Decent and Orderly Corporate Worship

Scott Aniol


“Our church’s worship is pretty formal, but I prefer Holy Spirit-led worship.” Such was the comment I overheard recently by a young evangelical describing his church’s worship service, illustrating a very common perception by many evangelicals today—if the Holy Spirit actively works in worship, the results will be something extraordinary, an experience “quenched” by too much form and order. A common perception, to be sure, but how grounded in Scripture is this expectation concerning the nature and purpose of corporate worship?

My goal in this essay is to assess this common expectation, measuring it against what is perhaps the single most important text in the New Testament regarding the nature and purpose of corporate worship. In fact, 1 Corinthians 14 is really the only chapter in the New Testament that gives direct and specific focus to the subject of corporate worship.

However, Paul addresses the subject of corporate worship not exactly directly, but rather indirectly by addressing a problem within the Corinthian church. But in addressing that problem, Paul highlights the central nature and purpose of corporate worship in cultivating our relationship with God.

Corporate Worship Context

Paul’s argument is essentially that the believers in the Corinthian church should desire the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues. Notice what he says in verse 5: “

5 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.

And again in verse 19:

19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

But notice that the context of the discussion in this chapter is “in church” (v. 19), “when you come together” (v. 26); that is, the context is specifically corporate gatherings of the church. But the specific focus is on the use of such gifts in the context of “coming together” within the gatherings of the church.

So, what the chapter teaches about the primacy of prophecy over tongues within church gatherings provides broader principles for the nature of corporate worship. In other words, the reasons Paul gives for why the Corinthian believers should desire prophecy over tongues in corporate worship help us to understand better the nature and purpose of corporate worship.

Tongues vs. Prophecy

But in order to do that, we need to grasp what, exactly, these gifts were. First, what is prophecy?

To prophesy is to speak the very words of God. Sometimes those words are predictive; more often those words are instructive or exhortative. But no matter the content, prophecy is the delivery of direct, divine revelation to the degree that one who prophesies can always unequivocally say, “Thus says the Lord.”

The gift of tongues is the ability to speak in known languages that the speaker himself does not know. And the content of the speech here in Acts 2 is important for our purposes as well: verse 11 tells us that they were speaking “the mighty works of God.” This is speech that brought praise to God, and it was speech in a known language, but one that the speakers themselves had never learned.

The purpose of the gift was as a sign to the Jews that God was shifting his focus away from them for a time and toward the Gentile nations.

There is, of course, debate over whether these gifts of tongues and prophecy continue today or whether they have ceased. Although I will not be able to offer a complete defense in this message, I will just note that the historically held view through the entirety of the church’s history until the nineteenth century is that that these spiritual gifts have ceased.

But This understanding of the gifts in Corinth sheds some light on why Paul would tell the Corinthian believers to prefer prophecy over tongues. Remember, Paul is specifically focusing on corporate worship, and therefore his insistence that tongues is less desirable than prophecy reveals to us some important principles about corporate worship.

The Nature and Purpose of Corporate Worship

So, Paul’s central argument in at least the first half of 1 Corinthians 14 is that for corporate worship, the gift of prophecy—divine revelation from God—is more desirable than the gift of tongues—a sign meant for unbelievers in the form of speaking praise to God in a known language but one not known by anyone in the congregation. This very central argument implies some key principles about the nature and purpose of corporate worship gatherings.

Corporate, Not Individual

First, corporate worship is corporate worship, not individual worship. This is the essential difference between tongues and prophecy: tongues is individual expression toward God, while prophecy has corporate benefit.

Notice how Paul describes the purpose of tongues in verse 2:

For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

We saw this in the book of Acts—the content of tongues was praise toward God. Now in the case of Pentecost there were people from various nations present who could understand the specific dialects, but if someone spoke in another dialect within a corporate worship service in the church at Corinth, no one in the congregation would have been able to understand what was being said.

Instead, verse 4:

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

The whole rest of the section highlights the personal and individual nature of the gift of tongues. If someone speaks in a language that no one else in the congregation knows, he might bring individual praise to God, and he might have a legitimate individual experience with God that builds up himself, but he is of no benefit to the congregation as a whole. That would be like if someone came into our service this morning and started praising the Lord in Russian. That person might be genuinely worshiping the Lord, but it would be individual worship, not corporate worship. Paul is emphasizing the importance of the corporate nature of a church service here.

Prophecy, on the other hand, is a gift that edifies the entire congregation. Paul states this clearly in verse 3:

On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.

And again in verse 4:

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

When the revelation of God is clearly proclaimed to God’s people in words they can understand, that builds up the church, which emphasizes the importance of recognizing the corporate nature of public worship. This is not to say that individual expression is always inappropriate—as Paul says in verse 5, if there is an interpreter, then tongues speaking can be edifying to all. In other words, if there is individual expression in corporate worship, it must be such that has corporate benefit.

