Just as in chapter 11, carnal irregularities were marring the decent, orderly remembrance of the Lord when the Corinthians gathered as an assembly, so in chapter 14, fleshly precipitation was introducing chaotic conditions into the exercise of the gifts. The early-church prophet, building up the assemblies before the completion of the New Testament canon, received direct revelations from the Spirit of God, 1 Cor. 2. 4-16; 14. 30; 15. 51; Acts 11. 28; 21. 10; Eph. 3. 3-4. The New Testament gift of tongues permitted the communication of these divine truths – the great things of God, Acts 2. 11 – to the assembly in the various languages spoken by the believers present.
In Corinth, the second gift, more spectacular and more mysterious, had got completely out of hand, and instead of straightforward ministry being used for building-up, encouragement, and tender comfort, the contrasting discord resulted in disorder and absence of corporate edification. Paul here intervenes and stresses the importance of the clear teaching of the Word of God in public gatherings. The Corinthians should desire zealously the spiritual gifts, but that of telling forth divine truth should be paramount in their thinking, because this would afford the constructive and comforting influences needed by the church.
He does not deprecate completely the sign-gift of tongues that was then serving its purpose as a witness to the earthly people of God, 1 Cor. 14. 21, but the three encouragements for this sign gift offered in verses 5, 18 and 39 are greatly outweighed by his repeated stressing of the importance of ministering the Word of God: “I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied”; “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding … than ten thousand words in a tongue”; “desire earnestly to prophesy, and forbid not to speak in tongues”, R.V. The omission of any mention of this gift following the integration of the Jews of the dispersion into the body of Christ in Acts 19 (Jews in Jerusalem, ch. 2; Samaritans, ch. 8; Gentiles, ch. 10), and similar absence of reference to it in 2 Corinthians or subsequent Epistles seem to indicate that the apostolic counsels given in this chapter led to the definite ministering among the assemblies of the shepherdteachers, Eph. 4. 11, men raised up by the Holy Spirit (some as godly overseers) to teach and to preach the God-breathed Word of the completed canon of Scripture, 1 Tim. 3. 2; 2 Tim. 3. 16-17; 4. 2; 1 Pet. 1. 25, thus feeding the flock of God, Acts 20. 28; 1 Pet. 5. 2.
The General Picture of the early church gathering as approved by the apostle is given in verse 26. There was freedom of orderly expression in the exercise of the divinely accorded gifts. No human president seems to have controlled or directed the reading of the Scriptures, the teaching of the apostles’ doctrine, or the making known of the mind of God. Under the influence of the Spirit of God, the brethren were to take part in the varied phases of the meeting, according to the gift apportioned by Him.
There are some salutary questions we could ask ourselves in connection with this verse. Have I received a gift through the power of the Spirit of God? Have I been able to identify it? Am I exercising it, or does it need to be stirred up? Do I need to fan the flame?, 2 Tim. 1. 6. These queries have perhaps a special application to young men in the assemblies, the silence of some in the meetings causing sadness to all.
The French have a proverb, “C’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron”, it is by working at the forge that one becomes a blacksmith. It is through exercise that the athlete’s muscles are toned-up. It is through exercising the Spirit-accorded gift that its development is realised. As a young man in an assembly in Belfast, I had a strong desire to take part in the weekly prayer meeting, but seemed to have insufficient nervous energy to stand up and speak up at the same moment. But one dear elder brother used to dig me in the ribs with his elbow and whisper, “Go ahead!”. It was not easy, but how often have I thanked the Lord for that ribdigging encouragement that enabled me to move forward in spiritual exercise. Perhaps leaders in assemblies could do more to assure that young men with gift are encouraged to help briefly in Gospel work with more experienced men, or to summarize the chapter in a conversational Bible reading, or provide matters for prayer when world-wide missionary work is the special aim.
