1 Cor 14:26 Descriptive or Prescriptive?

I have been known as a proponent of “organic” church life for several years now. Due to the confusion over this now popular nuanced term (cp. Sparks, Cole, & Viola’s usage), I have decided to stop using it when describing the sort of church life that is to be enjoyed by all Christian communities in every cultural context until Christ returns.

It’s just not worth having to respond to all of the questioners with, “Well, what I mean by it is…” It was helpful (at least to me) for a while, but not so much anymore. I do still use it when I’m among close friends, but other than that it only becomes one more obstacle in communication.

I must admit that over the last year or so I have been led to believe that some dear saints run the risk of promoting organic church life at the expense of Christ and unity among all believers—as well as promoting Christ while attached to a specific church model (though they would claim they are not promoting a model) or even a “no order at all” approach.

The first group is likely not aware that they have bound Christ to a rigid church order. And the later group, while talking a lot about Christ, is mostly concerned with maintaining no set order in their meetings. No order has become their order. They will do nothing that even comes close to resembling organized Christianity (a person standing to deliver a message longer than 10-15 minutes is definitely out!).

If that fellowship doesn’t change its reactionary thinking, it will eventually meet its demise. Hopefully, there will be enough folks who grow tired of just chatting about Jesus over coffee for a couple hours a week to bring about a healthy change.

I found that it is possible to begin with a new vision of Christ in community, only later to gravitate toward an “us vs. them” mentality. Of course, it might have always been a mix of both—some days more of this, other days more of the other. I have become sensitive to those thoughts of mine that set myself above another person that clearly loves Jesus, but is just currently being faithful to Christ in a different setting.

Christ in Community

Looking back over the last several years of study, reflection, and experience, I’m convinced that the NT reveals some basic principles concerning church life that can be summed up like this: Everything should look like Christ and build up the saints (Eph 4:16; 1 Jn 2:6).

Beyond that, there is no church law. There is no restrictive law that says, “You can’t do that!” Nor is there the libertarian law that says, “Anything goes!” The law is Christ… Christ in community.

Regardless of what side of the church fence you’re on (organized or organic), you may think my “no law” declaration needs a qualifier. Well, I just don’t think so. Anything beyond “Christ in community” leads to divisions among us, and becomes self-righteousness dressed in the garb of the centrality and supremacy of Christ. It’s time we stop it.

“Christ in community” does involve what some have called a NT pattern. But let’s be clear, the principles of that pattern are known only in an examination of the person and work of Christ. Failing to closely examine and take serious the life and teachings of Christ is something that both institutional and organic churches do regularly.

Both groups have isolated and eisegeted (read things into) certain texts to promote their church order, all the while neglecting the life and teachings of Jesus, the very center of our faith.

For example, when his disciples were arguing over who would be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus made it very clear that true leadership was not reflected in the “top-down” hierarchal leadership seen with the politicians and corporations of the world (Mk 10:35-45; Jn 13). No, you can’t have a nation of priests when one person, other than Jesus himself, gets to be the “high” priest and the inheritor of special treatment, and regular monetary blessings.

Therefore, a prime example of the Jesus prescription—the one that goes to the heart of what’s wrong with organized religion—is that anything that doesn’t look like servant-leadership, or creates an unhealthy dependence upon one human priest, leads to spiritual paralysis in the body of Christ.

Whatever each local ekklesia decides about the role and function of pastor/teachers today, our conclusions should always be based upon the example of Christ and what he said about leadership. Church practice should always reflect the person and work of Christ among his first disciples.

Paul in Community?

What about Paul, you ask? Well, what about Paul? Paul’s idea of community comes by merely expounding upon Christ. Therefore, viewing anything Paul says as a rigid “prescriptive” order for the church in every age, when Paul is merely describing a communal life that flows out of Christ, is to put forth a law other than Christ himself.

Jesus is the only prescription for the church in every age.

That isn’t to say that Paul can’t tell us anything about church order in the 21st century. By no means! Instead, it means that Paul should be read as an apostle who guides each church to creatively adhere to the life and teachings of Jesus in their own unique context.

