Should Every Church Gathering Look Like 1 Corinthians 14?

Yesterday a friend of mine1 asked a good question:

Is the way you “do church” found in the Bible? I’m not asking if it’s inherently wrong, but just wondering if it’s in the Bible?

I responded with this:

No, and neither was the car I drive in to get to the church gathering. So there needs to be some flex. But: I think there’s been too much flex in most churches, and we’re missing out on potential blessings.

Another friend thought I was being too easy on our churches–that I was, to use my words, guilty myself of “too much flex.” He said that God gives us instructions in Scripture on how church meetings should be held. Then he quoted these verses:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up… If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged… (1 Cor. 14:26, 30-31)

What do you think? Was 1 Corinthians 14 intended to be a manual that describes what all churches must do every time they gather? Should this be, for example, what all our Lord’s Day gatherings look like? 

My friend’s helpful challenge pushed me to think hard enough that I thought I’d share my response here. Here, with minor edits, is what I wrote:


I’ll try to explain a bit more where I’m coming from with my brief comment above.

First, I am aware of various house c
hurch insights and sympathetic to most of them. In fact, from time to time I’ve been strongly tempted to get involved in such a fellowship, although in my case it would probably mean starting something new. (I won’t go into the pros and cons of me doing that now, because they are complex!) What I mean to say is that I’ve read authors such as Rad Zdero (also this) and Frank Viola and Larry Kreider and Floyd McClung and listened to people like Steve Atkerson and I really like a lot of their ideas. I think more people should be considering what they are saying. I’m a fan of house churches! I’m just not ready to say that it’s the only possible way to “do church.” Many of the above writers would agree with me.

Second, while I definitely wish we had more 1 Corinthians 14 elements in our gatherings (I’m reading Jack Deere these days), I’m not convinced that Paul intended that the verses you quoted be a manual for how all churches must conduct all their gatherings.

Why don’t I think so?

(1) Because of the immediate literary context. Those verses were written to a church that was already practicing all those gifts in abundance, but in a disorderly way. Paul’s main intent was not to try to urge his readers to use those gifts. Rather, he was trying to bring order to the chaos. Thus, in vs. 26 the only command is the last sentence: “Let all things be done for building up.” The previous sentence is not a command, but just a description: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. The vast majority of English translations, including the best, I think, agree on this, as do a number of highly respected commentators that I consulted, ones who know Greek well. This is either a description of what regularly happened in Corinth, or of what Paul imagined was likely to happen at a given gathering. (Commentator David Garland writes, “Paul presents a hypothetical scenario, ‘suppose that when you assemble,’ rather than a real description of what is happening.” I think it is more likely that Paul is describing what commonly happened at Corinth, but the fact remains that the sentence is almost certainly a description, not a command.) Other less important things could be noted–like that the phrase “each one” does not always literally mean every single person, but simply “lots of individuals.”

As for verses 30-31, I think it is significant that these come in a paragraph about prophets. So I think Paul is saying that when the prophets are speaking in a gathering, these rules apply. I don’t think he is saying that only this kind of (possibly) spontaneous prophetic speaking is permitted, or that all other kinds of speakers must follow these same rules, including the rule about sitting down when another receives something to say. I don’t think we have exegetical reason for applying this same sitting-down rule to, say, recognized teachers. And in this “prophets passage” it is interesting to note that Paul says only two or three prophets should speak. We need to keep this in mind when he says, two verses later, that “you can all prophesy one by one.” It seems Paul was not envisioning meetings where either prophets or tongues-speakers dominated for long periods of time. Only four to six such speakers, in total, were to speak in any one meeting. The rest of the time was for other things.

