practiced what are called participatory, open, or interactive
meetings. Should we imitate them in this regard?
by Rusty Entrekin
Did you know
that the Bible gives us guidelines on how to have a church
meeting? These instructions are found in 1 Co 14:26-40.
1 Co 14:26 begins with “What then shall we say,
brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word
of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”
In this verse, the apostle Paul was describing
what normal church life was like for the Corinthians. It may
come as a shock to us to realize he did not say, “When you come
together, the minister of music has a song, and the pastor has a
word of instruction.”
Instead, “everyone” of the brethren at Corinth
came ready to contribute something. Some might think that
the Apostle was criticizing the Corinthians for this. Perhaps
there was some mild criticism intended, for as we read on, the
apostle provides guidelines regarding who can speak, how often,
and when. He restricted the number of those who could publicly
speak in tongues and prophesy in a given meeting, and corrected
the behavior of some of the women. But if there was any
criticism intended in verse 26, it was quite limited. Paul did
not go on to restrict the right to speak to only a few men. He
did not say, "Brethren, this ought not to be. Only the pastor
and the minister of music should speak." Instead, he assumed the
right of any of the brethren to speak in the meeting, and simply
provided guidelines for doing so. Thus, his intent was merely to
provide some course corrections, not to cancel the entire
This verse makes it startlingly clear that at
Corinth, the right to publicly bring a teaching to the entire
church was not the exclusive right of one paid professional.
Pastors were not the only people who were allowed to bring a
word of instruction during church, and ministers of music (had
they existed back then) were not the only ones who introduced
songs to sing!
In Col 3:16, we learn that things were apparently
like that at Colosse, too:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as
you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you
sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your
hearts to God.”
“Speak to one another,” Paul also wrote in Eph
5:19-20, “with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing
and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks
to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus
In the above verses, notice the emphasis on
teaching “one another”, and singing to “one another.”
Reading this, it becomes painfully apparent that
the way most of us have church today was not "normal" in New
Testament times. Back then, church meetings were a time when the
everyday, non-professional Christian contributed to the
meetings. The right to teach in church was not the exclusive
domain of the paid professional.
I see advantages in the way that the early
Christians practiced church.
We often talk about the doctrine of the
priesthood of the believer nowadays. But back then, they not
only talked about it, they actually lived it out in how
they practiced their church meetings.
It is tough for one man to meet the teaching
needs of everyone in his congregation alone. Back then, more
than one person taught in the meetings, so that was not a
concern. And since church leaders got to hear teaching
from others, it was less likely that they had unmet
spiritual needs. Is there a church leader on earth who is
so mature that he cannot benefit from the teaching of others in
his church? I doubt it.
"But, brother,” I can imagine someone objecting,
“we allow others with the gift of teaching to teach in Sunday
School, not in church.” Well, at least the members of your
church have some outlet for teaching one another, and
that's good. There were also opportunities to teach outside of
church meetings in NT times. Something distantly kin to Sunday
School, classes for new converts, arrived on the scene rather
early. Paul held discussions daily in the Lecture Hall of
Tyrannus, and others surely did similar things now and then. But
Paul could not have been speaking of one of these ancient
predecessors to Sunday School, because 14:23 makes it very clear
that he was writing about when the “whole church comes
together!” And we know that Sunday school, invented less
than 250 years ago, could not have been what He had in mind! No
doubt, Paul was talking about church meetings, for he used the
word “church” seven times in this chapter!
And so we cannot avoid the conclusion that any
man with the spiritual maturity to teach was welcome to bring a
message in an early church meeting. In fact, since Paul does not
limit the number of teachers who may speak, it probably often
happened that more than one man would teach in a given meeting!
No doubt, church meetings were different back
then. But were they better, or healthier? I think that they
were, at least after Paul got the Corinthians straightened out
with these instructions. Otherwise, in the verses that follow
verse 26, Paul would have steered the Corinthians more toward
our modern way of doing things. But he didn't!
Even more significantly, this epistle was
addressed not only to the Corinthians, but to "all that in every
place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord". That would
include us! Therefore, we cannot dismiss what Paul wrote in this
passage with a wave of the hand, thinking, "This applied only to
the Corinthians. It doesn't apply to me."
With these things in mind, let's go on to read
these instructions that Paul wrote not only to the Corinthians,
but to us as well.
