The Bible does care about what we can and cannot do in church. The guy who wrote half the New Testament did lay down a few rules about our worship assemblies. I’ll suggest those rules are about attitude and heart, not about methods and forms.
The apostle Paul knows that what we do when we’re together shapes us. Our habits in our worship gatherings are molding us into a particular kind of people. So, Paul’s main concern is that our worship assemblies reflect the Gospel. Our Christian assemblies have to reflect the character of Christ. When he writes to churches, he expresses his deep desire that Christ be formed in them. He asks them to imitate Christ Jesus who, in his own words, said he came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life for others. Paul says being united with Christ, having the same attitude as that of Jesus, means considering others better than yourselves, looking to the needs of others.
So, yeah, he spills a lot of ink in 1 Corinthians to fix what they’re doing wrong.
“I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.” ~1 Corinthians 11:17
That’s harsh. Brutal. Can you imagine? Your church is so bad, your people would be better off if they slept in!
Paul goes on to explain that the church is divided. They’ve got little cliques and groups among them and he sees it when they’re around the table.
“When you come together, it’s not the Lord’s Supper you eat; you’re eating your own supper! You’re not waiting for others, you’re not sharing your food with others. People are going hungry, people are being humiliated. The rich folks are getting stuffed and drunk while the poor people are starving and being singled out as not fitting in. What am I supposed to say to you? Nothing good!”
Then he reminds them that when we eat and drink together, we’re proclaiming and practicing all the salvation things that Jesus died for. Our meal proclaims everything that was accomplished at the cross: acceptance, fellowship, unity, love, forgiveness, peace. Jesus is alive and he’s coming back. And until he comes, Paul says, we proclaim his salvation in our church meals. So, then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. Consider the needs of others. Treat each other as equals.
That’s Paul’s constant instruction when it comes to doing church: consider others. Pay attention to others. Put yourself last.
These Corinthians Christians were showing off their spiritual gifts. They were clamoring for the spotlight in their assemblies and judging others according to giftedness. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says the gifts of the Spirit are given for the common good. They’re supposed to benefit everybody, not just you. In fact, in chapter 14, he says since you’re so eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church!
What does Paul say about speaking in tongues? Well, sometimes there’s no interpreter, nobody knows what you’re saying, and it’s not doing anybody any good but yourself. And sometimes y’all are talking over each other, trying to upstage each other and it’s a mess. You’re not thinking about others. So, brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children! Take turns. Speak one at a time. And if you don’t have an interpreter, sigato (Greek). Don’t speak until it’s appropriate.
Same thing with prophesy. Take turns, just speak one at a time. Why? What’s the point? So that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. And if you’re speaking and someone else has something to add, the one speaking should sigato. Stop speaking until it’s your turn again.
Same thing with women. Some women were apparently disrupting the gatherings. They, too, were speaking out of turn. So Paul uses the same word, sigato. Be quiet until it’s appropriate to speak. Put yourself last. Consider others more important than yourself.
Paul didn’t say stop eating or do away with the meals, he said WHEN you eat be nice to others, treat everyone as equals. He didn’t say stop speaking in tongues, he said WHEN you speak in tongues be considerate of others. He didn’t say stop prophesying, he said WHEN you prophesy take turns, be polite. He didn’t tell women to stop praying and prophesying, Paul didn’t say they couldn’t. He said WHEN you pray and prophesy, women, do it like this. Don’t offend people. Don’t elevate yourself.
We worry about our Sunday mornings. We’re anxious to do everything just right. Instead of worrying about whether a worship practice is prescribed or legal, we should be asking if what we do fosters community and equips us for mission. Applying the Gospel to our assemblies is much more important than trying to do it right.
Do we value all people? Do we treat everyone the same? Do we make sure everyone belongs? Are we serving and loving others during our time together? Are all voices heard? Is everybody sharing? Is everybody made to feel welcome? Does everybody get a say? These are the questions we ought to be asking about our worship assemblies.
None of the New Testament gives us a set of legally specified timeless rules for conducting a Christian worship assembly. The New Testament gives us Jesus and the Gospel embodied by a community gathered by the Holy Spirit around word and table.