(2) Because there are other NT passages that describe other kinds of gatherings. For example, in the Lord’s Day gathering described in Acts 20:7-12 one speaker spoke all night (Paul). This speaking almost certainly included more dialogue than our sermons do (the verb used to describe Paul’s speech suggests this, for it means “to reason, argue, prove, persuade”), but one person was clearly the main speaker for hours on end. In other places churches are commanded to read apostolic letters when they gather (Col. 4:16)–something that can take from 10 to 45 minutes, depending on the letter, not counting time taken to add explanations and respond to questions. So I think we have good biblical precedent for having one or several main speakers prepared to speak at many of our gatherings–not as a replacement for every-member input, but as part of the whole edifying mix.

(3) Because of the importance of teaching both doctrine and practice, and the importance of the church being unified in the teaching it receives. (This point draws a logical deduction from Scripture and is thus less weighty than my first two points, which involve direct Scriptural input.) I think it is a terrible mistake to think that teaching can only happen “over the pulpit”! (Or, if you’re happy like me to skip the furniture, in a weekly preaching session.) But I found it interesting to hear Steve Atkerson describe the experience of his house church. They have a very strong emphasis on having a “1 Corinthians 14 meeting” that is centered on the Lord’s Supper. But they found that they were hurting because the only intentional teaching input that their church members were receiving was happening at a variety of other weekly events, times when the whole church was never together. So they finally decided that they were going to include a scheduled teaching input time in their Lord’s Day gatherings. (If you don’t know Steve Atkerson, check out New Testament Reformation Fellowship.)

So, to wrap up my thoughts, I think thriving churches will experience a lot more of what we see in 1 Corinthians 14 than what many of our churches currently experience. I agree that, far too often, our typical church practices are a recipe for boredom. (And, as it’s been said, it’s pretty close to a “sin” to bore people with God’s Word!) I also think we would benefit from sharing the Lord’s Supper every week around a common meal. (A practice that has wider and stronger early historical support than the practice of having a primarily or totally spontaneous-input church gathering.)

So I’m completely with you on thinking our churches should look a lot more like NT ones! I’m just not ready to say the NT explicitly commands that we all need to always look like 1 Corinthians 14:26.


My response here was trying to do two things at once: speak in favor of NT-style participatory house churches, while questioning the idea that 1 Corinthians 14 is a sufficient manual for church gatherings. My double aim probably leaves some of you with as many questions as answers. Some of you might be worrying I’m dropping off the deep end into house church chaos, while others might be thinking I’m still far too tradition-bound!

I won’t try to answer your questions now. Instead, I invite you to:

  1. Consider some of the house church authors and speakers I’ve named above, testing them by Scripture. (I certainly don’t agree with all of them on every point. I think Rad Zdero is at least as balanced as any of them.)
  2. Tell us what you think in the comments below. Am I off the wall? What do I still need to learn? What do you think our church gatherings should look like? Why?

For Christ and his Church!


 

  1. His name is Christopher Witmer. He has a way with good questions.

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6 thoughts on “Should Every Church Gathering Look Like 1 Corinthians 14?”

  1. (I started to reply to this and “lost” it so I’m not sure if it got out there or not).
    I have not taken the time to “research” the house church leaders you have mentioned, so I am not able to comment on those specifics.

    However, there is something I have observed over the years and perhaps things are not always as they seem – or at least not always identical across the board.

    The people whom I am acquainted with who do house church seem (to me) to be people who don’t want to be accountable to anyone else but want everyone else to be accountable to their personal standard of belief/practice. [Notice, I said it comes across that way “to me.”]

    I am not always so sure that starting another church is the best answer. The same personal issues that bogged us down in the past will come along with us – those issues might become dormant for a while. But eventually, they will re-surface – sometimes in the same form and sometimes in other ways. But the root problem is still there.

    I am fully aware that I don’t know very many house churches and I am not saying this is the way it is across the board. I just know that there is no utopia when it comes to “church”, and that as long as there is sin in this world, we need churches that are hospitals for sinners and for saints. And that can happen anywhere, any place, as long as Christians are being authentic in their rubber-meets-the-road living. That is what the church is all about.

