In the last essay we studied 1 Cor. 14:1-25. As we did that study, we began to see that “the more excellent way” involves more than love. Love certainly is the key, but chapter 14 makes it clear that intelligibility and orderliness also are very important.
Paul continues his discourse in 1 Cor. 14:26-40, and that is our study in this essay. At 14:26 Paul turns to the third and last major characteristic of the more excellent way. The first was love (chapter 13); the second was intelligibility (14:1-25); and now we see the third, orderliness. Once again Paul speaks about the gifts of tongues and prophecy, but with a different goal in mind.
Earlier in the chapter (v. 15) Paul gave the Corinthians a solution to the problem of whether to pray and sing in tongues or with the mind. His simple solution was to do both. Now in the verses we are studying today, Paul offers a solution to the problem of maintaining order in worship services. Apparently the worship of the Corinthians had become chaotic, because everyone wanted to speak at the same time, and most of them wanted to speak in tongues in order to display their gift rather than to edify the church.
Notice that Paul does not address any particular individual whom he believes is responsible to see that there is orderly worship. Notice also that he does not provide them with an order of worship like something we might find in a modern-day bulletin. He leaves the matter of order of worship to the Holy Spirit. But he does give them some guidelines that, if followed, would maintain order in the services.
The first guideline is to acknowledge that everyone has a right to offer a hymn (literally a psalm), a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation of a tongue. The second guideline was to make sure that everything done builds up (edifies) the church. Third, they were to limit the number of speakers in tongues to three at the most, though you will notice that Paul did not think it necessary that anyone speak in a tongue. Indeed fourth, if there were no one to interpret, they should not speak in tongues at all during worship. We also must remember that this is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. Fifth, Paul instructed that those who speak in tongues should speak in turn. This suggests that during worship people were speaking in tongues at the same time, which created chaos.
At verse 29 Paul shifts from guidelines for the orderly use of tongues to the orderly use of prophecy. The first guideline for prophecy is that the number of prophets who speak should be limited to three like those who speak in tongues. Many commentators rather naturally interpret this to mean that only two or three prophets may speak. However, according to Fee there is a problem with this guideline. He points out that Paul, in verse 24, mentions the idea of all of them prophesying; and in verse 31 he says that all the Corinthians can prophesy one by one. Therefore Fee concludes that the guideline could not have meant a limitation to three prophets. He suggests instead that it meant only two or three could speak before the others “weigh,” literally “discern,” what was said. And since the word translated “weigh” (or “discern”) is the same term that was used for the gift of “discernment of spirits” back in 12:10, he suggests further that this was what the weighing meant. I believe Paul was limiting the prophets to three, primarily because of time constraints in a worship service. He didn’t mean that more than three never could speak. Remember, this is a guideline he was recommending.
In verses 30-33 we see a second guideline for prophets in worship. If the Holy Spirit reveals something to a prophet who is sitting in the service, the prophet who is speaking is to yield the floor to the prophet who has been moved to speak. For typical human beings, this is very hard to do, because we allow our egos to get in the way. In any case the other prophets in the community have the responsibility to weigh what each other does and says. As verse 32 tells us, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” Presumably, they will discern whether or not the Holy Spirit is moving and whether or not anyone is out of order.
Third, prophets, must speak in turn just like those who speak in tongues (v. 31), because “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (v. 33). Or we might say a God of orderliness.
Next, in 33b-36 Paul turns to the subject of orderliness in respect to the activities of women in the church services. Apparently certain women in Corinth have been transgressing what Paul considers a universal tradition that women keep silent in worship services. This idea seems out of place in Paul’s thought. If you remember, back chapter 11, verses 2-16, Paul assumed that women could and did pray and prophesy in church services (v. 5). There he simply insisted that women wear a head covering, which some of the women in Corinth were not doing.
Because of the conflict between what Paul said in chapter 11 and what he says here, several conflicting theories have risen among scholars. First, some have concluded that these verses were not part of the original letter, but were added later. That is Fee’s position. However they appear in every manuscript of 1 Cor. in existence. Second, others believe that the transgression of the women was not simply speaking, but speaking in a disruptive manner. Some of these suggest that they were speaking in tongues, presumably without an interpreter. Or they were speaking at the same time. And third, it has been suggested that Paul was not giving his own view in these verses but was quoting the view of some strongly Jewish members of the Corinthian church. In my opinion, the context dictates that the second theory is the best. The women were disrupting he services by speaking out of turn and by asking questions at inappropriate times.
In verse 36 Paul chastises the Corinthians for their big-headedness with two scathing rhetorical questions: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” Now that we have reached the end of the large, important section of chapters 12-14, it has become clear that some of the Corinthians believed that their supernatural gifts made them super Christians. They were especially convinced that the gift of tongues proved that they were living the end-time, Spirit-filled life. So they had become quite full of themselves. That is why Paul had to chastise and correct them.
In verses 37-40 Paul closes out the section with a summary and conclusion. In this summary Paul challenges those persons at Corinth, some of whom may have been women, who claim to have spiritual powers and to be prophets. The implication is that they are arrogantly and wrongly making the claim. These undoubtedly are those who have been undermining Paul’s apostolic authority at Corinth. He tells them that they must acknowledge his authority as an apostle and accept what he is writing to them as from the Lord. And if they refuse to do that, their authority and prophetic utterances will not be acknowledged.
In verses 39-40 Paul concludes the section with a three-part summary. First, they are to earnestly desire to prophesy. The reason for that, as we have seen, is that prophecy is the most valuable gift. It always edifies the people. Second, they are not to forbid speaking in tongues. He didn’t want them to overreact in response to what he was saying and forbid tongues. Despite the problems caused by tongues, they also are a valuable gift of the Spirit. And finally, third, all things should be done decently and in order. In sum, everything they do should be done in love, with intelligibility, and in an orderly manner.