1 Corinthians 14 Controversy and Analysis
1 Corinthians 14 Controversy & Analysis:
1st Century Implications for a 21st Century Context
The conversation concerning multiple song leaders and analysis of 1 Corinthians 14 has resulted in various forms of analytical discussion, debate, and controversy. The discussion is not necessarily new in churches of Christ, but on one level it is unfortunate that in a world so full of pain, grief, oppression, and sin–that some in the church have subjected themselves to endless conversations regarding the permissibility of one song leader, versus the prohibition of two or more in the assembly of the saints. I guess I am not much different since I have taken the time to write this narrative on the subject. I will say up front, I do not believe contextually that 1 Corinthians 14 should be used to justify one song leader in worship or to prohibit more than one. The congregational plea and practice is for us to sing, which seems doable and without scriptural violation with one song leader or more than one. I believe that to make such a prohibitive claim is to miss the thematic premise of the epistle, chapter, and its connected elements.
The way some Bible students and orators of the word are managing 1 Corinthians 14, it appears to be an attempt to take 21st Century worship customs and patterns in churches Christ and force, insert, or superimpose them onto an early church context and footprint. However, if the actual text and customs related to 1 Corinthians 14 are honestly adhered, it shows how holistically different our worship is today, compared or calibrated with a true first century biblical paradigm. While some have begun the practice of refuting multiple song leaders in a “worship setting” (whatever that really means), it is becoming more clear that 1 Corinthians 14 might be the worse narrative to use to justify one song leader and prohibit two or more. If a person can extract such a belief or hermeneutic from 1 Corinthians 14, there is so much more one would need to include. We will attempt to share some of those gleanings through this essay.
General Essence of the Text
From the very beginning of the 1 Corinthians epistle (1:10), Paul makes it clear that he is addressing the necessary essence of unity and order in the congregation. Like many congregations today, a lot was going on in the Corinthian church that also seemed to be comprised of mostly Gentile saints. I will not list all the elements of division, but in chapter 1 they were divided over leaders; in chapter 5 over how to deal with two members engaged in a scandalous sexual affair; in chapter 6 they were taking each other to court; in chapter 11 they needed further instruction in how to orderly partake of the Lord’s Supper; and in chapters 12-14 they needed additional teaching with regard to how to utilize their spiritual gifts in an orderly and edifying fashion. Lastly, in chapter 15 there may have even been some divided over the deity of Christ and the concept of the resurrection. It is imperative to understand the general theme Paul was addressing because the divine necessity of order over disorder is again the focus of 1 Corinthians 14. In that chapter, Paul regulated the use of charismatic gifts and the necessary orderly nature of assembly gathering and worship to God, so that edifying and understanding was not obstructed or hindered. Without fully embracing the premise of the text and epistle, it will be difficult to understand the purpose of the instructions in chapter 14. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:20 “Dear brothers and sisters, don’t be childish in your understanding of these things. Be innocent as babies when it comes to evil, but be mature in understanding matters of this kind” (NLT). Paul urged the saints then and Christ continues to urge us today to be mature in our thinking about church matters.
Making Law Where None Exists
In my study and understanding, I do not see where the 1 Corinthians 14 narrative has a focus on the necessity of pointing out one song leader at a time. That seems to be our modern attempt to make practices of today squeeze into a first-century paradigm. I know some will hang on this very point, but although Paul provides the necessary instruction of the one-at-a-time process, the explicit purpose of the teaching was to ensure that understanding and edifying was not be disrupted or exchanged for a prideful and chaotic display of spiritual gifts. The goal of the teaching was not to usher in a disconnected structure of a one-at-a-time principle, separate and apart from a purpose.
To minimize the confusion when the assembly was gathered for service Paul said: “If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret” (1 Corinthians 14:27). Now even though this text is specifically applied to the display of tongues, in our current conversation it is also being applied to the 21st-century song leader, under a modern “worship service” context. I don’t think the text was designed for that isolated purpose, but let us play it out.
