The Nature of Common Worship and its implications for “Free Worship”
1) New Testament Exhortations
The N.T. contains a number of exhortations with respect to Christians coming together to worship God. Eg: Eph 5:18-20; Col 3:16-17; Heb 10:24
2) Common Elements
a) Mutual strengthening: “Speak to one another” “Teach and admonish one another” “Encourage one another”
b) Spontaneity: “spiritual songs”
c) Thankfulness: “always giving thanks”
3) The Material in 1 Corinthians
1 Corinthians is the only place in the NT with anything like an extended description of Christian worship with specific guidelines The most outstanding of these is in 1 Cor 12:7 “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good”. Then in 1Cor 12:12-31 Paul uses the analogy of the physical body to establish the essential mutual interdependence of all Christians. His argument is directed against spiritual elitism and individualism. 1 Corinthians 13 appears next because it is love which must guide the actions of the church at worship. What such love means in practice is explained in chapter 14. The particular problem in Corinth had to do with the use of tongues, but Paul has already established principles to cover other possible examples of imbalance
The difficulty in speaking in tongues in the public assembly is that its unintelligibility renders it useless for the building up of the faith of another person (1 Cor 14:6-12). This has to do with the intrinsic nature of tongues speaking, unlike all the other gifts of the Spirit it does not contain within itself the ability to impart grace to someone else. All the rest of the gifts eg: miracles, healings, prophecy are in their very manifestation “other-directed.” The one with the gift of healing, for example, prays for the well being of others. By itself tongues is mysterious; understood by no-one but God. In other words it contains a vertical (God-ward) element without a horizontal (man-ward)dimension (1 Cor 14:2). It may edify the speaker but cannot edify someone standing by (1 Cor 14:4, 16-17). Paul’s solution to this in the public assembly is to encourage those who would speak in tongues to pray for the gift of interpretation of their tongue. (1 Cor 14:13-15)When he says; “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind”, Paul is describing the interpretation of tongues (spoken or sung) which turns tongues into an intelligible phenomenon capable of building up another person. (1 Cor 14:15,5). It is clearly a Pauline principle, without exception, that in the public assembly of God’s people, especially where unbelievers are present (1 Cor 14:23), that whatever is exercised must be potentially intelligible and so able to edify. In other words it must be capable of being meaningful to others in a spiritual sense.
This is why the question of edification is central. The particular Greek work involved (oikodomeo) means literally “to erect a building”. Metaphorically, it means to build a life (1 Cor 3:5-17).
That which cannot possibly contribute to the central programme of God in building the life of Christ in us (Romans 8:29) cannot be a valid expression of my spirituality in the context of shared public worship. “You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified”. (1 Cor 14:7) So if I speak in tongues, or sing in tongues, or dance, or sing in English, or stand on my hands in the congregation in a way which is not other-directed, at least potentially or in part, then I am clearly out of order. I am simply not loving the other person, even if I am being edified.
4) “Free Worship”
In some circles the expression “free worship” is used in contemporary Christian circles to imply that it is sometimes appropriate in public worship for people “to do their own thing” in an unguided manner. This is exactly the sort of individualism which Paul objected to in Corinth and was manifested in their use of tongues. In the categories used above this sort of “free worship” is a contradiction in terms. If however by “free worship” is meant unprepared, spontaneous, Spirit-inspired worship, this is commended (1 Cor 14:26a), as long as it is exercised in a manner which will strengthen the church. (1 Cor 14:26b)
Paul makes it completely clear how this is to happen by referring to the issues at Corinth. Both prophecy and tongues with interpretation are to be exercised in a serial order when they are individual contributions for the body. Even though he does not expand on this, it seems clear that he would apply the same ordering to other spiritual manifestations, like “a hymn, or a word of instruction” (1 Cor 14:26). What we do together we must do together, 30 people praying aloud at once, or singing 30 different songs in English, or tongues, or reading inspired poetry simultaneously, is not common worship at all.
Arguably, the situation is different when clear guidance is given about what is happening in a context of “open worship”. This is not a time when multiple individuals may bring something simultaneously for the community, this is disorder of the worst kind – unintelligible and incoherent. Rather, it is a context, by clear agreement, with boundaries of commencement and termination, where the community recognises that individuals within it have an opportunity together to express their love for and adoration of God. The direction, in other words, is vertical and NOT horizontal. Even if exhortation, edification and consolation occur within the body (1 Cor 14:3) this is something that God will do as a sovereign act, and is not part of the intention of the one giving praise or prayer.
5) Final Instructions
Paul’s final word should be ours also. “Therefore my brother, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues (in church). But everything (prophecy, tongues – interpretation, wisdom, knowledge, healings, miracles, discernment of spirits, faith, to which we might add inspired solos in English, dance, poetry, prayer etc.) should be done in a fitting and orderly way. (1 Cor 14:39-40)