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.

Revelation as Worship

Angels in Heaven

Despite the fact the book has a great deal to say about coming events, Revelation is not a roadmap of the future.  It is, rather, an exhortation for today.  It is possible that people living in the tribulation will pick up the book of Revelation and see the things spoken of being fulfilled in their lives, but the people living at that time will be under a delusion (2 Thess. 2:11).  It is unlikely that those under the judgment of God will have the spiritual insight to believe what the book teaches (see Rev 6:12-17).   Revelation was intended to be read by the church living in the shadow of the Second Coming bearing up under persecution for their belief in Jesus, in order to encourage them to be strong and endure until the end.  As such, the book is an excellent conclusion to the Jewish-Christian literature in the NT.

I am convinced that the main theme of Revelation is worship.  The fact that God is worthy of our worship appears many times in the book.  There are several scenes of heavenly worship around the throne of God (Rev 5:13, 7:11-12).  The reason for God’s worthiness is that he is the creator (Rev 4:11)  It is evident that since God is the creator of all things, he is sovereign over them and can use them in what ever way he chooses.  In Rev 10:6 the elements of nature that God is declared to be creator of are the elements of creation that are used to judge in the book.

God is also described as a just judge who will avenge the wrongs done to his people.  Even this can be seen as a sub-theme of worship.  Rev 16:5, for example, describes an angel worshiping God as the one who is “just in all his judgments.”  In Rev 18:20, the saints are to rejoice because God has judged the Great Whore of Babylon.

Bibliography: M. Eugene Boring,“The Theology of Revelation, ‘The Lord Our God the Almighty Reigns,’” Interpretation 40 (July 1986), 261.

Worshiping at Summer Camp

I am currently teaching at West Coast Grace Youth Camp, Mount Palomar, California. It is a beautiful sot for a camp, and the people that run the camp give the kids a great week of fun, worship and Bible study. My “task” is teaching 18 college students who will be counsellors next year. I did this last summer as well and had a great time, this year’s group has a lot of potential A few of them would make great counsellors now, but I like the fact that they would like to have a bit more “training” before taking on a cabin of 5th graders.

This year’s camp has been plagued by difficulties which seem to be more complicated that previous years. We have had some discipline problems and a scare with a potentially serious injury, and one of the boy’s cabins has had a little problem with bugs. Any one of these things would have the potential for hindering the ministry of the camp, but that has not happened. Everyone has been able to adapt, they have demonstrated patience, and worked hard to make cabin moves and cold showers less disruptive.

What strikes me about the kids this year is that there is more widespread “ignorance” on key elements of the Christian faith. We do a survey at the beginning of the week and many of the kids who declare that they are Christians think that their good works is what makes them “saved.” Quite a few who at least declare that they believe in God, but a large percentage do not think that the Bible is “literal truth.” In fact, very few know the basic outline of the Gospel even of they say “I have accepted Christ as my savior.”

On the other hand, the campers are extremely fervent in their worship times, As I type this, a group of campers have a guitar and are sining praise songs during their free time. Our Bible hours begin with an appropriate time of praise and worship music, but these are not the “camp chorus” type songs I grew up with. The worship leader has selected songs with rather deep lyrics. (They are almost entirely plagiarized from scripture, but that is not a bad thing in this case. I think they are all examples of intertextual blending of traditions material.) The band is loud, but the music is well mixed and the vocals are clear.

I see most campers singing. The lyrics are of course projected on the wall, but they are in fact singing bits of Scripture, perhaps more scripture than they read on a daily basis. This puts enormous pressure on the worship leader. He must select good songs which the kids want to sing (fairly easy) but must ensure that the lyrics are “scripturally correct” (quite a challenge). There is a constant temptation to pick the popular song without really thinking about what is being sung. Fortunately, we have a worship leader who cares about that sort of thing.

What does this mean for “doing ministry”? I have to be flexible, since the days of singing a few choruses then a 45 minute sermon twice a day are going away (or gone).


