What is church all about?

(a sermon on 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, given at All Saints Crowborough on Sunday 22 June 2014)

Last Saturday I went and filled the car up with petrol. I put the petrol in the tank and then I went in and paid for it. I think I was courteous and polite to the other people around me, giving a friendly Saturday afternoon nod to the guy on pump 7, as you do, but I didn’t really have much to do with the other customers. After all, they weren’t the reason I was at the garage.

Not long ago the four of us went to the theatre to see a West End show. Hundreds of us all sat there, and had a great time. We even joined in occasionally! And then we all went home.

And here we all are this morning.

And it makes you think: is this – the church meeting together – supposed to be like the petrol station or the theatre? After all, it looks a bit like a theatre – everyone sat in rows, professional show at the front (well, maybe sometimes!) And perhaps we can sometimes treat it a bit like a petrol station – I put in my money, and I come here to have my spiritual tank filled so that I can face the coming week.

But what is it supposed to be like when the church meets together? That’s been the question as we’ve read together through these wonderful chapters 11-14 of 1 Corinthians. And today we’re right at the end of that section, in the passage we just read from chapter 14.
So let’s pick up from verse 26, on p. 172:

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.

Church sounds quite fun in Corinth, doesn’t it! And presumably it’s not a bad thing for everyone to bring a contribution of some sort – to come prepared to give, not just to receive. But how do we decide which things to do? The answer is in the next sentence:

Let all things be done for building up.

You see, the trouble in Corinth was that things were ending up not just like a petrol station or a theatre, but a bit like a talent show. Everyone was concerned to be as ‘spiritual’ as possible by using their gifts – without realising that the truly spiritual person won’t just show the gifts of the Holy Spirit but will show the fruit of the Holy Spirit as well. And so – “Let all things be done for building up.”

The first time I walked into this building 3 years ago, I was immediately struck by the three crosses at the front. What a wonderful symbol of the death of Jesus on our behalf, and the choice we all face, like those two criminals – to trust in his death or to ridicule him for it.

I also love the verses from Philippians 3 engraved into the stone under the window – “I want to know Christ, his power and his sufferings”. Could there be a better 10-word summary of the Christian life?

And if Andrew ever asks you to be on a committee responsible for putting up another slogan (which may or may not happen!) then I think you could do a lot worse than this phrase from 1 Corinthians 14:26 – “Let all things be done for building up.” Wouldn’t that be a great thing to have above the door?

Because though we sometimes sit in rows, it’s not really like a theatre where we go to be entertained. And though each of us receives vital spiritual nourishment from drawing near to God and hearing his word, it’s not really supposed to be like the petrol station where we pay our dues and fill our tank to help us get through the week. Nor is it like the Corinthian talent show where we show off our own gifts and marvel at other people’s.

How do we decide what to do? “Let all things be done for building up”. That’s why, v27:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.

And there he’s just summarising the first half of chapter 14, which Andrew helped us through on 1 June. If you weren’t here, and would like a really straightforward explanation of what speaking in tongues and prophecy mean here, then you can listen to that online.

Paul’s point here is that just because something is ‘spiritual’, that doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate for church. We’re not just here to all have a collective personal ‘quiet time’ – but to build up the whole body! In fact, if the Sunday service is the key time you expect to meet God during the week, you’re never really going to grow as a Christian. You need to be spending time with him every day! What is it that makes this time uniquely special in the week? It’s not so much that God is here, but that we are here! That’s the difference!

By the blood of Jesus, I can meet God anywhere, any time! He lives in me! I don’t need to come to a particular building or hear a particular person speak, or receive bread and wine in a particular way. What’s special about Sunday is not that I can get closer to God than I can on Monday, but that I can meet God along with the rest of his people.

And you know, the trouble is that the more I look to the Sunday service to fulfil all of my spiritual needs for the week, the less tolerant I’ll be of others. The less tolerant I’ll be of music that might seem like it’s doing nothing for me, but is helpful for others. And so on.

The same kind of principle applies for musicians in church too, and I think we musicians would all say it’s something we’ve had to learn (and are still learning). When we’re at home, we are free to sing or play in a way which most builds us up spiritually – we can repeat a song 7 times, play a descant in every verse, improvise harmonies until our voice is hoarse. That’s wonderful! That’s like the speaking in tongues – great at home. In church, we need to learn to be like the prophet – concentrating on what will build up everybody. Which may mean leaving out a song, or ditching an arrangement, or an instrument, or a beautiful harmony. God doesn’t give us gifts so we can fulfil ourselves by using them in church. Using our gifts is often fulfilling – but what counts most is not whether gifts are used, but whether Christ’s body is built up.

That’s also why lots and lots of people this morning have made the commitment to help with Junior Church, with music, with refreshments, with welcoming and stewarding, and in countless other ways. Thank you!

If you’re like me then there will be plenty of Sunday mornings when you don’t feel like going to church. (Or am I the only one?!) We live in a beautiful place, don’t we – and to be honest, there are plenty of days when I get up, the sun’s shining, and, if I didn’t know I’d be missed, I would quite fancy going and doing something else. Partly that’s just the pull of the flesh against the spirit. And there’s times when we feel we have nothing to give – but what we can give is what someone has called “the ministry of presence”. Just being there, and praying that God will bless you, and also use you to help someone else. So you stay on for coffee afterwards, not because you need the coffee or feel that you need a chat – but because someone else in God’s church probably does! Maybe God can use you, in your weakness, to bring them a timely word of encouragement from him.

That’s the first point. Do the things that build up the church.

The second one is, Keep God’s order in the church. Have a look on to the end of the chapter, v39:

So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.