In the assembly and worship services of the Corinthian church, some were using their gifts with the wrong heart and motive, and in a disorderly and confusing fashion. They were attempting to all speak and share at the same time. The message of Paul was that it had to stop because it was limiting the ability for those in the assembly to be edified by the word of God or message from God. In 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul said “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. Let all things be done unto edifying.” Thus each person was trying to sing their psalm, share their learned or revealed doctrine/teaching, speak in a foreign language, verbalize what was revealed to them, and interpret the tongues being spoken. All this was transpiring at the same time and in the same service. Can you imagine how confusing and unedifying that was? How many conversations can you listen to at one time before becoming bewildered?
Paul said about speaking in an unknown or foreign tongue/language during the assembly and service, “Even so, if unbelievers or people who don’t understand these things come into your church meeting and hear everyone speaking in an unknown language, they will think you are crazy” (1 Corinthians 14:23, NLT). So if a visitor was to walk in and be confused by the foreign languages being spoken, just imagine the level of confusion being endured by the saints who were forced to sit and listen, attempting to decipher a message from the simultaneous psalms, doctrines, tongues, etc. Therefore, in 1 Corinthians 14 what Paul was addressing was the organizational structure of the assembly service and worship so that learning would not be stifled. Because of all that he concluded the chapter or section of the epistle by saying “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
With that level of instruction, along with its intended purpose being understood, it would be more than a stretch to use the narrative to say (today) only one song leader at a time is biblically allowed. To stay harmonious and true to the text, still knowing it was dealing with the miraculous, (at the least) one would have to say one song leader at a time is required if two or more wanted to sing different songs at the same time, or two or more wanted to lead the same song in different languages. Outside of that, it is the essence of creating a law where none exists. The context in 1 Corinthians 14 is not addressing holistically our modern-day Christian worship context, but if one thinks it does, they would have to apply all the applicable rules and they would need to separate the regulation from its intended purpose. That would be a confused and problematic hermeneutical approach. Two or more leading the congregation in the same song does not limit edifying and presents no violation to the text, understanding, principle, or its purpose.
The Psalms of the Text
Because the stated narrative of 1 Corinthians 14 is about the management of the miraculous in a worship or assembly setting, we should also consider the potential nature of the psalm. The church in Corinth was primarily a Gentile audience, thus they may not have been as familiar with the psalms of the Old Testament. Now, if the Gentile Christians of the Corinthian congregation were former proselytes that would be a different story. However, remember the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:26 “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. Let all things be done unto edifying.”
I cannot confirm this, but contextually it could be true that the psalm referenced in the text was divinely inspired (a miraculous revelation). If that was the case, again, the necessity of the one-at-a-time process and sequence would be essential. But why? This would be uniquely appropriate because no two people would be given the same revelatory song. In such a scenario two people could not sing a psalm of differentiated revelation simultaneously without causing confusion. This could also be another reason why and how the 1 Corinthians 14 narrative is difficult to contextually apply to the churches current non-miraculous condition. The songs we sing today are not divinely revealed, they are read and learned.
If the one-at-a-time principle is simply a divine process, separate and apart from its stated intent and purpose, it would have to mean that on its face, one song leader equals edifying order, and a lack of confusion. However, many of us have experienced the single song leader leading the congregation in song, yet resulting in the opposite of edification and order because of his inability to carry the note(s) or maintain the rhythm. Thus clearly one cannot honestly say it’s about one song leader at a time, what would be the actual point?
Here is another thorny element to consider and analyze. As someone raised around/in the church of Christ settings, customs, and cultures from birth, solos in worship have always been considered unscriptural or a taboo practice. What I am about to say, I am not saying is definitive, but the dialectic substance is worthy of exploration and investigation. I also am not suggesting that we need to start singing solos during the first day of the week services, but since 1 Corinthians 14 has been advanced as a scriptural Pericope, allegedly regulating non-miraculous song service, we might as well look deeper.
