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The Church of God (8): Participation and its Directives

M Sweetnam, Dublin

Attending a gathering of the assembly at Corinth must have been a bewildering experience. Brother after brother – and perhaps even some of the sisters – leapt to their feet, pouring forth a confused cacophony of incomprehensible sound, as if to outdo the volubility and volume of the speaker that had gone before. Those who gathered may have their emotions stirred and imaginations heightened, but they must surely have left with ringing ears and throbbing heads. And, all too often, when the ringing subsided and the pain cleared, they found that the excitement and emotion had vanished with them, and left them no more encouraged or instructed, no better off than before. Indeed, it was the tragedy of Corinth that the believers came together "not for the better, but for the worse" (1 Cor 11.17).

Clearly, the Corinthians urgently needed corrective teaching, and Paul addresses their failure in unequivocal terms. And, because of this, we have reason to be thankful to the failing Corinthian believers. Had it not been for the disorder that prevailed at Corinth, we would have very little direction from Scripture about how an assembly gathering should function. However, Paul's guidance for the assembly in Corinth allows us to understand the principles that should order our gatherings.

It is important to note that, for the most part, the Holy Spirit addressed the situation in Corinth by giving principles, rather than precepts. The apostle did lay out some clear precepts – for example, his instruction that tongues should not be spoken if no interpreter was present (1 Cor 14.28), or that women should "keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak" (v.34) are not mere suggestions, but carry all the binding force of divine commands.

The Holy Spirit could have added a whole array of rules to govern the participation in assembly gatherings. He could have laid down a detailed liturgy for the gatherings of God's people. That is exactly what God had done in an earlier dispensation. The exhaustive prescriptions for the collective religious life of the nation of Israel stand in contrast to the limited directions given for the assembly. And that contrast is significant of the great shift that has taken place from the dispensation of law to the age of grace when we worship "in spirit and in truth" (Jn 4.24). Spiritual worship is marked by liberty. By giving principles, rather than precepts, the Holy Spirit preserves the liberty of God's people to use their divinely-given gift, to worship and serve Him.

With liberty comes variety. Variety was a prominent feature of the assembly meetings at Corinth: "How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation" (1 Cor 14.26). There was variety in who took part – participation was not limited to a single man or a clerical elite, but was open to "every one of you [brethren]". There was variety too in how they took part – in song, prayer, or speaking. Paul is not condemning the Corinthian believers for their readiness to participate. Indeed, we would do well to emulate their example. Slow starts and long pauses were not features of the assembly gatherings in Corinth. If we came prepared, as they did, we might well dispense with them too.

But liberty also brings responsibility. Every brother could take part; it did not follow that every brother should take part. Those who came prepared to participate had also to be prepared not to participate. Those who took part had to be guided by two vitally important principles, which Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 14. The first of these summarises the argument that commenced at the end of chapter 12: "Let all things be done unto edifying" (1 Cor 14.26).

This is the "more excellent way" (12.31) that Paul had promised to show to his readers. It is an approach to the exercise of gift that follows after love (1 Cor 14.1). We often encounter 1 Corinthians 13 as a general statement about love, detached from its setting in Scripture. But in the context of 1 Corinthians the sphere in which this love is demonstrated is the local assembly, and it is demonstrated by the intelligent exercise of spiritual gift. Thus it is the responsibility of every brother who takes audible part in the gatherings of the assembly to ensure that his contribution is motivated by love, and that it is for the edification – or building up – of the other members of the assembly.

This will have profound and practical implications for what I say and how I say it. It will ensure that what I say is Scriptural (1 Cor 13.10). It will ensure that my contributions are not content-free noise, but carefully chosen words, calculated to bring "edification, and exhortation, and comfort" (14.3). It will ensure that I speak distinctly, uttering "words easy to be understood" (14.9). It will affect how I preach and how I pray, and my activity will be marked by the same motive that drove the apostle: "that by my voice I might teach others also" (vv.13-19).

This truth has negative implications too. If I am following after love, I will not find myself taking part just to be heard. Love "vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up" (13.4), and if my participation is ruled by love, I will not get to my feet to impress others with the profundity of my thought or the eloquence of my expression, but to help and encourage them. And I will be less inclined to spend time displaying my knowledge of error, and my ability to refute it, when I remember that love "rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth" (13.6).

Following after love is not easy or automatic. But though it is demanding it is also indispensible, for without it we will be no more than "sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal" - perhaps entertaining, possibly annoying, but of no abiding use (13.1).

It is difficult to read the attributes of love in chapter 13, without thinking of the lovely Man who uniquely personified love, and eloquently exemplified its every feature. He had "the tongue of the learned, that [He] should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary" (Is 50.4). His words were not ostentatious – He did "not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street" (Is 42.2). His ministry was not destructive – "A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth" (v.3). "Never man spake like this man" (Jn 7.46) for "grace is poured into [His] lips" (Ps 45.2). How can we not desire to emulate so great an example, to long to speak as He spoke, because we love as He loved?

Later in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives a second principle: "Let all things be done decently and in order" (v.40). Again, it is important to note that, though this is an excellent maxim for many areas of life, its primary application is to the gatherings of the assembly. This is not a universally popular concept. For many believers, sincerity is identified with spontaneity, and the idea of order seems mere legalistic formality. Fervour and sincerity do not imply disorder. Indeed, disorder in worship is a denial of the character of a God who "is not the author of confusion, but of peace" (v.33). The exercise of spiritual gift does not destroy self-control, or render it redundant: "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets". And that self-control is guided by care for the good of others (v.31) and consideration for the gift of others (v.30). Spiritual intelligence will, at times, prevent a brother from taking part (vv.28,30), and Scriptural obedience will, at all times, ensure that sisters do not take part audibly.

This principle is beautifully exemplified in the conduct of Christ. We see it in the decorum of the boy who sat in the Temple hearing the doctors, "and asking them questions" (Lk 2.46-47); in the dignity of the man who took the scroll and read and expounded the Scriptures in Nazareth (Lk 4.16-21); and in the indignation of the Son, whose Father's House had been made a "den of thieves" (Mk 11.15-17). He did everything "decently and order", and our behaviour should take its character from Him.

Human beings are creatures of extremes. For many, the worship of God demands a liturgy and clergy – a book that tells us what to say, and a man to say it for us. Others believe that genuine worship is only offered in ecstatic utterances and untrammelled excitement. Either extreme falls far short of the Scriptural pattern, where liberty and variety of public participation are preserved and protected by our obedience to the principles of God's Word, and where we can manifest the character of Christ by doing all things unto edification, decently, and in order.

To be continued.


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