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Spiritual Gifts, Part 5: Spiritual Gifts and Self-Control (1 Cor. 14:26-40)

Introduction206

After listening to sermons for many years, I have come up with a system for classifying preachers. Liberal theological institutions have produced the Aesops of the pulpit. These preachers are great storytellers. They are interesting and creative, but their content is more like a fairy tale than a word from God. When they do refer to the Bible, it is because they think the biblical author has been more creative in fabricating myth than they. An evangelical variant of this classification also exists in the pulpit. These preachers are born again, orthodox Christians, who believe the Bible is inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. The only problem is they don’t preach the Bible either. Their sermons are a string of related stories and illustrations, which they hope will prove a point. The goriest of their repertoire of war stories are usually saved for evangelistic sermons. Those who lack creativity are simply “one notes.” Every week the Scripture reading changes, as does the title of the sermon, but the message hardly changes at all. When you’ve heard this preacher once, you’ve heard it all.

To preserve my sanity and a measure of sanctification, I devised a method of surviving bad sermons—the five-minute plan. I learned that without fail, a preacher who did not get to the biblical text within five minutes would not get there at all. Rather than waiting patiently, hoping upon hope that he might give me some glimpse of the text, I decided to go to the text myself if he did not do so in five minutes. Initially, I would read the Scripture text for the sermon. After all, who could fault me for doing this? Later, I cast aside all pretense and studied a passage that was of particular interest at the time. I could leave church edified and not waste energy criticizing the preacher at the noon meal.

Before my five minutes have gone, let me assure you that whatever measure of frustration you have experienced in a Sunday service, it can hardly have been worse than the disappointment of worshipping with the saints at Corinth. From Paul’s description of the conduct of the saints at the Lord’s Table in chapter 11, we know that their meeting was disorderly and disgraceful. Discord and strife were routine (verse 18). The well-to-do did not wait for the poor, who could not come until later (cf. verses 21, 33). Some were overindulging, while others did without (verse 21). The overabundance of the rich was flaunted before the poor, who had little or nothing, thereby humiliating them (verse 22). Some were drunk and disorderly (verse 21). As a result, the Lord’s Table, which should have been the highlight of the gathering, was considered a matter of little significance and conducted in an unbefitting way (verses 20, 26ff.).

The worship portion of the Corinthian church meeting seems to have taken place either during or after the common meal of which the remembrance of the Lord’s death was a part. We may have come to the conclusion that verses 26-40 are Paul’s description of the Corinthian church service, but this cannot be so. These verses are a prescription for the worship meeting, which ought to occur in Corinth, not a description of what was happening. It is in chapter 11 that we gain insight into what these saints were doing. In 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, we are given Paul’s corrective instruction. From what we have been told thus far in this epistle, it is not difficult to imagine what actually happened when the saints attempted to worship together. Some who shared must have done so under the influence of alcohol rather than under the control of the Holy Spirit.207 The leaders of the various cliques must have spoken to impress their followers, to increase their ranks, and to promote their particular doctrinal emphasis. One speaker may have spoken too long, while others attempted to interrupt. The tongues speakers may have all tried to speak at one time. Can you imagine the confusion this created and the frustration of trying to get something edifying out of this kind of meeting? Verses 26-40 of chapter 14 will not only sum up Paul’s teaching on the use of spiritual gifts in public worship, but they will lay down some practical guidelines which are intended to reduce competition and confusion and to promote edification.

The Principle of Edification
and the Public Use of Spiritual Gifts
(14:26-36)

In chapter 12, Paul taught the principle of unity in diversity, showing that God has many gifts to bestow on Christians and that each one is essential to the life of the body of Christ. Chapter 13 teaches the priority of love. Love not only enhances the effect of the various spiritual gifts, it also enables diverse members to live and serve together in unity. Love and Christian character are superior to spiritual gifts because they abide for eternity, while all gifts are temporal. The first 25 verses of chapter 14 establish the principle of edification, by which all gifts should be governed. Love will seek to edify others, not self, and so love will only use a spiritual gift in a way that edifies others. In 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, these principles are applied specifically to the corporate gathering of the saints for worship and edification. Verses 26-36 provide guidelines for participation in the church meeting:

What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?

