You are probably familiar with the unfinished Gaudi cathedral in Barcellona – the Sagrada Familia. It's almost as famous for being unfinished as it is for it's crazy shape. Building work started in 1882. The building was only made water tight in 2011. The biggest tower is yet to be started. And while there are plans to finish by 2026, the original plan was to finish by 1893, so I wouldn't hold your breath.
It seems crazy doesn't it, that it's been going all that time and still has so far to go. But that's how it's always been with great Cathedral buildings; they took several life times to construct. As Gaudi said about his cathedral – 'my client is not in a hurry'. Our own Durham Cathedral was built between 1093 and the early 13th Century, though some elements in the central tower are as late as the 15th Century.
Think about the stonemasons and architects and builders starting the project knowing that they'll die long before it's finished, that their children probably won't see it finished either, but their children's children might possibly see it done. That's pretty impressive faith isn't it? Think of the thousands of men who worked their whole lives on one building site, but never saw the building finished.
I think it's a pretty good example for us. Because the idea we're rubbing up against in our passages over the last few weeks is that we're a building site too. Our church isn't the finished product. The construction company finished this building in 2007, but they handed it over to a different group of builders, us.
God, through Paul, says to us in these chapters that the building work goes on – we're building God's church; and the message is: 'be careful how you build, you'll pass this building on to the next generation, and the one after that and so on – make sure you're building something magnificent'.
The argument of the last couple of chapters is coming to an end and we can summarise it's conclusion more or less like this:
Everything in church should be done to build up the church – therefore it should be ordered, controlled, reasonable, in accordance with God's design and Word and in accordance with the instructions of God's apostles.
Since everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way I've arranged the material in this section into the proper arrangement of three points. And you can see them on the screen:
Everything Must be Done For Strengthening the Church vv 26-33a
Everything Must be Done as God Designed it vv 33b-36
Everything Must be Done as the Apostles Instruct us vv 36-40
And we'll proceed in a proper and orderly fashion through those points in order (let me know when the fitting and proper joke is wearing thin…)
Everything Must be Done For Strengthening the Church vv 26-33a
26 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. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two--or at the most three-- should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
So finally Paul says how it should be done. The key principle is the end of verse 26 – everything that is done must be for the strengthening of the church, this dictates everything – if it will build the body up, it's in, if not, it's out. The reason is they're a building site; the church is a work in progress, a building that's being built by their meetings. Only things that will build the building should be going on during the building time.
Now there's no mention of bible reading or sermons, things Paul clearly expects to happen in a church service (for instance in 1 Tim 4.13 – he commands Timothy to 'devote yourself to the public reading of scripture, to preaching and to teaching'). Nor is there any mention of the Lord's supper, which they practiced, as we heard in in ch 11. He doesn't mention the Lords prayer or doxologies and creeds and other instruction. It seems Paul isn't so much writing a prayer book or a service sheet as talking about the things they focus on when they meet. So we don't read this is a recipe for a church service so much as putting down some limits on what they do when in church.
His conclusion on tongues and prophecy, follows from his discussion last week - tongues are an optional extra, if there is an interpreter they can happen, but if not they mustn't happen. But prophecy – clear teaching of God's word – is required. Compare verse 27 'if anyone speaks' in a tongue… and verse 29 'two or three prophets should speak'. This follows from the argument that tongues are for the tongue speaker but prophecy is for the church. When you turn up to work on the building site you don't bring your chores from home or your hobbies, you come to work on the building. Same with us at church, we do only those things that build the church.
The other principle that Paul lays down here is that all must be orderly, not chaos. If there's more than one speaker they must all speak in turn, they mustn't just all call out at once, or talk over each other, or ignore one another. He's not interested in good manners, but on what is fitting in God's people: verse 33 God is not of chaos but order. When we meet together we're an outpost of heaven, God's shop window, his show home for heaven. God is here among us, we need to be careful to be doing things that he likes, not things that make him angry. More than that, outsiders who come in learn God's character from us, from how we behave – our meetings must be organised in a way that brings honour to God and reflects and teaches his character.
Put it this way – we gather as the saved children of God, we should show his family likeness. If we don't we're as useless as a pacifist society that breaks into a fist fight; or meditation group that meets in the middle of the fields of Glastonburywhile the music festival's on. Church is supposed to be an advertisement for God himself, for the new society that he is creating, the new kingdom that he's started in Jesus. If the church is full of people doing things that misrepresent God and don't advertise what he's like then our church is useless. We do a disservice to God and to the people who look to us to find out about him.
