I hope you’ll excuse the terrible grammar of the title. “For whom is the church service?” just reads as unbearably pretentious, which, amusingly, speaks somewhat to the point of this article. Also, the scripture passage I want to talk about briefly might not be the one you would expect on the topic, but I hope you’ll bear with me.
23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 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.1 Corinthians 14:23–25 (ESV)
Now, for clarity, I’m a cessationist. I don’t believe that the gifts of tongues and prophecy, at least in the terms Paul seems to be treating them here, are continued in the church today. I understand you may differ, but the point I want to make about this text actually holds whether or not you believe that these gifts are for today. My point is that Paul clearly takes the presence of unbelievers into account in defining appropriate worship.
Also, a couple of points for context. First, the situation being addressed in this passages clearly relates to the communal worship of the church. All the discussion prior to and proceeding from these verses assumes a corporate worship setting. There is no reason to presume that these verses are suddenly speaking to a different context.
Second, there are a number of issues in this text which are legitimately confusing. Why does Paul say, in verse 22, that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, yet his explanation of that point seems to assume that unbelievers witnessing the exercise of tongues would alienate them from the body? I find Calvin’s suggestion compelling, that the “sign” of tongues is essentially intended to terrify unbelievers and bring the fear of God upon them. In this sense, the effect of tongues is not relevant for believers – they already possess the fear of God. However, prophecy, by contrast, is useful for believers, which seems to be central to Paul’s argument thus far in chapter 14. I will say the tensions apparent in this passage are not easily resolved, and would encourage you to read Calvin’s full treatment for a more robust argument than I can muster in this space.
Again, whether or not you find Calvin’s reading on this point tenable, it is genuinely meaningful that Paul is clearly considering the profit of both believers and unbelievers in how the service is conducted. This is clearly not a “seeker sensitive” church, in that it speaks in a register which is deliberately (and really only) suitable for producing conversion experiences in unbelievers. However, it is also not of that brand of church, so often seen in Reformed circles nowadays, which makes a deliberate effort to speak in a register which is completely unintelligible to unbelievers. While Paul clearly has the profit of the body of Christ as his first consideration, he also is concerned with how those who are outside that body will experience our worship. Even more than that, Paul seems to suggest that the exercise of prophecy among believers will convict him and call him to account. This seems to imply that we should address unbelievers in our speech, which is an action that is increasingly anathema to many folks in the Reformed community.
While I don’t believe that the execise of prophecy and tongues still persist in the church today, I do think that the disposition which is shown in this passage is absolutely vital for the good health of the church in our day and age. Unfortunately, we have become increasingly polarized in our approaches. The Andy Stanley uproar recently was largely about this issue – is church for believers or unbelievers? Much of the rationale for Stanley’s hostility toward appealing to biblical authority is based on the unwillingness of unbelievers to accept that authority. In his desire to make church an effective mechanism for reaching unbelievers, he guts the essential truth which the church is called to present. I expect that the violence this does to the gospel is obvious to many reading this article, but unfortunately, the reality in many of our churches has slipped to the opposite pole of that spectrum. We do not even speak to unbelievers in our sermons, our classes, our fellowship, or anything. We should.
The image in this passage is of a group of people, mutually exhorting each other, calling each to account, and calling unbelievers to enter into that fellowship. Don’t gut the gospel! May it be terrifying, ego-shattering, and unfathomably offensive to the sinner in rebellion against God, but speak it to unbelievers, even in our worship. I pray that we would stop this irresistible turn inward and look outward, calling others into our fellowship.
I suspect many of you agree with this in theory, but I would ask you to sincerely consider how this works out in practice. Do you have unbelievers in your services? Do you invite them in? Do you speak to them, from the pulpit and from the pews? Sadly, I think the answer to these questions is “rarely” for most of us.