The first words of verse 26 indicate the following verses will prescribe the practical outworking of verses 1-25. Verses 26-40 are not just a logical conclusion, but the practical application of the principles previously taught. This is indicated by the words, “What is the outcome then, brethren?” (verse 26).208 In order for the whole church to be edified in the church meeting, certain changes had to occur in the way the various gifts were publicly practiced. Certain guidelines are established here, which should govern those who speak in the church meeting.

Until now, I have always thought of verse 1 as an instruction rather than an introduction. I believed that Paul was encouraging every Christian to come to the church meeting prepared to speak. While I do believe that the Christian should come prepared to worship, I don’t think that is what Paul has in mind here. The expression “each one has … ,” repeated five times in verse 26, is more a statement of fact than it is a command or exhortation. The problem at Corinth was not that people were unprepared or that participation was inadequate. The problem was that all came ready to speak and were determined to do so. Most, if not all, of the Corinthian saints may have participated, but the results were far from edifying. Both the quality and the quantity of participation needed to be regulated. The principle of edification would serve as the standard for all that was spoken publicly in the meeting of the church (verse 26).

Paul mentions five kinds of participation for which they are prepared. All of these except having “a psalm” are spiritual gifts. Is it possible that this, too, is a spiritual gift, even though it is not identified as such anywhere else? Several meanings are possible for the term “psalm.” First, it may simply mean that someone read an Old Testament psalm or put one to music. Second, it may also mean that someone composed a psalm similar to those in the Old Testament. Bartels states that the Psalms “… constitute the back-bone of Jewish synagogue worship. Some individual psalms, or collections of Psalms, such as Psalm 105:1-15 and Psalm 96, comprised a daily form of prayer for the faithful Jew.”209

The Old Testament Psalms played a very significant role in Jewish worship. Often the psalmist would poetically recite a personal or corporate experience and from this highlight an aspect of God’s character, put this to music, and the whole congregation would participate in the worship, which it occasioned. It is my personal opinion that the Old Testament Psalms provide a pattern for contemporary psalms. Christians thus gifted (or talented, if you prefer) can poetically and musically reflect on the goodness and grace of God, enabling and encouraging the entire congregation to corporately worship God with praise and adoration. Such “psalms” would involve teaching, doctrine, and worship. If this is a spiritual gift, one can see the great value it would have in Christian worship.

In verses 27-36, the principle of edification is applied to three specific aspects of the church meeting. It was applied to the practice of the gift of tongues in verses 27-28, then to prophecy in verses 29-33, and finally to the participation of women in verses 34-36.

Since tongues was perhaps the most problematic gift in the Corinthian assembly, Paul began by prescribing how this gift could be used publicly so as to edify the whole church. Two, or at the most three, could speak in tongues. Those speaking in tongues must do so in order. It would appear that until now they had all spoken simultaneously. How could anyone interpret when three spoke at once?

Spiritual Gifts and Self-Control
(14:26-40)

The use of tongues in the church meeting was permitted as long as there was one present who was gifted to interpret. Only one interpreter was required (“… and let one interpret,” verse 27), not two or three. The one with this gift, like the prophet, the tongues-speaker, or the teacher, would be known to the body. One look about the assembly would inform any with the gift of tongues whether or not he could exercise his gift publicly at this meeting. If no interpreter was present, the tongues speaker must remain silent. This would not prevent him from silently speaking in tongues and thus personally benefiting from his gift. I might also add that women who had this gift could always privately praise God in tongues. Personal edification was thereby unhindered. But without interpretation, the public use of tongues would not edify the congregation.

It is very important to note that Paul assumed that the tongues speaker had full control of this gift. No doubt, some must have given the impression that they could not help but speak; that they were overcome by the Holy Spirit and could do nothing but speak. This is not the case with any gift. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are under our control. Our gifts do not control us, nor do they compel us to violate the guidelines that Paul lays down here for their public exercise. If one spoke in tongues in the church in a way that violated the Word of God, it was due to the lack of self-control of the speaker, not the compulsion of the Spirit.