In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul addresses the believers at Corinth concerning their disorderly meetings. If the saints in Corinth were not squabbling over spiritual gifts, we likely would not even have Paul saying anything about order for the church. So notice, the pattern is given in a context of disorder and division over the way things ought to be done.

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.  1 Cor 14:26 NIV

The pattern here is not that all these things, and nothing else, should happen in a church meeting. It’s simply what was happening in Corinth at this moment in time. Paul was not intending to say that every church meeting for all time should always look like what is described here (i.e. every single meeting should always and forever be open-participatory).

No, the pattern for every generation is always and only Christ.

So, what does Christ look like in this particular gathering? He looks like ordered sharing, not disrespectful neglect of others and their gifts (14:27-33). It’s this open-participatory meeting, and only this type of meeting, that we hear Paul addressing with his guidance.

We should not gather from the NT that there is never a place for a meeting set aside to hear a teacher. Paul’s concern in this open meeting is that Christ would not have chaos and disrespect of others when meeting in such an intimate familial setting. I imagine that he might have said something similar in spirit if there was a church who opted to have teaching times in a larger setting. He apparently was cool with this sort of thing when he held his own “apostolic meetings” (Acts 20:7).

There is no church manual that prescribes the activity and function of church meetings. Even if you were to gather up all of the “one another” verses of the NT, you are still not given a rigid order of how things must be done in a church meeting. To force that upon the NT is not only promoting an agenda, it undermines the only prescription, which is Christ.

Biblical scholar and “house church” attendee, Robert Banks, writes:

“The basic principle that Paul lays down for the conduct of the church is that all things should be done for edification. Only when a contribution has this as its object should it be exercised” (Paul’s Idea of Community, 100).

Jesus (and Paul) leaves a great deal of freedom to all local churches. However, that freedom will in the long run never undermine Christ expressed throughout the entire priesthood of believers over the many seasons of the church.

D.D. Flowers, 2011.

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

16 responses to “1 Cor 14:26 Descriptive or Prescriptive?

  • jr

    yay!! this really encouraged me…i wish we would all be more honest about our ‘default settings’ as human beings- impulses that crave uniformity instead of unity and control rather than trusting submission to Christ and one another. our greatest folly is that even when we become aware of this, we forget who we are so easily and return to the vomit. thanks for pointing in the direction of the better alternative..that being Christ. :]

  • Ron Friesen

    I have held to a “descriptive not prescriptive” view since I read Lawrence O Richards and Clyde Hoeldtke, A Theology of Church Leadership (1980). There were a lot of people like these two scholars in the 1970s who were prophets ahead of their time. When I was a pastor in the 70s we were talking about the “descriptive not prescriptive” view. Keith Miller’s Taste of New Wine (1965) kicked off the discussion.

  • Stephen

    Very good David. I have had an internal struggle within me for several years. I have believed there has to be more to “church” life than getting together once or twice a week to look at the back of someone’s head for an hour or so, sing a few songs, hear a lecture, shake a couple hands and be on our separate ways to lunch. I’ve read several books on “organic” life, and while they sound wonderful, it’s not happening around here. I have been visiting a few different “churches,” because I have desired to be with other believers to sing and fellowship. The Sunday morning fellowship is very shallow generally and leaves me wanting more. I have tried to fellowship with other believers outside of the ornate walls of the church buildings, which generally amounts to a lunch or tennis engagement, or a “bible study” group that has a hard time getting together because of busyness, in fact, I have found a lot of busy people that have little time to fellowship. Of course, I do not give up easily, so I will continue to seek fellowship and body life in and outside of the organized “church.” I will continue to keep the glory of the Lord as the main goal in any of my attempts at fellowship and worship. I also have to consider that one of my main hindrances could very well be the lowest common denominator in the above situations, that denominator may very well be myself.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Stephen, thanks for reading and sharing. I think your experiences with the “busyness” of folks is common, especially in the US. Yes, don’t give up. Continue seeking to regularly share in Christ with others in community. Blessings, bro.

  • Mark

    “Anything beyond “Christ in community” leads to divisions among us, and becomes self-righteousness dressed in the garb of the centrality and supremacy of Christ. It’s time we stop it.”

