Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) In many places the Old Testament gives us pictures of what worship was like for the Israelites. Patterns for worship are laid out, we read descriptions of worship events, and we have the Psalms which formed the heart of the Jewish hymn book and prayer book. It seems likely that the worship of those first Christians was based on worship in the synagogues but otherwise the New Testament tells us very little about the worship of the Early Church and most of what we can learn is found here in 1 Corinthians. In two weeks we will see what Paul teaches us about the Lord’s Supper, or communion. For tonight we will look at the two other passages which give us a glimpse of what worship was like in the church in Corinth. Like most of this letter, we presume that Paul wrote both of these passages in response to questions the Corinthians had asked him. So it is good to remember that what Paul tells us here is as much about what the Corinthians were doing wrong as about what they were doing right in their worship. It is not a complete treatise on Christian Worship in the First Century – just a few answers to a few questions. And the first question is about
WOMEN COVERING THEIR HEADS IN WORSHIP
1 Corinthians 11:3 Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.
This whole section about women covering their heads in worship is very hard for us to understand and apply today. It is locked in customs and understandings of first century Judaism about the place of men and women in creation and ancient near eastern taboos about women showing their hair to men. In those days women would grow their hair long, and men their hair short. That is just the way things were done. And women would keep their hair covered except when they were with their husbands as a mark of respect for their husbands. So Paul says,
. 6 If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.
In other words, it would be as socially unacceptable for a woman to cut her hair off or even shave her head as it would be for her to go around without covering up her hair. The issue was what was considered respectable at the time and what was considered indecent.
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
Indeed, says Paul, even the angels would be offended at a woman not having her head covered in public! 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
This was an issue for that place and that time. It is not an issue for us today because society has no expectations about how either men or women should fashion their hair. There are few hairstyles which would cause anybody any offence any more, in times of worship or any other times. All kinds of weird and wonderful theologies have been built around these verses on women covering up their hair, and the words “headship” and “covering.” This passage has been misused to argue that God has placed women in a position of subservience to men, and wives to their husbands. But that is not what Paul is saying at all!
Note – women were praying in public and prophesying with their head’s uncovered. The problem Paul cares about is the question of whether their heads should be covered or not. This whole passage assumes that women leading the church in prayer or bringing prophecies to the church are both perfectly acceptable and appropriate.
5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.
Hold that thought and we’ll be coming back to it in a few minutes. Because there is another question Paul has to answer about worship in 1 Corinthians 14 and that concerns,
ORDER OR CHAOS IN WORSHIP
Paul begins by considering participation in worship – and considers that all to be good! 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. The idea of open worship, different people bringing different elements to the worship, what we call “bring and share” all good! This was describing what happened in Corinth. Paul is not saying this is the pattern all church worship should follow. But Paul does not criticize that pattern. “Open worship” is clearly permissible, even if it is not the only form worship can take. There is a good case for suggesting that worship should never be a “one-man band” all led from the front and should usually involve the participation of a number of believers. Their contributions may be prepared in advance: words of instruction, sermons and teaching, testimonies and for some people even their prayers usually benefit from some preparation. On the other hand some contributions to worship may be spontaneous, inspired on the spot: speaking in tongues and their explanations and some prophecies. The New Testament certainly encourages the whole congregation to be led by the Spirit as they share in worship together.
In Colossians 3 Paul says this. 16 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. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
This suggests that in Colossae many people were leading each other in worship and even teach one another. But Paul also insists that this should always proceed in an orderly fashion. Worship should never descend into chaos.
1 Corinthians 14:40 Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
When it comes to speaking in tongues
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.
There are some churches I have been to where everybody is encouraged to all pray out loud at the same time. In some of those churches people are encouraged to pray in tongues all at the same time. Let me be honest – I have great problems with those forms of worship. Paul says only a few should speak and they should do so one at a time! Everybody praying at once seems to me to be exactly what Paul is saying we should NOT do! And then Paul expects that in times of worship prayers in tongues should be followed by explanations of those prayers in the common language. Churches which do not stop and wait for those interpretations or explanations seem to me to be completely rejecting 1 Corinthians 14:27-28. And that leaves me very uneasy about those times of worship.
When it comes to bringing words of prophecy.
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.
Again, I am all for prophecy as a part of worship. But I am also concerned about the quality, or should I say the lack of quality, of prophecy in many churches which encourage this. Paul insists that prophecies should always be weighed and evaluated by other prophets. Churches which allow people to bring “messages from God,” dreams and visions and other prophetic experiences, are obliged by 1 Corinthians 14 to make sure that the wheat is always sifted from the chaff.
Worship in the church in Corinth had lost the spirit of peace. Many of them were using spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues and even of prophesying as a way of showing off in front of each other. Everybody was praying and prophesying and probably singing all at the same time so their times of worship had descended into chaos. Paul insists this is wrong. God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
40 Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
And that is the context where we read one of the most misunderstood parts of Scripture.
1 Corinthians 14:33 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 inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
I talked about this passage before as part of our series on Understanding the New Testament. I reminded us then that a vital step in understanding any verse is to read it in context. The context here is that Paul is saying that everybody talking at the same time contributes to disorder in worship. And then he answers what we presume to be a question the Corinthians had posed in a letter they had written to Paul. Should women talk in church?
That word “speak” could mean different things. It could mean speaking in tongues. It could refer to women turning to their neighbour and asking them what on earth the preacher is going on about. Speaking could just mean chattering. The Greek word for say or speak “laleo” has that breadth of meanings. It is unlikely that Paul is talking about women preaching or teaching, because then he would probably have used one of the more precise words which mean to preach or to teach. And there are two other aspects of speaking which we can be pretty sure Paul was not referring to, because we have already seen from 1 Corinthians 11 that Paul has no problems at all with women praying or prophesying in church, just as long as in that culture they keep their heads covered up.
Paul says 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 inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home
In the context of insisting that worship should be an expression of order and peace, not disorder or chaos, I believe Paul is talking about women adding to the confusion by talking to their neighbour about what is being said. What he says here doesn’t tell us anything about women preaching or teaching, or about women being in leadership of churches, or about women becoming Ministers.
These two passages about worship in Corinth do tell us two things which are important for worship in churches today. The first is that here at North Springfield Baptist Church we ought to be making more space for more people to participate in worship. By bringing the Bible reading and leading us in prayer. By sharing testimonies and children’s talks. By bringing words of prophecy and knowledge and wisdom. By leading our worship and even by preaching and teaching. For a variety of reasons I have kept most of these things to myself but that must change. Because God can speak through you as well as through me. Because many of you have spiritual gifts which I haven’t given you the space to exercise and develop. This must change and this will change!
But at the same time, whoever is leading or preaching or praying, we should never forget the most important point Paul is making about order in worship. I fear that some churches today have forgotten these vital principles, and others simply choose to ignore them. Nobody can worship in spirit and in truth in the midst of chaos.
“God is not a God of disorder but of peace. Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”