After discussing moral issues Paul turns to worship. Again we see the freedom of the Spirit. Although he speaks of tradition (I Corinthians 11: 2) this does not appear to include a formal liturgy. Five years earlier he said, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, do not quench the Spirit (I Thessalonians 5: 16-22) In this letter he remarks “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. (I Corinthians 14: 26). He pictures the main act of worship as an unruly covered dish supper. About the only thing that could be described as tradition is the formula we now call “The Words of Institution”. (I Corinthians 11: 23-26) The Spirit is operating freely.
Of course, that leads to abuses. He addresses two of them. The first is the refusal to share food at Jesus’ love feast. I suppose “When the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” (I Corinthians 11:21) is hyperbole. Yet it is clear the rich do not share their food with the poor.
When he cautions they should examine themselves, so they discern the body, he obviously is not referring to the metaphysical features of bread and wine but the Body of Christ as the community of the faithful. Their failure is not appreciating love unites rich and poor and should inspire them to share with each other as they await the heavenly feast.
The second abuse comes from tongue speakers and prophets dominating worship in ways that disrupt and disparage. These charismatics either claimed they practiced the most important spiritual gifts or maybe even implied those who did not have such gifts were not real Christians. They practiced the charismatic gifts that appeared in Pentecostal churches during the twentieth century. After entering a trance-like state, they acted as channels for the Risen Jesus, claiming to speak words he gave directly to them. Tongue speakers used a heavenly or angelic language that seems gibberish and needed interpretation when done in public. Prophets spoke in the vernacular.
It is easy to see how problems develop when people claim authority, because God is speaking through them. Imposters soon learn to fake it so they can control others. And faking is easy. You simply have to say, “God gave me a word of knowledge” such as modern televangelists do all the time. This ability to fake or use the gifts selfishly is what undoubtedly led the church to move away from such practices throughout almost all of our history.
Paul does not denounce the practices. He says he himself speaks in tongues, but only in private (I Corinthians 14: 18, 19) That leads to his rule that public use should be confined to three times during a service and done in a way that benefits the group. (I Corinthians 14: 27- 32) His second argument claims the Holy Spirit gives each person different spiritual gifts that are to be shared in a division of labor for the common good of the group. The Body of Christ has many parts that are to co-operate not compete. Even though he says there no priority, he does offer a third argument that describes tongues as of least importance. “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues (I Corinthians 12: 27, 28) He maintains prophecy is more important, because it uses a language all can understand. “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy…Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (I Corinthians 14: 5)
However, his intention is seen most clearly in the criteria he sets. Right at the start he proclaims all who are baptized have enough of the Spirit. “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, …I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 12: 1-3) Remember “Jesus is Lord” is the confession used at baptism in his time.
And right in the middle of his counsel, he makes clear the only Christian essential is love. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13: 1-3)
His definition of love is here as always qualifying the freedom that faith and the Spirit bestow by taking others into consideration at all times. He puts it this way in I Corinthians 13: 4-7 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Once again we see that love is the only permanent element as the Spirit leads us in the freedom of faith. He puts this in an unforgettable manner when he claims love is the only Christian virtue that is practiced in heaven. “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13: 8- 13)
If we ask what Paul teaches us about our own worship, we’d have to say his norm is simply that worship should be orderly and that which benefits the gathered congregation. All our arguments about contemporary and traditional worship fade into a matter of personal taste in light of Paul’s counsel. And we have to go deeper than simply saying “That is the way we have always done it”, especially in a time when some people report that way does not satisfy their needs any more.” Perhaps Paul’s warning that worship should benefit the congregation rather than satisfy the leaders, is also pertinent. Certainly some of the haughtiness we witness in our day has no place in Paul’s understanding.
The bottom line is still “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”. (I Corinthians 12: 4-7)
P.S. After writing this I got a surprise. On a whim I checked Paul’s use of the word “love”. His letters contain “love” three times more than the Four Gospels together. That is especially telling as the Gospels are about twice as long as his letters.