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The Christian Assembly

 The following paper is the final assignment for a course that I am taking to complete an undergraduate degree at Horizon College & Seminary. The course I am taking is B263 1&2 Corinthians tahght by Adam Z. Wright Ph.D (Cand.).

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Introduction

In 1 Corinthians 14:26—33 we have a passage of scripture that provides an important discourse on the Christian “church” meeting. In these verses the apostle Paul concludes a discussion that began in Chapter 12 with a final practical application of the use of spiritual gifts in the assembly of believers. What we find is a practical example of mutual participation and the building up of the body that is hardly present in the contemporary (western) church.

In this passage and its preceding verses we catch a glimpse of what it must have been like to gather with believers in the early church. There was no apparent program or liturgy and the meetings were spontaneous. The manifestation of the Spirit through a diversity of gifts was the dominating factor for the edification of the body. The pattern of the New Testament church was a community where Christ and the Sprit are distinguishing features, that is, the grace of Christ and the charisms given by His Spirit, with all that that involved.[1]

When we study the New Testament we learn about the early church and that a great deal of what we presently do on Sunday mornings more resembles the traditions and practices from pagan culture in the post apostolic period.[2] What we observe is that the majority of Christian meetings in the contemporary church hardly resemble that of the New Testament:

If the truth be told, we Christians never seem to ask why we do what we do. Instead, we blithely carry out our religious traditions without asking where they came from. Most Christians who claim to uphold the integrity of God’s Word have never sought to see if what they do every Sunday has any scriptural backing. How do we know this? Because if they did, it would lead them to some very disturbing conclusions that would compel them by conscience to forever abandon what they are doing.[3]

We must refer to the New Testament scriptures as the source of authoritative instruction related to church function and there is no better passage that examines the way the first churches met and conducted their gatherings then Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 12-14. We will begin by looking at the context of the church meeting followed by an examination of what happens when the believers “come together” (14:26). Through this study we will learn valuable information that will aid in our understanding of the vibrant New Testament church meeting.

The Context of the Meeting: 1 Corinthians 12&13

The participants are Christian. “No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4). Those who shared in the fellowship and community of the New Testament church were those who had made a personal confession of “Jesus is Lord” under the inspiration of the Spirit (12:3). This confession was not with meaningless words, but one that “declares absolute allegiance to Him and accepts His absolute authority over every aspect of life”.[4]

Paul advises that this confession is only possible through the help of the Holy Spirit and therefore all who make this sincere confession are spiritual. In the Corinthian church there were those who considered themselves more spiritual because they possessed distinct spiritual gifts and thus set apart from the rest of the body.[5] However, Paul at the start of this discussion makes it clear that “All who are in Christ have entered the realm of the Spirit, and no one should be despised”.[6] From these verses it is clear that those who participated in the New Testament church were spirit filled Christians, no longer pagan or led astray by “mute idols” (12:2) and completely devoted to the Lord Jesus and his church.

The Participants are charismatic. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (12:7). “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines” (12:11). A charism by definition is “the result of God’s gracious act; it is divine grace come to effect and expression in word or deed”.[7] Paul’s most common usage is in reference to charisms for the assembly.[8] The grace gifts of the Spirit, also known as “manifestation (phanerosis) of the Spirit” were for the common God of the church (12:7).

Paul provides a representation of these gifts in verses 8-10 that reflects the Corinthian situation with no intention of providing an exhaustive list or systematic discussion.[9] There are many “gifts of grace” besides the gifts prophecy and speaking in tongues and Paul puts the Corinthians favorites at the end of the list. This was to emphasise the point that not just the public (inspired) speaker receives the groups attention and respect when compared to the gallery of listeners.[10] In today’s setting perhaps we would compare this to the “pastor” or “preacher” as the one who uses his gift with the exclusion of all the other “spectators” in the congregation.

The Participants are members of one body. “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (12:12). Paul uses a metaphor of the human body to illustrate how “the functioning of each part contributes to the health of the whole, to show that in the church, ‘the body of Christ’, a variety of endowments and ministries was necessary for the general well-being”.[11] They are interdependent on each other each relying on the other in order to remain as part of the whole (body). This is something that is difficult for us to understand today: “Each part of the body has a unique function that gives it worth. In a capitalistic society the corporate model is extremely powerful and tends to dominate the way the church thinks of itself. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if contemporary Western church took Paul’s model seriously?”[12]

By making a contribution in the body, the believer experiences the life giving flow of the Holy Spirit (v. 13). “What draws and keeps the believer’s together for Paul was not simply a common membership of a congregation, but the common experience of the Sprit. It was the awareness that their experience of the Spirit was one in which others had also shared which provided the bond of mutual understanding and sympathy”.[13]

The experience of the Spirit was a distinct characteristic of the New Testament church, “we were all given the one Spirit to drink” implies “a much greater experiential and visibly manifest reception of the Spirit than many have tended to experience in subsequent church history”.[14]

In verse 18 we are advised that God chooses the parts and this is important, “Assuming Middle Eastern traditional culture, if the parts of the body were free to choose their own functions, every part of the body would be an eye, a right hand or a head, and the body would die”.[15]

The Participants are consumed by love. “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:4). In chapter thirteen, in the middle of encouraging the use of spiritual gifts for the edification of the body, Paul points the Corinthians towards the context in which all these things are to happen: “the way of love”.[16] Love (agape) is the underlying attitude of everything that is done or said within the church of Jesus Christ. It is the command given by the Lord himself, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).