14:26, Paul gave examples of various contributions each believer
may make to the meeting: "a hymn, or a word of instruction, a
revelation, a tongue or an interpretation." In the verses that
follow (27-40), he tells us how to incorporate these
contributions into the meeting. Notice that the apostle
does not give us an “order of worship.” Instead, he gives
us principles and guidelines to follow which infuse freedom,
spontaneity, and creativity into church meetings! Let's
consider these guidelines.
first guideline, in the last half of 14:26, is that “All of
these [songs, teachings, etc.] must be done for the
strengthening of the church.” Whatever is spoken in the
meeting must edify, or strengthen, the church. Usually
this entails speaking a positive and uplifting word, but a
church may also ultimately be edified by a challenging word that
produces sorrow and repentance.
second guideline is “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two–or at the
most three–should speak, one at a time, and someone must
interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should
keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God”
(14:27). Unfortunately, because tongues is one of the more
spectacular gifts, in modern times we have just as great a
tendency to get off balance with it as the Corinthians did in
their day. Paul’s instructions are often ignored in
several different ways, In some churches people speak
publicly in tongues without an interpreter. In others,
nearly everyone speaks publicly in tongues at once.
Needless to say, this causes outsiders to think the church
members are mentally unbalanced (1 Co 14:23)!
At the other extreme, in many churches speaking
in tongues is not permitted at all, despite the fact that Paul
makes allowance for it here, and despite the instruction he gave
later in 14:39: “do not forbid speaking in tongues.” This is not
to say that every church will have the gift of tongues, but
according to verse 39, all churches should be open to its
exercise according to Scripture. In fact, I know of a church
composed mostly of cessationists (people who believe that the
spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy have ceased). Humbly
recognizing that their belief in cessationism could be wrong,
they say that they would permit a message in tongues to be
spoken in their fellowship, out of fear of violating this clear
command of scripture!
guideline is that “Two or three prophets should speak, and the
others should weigh carefully what is said” (14:29). A
prophecy, according to W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary,
is “the speaking forth of the mind and counsel of God.”
Thus prophecy is not limited to “foretelling;” it is more
completely described as “forth telling.” Vine describes a
prophet as having three primary characteristics: 1) the Spirit
of God rests on him, 2) he converses with God, and 3) he is one
from whom a message from God springs forth or is secretly
The above verse should not be considered as a
command that two or three prophets must speak, but
rather as a command to allow two or three prophets to
speak. Prophecy should not be forbidden, but we should
“weigh carefully what is said” (14:29). Even when “thus
saith the Lord” is attached to a message, we should not accept
it unquestionably. God expects us to discern His Word from
that which is not His, because false teaching and false prophecy
are a real possibility. As 1 Th 5:19-21 tells us, “Do not
put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with
contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.”
Since the offices of teacher and prophet
are treated as separate ministries in Eph 4:11, we should not
consider teaching and prophecy to be the same thing.
Teaching is usually based on learning and preparation; but
prophecy is based on revelations of the Spirit. There is
some overlap between the two, however, because 1 Co 14:31 tells
us that instruction is one of the goals of prophecy. In
fact, many of the spiritual gifts can overlap. A song, for
instance, could teach doctrine, and an interpretation of a
message in tongues could take the form of a prophecy.
Likewise, a prophecy could take the form of a teaching, A
good example of this is the prophecy given by King Lemuel’s
mother to her son in Pr 31:1-31. Verse 1 refers to the
passage as an oracle (lit., “burden,” a term often used in the
OT to indicate a weighty message given by God), but it is
written simply in the form of a mother teaching her son.
Peter wrote that “Each one should use
whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully
administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone
speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God”
(1 Pe 4:10-11). Every word that is spoken in a church
meeting should be prompted by the Spirit of God and delivered in
a manner befitting such an utterance. Note also that we
are commanded to use whatever spiritual gift God has given us
“to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace”
(4:10). Spiritual gifts are not so much gifts to us as
they are gifts to the body of Christ. Because of this, we
would be harming the body of Christ if we denied others the
opportunity to minister with their gifts! The beauty of a
scriptural church meeting is that it gives God's people
opportunities to do this.
1 Co 14:30 we read the fourth guideline: “and if a revelation
comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should
stop.” There are several observations that we can draw
from this verse.
First of all, we should recognize that the
apostle is speaking of prophecy here, not of teaching. Some have
misunderstood this verse, and taken it to mean that it is OK to
rudely interrupt a teacher while He is delivering a word of
instruction. Some have even taken it to mean that it is OK to
change the course of a teaching altogether, or to interrupt with
an entirely unrelated teaching! That would be very unedifying,
and is not at all what the apostle meant here.
This does not mean that we cannot add some
insightful comments to a teaching when appropriate, but when it
is done, it should be done in respectful and edifying way. Avoid
interrupting the Holy Spirit's flow during a teaching. You may
want to wait until a teacher asks questions, or invites others
to comment on the scripture passage he is teaching from. Or you
may raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged, or wait for an
appropriate pause in the teaching. The word that is translated
“revelation” (14:30) means “an unveiling of secrets given by the
Spirit.” Granted, one form that a revelation may take is
when the Spirit gives a sudden understanding of a Bible passage
or a scriptural principle to someone in a church meeting, who
then shares it to complement a message that is being spoken.