Self-control and silence were not required only of the tongues speakers in Corinth. Even prophecy, the gift so highly valued by Paul, was restricted. Under certain circumstances the prophets, like those with the gift of tongues, were to remain silent. It may surprise us to learn that Paul had more to say about the use of prophecy than he did of tongues. While only two verses are directed to the tongues speakers, four are given to regulate the gift of prophecy.

There is a principle underlying verses 29-33 which I somehow have overlooked in my study of this passage until now: every spiritual gift, including prophecy, is subject to misuse. I have to confess that I somehow felt that the gift of tongues was subject to great abuse, while prophecy was exempt from such dangers. Why, then, would Paul need to lay down such specific regulations for the use of prophecy in the church meeting in such a way as to prevent discord?

Since this may be a new thought, let me suggest some of the ways this gift might have been misused in Corinth. One prophet may have tended to dominate the meeting, taking too much time and not allowing others the opportunity to speak. This would especially be true if a prophet had a particular theme, which he was inclined to stress above others. For example, one prophet may have emphasized the sovereignty of God, while another the responsibility of man. With all the petty strife and division in Corinth, it was possible that the leaders of the competing cliques may have been prophets. Could a prophet not be tempted to filibuster by deliberately extending his message? Why allow the opposition a chance to be heard?

Another temptation for a prophet would be to speak with wrong motives. The preeminence of this gift, along with the prestige it might gain the speaker, might tempt the prophet to use his gift to gain prestige and prominence in the church. Besides this, it would be very easy to intermingle one’s personal opinions with divine revelation. This may sound far fetched, but those of us who speak with a measure of authority are tempted to authoritatively present our own opinions as though they were a word from God.

Two or three could prophesy,210 while the rest of the congregation211 passed judgment. There were not as yet any New Testament books available (aside from 1 Corinthians) to which these prophecies could be compared. The Spirit of the prophecy, however, could be tested (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). The content of any new revelation must be consistent with the Old Testament Scriptures, as well as with any revelation given through the apostles, such as Paul (cf. 4:1ff., 15:1ff.). Those who had the gift of distinguishing spirits (12:10) would also have an important role to play here. The important thing to notice is that the congregation was to be active, not passive, by mentally interacting with what was said. If it was necessary to judge what was said by a prophet, how much more should we judge what is taught in our churches today?

In verse 30, Paul teaches that a prophet who is speaking must yield the floor to one who receives a revelation.212 This is a rather perplexing situation. Is the prophet who is speaking not also sharing a revelation he has received? Why would God give two prophets a revelation simultaneously? And why should the one speaking be interrupted?

From verse 26, it appears that most came to the church meeting prepared to participate, including the one with a revelation. It was not necessary for a prophet to receive a revelation in the church meeting. Perhaps it was more often the case that a prophet would receive a revelation during the week, giving him time to reflect on the message and its application to himself and to others. The prophet who is standing and speaking to the church might thus be the one who has been given a revelation in the past and who is expounding and applying it to the congregation. The second prophet, who receives a revelation (verse 30), may have received a message, which is directly related to what has just been said or done in the meeting. His message is viewed as having greater relevance and urgency than the first, and so he indicates in an appropriate manner that he has something to share. The first, recognizing that God has something to say through another, yields the floor. I doubt that Paul means the first prophet is to stop in mid-sentence, but that he is to bring his message to a close as quickly as possible.

I believe we would be mistaken to assume that the only purpose of prophecy is to enable a person to speak in the church meeting. This gift, like the others, might have greater importance and value outside their weekly gathering. In this way, the fact that there were also prophetesses poses no problem, for possessing the gift of prophecy in no way presumes that the revelation received must be shared in the church gathering. Perhaps some prophets had lost sight of this.

I am extremely uncomfortable in admitting this, but prophets of old, like preachers of our day, had trouble stopping. Not only is it necessary to restrict the number of prophets who speak, but also to suggest that there is a limit to how long one should speak. When another prophet receives a revelation, it is time for the first to be still. This would be a very practical and much appreciated guideline in Corinth where pride and presumption were so common.

