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Six Tests of Pentecostal Worship

Lessons from 1 Corinthians 12–14

George P Wood on June 11, 2021

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In 1 Corinthians 12–14, Paul responds to Corinthian church members’ questions about the use of spiritual gifts in corporate settings (12:1, cf. 7:1). Corinthian worship included uninterpreted tongues (14:1–25) and prophecies delivered chaotically (14:26–40). These misuses of those gifts resulted from bad theology and wrong motives. Paul corrects the theology in Chapter 12 and the motives in Chapter 13.

These three chapters are a window into early Christian worship services. Together with Chapter 11, which discusses head coverings in worship (verses 1–16) and the Lord’s Supper (verses 17–34), they offer more detail about what happened when Christians gathered for worship than any other New Testament passage. And while the misuse of tongues and prophecy was unique to Corinth, Romans 12:3–8, Ephesians 4:7–13, and 1 Peter 4:7–11, among other passages, indicate that the use of spiritual gifts in corporate worship was not.

Consequently, these chapters are important to Pentecostals. While some Christians stubbornly cling to cessationism, the belief that revelatory gifts “ceased” after the New Testament, Pentecostals do not. We affirm, theologically and practically, that spiritual gifts continue until Christ’s return, the “completeness” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:10.

So, we use these chapters as a touchstone for our worship practices. In what follows, I outline six tests of Pentecostal worship found in 1 Corinthians 12–14. And I conclude by asking what our test scores are.

The Tests

1. Orthodoxy: “No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (12:3).

“Jesus is Lord” is the central claim of the gospel. According to Romans 10:9, the heartfelt, public confession of Jesus’ lordship leads to salvation. We can make that confession because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Since it is difficult to believe that a Jesus follower would ever curse Christ in Christian worship, we probably should interpret Paul’s statement hypothetically. Some of the Corinthians’ other practices and beliefs were contradictory to the gospel, though (e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:1, 15:12). Regardless, Paul’s point is that our spirituality must be consistent with our theology.

A spiritual gift that points away from Jesus, then, is not authentic.

2. Diversity in unity: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (12:7).

Paul is most concerned about uninterpreted tongues and chaotic prophesying. Some Corinthians evidently valued tongues and prophecy above all. They also judged others’ spirituality based on the exercise of those gifts.

To correct the misuse of those gifts and the resulting judgmentalism, Paul reminds the Corinthians that spiritual gifts are diverse in expression but united in source, goal and context. We see the diversity in 12:8–11. Paul identifies the Trinity as the unified source of all gifts (12:4–6). Their unified goal is “the common good” (12:7), and their unified context is the local church (12:12–13).

Diversity in unity offers a standing rebuke of the bad habit of ranking gifts and gifted Christians, as if some are better than others. Objectively, all gifts are valuable and necessary. Just as a body needs all its parts, so every member of a congregation needs all the others (12:12–26).

3. Love: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (13:13).

A lack of love for others explains why some Corinthians misused tongues and prophecy. At the subjective level, they were motivated by self-love. Having ranked their gifts and themselves above others, they exercised their gifts in ways calculated to exalt themselves, not to edify others.

Paul made short work of their snobbery, comparing unloving tongues to “a resounding gong or a clanging symbol” (13:1), and describing unloving prophets as “nothing” (13:2). We might say he prioritized the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23, cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4–8) over the gifts. This does not mean we must choose between the Spirit’s fruit and gifts, however. We can have both. Paul’s point is that spiritual gifts must be motivated by, and manifested with, love.

We affirm, theologically and practically, that spiritual gifts continue until Christ’s return.

4. Edification: “The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified” (1 Corinthians 14:5).

Having corrected the Corinthians’ bad theology in Chapter 12 and wrong motives in Chapter 13, Paul now corrects their misuse of tongues and prophecy in Chapter 14. In a public setting, uninterpreted tongues and chaotic prophesying confuse rather than clarify. To be helpful, public messages in tongues need to be interpreted, and prophecies need to be delivered in an orderly manner.

When Paul writes, “The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues,” he is not ranking the gifts per se, but rather indicating their value in public worship. That is why he adds, “unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified” (14:5). Uninterpreted tongues edify the speaker (14:4), but the goal of tongues in public worship is to edify the hearers (14:19).

5. Participation: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (14:26).

Paul’s statement is hyperbole. He does not mean that every Christian will have a speaking role in church. We know this because of his rhetorical questions in 12:29–30: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues?” The answer to each is “no.” Different Christians have different gifts.

A caveat is in order, here: The Assemblies of God’s Statement of Fundamental Truths teaches that speaking in tongues in Acts 2:4 is “the same in essence” as the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12:10,28, though “different in purpose and use.” Insofar as baptism in the Holy Spirit is available to all Christians, and tongues is the “initial physical sign” of that baptism, uninterpreted speaking in tongues is available to all as well. It is in the context of public worship that interpretable tongues are not universally given.

Speaking hyperbolically, then, Paul’s point is that Christian worship is characterized by a multiplicity of spiritual gifts. It requires active participants rather than passive observers. The sad lesson of centuries of church history is that a broadly gifted church over time becomes a narrowly gifted clergy, effectively robbing the laity of their spiritual gifts.

6. Order: “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (14:40).

Order was severely lacking at Corinth. One worshipper might offer a message in tongues, and the next would do the same before the first one’s was interpreted (14:27). One worshipper might drag out a prophesy so long that another felt the need to interject a different message (14:30). The result of the lack of order was a lack of edification. People couldn’t understand what was being said or say what needed to be understood.

Good order is the friend of Pentecostal spirituality. Just as riverbanks channel the flow of a mighty river, so order channels the flow of the Spirit. It directs spiritual gifts to the people for whom they are intended.

Our Scores

If these are six tests of Pentecostal worship, how are we doing? Where does our theology point? How diverse are we, and how united? How loving are we … really? How would our neighbors answer that same question? How do we know whether worshippers leave our gatherings better followers of Jesus because they came? How well do we channel all participants into meaningful forms of ministry at our church? Do we do so? Does our order of service stifle the spontaneous work of the Spirit, or are we so freewheeling that people leave church exhausted and confused?

Because our answers to these questions will reflect the local circumstances of our churches, we will answer these questions differently. The most important thing is to bring our churches and ministries into greater alignment with what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12–14.

So, let us praise God that we “do not lack any spiritual gift as [we] eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (1 Corinthians 1:7). Then, let us unwrap these gifts and put them to use!

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Called to Serve, the Assemblies of God Ministers Letter.

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