Unintelligible Worship – 1 Corinthians 14:20-25

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul deals with misuse of spiritual gifts which led to divisions between self-described spiritual and the unspiritual people in the church. Their worship was no longer devoted to fellowship between people of every social class (male and female, slave and free). Even encouragement from God’s word descended into a competition to see who can be more spiritual. Whatever is happening, it is so disruptive a visitor would not just think the behavior of the church was strange, they might confuse it with pagan rituals and completely miss the Gospel.

Paul describes their worship as childish (14:20). Maturity has been a theme throughout the letter, but now Paul applies the congregation’s immaturity to their worship. Like factions or other issues of maturity in the letter, likely the problems with worship are related to social class distinctions.

It is likely people in the congregation believed ecstatic gifts were a sign of spirituality and therefore the more one prophesied or spoke in tongues, the more spiritual he is. This is the way the non-Christian Greek would have understood the ecstatic gifts. The contrast between childish and adult thinking is consistent with Paul’s encouragement to seek the “greater gifts” in chapter 13. It is inappropriate to “think as a child,” whether this is in the context of factions in the church, eating and drinking, lawsuits, etc.

Paul’s concern is for the outsider who needs to hear the Gospel (14:24-25). This is likely a Gentile who knows nothing about the gifts of the Spirit and would misunderstand what ecstatic speech is.

What would a Greek think about tongues or prophecy? Ben Witherington suggests prophecy would be naturally associated with the Delphic oracle, while tongues would have been associated with ecstatic speech among the followers of Dionysus (Community and Conflict, 276-9). In either case, a person visiting the congregation would hear the chaotic worship at Corinth and assume individuals in the church were possessed of spirits like an oracle. The Delphic oracle is only one example of ecstatic speech in the Greco-Roman world. In Acts 16, for example, Paul casts a demon from a slave girl who was used as an oracle in Philippi, she has the “spirit of Python.”

Paul’s problem with the congregation the same as earlier sections of the letter. They are once again failing to separate themselves from the world and therefore are not reaching the world. Their worship is indistinguishable from these commonly known practices and therefore has really ceased to do any good at all. For Paul, five intelligible words would be preferred to ecstatic speech! Witherington also points out that religious rites in the ancient world were usually done in silence, with nothing but a flute player to cover up ambient noise. As worship began, the phrase favete linguis was used – “check your tongue”!

While Paul is not necessarily calling for the Corinthians to sit in silence. There is a need for intelligibly and orderliness in worship. Far from being a sign of spiritual status, the gifts are just that, a gracious gift by God to be used for the building-up of the church. The elite of the church assume that they are better than others because they have been given this gift.

What would an outsider think if they heard ecstatic speech after a banquet which included good food and wine? The natural assumption is the cult of Dionysus. This is a disaster for the church, since the cult was almost always outlawed and looked down upon by “polite society.”

Worship or Katy Perry?

With respect to prophecy, it is possible the Corinthians understood the role of a prophet as an oracle, like that found at Delphi. In general, the oracle was asked specific questions, and gave cryptic yet clear answers. Witherington reports the oracle might be asked about religious or political matters, but these would not really be the concern of the Christian congregation. Rather, they would ask domestic questions: questions about career, marriage, or possibly even practice. There are a number of slogans in 1 Corinthians, “Everything is permitted” (10:23) or “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). It is possible these are answers which were given through an alleged spirit of prophecy, in response to questions from the congregation.

Remember that the last half of this letter is a series of questions and answers. It is possible that the church is putting questions to Paul that they have already put to their own prophets! Perhaps this is the reason Paul quote these statements and then argues against them.

If these observations are even close to the mark, then this is another case of the Corinthian church failing to fully apply the Christ to the conversion of the pagan practices. Paul has to deal carefully with these people since he wants to encourage the use of spiritual gifts, but he must discourage behavior which is still “pagan.”

I really do not want to wade into the turbulent waters of the practice of tongues in contemporary worship since that distracts from Paul’s point. But if Paul is saying Christian worship ought to look different than the world, there is an equally disturbing application here. At what point does contemporary (American, evangelical) worship look and feel like “the world”?

  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and a country music concert, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and classical music performance, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a sermon and a pep-talk from a life coach, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?

Worship (in whatever form it takes) ought to draw people to the Gospel rather than drive them away.