Three reasons underlie the instructions given to prophets in verses 31-33. First, in due time, all will have their opportunity to share the revelation God has given them (verse 31). Believe it or not, even divine revelation can wait. After all, we have the entire revelation of God in our Bibles, but we don’t attempt to preach the entire Bible on any given Sunday. We are selective in what we share because there is more to share than time will allow. The same was true then. Each prophet seemed intent on sharing what God had revealed to him in that meeting. Paul tells them to relax, for in due time they will all have an opportunity to speak, and thus all will be exhorted.

Isn’t it amazing that every time we gain a new insight into the Word of God we feel we must not wait to share it? Paul says that even divine revelation can wait. Perhaps a week or two later it will be even more beneficial. The events of the following week may make his message even more timely. The theme of what is shared at some later meeting may make his revelation more appropriate. Waiting until another meeting will at least give the speaker more time to contemplate his message. Few messages lose their impact over time. Some, after more careful thought, are set aside. There is a point where the saints are saturated with truth and need time to assimilate what they have heard. This is what Paul is teaching, I believe.

What was implied by Paul in verses 27 and 28 above is clearly stated in verse 32: “The spirits of the prophets are subject to prophets.” Some prophets may have supposed that since they had received a revelation, they had no choice but to share it. After all, when God speaks, men must hear. The gifts of the Spirit do not overpower us, compelling us to speak whether we wish to or not. Even a gift as valued as prophecy must be restricted. Two or three revelations are all that the saints can digest in one sitting.

Furthermore, God is not the author of confusion and chaos. A failure to observe these simple guidelines would result, yea had resulted, in utter pandemonium in the Corinthians’ church meetings prior to Paul’s epistle. Give God the credit though you may; confusion and disorder are not His work (verse 33).

Many scholars believe the last words of verse 33 are actually the beginning of verse 34. The NIV, for example, renders it this way: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.” In my estimation this translation is preferred to that of the NASV, as cited above. Since the last part of verse 33 is not universally accepted as introducing Paul’s teaching on the role of women in the public gathering of the church, let us set it aside and look at what else Paul says on this subject.

In verse 34, the women are commanded to remain silent and not to speak publicly213in the churches.” Paul’s instruction here is not just for the Corinthian church, but for the churches. Those who would tell us that only the Corinthian women were to refrain from publicly participating in the church gathering overlook other Scripture which is equally clear on this subject. Paul instructed Timothy to teach the women to remain silent in Ephesus (1 Timothy 2:11-15). In this Corinthian epistle, Paul claimed that his teaching was not provincial, but universal. His practice conforms to his preaching, and his preaching is consistent in every place (4:16-17), even with regard to the role of women (11:16).

That women should remain silent in the church meeting is no new revelation, unique to Paul’s teaching. This practice is not based upon special circumstances in the Corinthian culture, but on the biblical principle of submission. How common are the attempts to brush Paul’s teaching aside, as though it was some idiosyncrasy of his, some quirk, some chauvinistic hang-up that is inconsistent with other biblical revelation. Yet the silence of women in the churches is not a new revelation, based upon some set of circumstance unique to Corinth and unrelated to 20th century Christians. The practice that Paul requires is based upon the principle of submission. This principle is so generally recognized as being taught in the Old Testament that Paul does not even find it necessary to cite a particular passage.214

If verse 34 is difficult to accept, verse 35 is even more so. It would almost seem that Paul is “rubbing salt in the wound” here. A woman cannot even ask a question in the church meeting, but she must ask her own husband at home because it would be disgraceful215 for her to speak in church. Why would God forbid a woman to ask a question in the church meeting? What would be the harm of a simple question?

Questions are seldom neutral. While some are sincerely asked to gain information or insight, many are posed for other reasons. Satan, for example, commenced his conversation with Eve with a question (Genesis 3:1). He was not trying to learn from Eve, but to deceive her and tempt her to sin against God. The opposition which our Lord faced from the scribes and Pharisees frequently came in the form of an apparently innocent question (cf. Matthew 22:15ff., 23ff., 34ff.). Many who ask questions are really trying to make a point or to challenge the position of the one being questioned. I saw this frequently in my seminary days (and probably was often guilty myself). The power to question is the authority to lead and to correct, and thus it should be exercised by the men, whom God has appointed to exercise and illustrate headship in the church (1 Corinthians 11:3ff.).

