GET CONNECTED with our CHURCH FAMILY … responding to human need

Tuesday, March 19

1 Corinthians 14: 37-40 (RSV)
If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.


The above statement comes at the end of a long discussion focused primarily on the role of “speaking in tongues” in the life of the congregation Paul is addressing. That discussion creates an impression that there is confusion (and perhaps even conflict) about this matter in the life of that community. Reading between the lines, it appears that the Corinthian church has a good problem: too many people with spiritual gifts who want to “prophesy” and to do so, it appears, whenever they wish. This is obviously a less than ideal circumstance, and the advice Paul gives for dealing with it is interesting. He does not propose any measure that would shut the prophesying down; in fact, he seems to welcome it. But he does say that it should be done ”decently and in order.” I take this to mean something like: “wait your turn and respect the rights of others to speak.”

This seems to be such sensible advice that it is difficult to imagine any reasonable person disputing it. But the statement Paul makes at the end of the passage still makes people uneasy. For it appears to turn a piece of situational advice into a generalization about how life should be lived as a whole, and that is certainly how Calvin read it—which is one of the reasons why the idea of doing things “decently and in order” became such a prominent feature of Reformed Protestantism.

What’s wrong with that? It seems to privilege order uncritically, for one thing. Sometimes, critics say, order needs to be disrupted because it is infected with human sinfulness. They point out that once order is privileged, it is all too easy to sanctify existing institutions and practices that are unworthy of our respect, and Paul himself is surely vulnerable to this criticism. Just think of the way he accepted the institution of slavery as though it were God’s will. Or his insistence, in the passage immediately preceding the one under discussion here, that “women should keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. 14: 34).

So was Paul wrong to generalize about order in the manner he did? I think not because even if order sometimes needs to be disrupted, the remedy for the wrongs being attacked is not disorder but some new form of order. And the disruption of order can itself be infused with sin, especially if prolonged. Just think of the harm that is done to people’s lives if they are forced to be in chaotic situations (Ukraine, Gaza, etc.) for any extended period. Not only does disorder prevent people from going about their business in an efficient way, but it also provides a good setting for the worst human impulses to manifest themselves. So it is not wrong to urge that things be done “decently and in order” as long as it is also acknowledged that what passes for order in this life always falls short of the order God would have us experience—and for that reason it always is in need of criticism and correction.


Even if the order we experience in our lives is not perfect, it is still a gift, and we thank you for it. Help us, Lord, to appreciate the contribution order makes to our well-being without losing sight of its limitations. And when we feel the need to act disruptively, help us to act in ways that stand some reasonable chance of actually improving the conditions we are seeking to change.

Bruce Douglass