1 Corinthians 14:20-40
In the previous passage, Paul encouraged the Corinthians to make use of their minds when they are overcome by the Spirit. He continues this line of argument when he exhorts the Corinthians not to be children in their thinking. Members of the community should be “infants in evil,” but pragmatically oriented adults in their thinking and approach to the world. Paul begins to wonder whether speaking in tongues is productive for nonbelievers; his quotation of Isaiah 28:11-12 seems to indicate that “strange tongues” are not likely to change anyone’s heart. Though he argues that glossolalia is sign for unbelievers (probably because it manifests the power of God in the world), Paul also makes it very clear that glossolalia has the potential to alienate outsiders. If an unbeliever walks into the Christian assembly when everyone is speaking in tongues, they are likely to think that everyone is simply insane. On the other hand, even though Paul regards prophecy to be a sign primarily for believers, he suggests that even unbelievers and outsiders will benefit if the entire community prophesies. An unbeliever may have the secrets of his or her heart revealed and will realize that God is truly present in the community.
Having explained how glossolalia has the potential to cause problems in the Christian assembly, Paul offers a solution: a liturgical ordering of the worshipping community. When the Corinthians gather for worship, each member of the community will have something to contribute, whether a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Paul immediately reminds the Corinthians that everything done within the context of worship should edify the community. If there are people who are prepared to speak in tongues, the apostle suggests that only two or three should offer tongues and there should certainly be someone available to interpret. If no one with that gift is available, then those who speak in tongues should be silent in church and speak only to God. Those who prophesy may do so, but their prophecy should be “weighed” and considered by the worshipping community. Paul insists that these prophecies should occur in good order to maximize their edifying potential. If anyone claims that they have been overcome by a prophetic spirit, Paul warns that this may be a misrepresentation. As far as he is concerned, the prophet controls the prophetic spirit, because God is a God of peace, not disorder.
The next portion of this passage is admittedly problematic. First Corinthians 14:34-35 has historically been used to exclude women from leadership roles in the Church. Several commentators, however, suggest that this could be an interpolation that was inserted long after Paul wrote the letter. This theory is supported by the fact that several manuscripts place these verses at different places in the letter, indicating that they were added wherever an editor thought they would make the most sense. The text of these verses also includes language that is inconsistent with Paul’s style; Paul tends not to enjoin his congregations to do things “as the law says.” Moreover, these verses do not seem to fit within the scope of Paul’s argument in chapter 14: they don’t mention spiritual gifts at all. Finally, these verses are inconsistent with 11:2-16; while that passage isn’t particularly charitable to women in the community, it certainly implies that women are permitted to speak in church and have a role in worship.
Paul concludes this passage by bluntly exercising his apostolic authority: he suggests that anyone who claims to have spiritual powers must recognize the fact that Paul is speaking commands from the Lord. Furthermore, anyone who doesn’t acknowledge Paul’s authority should not be recognized in the worshipping community. Paul ends this passage with an exhortation that summarizes the entire chapter: be eager to prophesy and do not forbid glossolalia, but ensure that worship is done “decently and in order” so that it may build up the Body of Christ.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
Before I had an ecumenical awakening in college, I was a fairly obnoxious Episcopalian. I was convinced that my denomination had it all figured out; we knew how to worship as God himself intended. I was particularly impressed with our calendar; I thought that the division of the year into liturgical seasons that had their own colors and hymnody was absolutely brilliant. Everything had its place; everything was done decently and in order. You can imagine my shock and dismay, then, when I heard from my uncle, who is a Methodist minister, that his congregation typically sang Christmas carols on the third Sunday of Advent! After saying something to the effect of, “have you no shame?” I asked my uncle why he had chosen to ignore the season and bring liturgical ruin down upon his parish; did they also sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” on Good Friday? My uncle responded in that patient tone that uncles reserve for their self-righteous and recalcitrant nephews: “It’s really not a big problem. Besides, people like Christmas carols.”
And of course, he was right. While I had objections to singing Christmas carols during Advent, the people of my uncle’s congregation clearly did not. In fact, singing Christmas carols on Advent III probably built up and edified the community. In the Church (particularly in the Episcopal Church) we often get caught in a mode where things must be done a certain way. When we hear Paul’s injunction to do things “decently and in order,” we might be tempted to assume that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things in the Church. Paul’s injunction, however, is framed within the context of building up the community. Order, in other words, is not imposed for its own sake, but for the benefit of the community at large. Christ is meant to be at the center of our life together; we keep Christ as the goal ahead of us as a community. Frodo and his companions traveled a road together, and this is what the Church is meant to be for each of us. The ordering of our common life is a road, a pathway to follow as we strive to make Christ the center of our lives. It is not ultimately about the road upon which we walk, but the goal we have in mind and our companions on the way. As we prepare to walk the Way of the Cross next week, I hope that we can think less about how effectively we are “doing Holy Week” and more about our brothers and sisters who are on the road with us and our Lord who beckons us at the end of the road.