Since the principle of edification underlies this passage, there should be positive reasons why the Scriptures prohibit women from asking a question in the church meeting. This prohibition will prove to be edifying to the men in two ways. First, the men will be stimulated to more serious study and diligent leadership when their wives look to them for the answers to their biblical questions. So long as the wife looks to someone other than her husband, he will not feel the weight of his responsibility as a husband and leader in the home. That is why Paul says, “… let them ask their own husbands at home.” Second, the husband will not be threatened or put on the spot publicly if he is asked at home. If he does not know the answer, he will be able to investigate the matter more fully and without embarrassment.

Having the women ask their questions at home builds up the men, but it also edifies the women. The woman who understands that it is shameful for her to exercise authority by publicly addressing the meeting of the church will certainly be reluctant to question anyone aggressively in the meeting of the church. If the answer she is given is vague or inaccurate, she will not be able to pursue the matter further without instructing the men or challenging their teaching. Paul therefore instructs the women to ask their questions of their husbands at home. There they will have the freedom to probe, to discuss, and even to challenge until they are satisfied with the answer they are given. I believe this is why Paul chose to employ an intensive form of the verb “to ask,” which might be rendered, “to interrogate.” This will be far more edifying to the women than trying to ask a question with the limitations placed on them in the church meeting. In other words, Paul does not forbid women to speak so that the church gains at their expense, but that all will gain, the women included.

This truth is so important I want to take the time to illustrate it. There was a godly woman in my home church who was as good a student of the Scriptures (and possibly better) as any man. One Sunday she was asked to open the adult class in prayer. She very graciously declined by saying that she would rather not. She did not explain why. The reason she did not explain declining to pray was that she would have had to teach men in order to do so. She was willing to allow someone to conclude that she might be “out of fellowship” in order to be obedient to the Word of God. So, too, a truly submissive woman would find it difficult, even impossible, to interrogate without violating the principle of submission.

I believe that verse 36 must apply most directly to women rather than to the Corinthian church at large. After all, this is the context of verses 34-36. I have yet to read a commentary which interprets verse 36 as I do, so perhaps I am wrong. And yet whom is Paul addressing here, and why is he so forceful if it is not those women in Corinth who have tasted some of the liberties of the women in that day and found Paul’s teaching unacceptable?

I can almost hear a prophetess or perhaps a woman with the gift of tongues protesting that unless she can speak in the church meeting, the church will suffer for it. How can the church get by without my tongue, without my revelation, without my teaching? If Paul’s words are addressed to a woman such as this, no wonder they sting. “Are you really so ignorant as to think that the Word of God (especially the Old Testament Scriptures) was revealed by a woman” Paul asks. In other words, what Old Testament book can be named which has a woman as its author? True, there were women prophets in days of old, women like Deborah, but the Scriptures make it clear that her leadership was to be a reproach to weak men, such as Barak:

Then Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman” (Judges 4:8-9).

If it is to the strong-willed and contentious women of Corinth that Paul is speaking in verse 36, he has turned their attention to the way God spoke to men in the past. God had chosen, with few exceptions, to speak through men. Men, not women, were the priests and the kings. Such was also the case in the ministry of our Lord. He chose no women to be His apostles, nor did He send women forth to preach. While Jesus esteemed women highly, much more highly than His contemporaries (cf. John 4:9, 27), He withheld from them the task of leadership in the church and public preaching.

But the arrogance of such women who would challenge Paul is not yet fully exposed. Paul goes on to say, “Do you think God can only speak through you?” If there is a protest by women because they cannot address the entire church, Paul simply asks if God is thereby restricted. It is a presumptuous and arrogant spirit which supposes that God can speak only through oneself. And this is not just a problem for women. That is why Paul has spoken to the prophets already. They did not all have to speak at any one meeting. Their revelation could wait. Neither did they have to speak too long, for God wishes to speak through others as well.

