The format of our meetings is a little different than what most people are used to (see a brief summary here), so in case you’re wondering why, here’s your answer.
We’re trying to do things in the same way the first century apostles did.
Over the centuries, church meetings evolved and changed from their original pattern. Sometimes efforts have been made to rid the church meetings of unscriptural practices. But usually those reforms didn’t unwind things all the way back to the New Testament in this particular area.
So let’s take it back to the Bible. What does the Bible say about how a church should meet?
I Corinthians 14 gives us the fullest picture of how this works. In context, Paul spent a whole chapter (I Cor. 12) talking about how every single believer has a gift (or maybe more than one gift) from the Holy Spirit that is to be used for the benefit of the church. The Corinthians had some issues with using their gifts in a prideful way and wanting the most ostentatious gifts, so Paul had to spend another chapter (I Cor. 13) on using the spiritual gifts in a way that was loving. In particular, there were problems with the gift of tongues, and Paul imposed some regulations (I Cor. 14:1-25) on the use of that gift so that it would not be done in a way that was prideful, ostentatious, or unloving.
Let’s jump in here, starting at I Cor. 14:26. And to help the discussion, here are a couple of definitions of terms in this passage. Prophecy means sharing a message from God’s Word. Tongues means sharing a message from God’s Word in another language (i.e., same as prophecy almost). (We’ll have to do another article later about where those definitions come from.)
26 “How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.”
Notice the eagerness that the Corinthians brought to their meeting, for them to share something with the rest of the church. Paul has to remind them (again) that this has to be done in a way that builds up the rest of the church, rather than glorifying the person speaking. But each person could contribute to the meeting by suggesting a song for them to sing, having something ready to teach (doctrine) or an insight to share (revelation), or having something to share from God’s Word (even in another language, if there was an interpreter).
27 “If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.”
The meeting needs to stay orderly. There’s not time for a lengthy exposition by more than three people, and even that’s pushing it. And if it’s in a foreign language, there must be an interpreter, so that it can be edifying to the rest of the church.
28 “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”
Speaking in tongues doesn’t edify people listening if they can’t understand an intelligible interpretation. Therefore, speaking in a foreign language is forbidden if there’s no interpreter.
29 “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.”
Likewise, there’s only so much time for longer messages from God’s Word, even if it’s done in English, so we have a limit of two or three. And importantly, the other brethren need to judge what’s being said. Whether the speaker says something that’s right or wrong, the others should evaluate it and make sure it’s in agreement with the Bible. The Bereans knew they had to do this (Acts 17:10-11). No one has the right to speak without others applying some scrutiny.
Another passage, I Thess. 5:19-22, gives us the same message: “Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.” In other words, if you have a message from God’s Word to share don’t neglect to share it, and if someone has a message to share with you, be sure to listen to it and not despise it. And when you listen, make sure it is biblical. If it is, follow that teaching, and if it’s not, don’t allow it to be taught without being corrected.
30 “If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.”
During the message, if the Spirit gives you an insight into the topic that’s being taught, speak up and share it. Whoever’s speaking should stop and listen. Church is meant to be participatory, not just a long monologue. For example, see Acts 20:7-9, where Paul was “preaching” in a church meeting in a house at Troas. The Greek word for preaching here, dialegomai (like the word “dialogue”), is usually translated reasoning or disputing elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul wasn’t just talking at them, he was reasoning with them in a way that involved the active engagement of the others. Interruptions of the message are expected and encouraged.
31 “For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.”
Preaching isn’t limited to the professional Christian, the ordained minister that went to seminary. Preaching is for everyone. This is important, because God has gifted different believers in different ways, and the various people in the congregation need to hear from a variety of perspectives and gifts. If a church listens to one person only, not everyone will benefit very well.
32 “And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.”
If the Spirit leads you to share a message, don’t feel slighted if you get interrupted. The same Spirit that gave you your message also led your brother to speak up and share another insight.
33 “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”
If you think interrupting the sermon will always lead to confusion, think again – so long as everyone is being peaceable, and being led by the Spirit, and speaking in love for the edification of the others and not in pride. If the Holy Spirit is truly the one leading someone to interrupt, then it won’t cause confusion. True, this format can lead to confusion, and it did in Corinth, which necessitated the guidelines here that Paul had to remind them of. But just follow all of what the Bible says about this, and, surprisingly enough, it should work.
34 “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.”
This isn’t politically correct, but God wrote it anyway. Women are not permitted to teach, preach, or even ask questions in the mixed church meeting. This doesn’t mean that women don’t have spiritual gifts or can’t teach. On the contrary, women do have spiritual gifts equal to men’s, and women are commanded to teach other women (Titus 2:3-5) as well as their own children (Prov. 1:8). But God’s rule is that the teaching in a mixed church meeting must be done by the men.
35 “And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
Men’s position as head of the house is upheld by this rule. If a women has a question, she should go to her own husband (or to an older woman), instead of to another man in the church. If her husband doesn’t know the answer, he can ask another man, or even bring up the question himself in the next church meeting.
36 “What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?
37 “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.
38 “But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.”
Anticipating that some of the Corinthians think they know better than to need to follow these rules, Paul prods them to recognize that these rules are Scriptural commands given by God.
39 “Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.”
Do you desire to share with people the message of God’s Word? You should.
40 “Let all things be done decently and in order.”
This final verse summarizes the overall tone of the meeting. Lest anyone think we’re advocating something wild and crazy, this verse is here to remind us that even in a meeting with open participation, it must be done in an orderly way.
How closely do your church meetings follow the pattern given in I Cor. 14? It’s a good pattern. Like anything else, people can create problems and turn it into something it shouldn’t be. But with God’s Word to help us avoid those problems, we can conduct our church meetings the way they were designed to be conducted.