In addition to the purpose of praise, worship, and adoration to God (Hebrews 2:12), the biblical purpose of singing is also rooted in teaching and instruction. This takes singing to a critical level of importance. In Ephesians 5:19 Paul said, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” On a more pointed level, he said to the church at Colossae, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16). When the concept of teaching through song is connected to the context of 1 Corinthians 14, the person arriving at the assembly with a miraculously inspired psalm on their heart is in a unique situation. The purpose of the psalm would be to sing it to the saints for the purpose of teaching and edification. The assembly would not be able to readily sing along because the song is new. Because of that, there may have been times where the person sang the psalm as a solo, while the assembly learned it. In addition to whole assembly singing, this could have been the true essence of teaching through song/psalm, as was and still remains as a deep part of Jewish synagogue culture. If such a first-century premise is plausible, it sheds light on and fights against a dogmatic prohibition against a solo. While some are concerned about multiple song leaders, a true searching of the text might reveal so much more that is against the grain of the 21st Century worship service context and beliefs.
The Worship Context Revealed
An honest and unfiltered study of 1 Corinthians 14 can provide the Bible student and Christian a true glimpse into the texture of first-century collective worship and assembly. Through that same look, it can provide implications for modern worship, absent the miraculous. Just because the church no longer operates in the miraculous or charismatic, it does not mean that part of the spirit and tone of 1 Corinthians 14 is outdated. The real question is “how closely does our worship service and church assemblies today, mirror the flow of 1 Corinthians 14?”
For this project, I am not going to deal with the words of Paul regarding the preference of prophecy over tongues, but I will review the flow and format of spiritual gifts to illustrate the pace, climate, and culture of first-century worship and collective fellowship. As said earlier, the primary purpose of the Pauline instruction was to ensure that the teaching of God, as magnified through psalms, prophecy, tongues, revelation, etc., was not confused by the disorderly display of gifts while in the assembly. With that said, Paul instructed, “If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret” (1 Corinthians 14:27). Here we have an organizational order. As they arrived at the assembly with a desire to speak and share a word from the Lord in tongues, only two or three were to speak (one at a time), but only if someone was present to interpret. What is interesting about the setting described is that it was participatory and unscripted. It does not appear that the assembly arrived knowing who would be sharing a word. There was a certain level of spontaneity and organic anticipation in first-century collective worship.
In the verse above Paul addressed the order for speaking in tongues in the assembly, but in the passages below he addresses a prophetic word shared in the common language of the assembly by the prophets. He said, “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.30 If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.31 For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted” (1 Corinthians 14:29-31). Now in this setting, he said, in addition to the previous two or three tongue speakers, two or three prophets could also share a word/message, but still one at a time. However, while one of the prophets was speaking, if another person received a revelation, I would assume (I could be wrong) sparked by the message of one of the other prophets, they were to stop so the other person could share their revelation. Survey the texture, tone, and rhythm of this setting; it was fully spontaneous and participatory.
In an attempt to be obedient to the text, some may have missed critical ingredients that made first-century worship fresh, exciting, and unscripted. So while looking at the text through a prism to prove multiple song leaders as unscriptural, the true communal and liberating formula of worship is overlooked. Although we no longer operate in the charismatic, there is still a way for our worship services to be similarly aligned to the 1 Corinthians 14 context. Although we talk a great deal about being the church of the first century, the current chapter of investigation actually shows us how far away we have moved from a first-century worship paradigm.
When we arrive at worship today, for the most part, it is already scripted and there is limited room for spontaneity, aside from saying “Amen.” As a matter of fact, spontaneity in churches of Christ today is often considered the reverse of “decently and in order.” I am not saying this is wrong, I am just comparing our 21st Century worship landscape to that of the first century. Notice what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, “But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: 25 And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.” If someone, let alone a visitor, fell on their face in worship to God next Sunday in response to the word, we would be thrown off and would question order and appropriateness. In most congregations, we might make them get up. How close are we really to first-century worship etiquette?
