Orderly Worship—1 Corinthians 14:20-40


Levi Durfey




I heard a story about how a surgeon, an engineer, and a politician were discussing which one of their professions was the oldest, and therefore the best:


The surgeon said, “Eve was made from Adam’s rib, and that, of course, was a surgical procedure. Obviously, surgery is the oldest profession.”


The engineer countered with, “Yes, but before that, order was created out of chaos, and that most certainly was an engineering job.”


The politician smiled and said triumphantly, “Aha! And just who do you think created the chaos?”


Indeed, from the very beginning, God has loved order in Creation. That is why the problem in the church at Corinth was so troubling. God, Paul will say in this section, is not a God of confusion. And since He is a God of order, our worship should also be an orderly worship. Paul says that:


1 Corinthians 14:20 

Brethren, be not children in understanding: 

howbeit in malice be ye children, 

but in understanding be men.  


Paul uses the word “Brethren,” to grab their attention and plead for them to listen carefully. It’s like saying, “My fellow countrymen, lend me your ears! Don’t be immature in your thinking. Be like innocent children when it comes to evil, but be grown-up in your thinking.” 


Speaking in tongues was to the Corinthians like a new toy is for a child. They were infatuated with them, and as a result, their worship services were chaotic. To correct this, Paul outlines the benefits of orderly worship:


I. Orderly Worship Is Helpful For Unbelievers

II. Orderly Worship Builds Up All Attending

III. Orderly Worship Requires Our Submission




Returning to the issue of speaking in tongues, Paul says that they are unhelpful for unbelievers attending a church service. First, he says that…


A. Tongues Were A Sign To Jewish Unbelievers


1 Corinthians 14:21 

In the law it is written, 

With men of other tongues and other lips 

will I speak unto this people; 

and yet for all that will they not hear me, 

saith the Lord.  


This is a verse from Isaiah 28:11-12, where the Lord says that one day He will speak to His people (the Jews) in foreign languages. This indeed happened at Pentecost when the apostles spoke in the native languages of the Jews attending who were visiting from other lands. But did they listen? Some did, but most did not, just as the Lord said they would not. So to those Jews who did not believe, tongues were a sign.


1 Corinthians 14:22 

Wherefore tongues are for a sign, 

not to them that believe, 

but to them that believe not: 

but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, 

but for them which believe.  


These unbelieving Jews were supposed to look at things like Pentecost where the apostles spoke in the tongues of foreign languages, and say to themselves, “God said this would happen—therefore I will believe!” It was to be a sign to encourage them to believe.


That’s what is supposed to happen in an ideal world, but the Lord knew that their hearts would be hard and they would “not hear.” Therefore, in the final analysis, tongues were not helpful for Jewish unbelievers, even though they were a sign.


There’s another way, and perhaps more obvious to us today, that tongues are unhelpful for unbelievers.


B. Unbelievers Consider Tongues To Be Madness


1 Corinthians 14:23 

If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, 

and all speak with tongues, 

and there come in those that are unlearned, 

or unbelievers, 

will they not say that ye are mad?  


If an unbeliever or even an “unlearned” believer (a new Christian) walked into a service with people speaking in tongues all over the place, what will they think? 


They will think the whole thing is madness. Paul says, “will they not say that ye are mad?” The word “mad” (μαίνεσθε, μαίνομαι, VPUI2P) means to “be out of one’s mind…have no control over oneself” (BDAG). 


Christianity is a rational religion. It’s not a crazy, lunatic thing. Yes, we walk by faith and to the outside world that can seem crazy—but our faith is grounded in a book—the Bible. It’s rational. It appeals to the understanding of men (cf. Isaiah 1:18). The Lord gives us reasons to believe, reasons to have faith. We do not walk by blind faith.


To have a bunch of Christians babbling mindlessly in a service would give the wrong impression to the unbeliever. Speaking in tongues would be an unhelpful witness to unbelievers. But, Paul goes on and says that…


C. Prophecy Is Better For Unbelievers


1 Corinthians 14:24 

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:

1 Corinthians 14:25 

And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; 

and so falling down on his face he [the unbeliever] will worship God, 

and report that God is in you of a truth.  


What does it mean that the “secrets of his heart made manifest”? We might immediately assume it is like some of the stories we hear from Charismatic side of Christianity. Like a believer seeing an “A” on an unbeliever’s forehead and knowing that he was committing adultery. 


