1 Corinthians 14:26 -- Descriptive or Prescriptive?
In a recent post on Spunky Homeschool's blog, the subject of house church came up. The comments section (viewable here) sparked some interesting discussion (still in progress) between myself and several other readers. Spunky gave me permission to "hijack" her blog comments for the discussion, for which I'm grateful. It's a subject I love talking about.
However, as I was talking in that discussion about biblical accounts of New Testament church activities being descriptive or prescriptive, a question came to my mind that I have not allowed myself to fully deal with in the past couple of years. It's one of those "am I really being honest with the text here" questions, and I thought I would throw it out here for discussion.
Many times in discussing principles related to simple church, I reference 1 Corinthians 14:26. Now, please understand that my beliefs about simple church do not all hinge on this one verse, so it's not a "make or break" issue for me. Quite honestly, open participatory meetings are described throughout the rest of 1 Corinthians 14. However, I want to be honest in my dealing with this particular verse.
Let me quote the verse here in various translations so that we can get a feel for it, and then I'll ask my question:
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. (NIV)Now, my question relates to the part where Paul says something to the effect of "When you come together...." Is this statement a description by Paul of what was currently happening in Corinth? Or is it what he is telling them should happen when they gather? In other words, were the Corinthians overemphasizing the idea that everyone could participate? Or was Paul saying that everyone should participate? Is it descriptive or is it prescriptive?
What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation Let all things be done for edification. (NASB)
So here's what I want you to do. When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight. (The Message)
What then, brethren, is [the right course]? When you meet together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a disclosure of special knowledge or information, an utterance in a [strange] tongue, or an interpretation of it. [But] let everything be constructive and edifying and for the good of all. (Amplified)
How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. (KJV)
Well, my brothers and sisters, let's summarize what I am saying. When you meet, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in an unknown language, while another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must be useful to all and build them up in the Lord. (NLT)
In favor of it being descriptive, there is a similar use of the "when you come together" phrase in this same letter. That is in 1 Corinthians 11, specifically verses 18 and 20. (It also appears in verse 33, but that actually falls under the next idea of being prescriptive, so hold that thought.) In 11:18,20 it is obvious that Paul is describing their current condition. In fact, he even says explicitly in verse 18 that he has received word to this effect ("when you come together...I hear..."). So, this would lend possibility to the idea that Paul is describing a current situation. In this case, he might be issuing a correction to them when he says, "Let all things be done for edification."
On the flip side, however, we have a prescriptive use of this phrase in 11:33 where Paul is correcting the problem identified in 11:18,20. In this interpretation, then, 14:26 would be seen as prescriptive. Additionally, we have the word "whenever" in 14:26, which does not exist in any of the uses in chapter 11. The uses in chapter 11 (from my very limited remembrance of Greek) carry the idea of "coming together...", whereas 14:26 is more of a "whenever you do come together..." idea.
An additional aspect of 14:26 which might possibly lend itself to understanding is the way the verse starts. Paul says, "What is the outcome then, brethren?" In other words, this verse ties in very much with what Paul had just discussed. In the context immediately preceding, Paul has discussed tongues and prophecy very specifically. And in the verses following 26, he is again going to speak about tongues and prophecy very specifically. Prior to verse 26, he uses the phrases "if all speak in tongues" (14:23) and "if all prophesy" (14:24). Verse 26 then provides a contrast very much in keeping with his discourse on the gifts in chapter 12. It is a description of the varied gifts that should all be exercised for the edification of the body.
I'm sort of answering my own question, but I want to leave it at that, and ask for your thoughts in return. Do you think Paul is describing (in 14:26) a current situation in Corinth that needed correction? Or is he prescribing for them the correct approach that should be taken? (This latter viewpoint would be consistent with most of the translations I quoted above. Not all the translations are very clear grammatically, though, as to the intended interpretation.)
Until next time,