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.”

Worship or Katy Perry?

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.”

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.

5 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. 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.

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