But it isn’t like that at all. Prophecy is a bold telling forth of God’s Word. So what we’re seeing here is the Word of God being preached and it convicting an unbeliever of his sins. The Bible is a powerful tool that works on the hearts of believers and unbelievers. The Bible says…


12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 13 Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4:12–13)


The trend today is to soften and shorten the preaching of God’s Word so that unbelievers will feel more welcome in our churches. This is a sad mistake that may, for a time, increase attendance at a church, but in the long term, it will only weaken the church spiritually. The best thing for unbelievers is that they hear the clear preaching of the Word of God, for it is through the Word that faith will be ignited in their hearts; “…faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).


The unbeliever needs to hear that they are a sinner who has offended God and that their sin deserves an eternal punishment (Romans 6:23).


The unbeliever needs to hear that God loved the world, but He must also punish sin. So to do so, He sent His only Son to take that punishment.


The unbeliever needs to hear the call to stop their rebellion against God and receive by faith the great salvation offered only in Jesus Christ. Jesus calls out to them…


24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)


Orderly worship will take into account the presence of unbelievers and will seek to avoid certain chaotic elements that make unbelievers unnecessarily think believers are insane, but will also seek to preach the prophetic Word of God that their hearts may be opened.




A big part of Paul’s concern in his discussion of spiritual gifts is that everyone in the church should be edified, or built up. That concern comes out in the next verses as he explains how tongues and prophecy were to be used in a worship service.


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.  


The word “edifying” means “to build up.” Paul was saying that the worship service should be planned in such a way that every part of it builds up the believers attending. He turns to the gift that had caused so much confusion and chaos in the Corinthian church and explains how they were to use it properly in worship.


A. Tongues


1 Corinthians 14:27 

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 14:28 

But if there be no interpreter, 

let him keep silence in the church; 

and let him speak to himself, 

and to God.  


The basic gist here is that, for a part of worship to build up others, it must be understandable to those present. If the tongues being spoken weren’t being interpreted so they could be understood, the speaker was to stop. 


By the way, there are some Christians think that the gift of speaking in tongues is a gift whereby the Holy Spirit takes over and irresistibly causes a person to speak. This last verse here demonstrates that was not what the gift of speaking in tongues was like. For a person to “keep silence in the church” if there was no one to interpret for them makes it clear that they were able to keep silent when they wanted to do so. So there were no ecstatic, out-of-control speaking in tongues.


So Paul told those speaking in tongues to be quiet unless there was an interpreter. Why? Because Paul’s concern was that they “Let all things be done unto edifying.” Jabbering in a strange language might be impressive to some people, annoying to other people, but it would do nothing to build anyone up spiritually. The reason is that no one else could understand what was being said. 


The principle that we learn is that we should always make sure that we can be understood in worship. This doesn’t mean necessarily that you have to dumb everything down. But it does mean that we should make sure we interpret and explain things that might be hard to understand.


Personally, I have been checking my sermon manuscripts by running them through a reading grade level checker. Most of the time, I’m hitting about 7th or 8th grade reading levels with my sermons.


B. Prophecy


Next Paul turns to the use of prophecy in worship. Prophecy is often understood as making some predictions about the future. But as we already explained in another message, prophecy in the Bible is not mainly about foretelling, but forthtelling. Prophecy is a bold telling of God’s Word to the people. 


1. Limits On Prophetic Speaking


Apparently, in Corinth, the gift of prophecy was, like speaking in tongues, a bit out of control. You can imagine that one person would stand and speak prophetically something like, “God wants us all to be more holy, we need to do such and such to be more holy.” Another would stand and say, “No, God wants us to do this or that to be more holy.” Pretty soon, a couple dozen people have stood and uttered contradicting and confusing statements about what God wants them to do. So Paul says…


1 Corinthians 14:29 

Let the prophets speak two or three, 

and let the other judge.

1 Corinthians 14:30 

If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, 

let the first hold his peace.  


What we see here is that Paul is wanting order in worship. Too many speakers, even if they took turns, would be confusing to people. Imagine having a dozen mini-sermons every Sunday. It would be confusing and hard to follow. So Paul limits prophetic speaking to “two or three.”


Paul also says that the “other” people in the congregation ought to judge what is being said. No preacher should just be taken at his word. I love it when people follow along in their Bibles when I preach, because that should be where the sermon is coming from. The Bible is the standard by which we judge what we hear in worship.


2. Purpose Of Prophetic Speaking


1 Corinthians 14:31 

For ye may all prophesy one by one, 

that all may learn, 

and all may be comforted.  


Again, you see Paul come back to this concern of people being edified or built up. He wants that “all may learn and all may be comforted.” 


