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 church 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:
- 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.)
- 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!
- His name is Christopher Witmer. He has a way with good questions. ↩