However, since Paul limits the number of prophets who speak to
two or three, we must not besiege a teacher with so many
revelations to compliment his message that the poor man cannot
get through it. That would also be very unedifying.
Here, however, the apostle is not speaking of
adding something to a teaching, but of how the Holy Spirit may
move one prophet to speak, and then another. When the Holy
Spirit desires a second prophet to speak, He is finished
speaking, or almost finished speaking, through the first
prophet for the time being, who should stop and give the second
a chance to speak as soon as it is appropriate.
Note, also, that our Lord does not want one
prophet to dominate the meeting. Other prophets, if there are
any, should be given opportunity to speak.
Following this, Paul makes a corollary statement:
“For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be
instructed and encouraged” (14:31). The prophets are
to speak "in turn." One prophet must not interrupt another
prophet so that two people are speaking at the same time. One
rule that the apostle has makes clear in this passage is that
only one person should speak at a time. So even in the case of
prophets, everything should be done in an orderly way. This
obviously means that the second prophet should indicate to the
first that he also has something to say, by raising his hand or
by some other silent signal.
Another principle evident here is that one
person’s gift cannot meet the needs of everyone. If we
want everyone to be instructed and encouraged, then everyone
must be allowed to participate in his proper turn. This
principle of mutual participation means that there should be
spontaneity in our meetings. No church meeting should ever
be so planned that we do not permit the Holy Spirit to surprise
us. We must allow Him room to sovereignly lead!.
Spontaneity and the freedom for anyone to speak add an air of
excitement and expectancy to worship. The Lord never
intended that church meetings be a boring experience!
However, He did intend that they be orderly. If
someone speaks out of turn, then those who are
spiritually mature should seek to restore order as quickly and
discreetly as possible. Talking out of turn is speaking
when the Holy Spirit has not led, and includes being disruptive,
domineering, disorderly, long winded, or teaching
falsehoods. Related to this, the apostle next teaches us
that God gives no one an uncontrollable urge to speak:
“The spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of the
prophets” (14:32). If a person disturbs an otherwise
orderly and edifying church meeting, then the urge to do so does
not come from God. As Paul continues in v 33, “For God is
not a God of disorder but of peace.”
A home meeting in New Testament times.
Since the meetings were interactive and took place in homes,
participants probably sat in a circle instead of rows.
fifth guideline for meetings is based on 14:33b-35, “As in all
the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in
the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be
submissive, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about
something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is
disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” I could
devote an entire book to discussing these two verses, and in
fact, I have written a short
e-book on this! My primary purpose in writing this
article, however, is to encourage participatory church meetings,
and experience has taught me that a discussion of this
controversial passage tends to stand out in people's minds so
much, that it overshadows everything else! Therefore, I am going
to refrain from discussing it in this article. Suffice it to
say, that unless the meetings had been participatory, the women
would have been less tempted to violate this guideline.
last guideline for church gatherings over-arches all else: “But
everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way”
(14:40). Spontaneity in church is no excuse for
disorder! However, neither is doing things in a “fitting
and orderly way” an excuse for squelching the Holy Spirit with a
pre-printed "order of worship". Although there is room for
scheduled events now and then, the tenor of this passage makes
it clear that “orderly” (14:40) spontaneity is to be the
Notice also the complete lack of emphasis
on church leaders in 1 Co 14. They simply did not dominate
the meeting. Certainly the leaders spoke up if a violation
of the order of 1 Co 14 occurred, but otherwise they
participated just like everyone else. Did you notice the
cavalier way Paul tossed in a “word of instruction” with all the
other elements of the meeting (1 Co 14:26)? Preaching as
we know it today - one prescheduled teaching delivered as an
oratorical performance - simply was not the emphasis of an early
church meeting. Since “everyone” could potentially teach
at any given meeting, most of the teachings were obviously not
pre-scheduled. Certainly those inclined to teach would
often prepare ahead of time, but that is not the same as always
having someone slated to teach in advance. That kind of
rigidity simply is not “fitting” (14:40)!
is obvious from Scripture that church meetings were
participatory in New Testament times, and that everyone was
allowed to contribute freely and spontaneously to them. It is
also obvious that Paul wrote these instructions not just for the
Corinthians, but for our benefit as well, because the letter was
addressed not only to them, but to "all that in every place call
upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord".