Paul’s emphasis here runs contrary to a common way of thinking that has become prevalent in evangelicalism today, even among those who have in a sense recovered a God-centered focus to corporate worship, in which the purpose of the worship service is assumed to be for individuals to have a personal experience with God. Individual praise to God and self-edification are good, but when we gather as the church, our focus should be corporate, not individual.

When you come to corporate worship, are you just expecting to have an individual experience with God, or are you concerned about the whole body? Corporate worship is not the time to close your eyes and simply focus on God alone. Corporate worship is the time to open your eyes, look around, and join with the whole body in worshiping the Lord.

Believers, Not Unbelievers

Second, corporate worship is for believers, not unbelievers. Notice in verse 22 where Paul says that tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers.

22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.

As we see in Acts, God gave the sign of tongues in order to help first Jewish unbelievers, then Gentiles within Israel, and then Gentiles outside Israel recognize that anyone who believed in the name of the Lord would be saved. But the purpose of the corporate gatherings of the church is not primarily to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ; corporate worship is first and foremost a gathering of Christians, which is another reason Paul emphasized the superiority of prophecy—a gift of benefit for believers—over tongues in corporate worship.

This is not at all to downplay the importance of evangelism for the church. Indeed, part of what it means to fulfill the Great Commission is to preach the gospel to every living creature. But evangelism should happen primarily as we go out into the world; when we gather as the church, we are gathering as believers.

We should absolutely welcome unbelievers to our church, but we must always remember that a church service is not primarily for them; it is for believers. We really shouldn’t expect unbelievers to feel at home or comfortable in corporate worship; it’s natural for them to feel out of place. But we should always pray with Paul that if an unbeliever does come into our service,

24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

This won’t happen by designing our service to attract unbelievers or make them feel comfortable. It only happens when church services are designed for believers to worship the Lord.

Edification, Not Expression

Third, Paul’s discussion of tongues and prophecy in this text 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.

16 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:

1 Corinthians 14:3 ESV

On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.

1 Corinthians 14:4 ESV

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

1 Corinthians 14:5 ESV

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.

1 Corinthians 14:6 ESV

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?

1 Corinthians 14:9 ESV

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.

1 Corinthians 14:12 ESV

12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.

1 Corinthians 14:17 ESV

17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.

1 Corinthians 14:19 ESV

19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

And this point really all climaxes in verse 26:

26 Let all things be done for building up.

In other words, one of the core reasons Paul insists that the gift of prophecy is to be desired over tongues in corporate worship is that tongues is primarily a gift of individual expression toward God, while prophecy is a gift that better fits the formative purpose of corporate worship. This is a passage about corporate worship services, and yet the emphasis is not upon expression of worship only but rather on edification.

Now this is a point that may seem to be a bit counter-intuitive. This is worship after all, isn’t it? Isn’t worship supposed to be for God? Isn’t the whole problem with much evangelical worship today that it is focused on people instead of God? Isn’t it correct to say that in corporate worship there is an audience of One and that our purpose here is to express worship toward him?

Well, while I do believe that the recovery of a God-centered focus in corporate worship is a welcome and necessary corrective to the man-centered, entertainment focus of much of contemporary worship, it is actually incorrect to say that corporate worship is just about expressing praise and thanks to God. Yes, God is the focus of corporate worship, God is the center of corporate worship, and the adoration of God is the goal of corporate worship, but as is clear from what is likely the central text on corporate worship in the New Testament, everything about this service is primarily for the building up of the body. Edification, not just expression.

Worshiping God—glorifying him, valuing him above all else—is certainly the reason we were created and the goal of the Christian life, and we do express that worship toward God in a church service. But the corporate worship services of a church has a particular purpose that fits under the commission given to that church, namely, to make disciples. Our goal as churches is to build up disciple-worshipers who will bring God glory with the entirety of their lives, but that does not happen without intentional discipleship, and one of the primary means that God has given us to form and build those kinds of disciple-worshipers is the corporate worship of a church. In and through corporate worship, we are built up, formed, and discipled to be Christians who love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and mind. Corporate worship is not simply a gathering of a group of individual Christians who express praise and thanks to God individually or even corporately; corporate worship is the method through which God takes people—from the smallest child to the most seasoned adult—and creates mature worshipers through the means that he has ordained.

You see, in a corporate worship service, we are not the primary actors; corporate worship is not us performing for God—that is paganism. A theology of worship that says corporate worship is about us expressing adoration for God is still man-centered—it’s about what we are doing. 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. Our natural, “authentic” responses are often immature, undeveloped, fickle, sometimes even sinful, and in need of reform. Corporate worship is the means through which God forms our image of him and matures our responses toward him.