This kind of love must be understood through the lens of the cross, “Though God and Christ are not mentioned, the cross of Christ as the manifestation of God’s love for the world is the central defining reality for Paul’s understanding of agape. He is speaking not about some human virtue but about love that is rooted in God’s love in Christ”.[17] Only when love is the focus and the motivation will the church be capable of functioning as it should, “Love is the most excellent way for a Christian to use his spiritual gifts”.[18] “Otherwise, they are meaningless, no matter how sublime and admirable they may seem to be”.[19]

The Participants seek to prophecy and edify the body. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3). As a manifestation of the Spirit (12:10) there is the potential for any believer to prophecy and speak under the inspiration of the Spirit in the assembly of the saints. In fact Paul exhorted the Corinthians to “eagerly desire” the gift of prophecy (14:1). The early Christians understood the prophecy of Joel 2:28 to have been fulfilled: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions”.

Prophecy was the gift preferred above all the others listed by Paul: “The evidence in chap. 14 indicates that it consisted of spontaneous, Spirit-inspired, intelligible messages, orally delivered in the gathered assembly, intended for the edification or encouragement of the people”.[20] It was desired over the use of unintelligible tongues (without interpretation) as it edified the church, whereas in speaking in tongues one builds himself up in seeking “spiritual fellowship with God”.[21]

The Meeting

To conclude his arguments in chapter 14, Paul provides a practical application and example of what an ideal Christian assembly should look like. Through the verses in 14:26-33 we are provided a description of what should take place at any given meeting:

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

Everyone has something to contribute (26). When the church meets, “each one has opportunity to participate in the corporate ministry of the body”.[22] Here we find the attitude very different then what is portrayed in the today’s church, “People apparently attended worship thinking about what they were going to contribute, not about what they were going to receive”.[23] Each believer was encouraged to come prepared to minister and edify the body and this would have looked radically different then what happens in a modern day church service. Four examples of individual contributions are provided:

The hymn (psalmos) was probably a reference to one of the 150 Old Testament psalms that were widely used in the early church as prayers or sacred songs of praise. Throughout the New Testament the use of the psalms was an important feature of early Christian worship.[24] There was no lengthy song service of preselected and rehearsed music performed by a talented group of musicians on a stage accompanied by a flashy light show. The singing was spontaneous, spirit led and sung from a heart full of gratitude and grace. Teaching also translated as doctrine, or a lesson in Christian truth and this, “would appear to require a sustained biblical reflection rather than something spontaneous”.[25] Possibly several teachings would occur that would assist in the spiritual growth of the many young converts of the early church. Revelation was something divinely disclosed and presented in a comprehensible language and could happen prior to or during worship. The congregation was hungry to hear from God and would listen with great expectation as the Holy Spirit moved amongst the people revealing things that needed to be shared within the body. [26]Glossolalia (tongues) within the context of the public meeting involved an utterance that had no meaning unless it was accompanied by someone who could provide interpretation so that the listeners would understand the message behind the unintelligible words: “Paul grants that speaking in tongues is a way of communicating with God (14:2) but now insists that it should become public only when someone is present to interpret what it means in plane language”.[27]

Everything must be done to edify (26–30). At the heart of edification is the manner in which the participants conduct themselves during public meetings. Paul spends a lot of time establishing guidelines for the Corinthians so that they will conduct themselves in way that will promote edification for everyone in attendance. It appears that a lot of emphasis was placed on the utterance gifts such as public displays of tongues and prophetic words. These displays were to be synchronised with other gifts such as interpretation and discernment. They were to have their place in the order of things and not dominate the meeting and therefore limitations are recommended: Two or three at a time for prophecy and two or three tongues at the most in any given meeting and only if someone interprets (27).

When a prophecy is given it is recommended that those listening “should weigh carefully what is said” (29). The congregation is not to receive everything that is said just because a person claims to speak under the influence of the Spirit, “The assumption is that the prophets do not speak with unquestionable divine authority”.[28] “No inspired utterance should be accepted as a prophecy simply because it was inspired; rather it had to be tested and evaluated”.[29]

Orderly conduct was vital to the success of the gathering and no person was to dominate the meeting, “It appears that after brief remarks by up to three prophets, they were to break into a general discussion regarding what had been said. It sounds like an informal setting with presenters and responders”.[30] It is true both now and during the time of the early church that when opportunity is given for sharing in a public meeting there will be those who try to dominate the spotlight, “In offering these guidelines, Paul may not be concerned simply to promote good ‘order’. He also may wish to check any selfish monopoly of prophecy by those who may esteem themselves as belonging to a select circle of prophets and who are used to taking center stage during worship”.[31] Even so, these guidelines did not appear to include a human moderator: “What is striking in this entire discussion is the absence of any mention of leadership or of anyone who would be responsible for seeing that these guidelines were generally adhered to. The community appears to be left to itself and the Holy Spirit. What is mandatory is that everything aim at edification.[32]

Everyone should be instructed and encouraged (v. 31—32). The meeting receives a positive evaluation on the basis that those who have attended the gathering have received something constructive: They leave having experienced the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit. They have been edified through the ministry of the body of Christ. This edification is primarily as a result of the function of prophecy and this is why Paul recommends prophecy as the gift that should be desired (14:1).