Sometimes worship meetings are slow-moving, with silences that betray carnal poverty where the atmosphere should be filled with spiritual dynamism conducive to collective adoration. Why? Because of lack of exercise. It is impossible on the spur of the moment to expound the Scriptures if no honest-to-goodness work has been done on such texts from one Lord’s Day to the other. Timothy was to be “a workman”, 2 Tim. 2. 15. It is only by careful consideration, during one’s daily reading of the Bible, that suitable passages can be found for stimulating the worship of the saints in connection with a theme suggested by the Spirit of God – a theme that will cause the hearts of the believers to overflow in thanksgiving as they call to remembrance the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
How often does one handle the hymn-book outside of the actual meeting? How can one be used to announce a suitable song of praise if one has no proper acquaintance with the index? More believers should possess a copy of the hymn-book used in their assembly, and from time to time use it for reading or singing during family worship. God never honours laziness. The sluggard is advised to consider the ant, and to emulate its praiseworthy efforts of gathering and storing, Prov. 6. 6-11. The brother who goes in for the healthy exercise of spiritual culture will be like the instructed scribe, mentioned by our Lord in Matthew 13. 52, who brings “forth out of his treasure things new and old”. One ministering brother, on being asked how long it had taken him to prepare an extremely edifying conference address, replied, “Five minutes – and fifty years!” Can I pray with the spirit and with the understanding publicly if I am not enjoying private intercession?
Assemblies do not need to be re-organised on twentieth century lines. Rather we need a simple facing-up to apostolic directions. When you come together, says Paul, each one has, is in possession of, that which is necessary to prosper the worship of God’s people and to build up the Church.
Loving consideration is underlined by the brother who, already speaking, would surrender his place to another who had received a definite communication from God, 1 Cor. 14. 30. The channel had no intrinsic importance; the message from God was primary. Those who took part in this public ministry of the Word were those whose gifts had been acknowledged by others. Let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern or discriminate, v. 29 R.V. and marg. This is the other side of the problem. While the shepherd teachers in the assembly should encourage gift in the bud, they should also have the moral stamina necessary to restrain a nongifted man from public ministry that results in gross waste of precious moments in the Lord’s presence. The Lord gave some shepherds and teachers, Eph. 4. 11. One-man ministry may lead to the atrophy of other gifts, but every-man ministry can only end up in the withering of the entire assembly. Let the others discern, and make known clearly the result of their careful weighing-up of a man’s capacity and usefulness in the great work of assembly construction.
The Position of Sisters in the gathered assembly is outlined in verses 34 and 35. Gifted women have accomplished great things for God across the centuries, as Deborah under her palm tree, Judges 4. 5, Huldah in her Jerusalem home, 2 Kings 22. 14, Anna in her temple lodging, Luke 2. 37, the woman of Samaria in her village street, John 4. 28, Mary Magdalene bearing the tidings of victory, John 20. 18, or the four daughters of Philip who prophesied in their own home, Acts 21. 9. But in keeping with his teaching in 1 Timothy 2. 12, Paul counsels the participation of the brethren in the public expression of gift when all the believers constituting a local church have gathered in one place. No doubt the discord prevalent in Corinthian assemblies as men and women together exercised the gift of tongues was at the basis of this stern apostolic injunction. God is not the Author of confusion. Even the discussion of Scriptural problems between husband and wife was to be reserved for the family circle rather than the public gathering. Sisters would teach children Holy Scripture, 2 Tim. 1. 5; 3. 15. Older experienced sisters would gather others to explain to them many important matters of Christian conduct, Titus 2. 3-5. Priscilla was as big a help as her husband to Apollos’ clearer understanding of the Word of God, Acts 18. 26. Phoebe’s ministry shielded the great apostle and many others from want and danger, Rom. 16. 1-2. Euodia and Syntyche were worthy of help in their temporary disagreement because of their labouring with Paul in the gospel, Phil. 4. 2-3. What multitudes of devoted sisters are getting on with all these jobs in many lands without feeling in any way hampered by the clear teaching for gathered assembly order outlined in 1 Corinthians 14. 34-35. These injunctions are a definite commandment from the Lord, and not, as some suggest, anti-feminine Pauline bias. Through church order, the angels learn that the Seed of the woman has crushed into nothingness the foul head of the serpent. Eve’s independence of God has been abrogated.
The reason for all these instructions is given in verse 40, “Let all things be done decently and in order”. The graceful functioning of our church life today owes everything to this conflict of the apostle. In the Corinthian gatherings, men and women, in wild confusion, were creating an atmosphere akin to a Bacchanal orgy in the pagan temple. This has now disappeared, and companies of Christians, directed and empowered by the Spirit of God, realise the manifold blessings of our Lord’s promise, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”, Matt. 18. 20.
Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness! Bow down before Him, His glory proclaim; With gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness, Kneel and adore Him; the Lord is His Name.