This morning I was reading the second volume of James Wm. McClendon’s systematic theology entitled Doctrine when something dawned on me. It wasn’t really about what I was reading – if it was, I would quote it here – but he was making a point from 1 Corinthians 14 when it hit me: are our churches a place where people come in from the outside and know that God is among us? Here’s the passage:
In the law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, yet even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the entire church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship, declaring, “God is really among you.”1 Corinthians 14:21–25
Let’s break this down.
When you first read this passage, it seems like Paul is making two different points, but I think he is quoting their argument, which is based on the Law, and then refuting it.
Their argument is that speaking in tongues is for the unbeliever, which seems to make sense in light of Acts 2, but if an outsider or unbeliever enters, they will say that the church is out of its mind, which also sounds like Acts 2. Speaking in tongues may be impressive, but it can be alienating to outsiders even though we might intend it for outsiders!
How often do we “speak in tongues” by using insider language in our worship service. We may use words or phrases that someone outside of our denomination or our congregation would be unfamiliar with. A minister may do this as well by employing flowery language and detailed references to the Greek without making it relevant to the congregation. While he or she may have good intentions, it seems more like a way to impress themselves! Which, of course, is Paul’s whole point in 1 Corinthians 12-14: the gifts are for the edifying of the church.
So, Paul responds to their argument by saying that everyone prophesying would be better than everyone speaking in tongues because the individual would be convicted, fall on their face, and worship God.
While our churches may not prophesy in the same way they did, do we have that same kind of transformative experience on Sundays? Are our services obviously inhabited by the Divine? Can someone listen to our singing, hear our prayers, or think about the sermon and say, “God is really among you!”
I think this would be one benefit to diversifying our services by adopting a model or flow similar to the one in 1 Corinthians 14. What if each person had a song or a prayer or a teaching? What if each person contributed something to each period of corporate worship? What if a space was made available for poems or artwork which said something about how God works in the lives of the members?
I’m dreaming a bit here because there is a lot of cultural, not biblical, red tape when it comes to the average church’s Sunday service, but could you imagine what it would be like celebrate diversity in this way?
This is one reason why I like the Gathering. It is a Sunday evening service we have at North Broad on the first and third Sundays of each month. I would love to see it off campus at some point, but it has taken us a long time to get to where we are comfortable with this kind of diversity. I hope we see even more people come out of their shells before too long and exercising talents that we are not even aware of yet! To me, that would be a wonderful gift of God and a sure sign that God is among us.
I hope to have this ministry move off campus so “outsiders” or “unbelievers” might show up and have a similar reaction to the hypothetical guest in 1 Corinthians 14.
Thanks for reading! God bless,