Follow-Up: On Educating Evangelicals

Here is a follow-up to my post on Educating Evangelicals and BiblioBlogs from Tony Siew  on Revelation is Real.  We are really on the same page, but I like what he has to say toward the end of his post:

“When pastors lack the requisite training and possess insufficient acquaintance with the biblical text, how much can we expect of the congregation? The trickle down effect is obvious. Like priest like people. If pastors are biblically illiterate, is there much hope for the congregation? As Jeremiah lamented, “The prophets prophesy falsely, And the priests rule by their own power; And My people love to have it so. But what will you do in the end?” (Jer 5:31).”

Since Tony made a nice parallel drawn from the Hebrew Bible here, let me run with it a bit.  The problem in the Jerusalem of Jeremiah’s day was biblical illiteracy as well, but they seem to have been performing the rituals fine.  The burden of Jeremiah is that the act of worship in the Temple was not acceptable if it was not accompanied by keeping the heart of the Law.  Jeremiah 7 is a stinging condemnation of Judah’s religious practice in the entrance to the Temple itself.  The reason the worship is not acceptable is that the King and priests are not doing the Law with a pure heart.  The “trickle-down effect” worked to condemn Judah to exile.

The only way to know how to worship God correctly is to know what the Scripture says, the only way to know what Scripture says is to read it properly and let it change your heart and mind.  I think that starts at the top with the pastor (mea culpa).

Imagine a modern day Jeremiah standing at the entrance to a megachurch (pick your favorite) and declaring that the worship “performed” in that church was not acceptable to the Lord because the people doing an hour of worship on Sunday were not doing what the Lord required the other 167 hours a week.  Even if the pastor is a rock-star preacher (or life-coach) and the worship band has a few Gold records, the worship is still obnoxious to the Lord if it does not effect society in a positive way.

Like Jeremiah, I suspect security would suddenly appear and take him off in handcuffs.

Hillsong or The Who?

Worship Time, Harry Potter, and Short Attention Spans

I have been traveling quite a bit this summer and have had the chance to participate in worship times in several churches, two camps, and a family Bible conference.  For the most part I have enjoyed these times, whether I was a member of the band or a member of the congregation.  But I have noticed a trend among younger worships lately which disturbs me.  No, this is not a rant about worship styles (I am pretty to open any style).  Nor do I want to comment on the content of popular praise songs (some newer songs are quite scriptural and moving).  What has really come to bother me is the short attention span of people allegedly participating in worship.

Since I was going to be speaking in the service, I happened to be standing in the back of the chapel, allowing me to observe people as they sing.  What strikes me is the large percentage of people who get up and walk out of the worship time to get a drink, use the bathroom, stretch, look out the window, stretch, then wander back into the service.  In most cases they had been in the chapel for maybe 10 minutes when the need hit them, and they all usually look like they have just endured a mighty struggle and now quite exhausted as they shuffle like the undead in and out of the crowd of engaged worshipers.  (One particular young man left three times in a single service, making me think that he should see his doctor if he needs to go that often!)  Usually these zombies sit in the middle of a row so that they cause maximum disruption to those around them.

If this were an isolated incident, I might have just dismissed it as someone who was not really all that engaged in the whole “camp” thing, or maybe they were genuinely ill, or had “tiny tanks” and needed frequent, medically-approved bathroom breaks.  But in every one of the places I have been this summer, there is a constant migration of people in and out of the service, distracting me and everyone else from their time with God.

I got to thinking about the most recent movie I have seen, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2).  With the previews, I estimate I was in the theater at least three hours.  I did not see a single person get up and leave the room to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Most people sat there with their attention glued on the screen, many were emotionally moved by the death of the characters the loved.  They applauded the movie when it was over.  Many stayed through the credits.  My guess is that this was not the first time some of these people had seen the movie, yet they stayed glued to their seats, enjoying the film, fully engaged.

Why is it that an American can sit through a three hour movie without so much as a twitch, but cannot spend a half hour worshiping God without need a bathroom break?  Why is it that we cannot sit still for a half hour sermon form the word of God without fiddling with our phones?  People tell me that Americans (especially that darn younger generation) have short attention spans, so we need to make things shorter and more entertaining.

It seems to me our attention-spans are long enough for the things we really care about.  Genuine worship and Bible Study do not seem to be among the things we deeply value.