4. The regular church meeting
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? 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: 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. 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. 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. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. 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 churches of the saints. 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. 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. What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? 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. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant. Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order.
—-I Corinthians 14:23-40
Much is made of Corinthian disorder. But little is made of the church order indicated in I Corinthians 14: this was the original order of the churches. However the churches, through centuries of tradition, have made Chapter 14 to be archaic or irrelevant.
While Paul rebuked the Corinthians for disorder, he implicitly ratified the order of the meeting in Corinth. He did not say, “stop doing things this way,” but “stop doing these things in a disorderly way.”
The meetings of which Paul wrote were regular meetings, meaning typical or normal or usual. These are not the only kind of church meetings. Sometimes churches sponsor preaching meetings where the gospel is preached and guests are invited. At other times a teacher may speak at length. This is the form of meeting to which a vast majority of churches are accustomed. However these are accustomed to the teaching meeting as their regular meeting. Indeed, these find it hard to imagine any other kind of meeting.
The difference in character of the preaching and/or teaching meetings versus the regular meeting indicated in I Corinthians 14 is chiefly this: the special meetings are best accommodated by a “pulpit/pew” arrangement, whereas the regular meeting is best accommodated by a circular or “household” arrangement of seating. The first churches met in houses. In many parts of the world today, they still do. The household arrangement is adaptable to all believers in all places at all times, even or especially in periods of persecution where the meetings occur in secret or underground.
Preaching meetings, while they are sponsored by the churches, are directed to unbelieving guests. Believers, while we are edified by hearing the gospel message, do not need to be saved again. If a church subsists only on the gospel message it will spiritually starve. The gospel message, believed, is the beginning of all Christian growth. And the Cross is at the center of Christian teaching, too. But the author of Hebrews wrote that we are to move on from the first teachings to spiritual maturity in Christ, cf. Heb. 5:11-6:3.
Paul assumed that after new believers were taught at length, i.e., probably months, possibly a few years, they would be equipped for “the work of the ministry” he referenced in Ephesians 4:12. Weeks or months or at most a few years were the extent of Paul’s visits in the various locales in Acts. Thus Paul and Barnabas, after finishing a teaching ministry in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, “when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” Acts 14:23. These churches, then, were commended to the Head of the church and not to the elders, nor to any other man. They were to minister to one another as the Lord directed.
While believers need much teaching subsequent to our initial conversion, and while we also benefit from lengthy teaching on occasion, whether by a visiting teacher or in the form of a Christian book, we are expected to grow up sufficiently to do the work of the ministry. We are to minister to one another, and this not only outside the meeting but also in it. The myriad “one another” passages in the New Testament are to find expression both in and out of the meeting.
When the spiritual growth of a considerable number of saints is accomplished in the churches, a different form of meeting is required–the circular or household arrangement. These meetings need not take place in a house, but they are patterned after the household arrangement. For how can we minister to one another facing “the front of the church?” And what, after all, is “the front of the church?” There is no “front of the church,” there is only the church, meaning all the believers in any locale. And where two or three meet in the Lord’s name, there He is in the midst of them. Now if He is in the midst of us, spiritually speaking, should we not look to the midst of us rather than toward a man at the front? Remember, I do not say preaching and teaching meetings are unbiblical. They aren’t. The “pulpit/pew” arrangement is not unbiblical, but it loses its utility once a number of the saints in a church have grown up spiritually. Or would we always and forever be taught, never coming to an understanding of the truth?
My hope is that the reader will, as he or she reads, regularly visualize the distinction between “pulpit/pew” ministry and a ministry where the brethren are seated facing one another.
The meetings in the first century were conspicuous not for their form but for an absence of form. That is, the meetings were not planned or preplanned or “scripted” or “liturgical.” There was no “order of service,” at least it is not recorded, and we take it the Scripture’s silence on this is inspired. In Acts 2:42 it says they continued in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. This tells us what they did and not how they did it. However the key word in the passage is they. They continued in these things together. There was spontaneity in the service and perhaps even (gasp!) intervals of devout silence, with the brethren waiting on the Spirit to move one of them to speak.
While I Corinthians 14 is one of but two instances in the New Testament that expressly indicates the manner of meeting (the other being Romans 12:3-8), this sort of meeting is corroborated by the doctrine of the priesthood, the analogy of the body, and the reality of fellowship of the saints in the meeting. In addition to this, the familial aspect of the church (“Ye are all brethren”) indicates a meeting that manifests the way godly families relate to one another.
Not only so, but many of the nearly sixty “one-another” passages found in the New Testament surely have application–and perhaps primary application–“(when) the whole church be come together into one place.” For example, we are to pray for one another (James 5:16), encourage one another (Heb. 10:25), instruct or admonish one another (Rom. 15:14), speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19, and this especially correlates with I Cor. 14:26), and teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16, which parallels Eph. 5:19).
So it is a very weak argument that says I Corinthians 14 is an aberration, or the sole example, or a practice that disappeared after completion of the New Testament canon.
If tongues have ceased (I am unsure on this, and can only say I personally have had no experience with tongues-speakers), this does not alter the manner of meeting. There are no new revelations since the first century, but prophecy abides, “for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy,” Rev. 19:10. So there remain teaching, exhorting, prophesying, and leading among the speaking gifts.
What we find in I Corinthians 14 is: this is the way Christians met in the first century. It is not the only way they met, but it is the way they regularly met.