12 thoughts on “Unintelligible Worship – 1 Corinthians 14:20-25

  1. First off spiritual gifts is a controversial topic nowadays. People are either on the side that spiritual gifts were back in biblical times but they are no longer in practice today, or people believe the same gifts back then are still available to us today through the power of the Holy Spirit. I personally believe that spiritual gifts are still in use today, except every one is unique and God has developed them differently over time Paul seems to point out “all spiritual gifts derive from a common source, namely, the spirit who bestows gifts differently among the community” (TTP, 128). Even though Paul states this the church of Corinth can’t seem to wrap its mind around it. Every spiritual gift comes from God, one is not greater then the other. And the church of Corinth seemed to be doing this, believing that someone was more spiritual for example if they could speak in tongues but this is so far from the truth and is a corruption. “As such, the gifts are not meant as advertisements of ones spiritual celebrity but, instead, are to enhance the corporate resources of Christian communities” (TTP, 128) says Paul. It makes conflicts within the church and brings the church down instead of a beacon of light for other churches. Hence the reason for Paul’s frustration towards the church blending into the world instead of becoming a part of it. Also, when it comes to worship and the different types, everyone worships differently. I stand on the fact that as long as one is truly worshipping God from the depths of their hearts it doesn’t matter what kind of music and or preaching as long as it is biblically sound and interpreted in the correct format.


  2. That is an interesting concept. I feel as though being competitive with your faith could only be a positive outcome. That would mean that everyone is working as hard as they can to be the most Godly. I can understand how it comes off as immature to partake in an activity like that. I believe it becomes immature when speaking in tongues and the gifts come into play because like Paul states, the only thing that matters is the “greater gifts”. I have to be honest, if I were to walk into a church that was chaotic like that I would most likely turn right around and never think about walking into a church like that again. I would probably think something is wrong with those people.


    • I like that you took competing with your faith as a good thing, I did too. I think that at when you are putting all of your all in learning about God, and working within the kingdom, eventually it becomes less about competing and more relational (with God).


  3. God made us all individual, but He intended us to all work together for His glory. Giving each of us our own gifts that will strengthen His kingdom and bring diversity to it. With this people tend to then lean on their own understanding of the Bible and interpret it in ways that God did not intend. “Even encouragement from God’s word descended into a competition to see who can be more spiritual” (P. Long Blog – Unintelligible Worship). Often with our human and sinful nature we tend to make things a competition. Trying to outdo one other rather than gaining knowledge in our weaknesses from other’s strengths. Through this quarreling to see who is greater than the other a person on the outside looking in could be turned away by the Christian community. Just as if you were to see a family fighting in a parking lot you would not think they were a close-knit family but a family that is broken and in need of help. As a Christian community, we are the ones that need to help others find God. But, if we cannot work together for God and grow together as the body of Christ that He intended us to be as stated in Romans 12. He created us all different but still in one body, His body.


  4. In response to the questions here I think that the point that American Evangelical Contemporary worship begins to look like and feel like the world is the point that the worship becomes about something other than God. Once the worship becomes focused on the world and is motivated by self instead of being motivated by God and done for God that is the point that it no longer looks like worship and becomes everything but that. This happens all too often in culture today people using their gifts for self and masking them with the idea that they are meant for God. Worship was never meant to be about us and it still should not be. If we start to make worship about self instead of God we run into a similar struggle of the Israelites with their false idols and many other believers with theirs. Worship should never become an idol, but the minute that the motives behind it are for self it runs the danger of doing and becoming more world than word.


  5. I think it is rather abundant in today’s culture that worship is like that of the world. The world cares about how it looks and more importantly edifies itself. I think that is a reason why Paul said Prophecy was better than speaking in tongues because prophecy builds up others and tongues edifies oneself.

    Paul mentions that the Corinthians should “Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinth. 14:1)

    It is important to note that he did not say pursue spiritual gifts, instead, he said pursue love. As mentioned in this blog post, the spiritual gifts were given to edify the church and building God’s kingdom. As TTP puts it, “Love should be the primary soil to nourish the exercising of spiritual gifts in corporate gatherings of Christians. Giftedness without agape love is vacuous” (TTP 129).

