of the church body in conflict with his described role for the church elders.

My final quibble involves two interrelated issues. Merkle feels that, since only elders are specifically tasked with teaching, the role of deacons therefore cannot include regular teaching as a specific matter of responsibility. He quotes D.A. Carson to support this even though Carson is not making the same point Merkle is. Carson rightly points out that deacons enjoy no “church-recognized teaching authority akin to that of the elders.” This is an important point, especially in churches that have elevated the role of deacons to essentially that of the church elders. But just because the elders authoritatively teach the church, why does this mean there can be no other leaders who teach regularly as part of their specific ministry?

In a similar way, Merkle cautions against using the term “pastor” to refer to any leaders in the church other than the elders. So, for instance, we shouldn’t designate a non-elder as a youth pastor or women’s pastor. But why not? All the elders are pastors, this is very true. But are only elders pastors? Is there to be no one else in the church with a shepherding gift and role? Is the youth pastor not pastoring the youth? Or the women’s pastor the women? the children’s pastor the children? If these people are serving in an authentically shepherding role, why not acknowledge this in our terminology? How is this out of harmony with the New Testament model? Again, yes, God designates the elders as those who pastor and teach the whole church. But where stands it written that they are therefore the only shepherds and teachers within the church? Why can’t the non-elder members of the church leadership team or staff—whether paid or voluntary—correspond to the biblical role of the church deacons? (Whether we call them deacons, pastors, ministers or something else would be a secondary issue.)

Despite these disagreements, which are relatively minor, I find this book to be extremely beneficial and useful to anyone wanting to better understand the biblical teachings on the pastoral leadership of the church. Highly recommended.

Review: “Shepherds & Sheep: A Biblical View of Leading & Following” by Jerram Barrs

This book is pleasantly concise (98 pages including endnotes), but ably provides a solid overview of biblical church leadership. The book was written in 1983, and Barrs seems to be especially responding to ministries that stress a controlling “shepherding” or “covering,” and also churches that overemphasize a directing type of prophecy with no checks or safeguards—both of which were prevalent at the time. He also shows the danger of a licentious, anything-goes kind of approach, but doesn’t spend as much time exploring this side of the imbalance. Along the way, Barrs reveals some of the unhealthy extremes in the teachings of Watchman Nee, as well as troubling practices in Witness Lee’s Local Church movement.

But the relevance of this book isn’t limited to specific church movements. Both a libertarian lack of control and a legalistic authoritarianism are both potential dangers for churches at all times. The author focuses on the biblical principles of church leadership and shows how a consistently scriptural leadership model will protect us from falling into either extreme. When we neglect scriptural principles or enforce our own extra-biblical standards, we fall out of the balance described in the New Testament. I particularly appreciated Barrs’ insightful comments about the ‘upside down pyramid’ approach, having been part of a church that followed this kind of structure.

Some readers may quibble with details of the author’s views on apostles, elders, prophecy, etc. But even if you disagree with certain aspects of Barrs’ positions on these issues, you can still benefit from the main points on which he focuses attention. For instance, along with Howard Snyder (in the book’s foreword) I would disagree with Barrs’ assertion that the office of Apostle of Christ was limited to the 11 plus Paul. But his warning about leaders today claiming to be Apostles, with no or inadequate clarification of what they mean by the term, is spot on and necessary. His understanding of prophecy generally compares well with those of Wayne Grudem (Prophecy in the New Testament and Today) and DA Carson (Showing the Spirit). One may not agree with every nuance, but still appreciate the way he seeks to guard against the abuse of supposed prophetic utterances used to control others and direct their lives in very detailed ways. He brings out the biblical principles of a plurality of pastoral leaders in each church and the ministry of each part of the body, but in a book of this brevity it’s understandable if he doesn’t explore the application of these principles in greater depth.

This is a brief, but very helpful, book on a healthy, biblically balanced model of church leadership that leads to liberty in the life and ministry of churches, and on the necessity of guarding against the extremes of both license and legalism.