Does 1 Corinthians 14 26 Encourage Open-participatory Meetings?
For many, the answer to this question is so obviously a resounding, “Yes!” that it hardly requires a second thought – let alone an entire article. However, there is an important issue at stake in raising and answering this question. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14 26, “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”
Does this really encourage an open-participatory meeting? I’m convinced that it does, but if phrased another way, “Does it mean that everyone should contribute something every time?” then the answer is, “No. It does not”.
Continue reading as we dig into this verse and uncover a vital “gem” salient to all God is doing today.
Does 1 Corinthians 14 26 encourage open participation?
Just so that I’m not misunderstood – since 1 Corinthians 14 26 has become a kind of manifesto verse championed in simple church circles. In my opinion, the bread-and-butter meeting of a simple church family is an open-participatory time and while this means everyone can contribute, it does not mean everyone should. Let me explain as we re-look at Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 and its implications.
As we all know, Paul corrects the excesses of this enthusiastic but delinquent church in the city of Corinth in his first letter to them. Some of the issues of concern arose in their meeting together, specifically the abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34)1 and their exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14). Chapters 11 to 14 should be read as one lengthily instruction as Paul appeals to them to let love be their guiding principle (12:1, 31; 13:1-13). In chapter 14 he then expressly addresses their disorderliness in coming together, framing his point with phrases like: “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” and “let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40).
It seems the Corinthian’s meetings had deteriorated into a free-for-all where everyone sought to promote their point of view or push their contribution without respect to what God was, in fact, doing and saying in their midst. The self-indulging nature of the Corinthian culture – known for its flagrant decadence and lustful excesses2 – seemed to pervade this redeemed community and pollute their meetings. After explaining why insensitively “going off” in tongues without respect for others – an otherwise beautiful gift Paul certainly encourages all to pursue with both devotion and discretion (vv. 2, 5, 39) – was not edifying nor orderly (vv. 5-19 c. 13:1), he then brings up the importance of collectively discerning what God reveals in their meetings (vv. 26-40).
He begins this passage of instruction with our verse in question:
“How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”
Bearing in mind that Paul’s question – “How is it then, brethren?” – implies that he is questioning their behaviour in order to reprove them3 and that reproof is the context of this passage as already mentioned: “Let all things be done for edification … God is not the author of confusion … Let all things be done decently and in order” (vv. 26-40); I’m going to make a suggestion that is sure to provoke thought (and possibly ruffle a few feathers).
Perhaps what Paul is saying here is something like this: “How is it that when you gather together, you’re all just mouthing off without considering what God is in fact saying? Instead seek to contribute in a way that edifies”. (And recall, Paul had already implied that “edification” involved being a channel so that others could experience God’s manifest Presence (vv. 3, 4, 24, 25) – it does not mean that I feel ‘chuffed’ because I got to have my say).
I’m sure many have not considered this possible interpretation and may immediately accuse me of discouraging open-participation in our meetings. Again, for clarity, I believe that “each” one can contribute – if led by the Spirit to do so (this is the key issue) – and other verses such as Ephesians 5:18, 19, Colossians 3:16 and Hebrews 10:24, 25 confirm this4. So before jumping to conclusions please hear me out.
Paul’s intention was to curb the Corinthian’s excesses which were, in this situation, resulting in confusion and disorder. He goes on to explain the need to facilitate or “judge” what is said so that together the community discerns what God is saying. He encourages that “two or at the most three” speak in tongues and then only as long as it is interpreted (vv. 27, 28). He then encourages the same guidelines for prophecy: “let two or three prophets speak and let the others judge” (vv. 29-31)5.
To be honest, we cannot be sure whether he means that only a total of “two or three” tongues and prophecies (and presumably “teachings” and “revelations” c. v. 26) should be shared or whether he is recommending no more than two or three of each. Personally, I think, being nit-picky about this is probably unhelpful and may in fact fudge the point. So what’s the point again?
While all are free to contribute as the Lord leads – that is, our agenda is extemporaneous (unscripted) – the point is, as a community, to learn to follow the prompting of the Spirit, discerning God’s will for us as we meet together. His Presence in our midst thus sets the Agenda and, as we minister to Him, we are to discern what He desires to reveal to us in response.
Again, for clarity (and excessive qualification perhaps for which I apologise); yes, while “each” one can contribute to both sharing what God may be saying and in discerning what He has said, the point is to determine God’s revealed will – not to merely give everyone a chance to say whatever happens to be on their mind.