    Lastly, I would think that Jesus quoting of Isaiah plays a role in this question in that he said, “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6-7). The context before this is that Jesus is confronting their traditions. The Pharisees instilled worship as a time to edify oneself, their hearts were not right with God. When our hearts are genuine and want to worship God with our being then that is true worship (and obedience). As far as Pauls statement that all things must be done in a “fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinth. 14:40). this tells me that tradition is not necessarily structured but done in a vain way where you are not mindful of the things of God and merely concerned for the things of man.


  6. I have not attended an extremely large number of concerts, whether secular or Christian, but I have walked away from each type of experience with distinct impressions, even though from the outside looking in, they may appear to be very similar. In both experiences, people were raising their hands, closing their eyes, and singing along to their favorite songs. Both had very talented groups leading everyone, and everyone was unified as they sang together; however, the distinguishing factor between the secular concert and the Christian concert in my experience was where the focus was pointed. I walked away from the secular concert impressed by the musicians and wishing I could be like them because they play and sing so professionally. I walked away from the Christian concert impressed with the instrumentalists, but they had done something in addition that impressed me: their songs gave the message of the Gospel, and singing with them encouraged me in my walk with the Lord. Even though there are many similarities between a secular concert and a worship service, people should be able to tell that a worship service is centered on God and the Gospel, not on the people leading the music. In TTP, Longenecker states the following: “Authentic spirituality needs to comply with the affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” (128). A worship service should be a time that is structured in such a way that there is no doubt that God is the reason why the people have gathered, and all hearts should be focused on honoring Him. If an individual leaves this time more impressed with the music, lights, musicians, sound, special effects, or anything else more than they are with the God that they are worshiping, then the worship has become too much like the world. These are all simply tools that can be used to give glory and honor to the only one who truly deserves it.


  7. All my life I have strived to be apart of something different, some place where I could reach the vulnerable of society, the ones no one else wants to help. I recently starting attending a church called, “The Edge”. This is a urban Church who worships with hip hop music and all of the sermons are very simple yet appealing. Anyone who walks into the church, is treated as part of our family right then and there. There are a lot of members in the community who think that the church is not a good idea because we worship with hip hop music but Christian lyrics. They think it promotes something different than what we actually do. They happen to be completely wrong. As TTP states, “Paul emphasizes for the Corinthians benefits that love should be the primary soil to nourish the exercising of spiritual gifts in corporate gatherings of Christians.(Longnecker,128). The core of Edge is to bring people to Christ (love). Even though we are looked down upon for the hip hop music, that is not the sole of the church. Pastor P actually explained to me that the reason he decided on a hip-hop church was because it is a sub-culture that has existed for close to 50 years. He explains that we are loosing this generation to the negative influences that exist. The culture is impacting the world we live in, so he doesn’t say no to hip-hop as a whole. Instead, he developed a church that would positively display hip-hop and also teach young people hip-hop doesn’t have to be about sex, money or violence. It can be about how great Gods love is, how amazing he is and the kingdom. My point is, that it does not matter how you worship, I don’t even think that speaking in tongues should be looked down upon. Its about the core of what you are worshipping. As long as you are worshiping and your sole focus is on his kingdom and people ,etc, This is a tricky post, because their isn’t a specific way to do American Evangelical worship. If you love God, and are worshipping God, I don’t think anyone can say you are not worshiping correctly, after all isn’t it God who decides?


  8. Coming to Grace Bible College was a big shock for me because the only other worship service I had ever attended was my Nana’s Southern Baptist Church where music was and still is played by a little old lady on the organ. Being introduced to contemporary style worship was hard for me because I saw that it started to become more about my emotions than giving God praise. Of course there is nothing wrong for having emotions when worshiping, especially when you feel God speaking to you or are reflecting on what He has done in your life, but I began picking and choosing what songs ‘I liked” and ‘I’ wanted to sing instead of singing all of them in chapel and meditating on the real words. I began to listen to it as I do with secular music during the worship service. This is where I Paul was trying to draw the line. As you said, the Corinthians had related using the spiritual gifts if worship with having a higher ‘spiritual status’ because that’s what the people around them would view that outside the church. When worship’s focus is shifted from God to man and becomes about motivating man instead of inviting in God’s presence then that’s when it becomes world worship. Romans 1:21 is the famous offering your bodies as a living sacrifice because that is true worship verse. This applies i all aspects whether using spiritual gifts, singing, or preaching. God has blessed us with the ability to do these things for Him and we should be willingly giving up ourselves for His purpose. These are things that I continually have to remind myself, thank you for posting such great self reflecting questions!


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