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
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 flight!
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
“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 Christ.”
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
I see advantages in the way that the early Christians
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
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
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 disclosed.
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
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
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.
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 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 standard!
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)!
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
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
That certainly makes 1 Co 14:26-40 tempting to ignore,
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 Lord’s command.”
“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
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 ears?
“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 Titantic
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 participatory.
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
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
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 modern way.
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 to
apply for 501c3 ministry status, so that he can write about political
matters without worrying about government interference. Because of
this, your gifts will not be tax deductible. However, you will receive
a far greater reward for your donation: treasure in heaven!