So the two criteria for judging what ought to happen in church are:
1) will it build the church up; and
2) will it accurately reflect God's character.
We're not going to look exactly the same as the Corinthian church, or any of the NT churches for that matter. But what we do at church must be governed by those same two criteria – does it build the church and does it accurately reflect God's character? The goal is clear – building the church. So it everything gets judged by these criteria – will it build the body, will it grow the church, will it teach us what God is like, or distract us from honouring him? Will outsiders feel comfortable with this going on?
And don't miss the personal application here: Church is a building project and when we meet we're all on-duty, we're all at work. Building God's church is a massive project, far too big for any staff team. That's why Paul says we need to come to church with something to share: 'everyone has a hymn or a word for others' – mostly that happens in our small groups, so join a small group where you can build others up.
Also, at the end of the service we often say 'that's the end of the formal part of the service' – we mean the formalities are finished, but the serving isn't supposed to be. Tea and Coffee time is designed to give us time to serve each other – so consider sharing a verse or an encouragement with the people you're talking to after the service, or a challenge, or a prayer request, or something else that will build them up. The Corinthians were in trouble for indulging themselves by praising God in a way that discouraged others. But what does that say about us? We indulge ourselves too, but how often would we think of indulging ourselves by praising God? We indulge ourselves in talking about completely worthless things. They were speaking about God in a way that no one could understand. What about people who almost never speak about God? Is that you? Do you indulge yourself and your passions and natter on about all sorts of things that will never build someone up? I'm not saying we ditch small talk – we need to grease the wheels of conversation, get to know others, etc. but if it's all small talk, where's the stuff that is going to build others up?
Everything Must be Done as God Designed it vv 33b-36
As in all the congregations of the saints, 34 women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35 If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?
What is going on in these verses? This is another aspect of shaping the services to reflect God's character, in this case to reflect the submission that God has built into our world. Submission is the correct and godly response to authority. The alternative is to reject authority, as Adam and Eve did in the garden. And submission in marriage – or a wife to her husband – is clearly taught in scriptures – we saw this when we looked at first part of ch 11 (7th April, David Holloway, available on our website). I can't go into detail on the topic of submission here but you might want to look over David's sermon on ch 11, and if you're on our website you'll see a link from there to a related sermon on 1 Tim 2 that will also help fill out the Biblical picture.
Now we also saw in ch 11 that women can speak in the church services, but that they must do so in a culturally appropriate and suitably submissive way. Paul's not contradicting himself here, this restriction on women speaking can't mean no talking at all in church.
So how does it work in practice? Clear that women are allowed to speak in church, Paul said as much in ch11. Also clear – here and in other passages like 1 Tim 2 – that women are not to be given, or to be taking, teaching authority in the church. Doesn't mean women can't say anything about the bible – as if in home groups all the women had to be silent and only talk at home – but it means that men are to lead congregations and to lead the teaching and instruction in the church. Women will teach in all kinds of circumstances – any time we talk about God and the bible together we hope to learn from each other – but they're not to be the ministers and the preachers in church. There is an element of cultural appropriateness here – and our culture is different to theirs, so things will look a bit different now than they did then. But that's not the whole picture. Paul insists that the law – the OT – teaches submission of a wife to her husband (so does Peter), and that this needs to be reflected in our public meetings too. Our culture couldn't be more dismissive of submission, and patriarchy. So we actually need to be counter cultural, showing how loving leadership and gracious submission works for everyone's good, in accordance with God's good design for us all.
When we reject God's word on this we're taking God's good gifts and using them in ways they weren't designed for. You can use lots of things in ways they weren't designed for, but it usually ends in disaster:
Wash your woollens in the washing machine, but they'll shrink - witness my red jumper which you haven't seen in a while because it now stops at my chest...
you might over clock a computer – run it at a faster speed than it was designed for. That will make it faster, but it will also increase the chances of overheating and crashing…
The top gear lads tried making their cars into boats, but only one of them stayed afloat, and he couldn't steer. Two of them sunk quite spectacularly.
We can ignore God and do church how we think best, but it won't work half as well as doing it God's way, because he's the designer, he knows how it's supposed to be, he knows how he made us to work.
So we need to practice loving leadership and gracious submission in our church. Men and Women need to work to complement each other, not compete to rule over each other. Since this is seriously counter the spirit of our age it calls for careful reflection, and for prayer and repentance if we're out of step with God. If you find this teaching horrible and appalling, please come and talk to me after, and please work at listening to God more than the voices of our culture.