The goal is not merely to give everyone a platform; the objective as a community is to discern what God reveals. Towards this end, some should not contribute. Why? Either they may not feel specifically led to do so or because what they sensed may have already been shared by another. In this case, an “Amen” is more than a sufficient contribution (see v. 16). Thus, as we often say, the point is not that everyone has to prepare a message but that everyone prepares their heart. We don’t come expecting to have our say, we come expecting God to reveal His will – and we’re open to being a vessel through whom He may or may not speak.
I’m sure you’ve been in meetings where everyone shares whatever seems to come to mind and you have a potluck mush of so many various “opinions” or “hunches” that you leave wondering: “What was that all about? What was God saying?” Yes, if we’re looking for positives, everyone may get something out of this disjointed mix “of good” and “of God” verbal – but I see in Paul’s instruction here a call to learn to discern together what God is specifically revealing to us as we gather in His name. This is something very rarely done. And we’re certainly weaker for it.
Creating an environment where everyone can “have a go” (in a sincere desire to follow the leading of the Spirit) while, at the same time, learning to then discern or “judge” what God is saying from the contributions of those who have felt led to share is, in my opinion, what Paul is advocating here. When we leave our simple church meeting, it should be reasonably clear in all of our minds what God has revealed in our midst and how we ought to faithfully go forward in light of it.
So who judges? Paul made that clear: “How is it then, brethren?” (v. 26). This phrase “brethren” refers to the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of all believers, the family of God. Thus, Paul is addressing the conscience of the spiritual family and laying the onus on all to assist in discerning what God is saying. For sure, spiritual parents play a vital facilitating role here but it is certainly not their exclusive domain nor would true spiritual parents want to exclude others from this joyful learning experience.
And it probably goes without saying that to “judge” what God has said is not a dry, clinical hair-splitting analysis; rather as we clarify and affirm what appears to be revealed, we engage enthusiastically and intentionally with the heart and will of God.
In this way, simple church families learn to hear God together and live as a prophetic people, obedient to His revealed will in their midst. Thus, we all learn to mature in the ways of God, discerning His Heart and Mind in communal life. Being invited to contribute to and discern what God is saying to our community – as we learn to follow His leading – means not only does each person feel a healthy sense of ownership for the family but also feels a vigorous sense of responsibility to being faithful with what God has revealed.
As a community alive, in love and on mission there will be plenty of time for chit-chat and social interaction. There ought to also be times set apart for seasons of prayer, group projects and times for training and input. Partaking in a ‘formal’ Bible study, in which each person is asked for their opinion on a verse or passage, is also a helpful exercise for a simple church community to engage in from time to time.
However, in my opinion, the regular meat-and-potatoes meeting of a Kingdom family involves regularly assembling to intentionally minister to Jesus6; where we grow in our awareness of His Presence in our midst through various expressions of worship – such as breaking bread together, expressing praise through thanksgiving or meditating on appropriate Bible passages or singing with or without the aid of music, etc. – and learn to discern His revealed will, whether this be a word of revelation, instruction or admonishment and/or a prompting to minister to one another in the group and/or prayer for a specific need, person, nation, etc.
Imagine the next time you gather together with your spiritual family …
You assemble together hungry for the Presence of Jesus in your midst and begin, actively aware of His Presence, to minister to Him; that is, your attention and affections are directed deliberately and fervently towards Him in various expressions of thanksgiving and adoration.
As you become more deeply immersed in His manifest Presence, enjoying a profound sense of rest in the knowledge of His nearness, your worshipful responses to Him tune into His responses to you as a gathered community. Taking your cues from Him, each of you – if and when prompted by His Spirit – share a word, a prophecy, a revelation etc. seeking to contribute a ‘piece’ of the full ‘picture’ – adding a ‘stanza’ to the ‘poem’, a ‘melody’ to the ‘song’ – He is revealing.
Then, as you continue to respond to His present Presence among you, together you look to enthusiastically affirm and clarify what has spontaneously come forth; seeking to respond and obey what together is discerned. Thus you can testify as a church that you have “heard God” together – enjoying what it means to discern His will together: “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
Yes, you may then minister to one another by asking what prayer requests each may have (at times, requests are not necessary as the Spirit simply leads) or study a passage from the Bible (perhaps that arose extemporaneously or that was prepared by someone), or engage in specific prayer (again that may have arisen from the time of discerning what God revealed or ongoing prayer targets shared by the group), or have a few laughs (preferably many), or plan the project you’re engaged in together – but the joy and power of learning to hear God together is both a treat and treasure you prioritize.
Does 1 Corinthians 14 26 really encourage an open-participatory meeting?