Through prophecy believers are instructed and learn something that will impact their walk with God and will help them live out the gospel in day to day life. Perhaps they came to the meeting discouraged and weary from life’s challenges and need encouragement. Encouraged (paraklontai) is a strong word and Paul uses it twenty three times in in the Corinthian correspondence alone. “The worshippers who come with their pain should find comfort. Those who are estranged should see open doors for reconciliation, and the depressed should find encouragement. Paul’s language includes all of these nuances.[33]

Everything must resemble the character and peace of God (v33). “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace”. Having given the guidelines of conduct in open Christian meetings, Paul now validates these recommendations in the very character of God, “For God himself is not characterized by, and is therefore not the cause of, disorder” and equally, “peace in the society is a mark of the presence and work of God”.[34] The peace of God is the prevailing atmosphere of all that is said and done.

The point that Paul now makes is crucial as it bases his instruction on theology and what is known about the God of peace. It was vital that a sense of harmony be evident in the Christian gathering as this was the true mark of God’s presence and manifestation. “The theological point is crucial: the character of one’s deity is reflected in the character of one’s worship”.[35] The peace that so many seek and need is truly found in God through Christ and this must be evident in the lives and assemblies of those who gather in His name.

Conclusion: All the congregations of the Lord’s people

With the concluding words in this section, “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (33), Paul sets a precedence that the instruction he is giving is the standard for all the churches. His coaching was not just pertinent to the Corinthian assembly, with all of their difficulties and mistreatments in corporate practice: It was applicable to how Christian assemblies were to be conducted everywhere. The question needs to be asked: Does this apply to the modern day church? Can we gather together today in the same manner that the early church did and experience true body ministry and edification?

On many occasions I have heard disillusioned church attenders exclaim, “I did not receive anything at church today” or, “I am not being fed at the church that I attend”. Usually this is followed up with a well-meaning response by someone who advises: “you should not attend church with the attitude of receiving, but with the attitude of giving”. However, the question remains, are people provided the opportunity to contribute when they attend a church meeting? According to the passage of scripture that we have just examined, effective edification happens in the context of body ministry. Perhaps they are not receiving because there has been no occasion for the operation of spiritual gifts in the gathering? Maybe they are only permitted to take a pew as spectators, watching the few “ordained” who perform the ministry? Perhaps over time many who attend the modern day church have become obfuscated and no longer have a desire to assemble with other believers? “By and large the history of the church points to the fact that in worship we do not greatly trust the diversity of the body. Edification must always be the rule, and that carries with it orderliness so that all may learn and all be encouraged. But it is no credit to the historical church that in opting for “order” it also opted for a silencing of the ministry of the many”.[36]

In order for the church to edify itself and attain the “fullness of Christ” we must once again incorporate the diversity of gifts that all too often lay dormant and stagnated within the assembly of the church. This begins by understanding the Lord’s design of having a body made up of imperfect and interdependent members; recognizing that it was the Lord’s intention that we need one another and that each one has a part to play no matter how unimportant the part seems (12.12—31). When we come together we must also allow the Holy Spirit to lead and orchestrate His divine purposes in our gatherings, manifesting the grace of God through whomever He chooses. And finally we must make every effort to conduct ourselves in way that reflects the God in whom we serve, a God of peace and order, a God that is worthy of our adoration.

[1] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 561.

[2] Frank Viola, and George Barna, Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 2008), 6.

[3] Viola, Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices, 5.

[4] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 572.

[5] Such as speaking in tongues. See Fee, 571 ff., for further discussion.

[6] Richard Hays, First Corinthians. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 208—209.

[7] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 554.

[8] Romans 12.6; 1 Corinthians 12:4, 9, 28, 30—31

[9] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 585–86.

[10] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 562.

[11] F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 273.

[12] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011), 342.

[13] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 562.

[14] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 605.

[15] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, 339.

[16] The “way of love” used in 1 Corinthians 14:1.

[17] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 606.

[18] W. Harold Mare, “The Expositor’s Commentary,” Romans-Galatians, Vol. 10, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 267.

[19] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 609.

[20] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 595.

[21] Mare, Romans-Galatians, 272.

[22] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 690.

[23] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, 406.

[24] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 658; cf. 14:14; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16

[25] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 658.

[26] Cf. 2Cor. 12:1-7; Gal. 1:12, 16; 2:2.

[27] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 658.

[28] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 662.

[29] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 557.

[30] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, 406.

[31] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 660.

[32] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 691.

[33] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, 407.

[34] C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 329.

[35] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 697.

[36] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 698.

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