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.

13 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.

  3. There are several points of interest in Corinthians chapter 14 which talks about the gift of tongues as well as orderly worship. Corinthian believers were looking at the spiritual gifts especially the gift of tongues as marks of being more spiritual than others. Paul emphasizes that it is better to prophesy than to speak in tongues because through prophesy the church community would be edified whereas tongues mostly edify the individual (TTP, p. 129). Additionally, Paul was concerned with how outsiders would view Christians and understand the gospel. Tongues would seem like nonsense to unbelievers, or they may even assume that they were associated with the Delphic oracle, a pagan religion (Long). Paul wanted the gospel to be the center of Corinthian worship, rather than it just looking like another pagan religion. In 1 Corinthians 14: 23-25 Paul basically says that if an unbeliever enters a Christian gathering and hears people speaking in tongues than they will think that Christians are out of their minds, but a word of prophecy may cause them to be convicted and worship God.
    American worship today often looks a lot like worldly music events. It really must remain Christ and gospel centered rather than like a performance aimed at pleasing people. Additionally, worship should be beneficial to the Christian community as a whole and not a place for individuals to showcase their spirituality.

  4. This article has numerous topics that I found to be relevant, especially in todays world. One of the topics is spirituality, and how people lacked maturity and it led to division. This is still very much present in the world today. People are using worship and spiritual gifts to try and assert themselves as higher than others, and make it into a competition of how spiritual they are, This creates a problem in relationships between fellow Christians, and also between non-believers. If a non-believer thinks that they are inferior and lack the spiritual gifts to even be in Christ, then this will drive them away. This reminds me also of how some Christians today will put themselves above others, and condemn other people for sinning, even though they are not without sin. It is very hypocritical, and only discourages others from following God. Another point in this article is how worship is being practiced today. I think that worship can come in many different ways, and looks differently between individuals. However, I believe the elements in the worship should be the same. For example, I believe that worship should always be God centered, come from the heart, and be genuine. God knows our hearts and knows if our worship is true, and other people should not be the judge of what worship is acceptable and which is not.

  5. Spiritual gifts are our gifts that are given by God to be used to glorify God through serving and leading others. Everyone has unique spiritual gifts because we are created different in the image of God. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 states, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” Even though the Corinthians were aware of this, they began to misuse their gifts causing for their worship to no longer be devoted to fellowship with people of every social class. Competition to see who was “more spiritual” arose. Maturity is a theme throughout the letter in 1 Corinthians—and in 4:20 Paul describes their worship as childish. Based on the way the Corinthian congregation was attempting to use their spiritual gifts—based on social class—it made Paul concerned for an outsider’s perspective. He did not see this as a good way to reach people outside of the church. Failing to separate yourself from the world makes it impossible to reach the world—which is what the Corinthian church was doing.
    I feel like today’s worship, even if created with the right intentions, can be performed with the wrong meaning. Worship is to draw us closer to the Lord. Sometimes during worship, the focus turns more onto the performance—the sound of the instruments and the voices singing. The real focus needs to be on the words that we are singing out to the Lord. On of my favorite songs sings, “it’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise to You only.” Often, I cannot even get those words out of my mouth because they are so powerful when you think about what you are actually saying to the Lord! Sometimes what you are not saying is just as, if not more, important than what you are saying—check your tongue.

  6. What it seems to me is that Paul’s concern is how we are using our spiritual gifts and how they are being portrayed to the world. In regard to the passage in question, Paul starts off in verse 20 by calling out the Corinthians to stop behaving like children. I like how Paul tells the Corinthians to behave like children when it comes to doing evil. I think what Paul means here is that we should be oblivious to evil and not partake in any of it, but when it comes to our thinking, we need to act like the adults that we are. Paul then dives into his different views on speaking in tongues and prophecy, and what the public would think of that. In Paul’s eyes, speaking in tongues confuses the unbelievers and they think that believers are crazy and out of their minds (v 23) because speaking in tongues is for believers and not for unbelievers (v 22). In regard to prophesy, Paul thinks that when unbelievers see people or hear from people prophesying, they will be convicted of their sins and belief in God (v 24-25). Not to say that speaking in tongues is not a spiritual gift, but it can be scary or misleading in the right/wrong context. This is all great information that Paul is writing to the Corinthians, but without reaching out to the outside world, there is no point to all of this. If we keep our gospel to ourselves and never share it with the rest of the world, then how can we spread the good news of Jesus? Image is everything, and Paul wanted to make sure that the Corinthians were not separating themselves from the rest of the world. It is difficult living in a world where we need to be the examples, yet we also need a gateway into the lives of the unbelievers. How can we draw the line from not conforming to the world, but allowing ourselves to connect with the world? Paul knows all about becoming something just to minister to as many people as possible (1 Cor 9:19-23). I agree with Paul in that our Christian worship needs to look and feel different from that of the world, but at the same time we need to be accepting of all kinds of people and make our worship inclusive of everyone. Paul tells us in Rom 12:2 not to conform to the patterns of the world, but instead be transformed by the renewal of our minds. After all is said and done, the important thing to remember is that our worship is for and to God, no matter how we worship.