Now half of you have just switched off at the mention of the word ‘order’, because order sounds so dull! Don’t we worship a God of freedom, a God of wild imagination, and a God of extravagant love? Absolutely! And have you noticed he’s a God of order too? We see it in creation, don’t we: there’s incredible creative energy and life, but there’s also a very definite order to the way the world works. We see it in his plan of salvation history, carefully worked out over thousands of years. And so too in the church – life and order are not mutually exclusive. Of course, it’s possible for a church to be like a well-kept graveyard – all very orderly, but no life whatsoever! But God’s life honours him when it is expressed with God’s order. Let’s look at v29:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.

As far as prophecy goes, God’s order means that the others are to weigh what is said – literally, to pass judgment on it. This is so important, because this gift of prophecy was never supposed to be infallible. It’s different from the prophecies of scripture. It needs to be weighed to see whether it’s in accordance with the truth as revealed in scripture.

Imagine you’re in your House Group – and actually most of the church meetings in Corinth would probably have been nearer the size of your house group than the size of “All Saints on a Sunday morning”. Well, in your house group meeting one person says, “It seems to me that the answer is…” and another person says, “As we prayed just now, God gave me a picture in my mind, and so I think…”. Now they are two different ways that God could lead people. But it is vital that the one which seems more ‘spiritual’ – the impression when praying, or the picture, or the dream, isn’t allowed to trump the others. Don’t be star-struck by a prophet, says Paul. Everything must be weighed.

So much harm is done when people believe they have a message from God, and others don’t have the confidence or the courage to challenge it. It’s often best for things to be weighed by a few – here in 1 Corinthians it’s quite possibly just the other prophets who are to weigh what is said – before it is shared more widely. If you thought this morning that you had a particular prophecy to share, then Jonty, Rob or Andrew would, I’m sure, want to hear it first, and might well want others to reflect on it too before it was shared in a group of this size. Which is only sensible.

Secondly, being spiritual doesn’t mean we abandon human self-control. Look at v30:

If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

So church gatherings shouldn’t be a free-for-all with everyone angling to do their thing. It means that, for example in a house group meeting, we’ll be careful not to hog the discussion and will make space for the quieter people too. We’ll be eager to hear God speaking to us through them.

Next, God’s order is going to mean that we take seriously the different gender roles he has appointed. Let’s read from the middle of v33:

(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Now, these are difficult verses. For starters, Paul can’t mean what he might initially seem to mean: that women must say nothing at all in church meetings. After all, in chapter 11 he’s just given detailed instructions about how they are to pray and prophesy.

So, what does he mean? Well, remember that these are not the only verses in the bible on this subject. We must interpret this verse in a way that’s consistent with the others. The bible shows us that men and women are absolutely equal in God’s eyes – that’s a wonderful truth which, for most of the people who’ve ever lived or are alive today, would seem pretty radical. And the bible also shows us that men and women are different; made to complement each other. Then let’s remember the context here in 1 Corinthians 14 – the need to weigh prophecies. Paul is talking about the way women behave while that is going on.

He mentions the principle of submission in v34, and his complaint seems to be that in the way they are speaking, the women are not appropriately expressing submission to the male leaders of the church. Partly, that’s a cultural question – they need to do the things which, in their culture, show respect for authority – rather than being ‘shameful’ (v35). The way that respect is shown will vary from place to place, and through the ages. But Paul seems to be clear that the principle of submission is one that doesn’t change. It’s one that’s for ‘all the churches of the saints’ (v33).

Now I would love to spend half an hour talking about this issue alone – because it’s so important today and so counter-cultural. Of course, it was controversial in Corinth as well, which is why Paul has to mention it. Now’s a good time to recommend some further reading on this issue and other ones we’ve raised today:

God’s good design (Claire Smith)
Different by design (Carrie Sandom)
• Encountering God together (David Peterson)
• Showing the Spirit (Don Carson)

Now I don’t pretend that any of this teaching is easy – not least the stuff about gender, which is often hard for us to understand as well as hard to apply. But we need to take it seriously. Look at v36:

Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?) Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.

This is such a significant verse, because it shows that Paul himself thought he had a special authority from the Lord Jesus. He didn’t think he was just on a par with the prophets in Corinth.

And that’s a crucial issue for the church today. You sometimes hear people say, “Oh, this is Paul, not Jesus. It’s what Jesus said that really counts.” That sounds plausible, but it’s the road to nowhere, because Paul clearly knew he had a commission from Jesus to speak his message. Sometimes what Paul wrote is hard to hear – and a classic example of that today is his teaching on gender and sexuality. Sometimes what Jesus said is hard to hear – like his many warnings about the awful reality of hell. But it’s all the Word of God.

As we wrap up, let’s summarise the same way Paul summarises his chapters on spiritual gifts for the Corinthians – by reading v39 again:

So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.

Be eager to prophesy – long to hear and speak God’s word – because it builds up the church. “Let all things be done for building up”.

And let’s aim to keep God’s order in the church: carefully weighing what is said; being self-controlled and submitting to others; seeking to take God’s view on our different gender roles; and respecting Paul as God’s spokesman.

Think back to the petrol station, the theatre, and the talent show. What’s the biggest danger for you, on Sunday morning or in your small group? Is it the petrol station thing – just coming for a fill-up? Is it the theatre – just letting the professionals do their thing?

Well, I thank God for this church – for so many humble souls longing to see God’s kingdom come. We are so blessed to meet together. And let’s pray that we may grow, so that our lives and our gatherings become more like the Lord Jesus would have them be.


The audio of this talk can be found here.


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