While I am inclined to think that verse 36 applies specifically to those women who would object to Paul’s teaching, it certainly has application to men and to the church corporately. Any church that begins to think of itself as the sole custodian of the truth has very serious problems. There is a sense in which autonomy is an unbiblical attitude, whether in a church or in an individual. It is diametrically opposed to the mentality of the servant.

Another Test of Spirituality
(14:37-38)

The Corinthian conception of spirituality was greatly deficient and distorted. While these saints thought of themselves as spiritual, Paul called them carnal. Many seemed to assert their authority by challenging Paul’s. For those who would resist Paul’s teaching, he informs them that their response to his teaching is a measure of their maturity and spirituality: “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Corinthians 14:37-38).

I want to remind you of the context of these verses. Paul is teaching concerning the conduct of Christians in the church meeting. In other words, we are talking here about the doctrine of “ecclesiology,” the doctrine of the church. While most evangelicals would go to the wall for Paul’s doctrine of salvation (soteriology), they are all too willing to set aside his teaching on the church. In the immediate context, Paul has been giving instructions about the participation of women. I mention this because Paul says that his words are not just his, they are “the Lord’s commandment” (verse 37). The implication should be obvious: If you would set aside Paul’s teaching on the role of women or the principles of the New Testament church, you would set aside the Lord’s commandment. Why is it that we try so hard to set aside what Paul teaches as though it is only his narrow-minded viewpoint, limited in its application and duration?

Those would-be spiritual giants of the Corinthian church are put on notice. So far as the Lord and Paul are concerned, spirituality cannot be measured by a man’s gifts nor his prestige or position, and certainly not by his pronouncements, but by his submission to the revealed Word of God. Paul began chapter 12 by establishing the test of the spirit which inspired utterance (verses 1-3). The one who is inspired of the Holy Spirit submits to the lordship of Christ. The one who is otherwise inspired rejects Christ and His lordship. Now, in these closing verses, Paul gives another standard: The test of one’s submission to the lordship of Christ is the degree to which he submits to the teachings of the apostles (such as Paul) as the commandment of the Lord.

Conclusion

Have you seen the common thread which runs through verses 26-36? The most obvious thread is the theme of edification. The restrictions which are placed on the tongues speaker, the prophet, and the women are designed to maximize the edification of the church. But the second thread is that of silence. In the case of the tongues speaker (verse 28), the prophet (verse 30), and women (verses 34-35), it is silence that is required. I am tempted to entitle this message “How to Edify the Church by Not Saying a Word.” Not until now has it occurred to me that I may edify others more by my silence than by my speech.

Why is it that we have seen only the silence required of women in this passage when Paul does not forbid women to speak until after he has also shown the need for silence in regard to tongues and prophecy? Here, in my opinion, were the three major areas of abuse in the church meeting. The gifts of tongues and prophecy, being both prominent and public, were exalted in such a way that no limits were placed on their exercise. The result was that other gifts, less prominent but just as important (12:22-24), were excluded. Since the church cannot function well unless all the members are carrying out their assigned tasks (12:12ff.), Paul limits the more prominent gifts to make room for those less prominent. The women were urged to be silent so that the men could assume the more prominent role, thereby reflecting the headship of Christ (11:1ff).

Paul wants the Christian to understand that love is demonstrated when public participation in the church meeting is regulated by the principle of edification. We are not to exercise our gifts to exalt ourselves over others, but to edify others. And we will edify others when our gifts are exercised publicly in accordance with the regulations Paul has set down in these verses.

The guidelines provided in verses 26-36 are designed to promote the edification of the whole assembly. They are based upon several principles which it is important to underscore.

1. The Principle of Proportion. Simply stated, the principle of proportion informs us that enough is enough. All too often we have what I like to call the “vitamin C” mentality. If one pill is good, then ten pills are ten times as good. Consequently, we find that everyone with the gift of prophecy wanted to participate in every meeting. The same was true of tongues and other gifts, too. The principle of proportion is the outgrowth of Paul’s teaching in chapter 12 where he stressed that there was great diversity of gift and function within the body of Christ, and by divine design. To the extent that some gifts are unduly exalted and other gifts squelched, the body of Christ suffers. The principle of proportion requires that two or three manifestations of any one gift in one meeting is enough. This allows opportunity for other gifts to be exercised also.