Since that is the case, many of us will find this
passage threatening to our traditional church mindsets. You may
even find this passage somewhat threatening to your career, if
you, like me, were trained to be someone whose primary job is to
bring "the" sermon Sunday morning and evening. Who wants to
"shake the boat" and challenge "the way we've always done it"?
That certainly makes 1 Co 14:26-40 tempting to
ignore, doesn't it?
Although we may wish to take that easy way out,
the apostle Paul does not give us the comfortable option of
ignoring his words, if we want to have a clear conscience.
Instead, he goes on to tell us that what he is writing is “the
“Did the Word of God originate with you?
Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody
thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him
acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.
If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored” (14:36).
Paul anticipated that there would be those who
would want to conduct church meetings in ways other than
this. His questions are designed to point out to them how
presumptuous they would be to ignore his instructions and invent
their own customs–as though the Word of God had originated with
them, or they had a corner on it!
We know for a fact, however, that there have
been those in the history of the church who have presumed to
substitute their own customs for the Word of God, since the way
of meeting we have inherited is so different from what the Lord
commanded. Tertullian, a late second century believer,
wrote that “custom without truth is error grown old.”
The question is, are we going to continue
ignoring God's word for the sake of "error grown old"?
If we intentionally did that, would not the words
that Jesus spoke to the Pharisees ring accusingly in our own
“And why do you break the command of God for
the sake of your tradition?” (Mt 15:3).
Let's not look down on those who do not
understand this passage, and therefore don't practice church
this way. Many don't know better. They are merely continuing to
abide by the traditions they have inherited. Besides, there may
be other scripture passages that they understand and obey better
than we do! Let's also not presume to judge those who understand
this passage, but intentionally disregard it out of fear.
Judgment is God's business. However, there is nothing wrong with
encouraging such people to be more courageous!
We also don't want to lay an unbearable
burden on those who attend churches that will not change.
However, they will never know for sure that their church won't
change until they try to get them to follow this passage!
Some churches already follow these scriptural
principles, but if you attend one that does not, here are some
ideas that might help you to get your church to change:
1. Don't ask people to change without making
certain that they understand the biblical basis for that
change first. That can take time, lots of teaching (line upon
line, precept upon precept), and prayer.
2. Don't be a rebel, or a grumbler or
complainer. Be respectful of authority, polite, nonjudgmental,
and loving at all times. If the leaders are not behind this
change, it will be very difficult to implement it.
3. Be patient. It takes time to turn the
4. Recognize that there were several types of
meetings in New Testament times. There were prayer meetings
(Acts 12:12), small gatherings in homes (Acts 2:46), apostolic
teaching meetings (Acts 19:9), and church meetings (I Co
14:26-40). There is room for all of them. If your church
leaders think that there will be too much opposition to
implementing participatory meetings during the Sunday morning
service, perhaps it can be done on a Sunday or Wednesday
night. Some churches have an "After Glow" meeting following a
regular service for participatory sharing.
Another excellent option is to have participatory small group
meetings. This is usually best done in home cell group
meetings. Since the early church met in homes, this can give
you a wonderful taste of what New Testament Church life was
really like! However, any small group meeting, from a Sunday
School class to a youth group, can be made more
Since the Lord gave us these scriptural instructions for the
sake of our spiritual health, any implementation of these
scriptural principles can help to foster a healthier
functioning church body that affirms the priesthood of the
believer not only in word, but in deed.
5. If the ideas above fall on deaf ears, and
you have leadership gifts or know someone who does, you could,
as a last resort, pray about organizing your own small group
meeting as a personal ministry. You don't have to break away
from your church to do this.
If all of these options fail and you are
attending the church God wants you to be at, it's not the end of
the world! You should give it more time and prayer. Meanwhile,
you can still get a lot of benefit from church meetings done the
Sometimes people simply won't change.
Appropriately, Paul's next words are,
"But if any man be ignorant, let him be
If someone stubbornly chooses to ignore the sound
instructions that the Apostle has given, there is no need to
fret about it, or to keep pestering him. We are instructed to
let him to remain in his willfully ignorant state.
Paul concludes with, "Wherefore, brethren, covet
to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. Let all
things be done decently, and in order."
If you implement the apostle Paul’s instructions
in your own church, God will be more pleased with your obedience
than with the sweat and toil used to prepare for a thousand
church meetings not conducted according to His Word. As
the prophet Samuel said to King Saul, “to obey is better than
sacrifice” (1 Sa 15:22).
Rusty Entrekin is a theology
graduate of Louisiana College. He and his wife Julie have
seven children, with four still at home, and four
grandchildren. Currently, he resides in Kennesaw, GA. He
writes apologetic and theological articles to help people
come to know Christ and grow closer to the Lord. If this
article has blessed you, and you would like to free him up
to write more, you may make a donation below.
Rusty previously decided not
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