It also calls for restraint – this is not a licence for men to become little dictators in their own homes, nor in the church. We are all people under authority to serve God. Remember the context – everything is to be for the building up of the body. And Love is the supreme goal. Can't twist this teaching now to say we are free to love ourselves and abuse others. Rather leadership must be loving and for the good of all.
This section on women's role in the meetings might make some of us want to push back and say who is he to say that? Well it seems it was likely to make the Corinthians say the very same thing. So it leads Paul into a bigger principle that stands behind everything he's been saying – he has authority from God, we need to submit to his authority. That's our third point:
Everything Must be Done as the Apostles Instruct us vv 36-40
36 Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 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. 38 If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. 39 Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Do you see what Paul's saying here – verse 33 he introduced the discussion about women's behaviour by saying 'you ought to do what we do in all the other churches'. Now he challenges their inevitable push back by saying if you're out of step with everyone else you need to ask 'why?' Is it because God spoke to you and forgot to speak to everyone else? Or is it that you've missed something that every one else can see? And if you really think that you might be out of step because you're the only ones who got the memo from God consider that Jesus himself personally gave authority to Paul to speak for him. Paul commands them on behalf of Jesus himself. Reject Paul here, and we're actually rejecting God. So reject Paul and God will reject you, just like he rejects all who reject Jesus.
We know the bible didn't arrive by fax from heaven. But we also know that the apostles and the OT prophets and the other people who wrote the bible didn't speak on their own. They wrote under the influence of the Holy Spirit so they wrote with all their human faculties, but they wrote only what God wanted them to write, and they wrote precisely what God wanted them to write, and what they wrote has the force of God's word to us, even today.
So Reject Paul's authority and you reject God's authority. Reject the bible and you reject God.
So think about that argument – do you suppose that applies in time as well as in geography – if church is out of step with the practice of the church through history, especially the church of the apostles at the beginning, then we need to ask is it because they didn't get God's word and we have? Or are we out of step with the apostolic church because we're out of step with God? Are we the first people to ever hear from God on this topic? It's absurd to think that – but what churches are claiming today: Paul was wrong on submission and on homosexuality and on a whole host of things, now the Holy Spirit has led us to a new understanding that contradicts the NT! How could that possibly work? It's blasphemous, it's saying the Spirit doesn't speak the truth, he was either wrong, or he lied in the past, only now that we know the truth.
I mean imagine with me for a moment that the Sunderland car plant starts producing Mercedes Cars – they completely ditch all the Nissan parts and plans they've been using and start producing different cars altogether. Would we suppose that they have special knowledge from the Nissan Corporation that Nissan are going to make Mercedes now? Or would we conclude that something had gone badly wrong and they were no longer working for Nissan? If they are radically out of step with Nissan world wide then they can hardly go on calling themselves Nissan! Same with us, we know the same God who spoke to Paul. He's not a God who changes his mind, he's not evolving his thinking, nor is he working it out as he goes along, and he's not taken by surprise by developments in our world. What he says stands, and we need to submit to it. If we're radically out of step with God's word, that's not a cause for pride, but repentance and rapid change.
So there's a much wider application to gay marriage and sex outside of marriage and living together and shacking up and all the ways our society – and often our churches – are out of step with NT Christianity. The test is not is it old fashioned or new, but is it right. And the criteria that determines rightness is the word of God. If God say's its right, then it is always right, throughout time and across space, even when everyone else says it's wrong. And if God says it's wrong, then it doesn't matter how many think tanks, or ethicists say it's right. It doesn't matter how much we teach it in schools and repeat it in the media, what God says is wrong will never become right. And our challenge is to keep looking deeply into God's word and letting it challenge the things we take for granted. And that challenge is going to get harder, especially if gay marriage laws are passed and teachers will be legally required to teach gay marriage as right and priests and pastors as well as registrars legally required to do gay marriages, and so it will go on. But we need to stand on Christ's word if we are to grow, otherwise we will fall out of step with God.
So Paul brings all this to a conclusion. In church do that which is useful for building others up, for building the church. So – prefer intelligible speech to unintelligible; Don't do things that reflect badly on God, and don't do things that will put people off when they're still on the outside; And don't fall out of step with God's design, revealed through his word and commanded by his Apostles. And don't imagine that you can go rogue, but make every effort to keep in step with the world wide church where it remains in step with Christ and his Apostles. It's simple, to say. But it's much harder to put it into practice and to keep at it. So we need to pray and ask for God's wisdom and God's strength. And we need to remember that we're building something magnificent, even if we can't see it yet.