And so our primary concern in a corporate worship service should not simply be the authentic expression of worship toward God but rather how the service is edifying us, how it is cultivating our relationship with God and forming us to be the kind of mature disciple-worships Scripture commands.

We need to be careful not to have individualistic perspectives regarding corporate worship, as if everyone else around us is a distraction to our own personal, authentic expression of worship. No; in corporate worship, we should be concerned about the corporate edification of every individual in the congregation as our singing, prayers, Scripture readings, confession, praise, the sermon, Communion—everything molds and shapes us into the kinds of people who will worship God each and every day of the week.

Order, Not Disorder

Fourth, Paul also tells us exactly how this kind of edification in corporate worship takes place: edification in corporate worship takes place through order, not disorder. Apparently, Christians in the church at Corinth had similar expectations about corporate worship as contemporary Christians do—true worship will be spontaneous, and too much structure stifles the Holy Spirit. They were apparently extending this expectation beyond the miraculous gifts of tongues and prophecy to even singing and teaching (v. 26):

26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

But Paul is emphatic in verse 33: “For God is not a God of confusion—in other words, disorder—“but of peace.”

And remember, Paul is dealing here with Holy Spirit given miraculous gifts; yet even in that context, Paul insists that confusion and disorder are evidences that the Holy Spirit is not working. Arguing from the greater to the lesser, if the Holy Spirit works in corporate worship through order even when he gives miraculous gifts, certainly his work is orderly once those gifts have ceased. It is a God of peace who is at work in corporate worship.

On this basis, Paul provides clear principles for order in a worship service, fully consistent with the Holy Spirit’s giving of miraculous gifts. “Only two or at most three” people may speak in tongues in any given service, “and each in turn” (v. 27). If there is no one to interpret the tongues, “let each of them keep silent” (v. 28). Only two or three prophets should speak, others should weigh what is said (v. 29), and they should do so one at a time (v. 30). Far from expecting the Holy Spirit to sweep through the congregation, causing worshipers to be overcome with his presence, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (v. 32). Far from quenching the Holy Spirit, order within corporate worship is exactly how the Holy Spirit works, desiring that “all may learn and all be encouraged [comforted]” (v. 31). Thus in corporate worship, exactly because of how the Holy Spirit of God works and the purpose of corporate worship to form disciple-worshipers who will properly bring glory to God, “all things should be done decently and in order” (v. 40).

Structure and order within a worship service does not stifle the Holy Spirit’s work; he works through the structure and order. Structure and order within corporate worship does not hinder our relationship with God, it builds our relationship with God. It is through structure and order that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us, edifies us, forms us into worshipers of God.

Biblical, Not Unregulated

The preceding two principles lead to an important additional implication: Corporate worship should be biblically-regulated, not unregulated. In other words, if corporate worship is God’s work upon us to make us into mature Christians, then we must be sure to use those means that he has prescribed in his Word to do so. Paul stresses the importance of biblical authority in the context of corporate worship in verses 36–38:

36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

Paul was inscripturating direct revelation from the Lord here; carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), Paul was contributing to that “prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19), the written Word of God, which always carries the final authority. Paul highlights this as well in the fact that prophecy given in a corporate worship service had to be tested (v. 29), a standard that was exactly the same for prophecy in the OT (Deut 13:1–5, 18:15–22). The written Word of God is always the final authority.

And so, if our corporate worship is going to properly form our relationship with God, then we must be sure that the elements of our worship come from the Word of God. The content of our worship elements must also be regulated by the Word of God. Third, the forms of our worship should be regulated by the Word of God. Fourth, the order of our worship should be regulated by the Word of God.


And so, through an argument mostly about the priority of prophecy over tongues in corporate worship, Paul gives us important principles for corporate worship that still apply even though both of those gifts have ceased. In our corporate worship services, God has given us the primary way to cultivate daily relationship with him, which is our first priority. But in order for our corporate worship services to accomplish the goal for which God designed them, we must make sure that our corporate worship services follow the central principles Paul provides in this central text:

  1. Corporate worship is corporate worship, not individual worship.
  2. Corporate worship is for believers, not unbelievers.
  3. Corporate worship has the primary purpose of edification, not merely expression.
  4. Corporate worship accomplishes edification through order, not disorder.
  5. Corporate worship should be biblically-regulated, not unregulated.

And if we do follow these principles as we approach our corporate worship as a church, then our relationship with God will be properly formed and shaped according to his designs and his Word. This must be our first priority as a church, because our relationship with God is our first priority as Christians.

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Author Church-Building

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.