Under some congregational circumstances, collective worship is even on a very regimented time schedule and if worship is longer than the stipulated time, it is a problem. Additionally, if the preacher speaks for too long, if a brother engages in a heartfelt extended prayer, or if the chorus of a song is repeated too many times, some might complain. In Acts 20:7 Paul preached until midnight (he preached for a few hours), but what we often miss is that he was not engaged in uninterrupted discourse, his message included participatory dialogue with the saints present. When was the last time you were able to respond to the word that was revealed to you by the preacher or teacher in the midst of church? For the most part, the only time that happens is in what we call Bible study. So instead of trying to isolate 1 Corinthians 14 as proof-texts for one song leader and a prohibition against two or more, I suggest we explore the grand implications and applications of the text. Ultimately what Paul was teaching was the essence needed for unity, learning, and edification, through a deep application of Christian maturity and enduring love (1 Corinthians 13:1-8).
Boundaries of the Text
For years I have wrestled with this theological premise and the current focus of 1 Corinthians 14 gives me a chance to state the inquiry and apply understanding. Some state that 1 Corinthians 14 is speaking of a worship setting, meaning the first day of the week. I do not argue that, but my question is, are there implications beyond that setting? I believe it is possible that God is not just providing instruction for how the ecclesia is to govern herself in Sunday worship, but also how saints are to engage whenever they were/are assembled. The early church met daily, so why would it be assumed that they only collectively exercised their spiritual gifts on the first day of the week? Could 1 Corinthians 14 include general assembly instructions, as opposed to that which only applied to a Sunday worship service? I believe that is possible.
Now to go a step further, some of the people who believe 1 Corinthians 14 strictly prohibits the multiple song leader concept, also believe multiple song-leaders are acceptable outside of the worship context? (Because of the loose theology such a position provides, some have changed their position to include the worship and no-worship context). However, some postulate, if worship begins at 11am there can only be one song leader in that setting/service, but if there is a program, celebration, installation, etc., later in the day at 2:45pm, multiple song leaders and even a singing group are acceptable. My question is, where in the New Testament does Jesus or His apostles describe a setting or demarcate boundaries where one practice is prohibited in collective worship, but then allowed in another collective setting where acts of worship (however you define acts of worship) are being engaged? In using 1 Corinthians 14 how can a person isolate a text in such a fashion? That seems to be a tricky and inconsistent hermeneutical formation. Lastly, where is it stated that the 1 Corinthians 12-14 narrative is regulated to a first day of the week worship setting only? The concept of rightly dividing the word of God is not just an art for application between the Old and New Testaments systems, it also must be applied within the Old and New Testaments.
This discourse is not designed to push the envelope, but it is designed to advance an honest approach to the 1 Corinthians 14 Pericope, in light of the controversy and confusion surrounding the text and worship service practices. Paul said, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). For this text to be actualized, it is imperative that we not create a law where there is no law and then bind it upon the saints. From the inception of church of Christ history in America, we have fought and divided over issues. And many of the issues of the 1800s and early to mid-1900s are now non-issues. Nevertheless, at the time they were heated debates. As the proverbial writer said “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6, NIV). Keep in mind that flawed men are managing a flawless word, but God has the ability to preserve the purity of His Word until the end.
From my perspective portions of our theological approach appears to be suffering from something I call Protective Theology; a condition described as a need for processing scripture through a lens designed to unconsciously or consciously protect church of Christ culture from an alteration out of its current and past schematic familiarities. Without real harm intended, the result is not an adherence to biblically authorial paradigms, but a subtle desire to make things subscribe to our historically American Christian method of engagement and tradition in church.
Lastly, growing up in the church in the 1970s, 1980s, and some of the 1990s, (personally) it did not appear customary to hear preaching and teaching that was expository, exegetical, anthropologic, or contextual. The word was simply made to fit a context. Yet today there is a much stronger push in the church of Christ for the word to be studied, preached, and taught through its original context and audience. Because this has not traditionally been our approach to scripture, we are now facing a form of an identity crisis, because some of the binds that were fastened decades ago are no longer considered contextually appropriate or honest. The same philosophy and hermeneutic appears apparent with the management of the 1 Corinthians 14 one-song-leader versus the multiple song leader controversies.
We shall all continue to study and grow in the word, and may we all seek to not create issues of division unnecessarily. Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:16 “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Thus if I have presented any message within this project that is incongruent with the rightly divided word of God, I remain open for biblically correction and enlightenment.
May the people of the church of our Lord continually strive to be the salt of the earth and light of the world.