The principle of proportion also seems to have been applied to the length of the participation of any one speaker. The prophet who was tempted to speak too long was urged to yield the floor to another who also had something to share with the church. Variety, not only in the kinds of gifts exercised, but also in the individuals who speak, is, if you will pardon me for saying so, the “spice of church life.”

It is almost amusing to hear the outcry of those who react to the biblical imperative that women keep silent in the church as though this stifled a great deal of participation. If we would get upset, let us do so because most churches are structured in such a way that neither men nor women have any opportunity to exercise their spiritual gifts. While some criticize our church for forbidding women to take public leadership in the church meeting, most churches, week after week, have only a few professionals dominating the entire meeting. Where is the outcry? The principle of proportion demands that the opportunity to share and to speak should not be monopolized by the few. The meeting of the church, as we observe it in this local assembly, allows any man to pray, to teach, to exhort, or to lead in any number of ways, so long as his participation falls within the guidelines established here by the apostle.

2. The Principle of Priority. Exegetically, I am probably on very thin ice, but I am going to suggest this principle for your consideration. Those Corinthians who possessed the more spectacular gifts seemed to think that participation was required when they felt like sharing. When they “felt the Spirit moving,” they got up and spoke. If someone else was speaking at the time, it seems that they got up anyway. I have gotten the impression from a number of years of observation that some men today feel it is time to talk when they have something that has personally blessed them and there is a momentary silence.

Opportunity does not mean obligation, nor does silence necessarily call for our speech. The principle of propriety requires that what we want to share is appropriate to the occasion. Sometimes we are so intent upon teaching that we ignore the fact that several have already taught before us. We can, of course, excuse ourselves by rationalizing that what we are doing is exhorting, not teaching. But even when it is possible for us to teach, let us ask whether we are sharing because we feel like it or because it is appropriate to what is going on. I have seen someone stand with an urgent prayer request, only to be followed by another with a superficial testimony, totally ignoring the need to respond to the request for prayer. If we would speak in the church meeting, let us not only ask if it is possible, but if it is profitable to speak at this time.

3. The Principle of Self-Control. Spontaneity is not synonymous with spirituality. We frequently act on impulse rather than on biblical imperatives and prayerful reflection. We equate the urge or desire to speak with the leading of the Holy Spirit, whom we believe to be prompting us to speak. The silence which Paul’s guidelines require can only result from spiritual self-control.

Let’s be honest with one another. Have you ever considered it necessary to exercise self-control in the public exercise of your spiritual gift? I really hadn’t until studying this text. From our study in 9:24-10:13, I knew that I must exercise self-control in satisfying my physical appetites. But never have I seriously contemplated the need for me to exercise self-control in my public participation in the church meeting. What may have greatly blessed me in my private devotions may not be edifying to the whole church. Why is it that we feel we must share everything that blesses us? The prophet and the tongues speaker have to restrain themselves, so why shouldn’t all of us? What blesses us may not bless others. Let us discipline ourselves in our speaking as well as in our eating and drinking. Of all the New Testament writers, James has the most to say about restraining our tongues:

This you know, my beloved brethren. But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger (James 1:19).

So speak and so act, as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty (James 2:12).

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1).

Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it (James 4:11).

4. The Principle of Christian Liberty. We have already studied the chapters which deal with Christian liberties, especially related to marriage (chapter 7) and meats offered to idols (chapters 8-10). Public participation is not a matter of liberty for women, but it is for men. The meeting of the church has been so designed to give every man the opportunity to participate and to lead. In this sense, public participation in the church meeting is a matter of liberty for men. We have already learned, however, that having a liberty does not imply the exercise of it, unless it edifies others and promotes the gospel (chapters 8 and 9). Let us use this liberty in such a way that it will edify others and not exalt ourselves.

There is another dimension to the principle of Christian liberty. Liberties will always be abused. In instances where this occurs, we are tempted to resort to law and legalism in order to solve the problem. If meat offered to idols is a problem, forbid it. If eating a meal at the Lord’s Supper presents problems, do without it. If an open and relatively unstructured church meeting has excesses, structure it, confining participation to a select few. If tongues speaking causes trouble, ban it.

