God's Order in Church Services

As in many other things, our God has given specific instructions in regard to what constitutes order in a meeting of the church:

"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. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints." (1 Corinthians 14:26-33)

Tongues, if they are used, are limited to two or three speakers, and each in turn. That is, not at the same time. Further, if there is no interpreter, the use of tongues is forbidden. The reason for this rule is given earlier in the chapter:

"But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air." (1 Corinthians 14:6-9)

"I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature." (1 Corinthians 14:18-20)

Although many do not like this, we need to clearly understand that the Holy Spirit Himself, speaking through the Apostle Paul, has told us that speaking in tongues will not profit the church. But He has gone beyond that. He considers five words spoken with understanding better than ten thousand words in a tongue. The Holy Spirit considers this practice childish, but He has not forbidden it.

He tells us that prophecy is better than speaking in tongues:

"I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification." (1 Corinthians 14:5)

We are given several rules governing the use of prophecy:

"Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged." (1 Corinthians 14:29-31)

As with the case of tongues, prophecy is limited to two or three speakers. This instruction does not mean that a church is only allowed to have two or three speakers. The meaning here is that only two or three should speak in a single meeting. We see this because it plainly says that "you can all prophesy one by one." The reason for this rule is "that all may learn and all may be encouraged." Teaching and encouragement is here called prophecy. Why? We find the answer in 1 Peter 4:10-11:

"As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen."

If a man is speaking "as the oracles of God" he is speaking as a messenger of God. This means more than that the message is true. It means more than that the message is appropriate, or even timely. It even means more than that the message is part of what God has to say to the world, or to the church. It means that the message is what God has directed the speaker to say at this particular time and place. If a man is speaking "as the oracles of God", he is speaking under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, he is speaking as a prophet. 1 Peter 4:10-11 tells us that all ministry in the church should be prophecy.

The Holy Spirit Himself desires to guide our meetings. We see this in the rule that "if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent." The words "is revealed" indicate a direct action of the Holy Spirit. If He leads someone to interrupt a message, the result will be an even better message. The improvement will be obvious to all who are spiritual, even to the first speaker. That is why it says "and let the others judge." Very few churches would allow someone to stand up in the middle of a sermon and say, "just a moment, there is another point that needs to be made here." But the word of God expressly commands the speaker to yield in such a case. This flies in the face of everything man considers orderly. Men would call this confusion, but God's order is not confusion. And what is His order? Though all are allowed to prophesy, they must do so "one by one", and they must do it in subjection to one another. "And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints." (1 Corinthians 14:32-33)

Aside from instructions regarding the Lord's supper, these Scriptures are the only ones in the New Testament that tell us how to conduct a meeting of the church. The meeting they describe is a discussion, not a lecture. Nor is it a "panel" discussion. All may participate, for it says "you can all prophesy one by one." The number of speakers at a particular meeting is limited to "two or three"; but we should realize that one is neither two nor three. We need to understand that when the church does something, it acts in unison, as a living thing; a body. Thus it worships, it praises, it prays, and it remembers its Lord in His death. These are corporate activities, that is, activities done by the entire group. Discussion is a corporate activity, but preaching is not. Preaching is done by an individual. It may be done in a church building, but it is not an activity of the church.

By this I do not mean to say that preaching is improper. It is of God, for evangelists are among the spiritual gifts. I am not saying that preaching is improper, but that it is improper to make preaching the standard form for the regular meetings of the church. While preaching is often mentioned in the New Testament, we are not told of a single case in which the church came together to hear someone preach. The concept of coming together to hear a sermon cannot be found in the New Testament. Paul preached all night in Troas. (Acts 15:9-11) But the point of that meeting was not to hear Paul preach, but "to break bread." (Acts 15:7)*15

If the church comes together to hear a man preach, it is coming together to be taught by that man. If he is a gifted and godly teacher, this will be very beneficial. But how much greater would be the benefit if the teacher were the Holy Spirit Himself? Let the church forget, for a time, its well organized and thoroughly prepared programs. Let the church leaders apply as students alongside their brethren, seeking instruction in the school of the all wise God Himself. Let us come together trusting the Holy Spirit to lead by whoever He chooses to use. Let no man speak a word until he can honestly say that he is speaking "as the oracles of God." If this requires waiting, then wait. "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent." Our God is faithful. If we obey these instructions in spirit and in truth, He will personally teach us.

There are many benefits to meeting in this way. The first is the simple benefit of obedience. Our God always honors obedience. Some churches that have tried this have been amazed at the blessing they have received.

A second benefit is the elimination of blind spots. We all have blind spots, certain truths that we simply cannot receive. These come upon us either through prejudice or by some secret sin in our hearts. We seek to get rid of them, but being human we know that we will never completely succeed. Any church that gets all its teaching from one man is limited by his blind spots. The Holy Spirit is unable to give the church any truth that this one man cannot receive. If there are several teachers, the problem is reduced, but it is still there. But if the Holy Spirit is left free to teach by whoever He chooses to use, He can present a truth to the church if there is even one man among them who is not blinded on that point.

A third benefit is a vast reduction in the stress placed upon church leaders. People little realize the strain a pastor feels in always having to teach, to preach, to comfort, to counsel, to bless; in short, to give, give, give... I know from experience that a pastor sometimes feels like the well is dry, like there is nothing left to give. But still he must give, for that is his job. But if the Holy Spirit is the teacher, a pastor is not under this kind of stress. If he is discouraged, he can be encouraged. If he is distressed, he can be comforted. If he is too tired to bless, he can be blessed. And if he makes an error, he can be corrected.

A fourth benefit is participation. It changes "church" from a spectator sport to a group activity. Individual believers are not simply listeners, but are drawn into active participation in the ministry. Such participation allows gifted individuals to grow naturally into leadership as the whole church observes their progress. Most people also find that it makes meetings more interesting.

Finally, meetings of this sort make a church less vulnerable to persecution. A church that is dependent upon a single man will be paralyzed if he is arrested or killed. But if the church is directly dependent upon the Holy Spirit Himself, it can continue to function. They will miss their lost brother, but they will be able to go on. If a church is forced underground, large meetings will become impossible. But a church that has been meeting in this way will have developed enough leaders to allow it to be fully functional in small groups. We need to realize that such persecution can arise anywhere at any time. There is a very real possibility that it could even rise in America. In recent years the basic American right of freedom of speech has been increasingly replaced by a newly invented "right" to not be offended. Any reference to the Bible is considered "offensive." Anyone who preaches basic morality in accordance with the Holy Scriptures is called a "hate monger." Condemnation of wickedness is portrayed as "criminal." Who can doubt that these are the beginnings of an attempt to forcibly silence the Church's voice. Let those who are wise take warning.

*15 In the New Testament the term "break bread" does not simply mean to eat, but to eat the Lord's Supper, that is, to remember the Lord in His death. (See Luke 24:35) The church in Corinth was rebuked for having debased the Lord's Supper to a mere feast. This is discussed in detail in 1 Corinthians 11:17-33, ending with the words; "if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come." (1 Corinthians 11:34) Return

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