Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Worship Then and Now

Johnson takes 1 Cor 14:26-33 as a total picture of worship in the congregation at Corinth. He says,
"These verses (vv.26-33) give a rare picture of a Christian church service in these early years (c.54-55). We find no leaders, no reading of the Law, no set order, and no single sermon (different from Jewish synagogue worship). Instead we find a democratically functioning group, with one offering a Christian song (psalmos, “psalm,” “hymn,” “Christian song”), then another giving a word of instruction, another bringing a revelation (cf. v.6), still another speaking in a tongue and then giving an interpretation (or another giving an interpretation, v.26)."
The presumption behind this understanding of these verses 26-33 is that whatever isn’t expressly mentioned didn’t happen. That is one way of interpreting the evidence, I suppose. There is another. This is to view this passage as addressing issues in need of correction or attention or clarification, and not mentioning those things that were “standard” or “normal” or “correct”. For example, there is no mention at this point of celebrating the Lord’s Supper - there is lengthy discussion of this a few chapters earlier, of course (11:17-34E). And there is no specific mention in 14:26-33 of prayer or Scripture reading being included in the worship. Yet we would expect its inclusion - and justifiably so. A picture of a time of worship in Corinth (and other churches) needs to be built up on the basis of all the evidence available to us.

Firstly, Christian worship was initially patterned on the Jewish synagogue worship. And why not? Christians held the same faith in the same God - but with the conviction that the promised Messiah had come. James the president or bishop of the early church in Jerusalem even refers to the church assembly by the term “synagogue” (James 2:2) - a reference that reveals the concept of the same worship pattern. We may legitimately take it, then, that there would indeed be prayer and the reading of the Scriptures in Christian as in Jewish worship (2 Corinthians 3:15), doubtless plus other features that were an accepted part of the Jewish scene.

For example, that the men and the women sat separately. One reason why such a feature as this is not mentioned specifically in the New Testament is that, if it were, this could well then have been taken as a Holy Spirit-given example for us to follow and so could have become normative for Christian worship, though such a thing was not at all the divine intention.

The conduct of Jewish worship was in the hands of “rulers of the synagogue”, elders. There is no suggestion in the New Testament that Christian worship would be different or that Paul would choose to diverge from the synagogue in such matters. To the contrary: Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches they founded (Acts 14:23), and Paul addressed the elders of the churches in his ministry (Acts 20:17; Philippians 1:1), and wrote of the qualifications for elders (1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1:5). He spoke of the elders who ruled and who taught in the congregation (1 Timothy 5:17). Peter similarly addresses elders (e.g. 1 Peter 5:1). Paul’s concern very much included that there be orderliness and decorum in the congregation, so that the people of God could be edified in their gathering without hindrance or distraction: let all things be done decently and in order (14:33a, 40).

It is against this background then that we are to interpret 14:26-33. The singing and the speaking (plus everything else not specifically mentioned here) must all be conducive to edification.

Johnson 268 assumes that opportunity will be given at each Lord’s Day gathering for all the prophets to speak (v.31):
"A series of two or three prophets spoke, then there was discussion, followed by another series of two or three prophets and then discussion, until all the prophets had spoken."
The “discussion” he envisages as being when “the congregation as a whole sifts the content of the speech” (268).

There is absolutely no reason from the text for taking “you can all prophesy one by one” to mean, “at the one gathering of the congregation, on the one occasion”. Much better to take it sequentially over whatever may be an appropriate period of time, so that the prophets could all share whatever had been revealed to them by the Lord (v.30).

I doubt that a prophet was a prophet for all occasions. On all topics. It is more likely that the Spirit specially leads one person to understand in depth one particular issue or area of truth, and others similarly in different areas. Then from the variety and multiplicity of their respective contributions the whole counsel of God will emerge. Just as now each different book of Scripture makes its contribution to our total understanding. I take it that when Paul says “you can all prophesy” he is not meaning “so that everybody is able to have their say, lest somebody gets offended by being left out”; but in order that all prophets who have received something from the Lord can share it.

The lesson and example of this for our worship services today is that we should also give time and opportunity for prayer and praise, for singing and Scripture-reading, and for proclamation of the message of the teaching of the Lord from the Word of God. Seeing that God’s channel of communication prior to the availability of the New Testament canon in the churches was by revelation to (apostles and) prophets, there is a sense in which the prophets at that time sharing a message revealed by the Lord was equivalent to our reading from the New Testament epistles today.
Perhaps, though, the idea of several speakers (tongues speakers - plus interpreters - plus two or three prophets) all contributing on the one occasion to the teaching and edification of the congregation is something which may give us pause for reflection and thought in the light of our usual present-day practice of having one speaker bringing one sermon during a worship service. Alternatively, we may feel that this aspect of a Corin­thian gathering for worship was primarily intended for the particular circumstances of those times, and is not intended to be a pattern for today.

One thing is absolutely clear, though, and should also be our goal and purpose in our worship today: that there was an important place in the gathering of the congregation given to the teaching and instruction of the people in the truths of God (i.e. what to believe and how to behave). And in this the practice in the church at Corinth (and as Paul would say, in all the churches - 7:17; 11:16; 14:33) was consistent with what was done in the early church from its beginning (Acts 2:42) when they were all so excited to see that God has broken through into history in a new and special way.

(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from


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