Formations 05.15.2022: Doing Our Part

1 Corinthians 14:15-17, 21-33a

Nearly 200 years ago, Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard famously suggested that the institutional church has misunderstood what happens during worship. On the analogy of the theater, he says, we assume that the clergy on the platform are the performers, inspired by God, who fills the role of the prompter behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the gathered congregation watches it all as a (hopefully) attentive audience.

Kierkegaard says that this understanding is almost exactly backwards. In fact, we should think of the members of the congregation as the performers and the clergy are the prompters, guiding us as we offer our worship to God, the audience of One.

We should be careful making definitive statements about what Christian worship was like in the first century. On the one hand, it’s unwise to expect complete uniformity from a network of small, far-flung house churches. At the same time, all these churches drew from the same early Jewish source material, not least customs their founders would have learned in the synagogue, and claimed the same (or at least similar) experiences of the Holy Spirit.

As we approach today’s text, then, we should remember that we’re talking about one specific church and its specific needs when it comes to worshiping better. Corinthian worship was apparently a more freewheeling experience than is common in most churches today. Paul urges them to tone things down for the common good. Let’s admit that, had he been writing to a different church, he might well have told them to loosen up a little for the common good. The style of worship isn’t the issue; the attitudes of the worshipers is.

The Corinthian believers seem to have grasped that worship is something the people do, not something they watch their leaders do. Give them their props for that. After all, “liturgy” comes from Greek words that mean, “the work of the people.” Their problem isn’t their lack of engagement but their misplaced motives.

Paul challenges their worship practices because certain members of the congregation are more interested in self-aggrandizement than the common good. They understand that they are meant to be the “performers” in the church’s liturgy, but they think they’re performing so that others will see how “spiritual” they are! What God thinks is apparently at best an afterthought.

Paul wants everyone to participate—fully and enthusiastically—but he wants them to do so for a higher cause. The point of worship is to glorify God by using the gifts that God has given to each of us. When that is our focus, our participation will build people up (v. 26). And whether it also earns their praise should be, at best, an afterthought.

Discussion

• What practical advice for Christian worship can be found in this passage??
• How can Paul’s instructions inform our practices, whatever style of worship we prefer?
• As Paul explains it, what makes prophecy superior to speaking in tongues?
• Even if you are not a worship “prompter” (singing in the choir, reading Scripture, etc.), what contributions can you make to your church’s worship?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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