Decently and in Order: The Spirit’s Work in Corporate Worship

Scott Aniol


Often when Christians today think of the Holy Spirit’s work in worship, they anticipate that if he is working, then there will be high euphoria, and surprising, spontaneous outbursts of praise. But is that really how we ought to expect the Spirit to work in corporate worship?

The metaphor of the Spirit building believers into a temple for God in Ephesians 2 helps us understand his role in corporate worship corporate worship. The temple metaphor is not coincidental; the gathered NT church is the dwelling place for the Spirit of God in this age in the same way that the temple was God’s dwelling place in the OT economy. Paul describes the body of individual believers as “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor 6:19), which refers to his indwelling presence of individuals believers. But Paul also uses the temple metaphor in several texts with plural pronouns, describing the gathered church collectively, such as 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 2 Corinthians 6:16. Here is the same language in Ephesians 2:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:19–22)

Peter also uses the same language:

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pt 2:4–5)

 The church collectively is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit dwells within the gathered church in a manner distinct from his indwelling individual believers. And, as Ephesians 2:18 makes clear, this happens through the person and work of Jesus Christ “in one Spirit.”

This also may be what Christ meant in John 4 when he said that God is seeking those who will “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (v. 23). Since “God is a spirit” (v. 24) and does not have a body like man, true worship takes place in its essence in the non-corporeal realm of the Spirit, which is why it is essential that the Holy Spirit dwell within the NT temple—the church—in the same way he dwelt in the temple of the Old Testament. God promised Israel that he would dwell among them (Ex 29:45), and we are told that his Spirit did so in order to instruct them (Neh 9:20; Hg 2:5). And while in the Old Testament, worship was specifically localized to that physical, Spirit-indwelt temple, “the hour is now here” (v. 23) that worship takes place wherever two or three Spirit-indwelt believers gather together, for there he is “in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).

God of Peace

Furthermore, Scripture clearly teaches that Holy Spirit’s work in corporate worship is one of ordering. The key passage for this focus is 1 Corinthians 14:26–40. Apparently, Christians in the church at Corinth had similar expectations about the Holy Spirit’s work in worship being extraordinary experience as contemporary Christians do.

Yet Paul corrects their expectation by emphasizing that even if the Holy Spirit works in extraordinary ways in worship, like with tongues or prophecy, “God is not a God of confusion”—in other words, disorder—”but of peace” (v. 33). The meaning of the term translated “peace” is a state of completeness, soundness, and harmony. Paul’s argument here appears to be that even within a context of expecting the Holy Spirit to work in miraculous ways in Corinth, confusion and disorder are evidences that he is not working. It is a God of peace who is at work in corporate worship.

This should not surprise us. From the very first work of the Spirit in creation through each of his works in Scripture, the Spirit’s purpose has been one of peace—bringing completeness, soundness, and harmony to God’s world and God’s people. The Spirit is the beautifier of creation and the beautifier of human souls. He brought harmony through giving revelation and through inspiring Scripture. And he brings harmony to the body when peace rules therein.

We see something of this in Colossians 3, where Paul describes the church as a body where rightly ordered love “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (v. 14). How does that happen? We have already seen how. Our loves are rightly ordered by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and we are bound together in perfect harmony as the Spirit builds us into a holy temple. Paul continues, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed. You were called in one body” (v. 15). That peace, too, describes a wholeness, right ordering, and harmony. Again, we have seen this happens only through the work of the God of peace.

And how does the Spirit cultivate such harmony, peace, and unity of the body of Christ, his holy temple?

Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col 3:16)

We let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly as we allow the Spirit to fill us with his Word (Eph 5:18). This is the purpose of corporate worship. In corporate worship, the Spirit fills us with the Word of Christ, binding us together in perfect harmony, cultivating peace and order in the body as we sing to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

The God of peace brings harmony and order to the body in corporate worship.

Disciplined Formation

This is Paul’s central argument in 1 Corinthians 14, the only full chapter in the New Testament given entirely to the subject of worship. He argues that in the context of a corporate gathering of the church—”when you come together”—the believers in the Corinthian church should desire the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues. He summarizes his thesis in verse 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.

I believe that both the gifts of prophecy and tongues have ceased because of their temporary nature; however, what this chapter teaches about these gifts within church gatherings reveals the Spirit’s work of bringing harmony to the body through corporate worship. In other words, the reasons Paul gives for why the Corinthian believers should desire prophecy over tongues in corporate worship helps us to better understand the essence of the Spirit’s work in worship.

Paul’s argument is that for corporate worship, the gift of prophecy—divine revelation from God—is more desirable than the gift of tongues—which was an individual’s expression of praise to God in a known language that no one else in the congregation understood. The nature of those two gifts is important: prophecy is from God to men; tongues are from men to God. Prophecy is understandable to all; tongues are only understandable to the one speaking (if no one else in the congregation speaks that language). Prophecy is for corporate edification; tongues are for individual expression.

Now why does Paul argue that for corporate worship, the Corinthian believers should desire prophecy over tongues? Notice the core reason Paul is making this argument throughout the chapter:

On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. (v 3)

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. (v 4)

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. (v 5)

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? (v 6)

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. (v 9)

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

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

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

And this point really all climaxes in verse 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.

In other words, one of the core reasons Paul insists that the gift of prophecy was to be desired over tongues in corporate worship is that the Spirit’s purpose for corporate worship is edification of the whole body, not just individual experiences.

This argument helps us understand that one of the fundamental purposes of a corporate worship service is for the Spirit to build up and order the body. The Spirit’s primary role in corporate worship is that of disciplined formation through his Word. We come to worship to be built up by God’s Word, to be formed into the image of Christ by God’s Word, to have our affections sanctified anew by the God’s Word. We come to a corporate worship service so that our responses of worship—our lives of worship—might be shaped by God’s Spirit through his Word.

And notice also that Paul tells us exactly how this kind of edification in corporate worship takes place: edification in corporate worship takes place through order, not disorder. Christians in the church at Corinth assumes that true worship will be spontaneous, and too much structure stifles the Holy Spirit. True worship takes place when I am uninhibited; no constraints.

But Paul is emphatic in verse 33: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” And remember, Paul is dealing here with Holy Spirit given miraculous gifts. Arguing from the greater to the lesser, if the Holy Spirit worked in corporate worship through order even when he gave 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. The Spirit’s work in corporate worship is that of disciplined formation.

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, and forms us into worshipers of God.

On this basis, Paul provided clear principles for order in the Corinthian worship services, fully consistent with the Holy Spirit’s ordinary activity. “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” (v. 31).

Thus in corporate worship, exactly because of how the Holy Spirit ordinarily works, “all things should be done decently and in order” (v. 40).

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Author worship

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.