Summary: Worship requires order. If the Spirit is to be enabled to work, then decency and order are needed to allow that work to happen.
Corinth must really have been a "happening" place. we sometimes have people complaining that St Theodore’s is too noisy on a Sunday morning at 10 before the service begins or after it’s over for them to be able to pray. Some people complain about the noise the kids make during the service. But by comparison to the church at Corinth our services are about as peaceful and quiet as you could imagine.
From what we see here in ch14, when you went to church at Corinth you had people jumping up to speak in tongues, others would be trying to pass on a prophecy, the women, who probably sat in a balcony around the edge of the meeting area, or at least in a separate section of the room, would call out to their husbands every now and then to ask them a question or to get them to ask whoever was up the front. And the picture you get is a general hubbub of noise and confusion.
So Paul says, hang on a second. This isn’t how worship should be. Worship needs to be uplifting. It needs to be orderly. It needs to speak to all who are present, whether it’s believers or unbelievers. So he gives a set of guidelines for conducting Christian worship.
Tongues vs prophecy (1-25)
The first issue he turns to, or in fact returns to, is the issue of tongues. Clearly the emphasis on the exercise of that particular gift was affecting the way their worship was conducted in a fairly unhelpful way.
So he says, pursue love, as the foundation of all you do, and then strive for the spiritual gifts, but seek out prophecy before you seek tongues.
There’s nothing wrong with tongues as such, but that particular gift is a gift that benefits the one who has it, rather than the one who hears it. People who speak in tongues are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. What they say is between them and God.
But in congregational worship what we need is people who will speak to others in the congregation. Those who prophesy do so for the sake of others, to build them up, to encourage them, or console them. Those who stand up and start spouting forth tongues are just building themselves up. There’s perhaps a bit of irony in play here. These people are building themselves up by their experience of God, but maybe they’re also puffing themselves up in their display of so-called spirituality. And as far as the congregation is concerned it’s wasted because no-one knows what’s being said. It’s like a musical instrument that’s got a rag stuck in it. Like when I pick up my guitar sometimes and accidentally forget to remove the pick from the strings. And when I start to play it you couldn’t tell what I was playing. The effort is totally wasted. So too, if someone starts to speak in tongues, it’s an interesting phenomenon, but it doesn’t actually mean anything to me.
Notice though that there’s nothing wrong with speaking in tongues. He says he wishes that everyone could do it, because of the way it helps them experience their relationship with God. But how much better if they could all prophesy. That is, if every one of them was bringing God’s word to bear on the lives of the congregation; if they were all speaking God’s word into the situations that people found themselves in, so as to build up, encourage rebuke and console. The only way that can happen with tongues is if there’s someone there to interpret. Notice, then, that immediately we see the limitation of tongues as a useful gift for the congregation. The issue isn’t the validity or genuineness of the gift, it’s the purpose for which it’s given. Tongues is a gift that’s given to the believer for his or her own edification, not for the edification of the church.
So if you’re going to speak in tongues ask for the ability to interpret what you’re saying. Try to engage your mind as well as your spirit so that both can be productive and so that others can benefit.
In fact when you put it into the context of the Church, of a congregation gathered together, you discover that it’s even worse. The gift of tongues then becomes not just an encouragement to the one who exercises it, but it also shows up the outsider. First it shows up those in the church who are outsiders because they don’t have your gift of tongues. But second it shows up those unbelievers who when they hear this hubbub of tongues going on conclude that you’re all nuts, out of your mind.
On the other hand if an unbeliever enters and hears someone prophesying, speaking the words of God, they can understand what’s being said and respond appropriately, with repentance and worship. And rather than thinking "you’re all nuts", they’ll realise that God is at work amongst us.