  7. At what point does contemporary (American, evangelical) worship look and feel like “the world”?

    As much as Christians try to defend their reasonings for the use of modern technology and differing techniques for worship in order to share the gospel with unbelievers in the church congregation; personally, there is no need for the inclusion of these things. If anything, the use of modern technology and differing techniques for worship have become more of a distraction and has led many church congregations away from preaching the gospel and biblical teachings. Having come from a charismatic church myself, I can speak of this experience. More often than should be, the church congregation would attend the Sunday morning services with the attention of wanting to experience a “feel good” service. As a result, the worship group began to create an atmosphere that would allow for such a “feel good” experience by adding various instruments to worship, the use of lighting and encouragement for the members of the congregation to come to the front near the stage and dance as their souls pleased. Ultimately, this type of worship completely disregarded the original intentions for worship which was to glorify the Lord and to not be done for a “feel good” experience. When we begin to place more emphasis on worship, we begin to walk a fine line between allowing the secular world to become an influence for how worship should be conducted. As well as, just as Phillip Long alluded to, there needs to be a consciousness with regards to avoiding creating a worship atmosphere that does not imitate that of a secular concert or is tailored to appeal to the secular world.

  8. First of all, if we can’t tell a worship song (Hillsong United) from country music by Blake Shelton, then we have a vastly more significant problem than the debate about Spiritual gifts. I understand that Corinth was filled with many groups that followed different gods and religions. Many of the people were converts from worshipping pagans to worshipping God. Some of them might have heard Paul’s teaching about the gifts of the holy spirit and ran with it, using the gift of education, prophesying, healing (etc.) but used it in the wrong time and place and eventually did more harm to the people that did use these gifts appropriately.

  9. I’m not sure there is an answer, or a ‘right way’ when it comes to responding to the question, “At what point does contemporary worship look and feel like ‘the world?’’ Being that our culture streams and has performances of every kind of music and art form imaginable, it’s near impossible to put on a worship service that seeks to be different from every other kind of music/art spectacle. However, the thing that can distinguish us is who we are gathered for. Unlike other bands or artists who seek to perform in order to receive praise and/or compensation in return, we have a God who we can worship through the singing of songs written and sung by a talented artist who also recognizes that the song is not for them, but for God. David wrote dozens of Psalms, which were used for singing and worship in his day, but we don’t praise and worship David for them, we worship God through the words that David wrote. If we were to worship David for writing these profound praises, then we would be like any other fan of their favorite pop artist or country singer.

    This is what Paul was condemning in the Corinthian church. It was not the fact that the believers were worshiping God in a variety of ways, but it was the fact that they were not distinguishable from those in the culture who worship their own gods and idols. No believer would deny that we are to worship God, nor would God Himself, in fact, just as the psalmist writes, we should “ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name” (29:2, ESV). We just need to make sure that our worship has some level of orderliness that allows for nonbelievers and newcomers to not shrug Christianity off as some cult.

  10. Over the course of the Covid pandemic my family and I were looking for a church service to watch and we came across Jimmy Swaggart ministries, a very charismatic and leaning Pentecostal church. As I was watching and observing the service, I notice how it was very emotionally driven which can be okay at times but one’s emotions should never be the main force in Ministry and intimacy with God. As it says in John 14:24 “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” During the worship there was a person speaking in tongues at one point and a few others speaking in tongues in short bursts. Although I would agree that when a person spoke in tongues for an extended amount of time, the church did follow Paul’s example to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31. That only a few would be speaking and only if there was an interpreter present to interpret what was said for the rest of the church to be built up by it. The preacher in the service would at times under much emotional adrenaline would speak short bursts in tongues and it served no purpose other than to enhance his own spiritual relationship with God. It is as what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14: 17 “You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified” (NIV). The church services I watched, though they may have had good intentions, lacked many times in the spiritual depth of their preaching. Which Paul says to the church in Corinth that he would rather follow the entire church prophecy (1 Cor 14:5), because it builds up the entire church (1 Cor 14:6). It seems true in Paul’s time and in times today that things like speaking in tongues are more just a showing of a person’s spiritually, but what Paul desires is that the entire community grow in their faith, not just certain individuals able to speak in tongues. Phillip Long says regarding the Corinthian Church that “even encouragement from God’s word descended into a competition to see who can be more spiritual” (2019). The overall emphasis seems to be by Paul is the growth of the church as a community and that unless the entire body of believers is built up then it is perhaps best to leave something such as tongues to be between ones one private faith and walk with God. Unless “done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor 14:40).

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