A properly God-centered theology of worship will recognize that in a corporate worships service, God is the primary actor. It is God who calls us to draw near to him; we do not invite him to come down to us. It is God who speaks to us first; only then do we respond back to him. And even our responses should be based, not on the natural, authentic expressions of our hearts, but rather our responses should be framed by the words, forms, and affections ordained for us by God in his Word.
Paul’s central argument in the only full NT chapter addressing corporate worship is that for corporate worship, the spiritual gift of prophecy was to be desired more than the gift of tongues. Even though this core argument may not be directly applicable in a day when tongues and prophecy have ceased, I have been demonstrating the past couple weeks that the reasons Paul gives for his argument reveal central principles about the nature and purpose of corporate worship that apply in all times.
So far I pointed out that since tongues was a gift meant as a sign to unbelieving Israel, and prophecy is direct revelation from the Lord for the edification of believers, Paul’s central argument elevating prophecy over tongues reveals that corporate worship is primarily for believers, not unbelievers. I have also shown that since speaking in tongues would be beneficial only for the one speaking, Paul’s argument reveals that corporate worship must be corporate, not individual.
Third, Paul’s discussion of tongues and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14 helps us to understand that the purpose of corporate worship gatherings is edification, not merely expression.
We should certainly be expressing worship toward God in a church service, but Paul’s discussion here reveals that expression is not the primary purpose of a corporate worship service; rather the primary purpose of a corporate worship service is edification.
This is a big difference between tongues and prophecy. As we saw in Acts, the content of speaking in tongues was the exultation and praise of God. That’s clear in this chapter as well: Paul says in verse 2, “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God,” and he describes the content of tongues speaking in verses 16–17 as giving thanks to God.
Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.
So speaking in tongues was certainly an act of individual expression toward God that brought him glory, and yet Paul indicates that in corporate worship, we should be primarily concerned about corporate edification rather than only corporate expression. Just survey briefly with me through the chapter and notice how much emphasis there is here upon the edification of the whole congregation in corporate worship:
On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation (v3).
The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church (v4).
Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up (v5).
Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching (v6)?
So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air (v9).
So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church (v12).
For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up (v17).