  2. Gertrude, your first comment was indeed lost, so thanks for trying again.

    I agree with most of what you wrote! Too many house church people are looking to escape accountability and it often results in bad fruit. Other situations turn into strange family-church hybrids that seem to be as much about family loyalty and patriarchal authority as NT church. The best house church leaders are very aware of this and insist that house churches must be networked together and not left as isolated units. I think most of the authors above emphasize this. (I can specifically remember this is true of Zdero, for example.) Of course, the same kind of accountability-avoidance happens in other churches, too. It’s often easier to hide in a large church, where not everyone knows each other. So I don’t think the accountability question is a mark against house churches, just against house churches run for bad motives.

    I certainly agree with your comments that sin is found in all churches and we can’t run from it. If I would become involved in a house church, it wouldn’t be because I hoped to avoid sin, but because I thought that the form and structure of house churches might help us better experience the kind of fellowship and mission that the NT portrays and commands. For example, church planting and multiplication can happen much easier and more cheaply with the house church model (at least in many cultural settings). And house churches (or at least small churches) often offer more opportunities for more members to practice leadership skills and participate meaningfully in church decision making.

    Thanks much for the comment! It would be interesting to hear more from each of you readers about what kind of exposure to house church you have experienced. Our experiences certainly shape our “gut reaction” to these kinds of topics.

  3. I do think church meetings should look like what is commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ in His word in I Corinthians 14:26-40. The men of the church should come prepared to exercise their Spiritual gifts in turn in an orderly way, and the sisters should not address the assembly as the men do, learning in quietness and silence (v. 34; I Tim. 2:11). The passage explicitly says that what Paul is writing as borne along by the Holy Spirit are “the commands of the Lord” Jesus for observance “in all the churches of the saints” (vv. 33, 37). What the Corinthians had been practicing prior to receiving these Scriptures, and what these Scriptures explicitly command, are two very different things — and the two should not be confused. What the churches are to practice is right here in “the word of God” (v. 36). Really, it is a simple passage to read and understand, and to carefully follow — “until He comes” (11:26).

    1. Glenn, thanks for reading this post and responding. I certainly agree with you that this passage contains instruction that is valid and binding for us today. However, my point in my post is that, in order to do justices to what Paul intended and to what Christ intended through Paul, we must read his words carefully, in literary and historical context. When I do that to my best ability, I notice that Paul’s intent was to correct imbalances, not to lay out a full pattern for all the elements that should be in every church gathering.

      In my church background, the imbalances have generally been of a very different nature than the imbalances found at Corinth. It appears that at Corinth everyone was clamoring for attention and speaking over top of each other in a disorderly fashion. In most conservative Mennonite churches people border on the passive and disengaged and there is no problem with interruptions and multiple speakers at the same time. Paul was addressing a “hot” Mediterranean culture, while my culture has “cold” Germanic roots. This means, among other things, that Paul was not aiming to encourage people at Corinth to have a more participatory church service, even though this is how many North Americans today (and most North American house church advocates) tend to use this passage! Rather, he was working with a situation which was already highly participatory, and urging restraint.

      What might Paul have written to a church where everyone was sitting around without saying anything? Perhaps something like what the author of Hebrews wrote: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25). In other words, I do think that most North American churches see too little mutual participation.

      That said, however, I think there is room for a range of styles of church gatherings, with some more open and participatory than others. It concerns me most when only a few are ever expected to speak in our church gatherings. But, as a Bible interpreter, I also have a smaller concern when I see 1 Corinthians 12 read without concern for context and applied as a strict pattern for every church gathering. If we look at what Paul actually commanded versus what he just described (see point 1 in my article above), then we indeed find instruction that we should heed today. However, a description of our gatherings might still look somewhat different than how Paul described what was happening at Corinth.

      Whenever and however we gather, may God’s Spirit move us to build each other up with proactive and orderly words!

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