3. Character Of Prophetic Speaking


Finally, he says that, just as with the gift of speaking in tongues, the gift of prophecy is not to be a wild, ecstatic experience. He says…


1 Corinthians 14:32 

And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.  


The “spirits of the prophets” refers to the will and personality of the prophet. A prophet’s will and personality is “subject to the prophets.” That means that the prophet is in control of himself. His will and personality is “subject” to the control of himself. There is no losing control as the person mumbles some great statement from God while in some sort of trance. 


If you see that happening in a service, you can safely ignore what the person is saying. You should also run like the dickens far, far away from them. God doesn’t work like that. His prophets do not have manic episodes as they utter some fantastic prophecy. God is rational, not chaotic, as Paul says in the next verse:


1 Corinthians 14:33 

For God is not the author of confusion, 

but of peace, 

as in all churches of the saints.  




The next verse is controversial, but remember that this last section has to do with our submission to God’s Word in order to have orderly worship.


1 Corinthians 14:34 

Let your women keep silence in the churches: 

for it is not permitted unto them to speak; 

but they are commanded to be under obedience, 

as also saith the law.  

Remember now, we are supposed to read the Bible in context. First, what is the context of the book of 1 Corinthians? Paul is addressing specific spiritual problems in the Corinthian church. What is the context of this passage? They were misusing their spiritual gifts in a way that caused chaos in worship.


Are women supposed to be totally silent in church? No singing, no conversation, no praying, nothing? No, of course not, that’s not what Paul is saying. So what was going on here? We get a clue in the next verse.


1 Corinthians 14:35 

And if they will learn any thing, 

let them ask their husbands at home: 

for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.  


Obviously, Paul isn’t saying that women can’t come to church and not learn. That would be silly—women plug your ears during the sermon. I don’t think this means that a woman can’t even ask a question in church. Apparently the Corinthian women were doing more than asking a simple question. 


Some Bible teachers point out that in the services in those days the men sat separately from the women. So they speculate that the wives were shouting out questions to their husbands during worship services, disrupting the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. So perhaps that was part of the problem.


Perhaps also they were questioning in a way that undermined the spiritual authority of the leadership. This would fit with 1 Timothy 2—


12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. (1 Timothy 2:12)


I think that was the main issue with the women in Corinth—the women were taking the spiritual authority away from the men. The old preacher Harry Ironside strove for balance when he wrote,


A Priscilla may teach an Apollos, a Mary Magdalene may be the risen Lord’s messenger to His faint-hearted disciples, a regenerated woman of Samaria may evangelize the men of her city, a Dorcas may serve by ministering to the comfort of the poor, a Phoebe may be a deaconess of the assembly, but a woman, no matter how gifted and godly, is not to take the place of the man in the assembly of God, but to set an example of lowly subjection to the revealed will of God…[1]


That’s the key point here: the Corinthians, in this case the women, were not putting themselves into submission to “the law” of God, which teaches them to be submissive to the authorities in their lives. They need to submissive to God’s word.


And you husbands, don’t think there isn’t a challenge for you here also. Paul says to the wives, “let them ask their husbands at home.” What does that mean for us husbands? It demands that we learn the answers to their questions. 


Many husbands are spiritual couch potatoes. They complain about working all day, so they they’re too tired to study or even to attend church. But God gives you a duty—that duty is to be the spiritual head of your family. So cowboy up spiritually and lead. 


Paul goes on with the theme of submission to God’s Word. He asks:


1 Corinthians 14:36 

What? came the word of God out from you? 

or came it unto you only?  


Paul is saying, “Did you invent the word of God? Are you the ones that God gave His word to?” These are sarcastic, rhetorical questions. The answer is “No, of course not.” Well then, says Paul…


1 Corinthians 14:37 

If any man think himself to be a prophet, 

or spiritual, 

let him acknowledge that the things 

that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.  

1 Corinthians 14:38 

But if any man be ignorant, 

let him be ignorant. 


“Listen to me,” Paul says, “You weren’t chosen to write the Word of God, but I was. Stop goofing off. If you think that you are a spiritual person, prove it by acknowledging what I write to be the Word of God.” Then he summarizes his main points:


1 Corinthians 14:39 

Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, 

and forbid not to speak with tongues.

1 Corinthians 14:40 

Let all things be done decently and in order. 


For our worship to be orderly in a godly way, we must all, women and men and children, submit ourselves to the authority of Word of God. Ultimately, that, more than anything, will produce the worship that God desires from us.


[1] H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1938), 458.

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