Legalism and suppression is the most efficient way of solving problems, or so it would seem. But Paul never resorts to it. He did not forbid marriage, nor meat, or a meal at the Lord’s Table, nor the freedom for men to share in the church meeting, nor the gift of tongues. He taught principles to guide us and laid down precepts to regulate our activities, but he did not forbid the freedoms God has given us. That is not the easy way, but it is the right way.

As parents, we are frequently tempted to do things the easy way. My wife is teaching our girls how to cook. Often their first efforts leave something to be desired. And there is usually a terrible mess in the kitchen. The easy way to solve the problem is for my wife to do all the cooking and to ban the girls from the kitchen. But that is not the right way. We must be willing to give our children, and the saints, enough freedom to fall. Rather than refusing rights or restricting them excessively, we must give guidelines and principles; we must be willing to teach, to correct and to encourage. That is the way of liberty.

The spirit of this passage is not condemning or restricting. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to worship in a way that is for their best interests. Self-control and silence are two requisites. There are certainly others. My prayer is that we will understand and apply this passage as Paul meant it to be taken—an encouragement to edification through the practice of love in the public meeting of the church.

The ideals put forth in this text will never be fully realized in this life. They will never be adequately experienced apart from the enablement of the Spirit of God, Who bestows various spiritual gifts and also gives self-control so that they may be used to edify others. If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ, the Spirit of God is not in you. This passage only portrays lofty and impossible ideals. I urge you to acknowledge your sin and to trust in the death of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will become a member of His body and you will be equipped to serve Him and to edify others.


206 Chapter 14 (Lessons 33 & 34) is from an earlier series.

207 I have come to view Ephesians 5:18-19 (“And do not get drunk with wine, … but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns …) in an entirely different light. Until now, I had thought of the reference to being drunk with wine only as a literary device to contrast the control of the Spirit with the control of the spirits (wine). In the light of 1 Corinthians 11:21 and this text, I am inclined to think that drunkenness was not just a problem at Corinth. The singing of the saints should surely be different from that which occurs in a tavern, with slurred words and sluggish minds.

208 In 14:6-12, Paul has shown the uselessness of a sound, which has no meaning or a language which is unknown to the hearer. Verse 13 is the logical conclusion of verses 6-12: “Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” But verse 15 introduces the practical outworking with the same words which are in verse 26: “What is the outcome then?” If in verse 13 Paul concludes that one should seek to interpret, verse 15 shows what would thus occur: “I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also.” So, too, verse 26ff. shows what will happen when edification becomes the standard for all public participation in the church meeting.

209 K. H. Bartels, “Psalmos,The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), III, p. 671.

210 Godet sees in the differences between the limits placed on tongues speakers (“let two or three prophets speak,” verse 29) an inference that tongues were tolerated, but prophecy was encouraged. Frederic Louis Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications [reprint] 1977), pp. 738, 730. Godet could be correct, but such fine nuances need to be held tentatively.

211 Some understand Paul to mean that only the other prophets were to judge. This is possible, but not likely. Why aren’t all believers able to judge the content and the spirit of what is said? Certainly Paul stresses the need for all to be mentally involved in what is said (cf. 14:13-19).

212 Hodge suggests another interpretation here. He believes Paul may mean that the second prophet should wait until the first is finished, rather than to interrupt him. Cf. Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, [reprint] 1980), p. 302.

213 Some have tried to weaken Paul’s teaching here by suggesting that the term “to speak” may refer to idle or silly chatter of women rather than to public participation of a serious sort. This falls short of the facts. The verb (Greek: laleo) is used more than 20 times in this chapter, and never with such a meaning.

214 In chapter 11 Paul based the principle of headship on the account of the creation of Eve in Genesis 1 and 2. Some understand Genesis 3:16 to be referred to in 14:34. My contention is that it is these passages and others, the whole tenor of the law, to which Paul is referring.

215 The word “improper” is the same term used by Paul in 11:6; it is there rendered “disgraceful.”

Related Topics: Spiritual Gifts