Yes, I’m fully persuaded it does. Paul at no point condemned their open-participation; rather, he desired “all things be done decently and in order” (v. 40). Thus, he affirmed their initiative – he clearly wanted things to “be done” (a non-participatory, one-man show was not on his agenda) – but pointedly called for a renewed godly reverence, curbing their excess7.
This means, from his instructions, that we are to facilitate and, when necessary, limit the amount of ‘verbal’ enough to discern together what God is revealing to us. In this we acknowledge that God does not have verbal diarrhoea8 and requires us, in the New Testament, to “judge” what comes forth even as we cherish manifestations of the Spirit through which He conveys His will (vv. 39 c. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).
For as long as I can remember I’ve always read 1 Corinthians 14:26 as a reproof; seeing in it, an exhortation to the spiritual communities in Corinth to govern their open-participatory meetings better. Just over two years ago I finally set apart some time to look more intently at the passage in question and compile the contents of this article. I’ve sat on it for this period of time not wanting to undercut the enthusiasm of the many I knew enjoying the discovery of open-participatory meetings, using this verse as their main proof-text.
Now that simple churches have been exploring this for some time – enjoying the blessings of open-participatory meetings (though, in my research, often struggling through similar excesses addressed in this passage) – I think it is timely to re-look at it.
My hope is that we’ll continue to treasure open-participatory meetings while simultaneously learning the lessons related to being a self-governing community contained in this passage.
1 For an understanding of what Paul was correcting around the Lord’s Supper, please see our article: The Lord’s Supper – Sombre self-introspection or Christ-centred celebration?.
2 The city of Corinth was renowned for its debauchery, self-gratification and sacred prostitution; the city’s principal deity was Aphrodite, the goddess of licentiousness – and 1,000 temple prostitutes were devoted to round the clock ‘worship’. The phrase “to Corinthianize” became a proverb meaning to “practice prostitution”.
3 The phrase “brethren” refers to a self-governing community; a spiritual family dependent on the leadership and ministry of the Spirit, facilitated by spiritual parents. See our article, What is a self-governing community? <A Lot Like Love>
That Paul uses the phrase in his question implies reproof. He is appealing to the self-governing community to ‘govern’ their meetings better. Paul uses questions as an introduction to reproof throughout 1 Corinthians, see for example, 1:13; 3:3; 5:6; 6:2-5, 15; 8:10; 9:1, 5-8; 10:16; 11:13, 14, 22; 14:6-9, 26; 15:12, 29, 30.
Checking my proposal here, it is interesting that both Matthew Henry and John Wesley came to the same conclusion in their commentaries on 1 Corinthians 14 26.
4 The stress in these verses is on a Spirit-led (Ephesians 5:18), Word-filled (Colossians 3:16) other-considerate (Hebrews 10:24) open-participatory meeting where the common use of the phrase “one another” in each passage clearly encourages open-participation. Thus, the issue is settled for me: the bread-and-butter meeting of a simple church family is open-participation.
However, in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 we get a fuller explanation of what this involves. In short: while we can all contribute, each of us should contribute to what God may be saying as we feel led by the Lord. In other words, a simple church meeting is not a chit-chat meeting where everyone has to have a say but a meeting in which we learn to acknowledge the Presence of Jesus manifest in our midst and discern what His agenda is.
5 In this passage, I don’t think Paul is referring to those with the grace gift of prophet (Ephesians 4:11 c. Acts 11:27); rather, he is merely referring to those who prophecy as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit – this is the context of this entire passage (1 Corinthians 12:10; 14:1, 3-5). Even if he is referring to prophets in the former sense, the principle of communal discerning what God is saying remains the same. New Testament prophecy – whether from an Ephesians 4:11 prophet or from anyone prophesying – is “in part” and must be judged with humility and discernment (1 Corinthians 13:9 c. Acts 21:10-14).
6 In my opinion, this is best weekly. However, meeting fortnightly (every second week) for this purpose also works well for many simple church families. Meeting less frequently than this, in my experience, loses the traction, rhythm and discipline of learning to minister to the Lord together.
7 So why write this article? Many simplistically quote 1 Corinthians 14 26 and then settle for a potluck of chit-chat and opinions (a recipe for waffle and arguments too) rather than unpack the important lessons we learn from this verse and its context.
8 Please forgive me if this phrase seems irreverent. To me, the way some prophetically quote God seems to imply that He talks continuously and haphazardly; without purpose and without intent. In my opinion, this is a cheap and erroneous view. I believe God speaks graciously, specifically and purposefully – and intends us to take seriously what He says. And there are times when He may in fact be silent – and His silence often begets our deepest worship.