    Amen.

  • Matt

    Hi David. I’ve found this paragraph to be so true as of late: “..some dear saints run the risk of promoting organic church life at the expense of Christ and unity among all believers—as well as promoting Christ while attached to a specific church model (though they would claim they are not promoting a model) or even a “no order at all” approach.”

    When I look at how this has been specifically been portrayed, it comes in the way of sayings things like “your group wasn’t ‘planted’ by a ‘modern-day apostolic worker'” or “your meetings don’t look like our meetings where everyone does X”.

    When you get into how someone tells you how the meeting MUST look, you tend to want to manufacture the meeting accordingly. I’ve found that this quest can be very unfruitful. I am starting to realize that no group will be the same if all are truly yielding to their specific gifting of the Spirit. We are all at different phases of maturity, understanding, and gifting, and the Holy Spirit should have his way with us as long as we give him the freedom to function within the meeting.

    It sounds like God is working on your understanding the same way he has been working on mine. I appreciate your insight and sharing that.

  • Ron Friesen

    Many of us were talking about the church as “organism not organization” in the 70s. When I read these posts I have to smile – it is as if a new generation is discovering what we were already laying down our lives for in the 70s. I know many pastors who paid a heavy price for championing what the ’emergent’ church folks now can talk about with a lot of ease.

  • Ron Friesen

    Yes, I was. Although I grew up in a Christian home and was a Christian before the Jesus People movement came along.

  • Josh

    “Everything should look like Christ and build up the saints.”

    Well said, David! The church is nothing less than the expression of Christ in the earth. This is why Paul’s response to division in Corinth was, “Is Christ divided?” because if Christ is not divided than the church cannot be divided, either. To know the church we must know Christ.

  • chris

    Greatly enjoyed reading this and many of the comments. You make many excellent points and I can take issue with none. Having just read Finding Organic Church, I loved your conclusion that Christ is the only prescription for the church as a counterpoint to some of the prescriptive sections of that book.

  • Gabriel (G²)

    If interested, I’d highly suggest looking into the following–as it’s from the ministry of a man known as Louie Giglio. He leads a movement known as “Passion”, mainly aimed at young adults being passionate for the Lord Jesus Christ…and his ministry has always been a blessing. He did a series concerning how the church is like a living organism, existing in a symbiotic relationship with culture at large. But unless we’re careful, our mission will be driven more by our desire to keep up with culture than our conviction to be grounded in One who transcends culture ( http://www.qideas.org/video/trees-of-hong-kong.aspx )

    And as it concerns the Church, I’ve always been of the mindset that ALOT of the debate about what is or isn’t “organic” misses the reality that the church is able to evolve. Much of what was recorded in the book of Acts was just that–a recording of what happened, rather than how all things were meant to be…and so often, I think we end up doing damage to the text when reading back into the text what we think of something. When people see the church meeting in homes, IMHO, it is intellectually dishonest to use that to make a case that only in homes can true fellowship occur since it completely divorces the text from the culture of those within it…as Jews were HIGHLY cermonial/structured in their daily gatherings, going to synagouge and doing new things as well as family gatherings. It’s no suprise that many Jews are very much perterbed by the Church and don’t want anything to do with it—be it those labeled “organic” or organized–since so much of their culture is left out and we use what was said of them to make our own agenda….and then say that it was their agenda.

    The book of Hebrews gives alot of insight on the matter. For in Hebrews 13:8, for example, the sacrifices were considered to be “praise” we give to the Lord—in remembrance of Leviticus 7:12 and Psalm 50:14 and what the scriptures say in I Peter 2:5 about us now being priests/God’s new design (temple included)…and in context with the Book, the Jews following Christ were being persecuted at one point due to their faith and distancing from aspects in Judaism. If these Jewish Christians, because of their witness to the Messiah, could no longer worship with other Jews in synagouge, they could consider praise their sacrifice—-one they could offer anywhere and anytime. This must have reminded them of the prophet Hosea’s words, “Take away all of their inquity and recieve us graciously so we will render the calvesof our lips” (Hosea 14:2). A sacrifice of praise today would include thanking CHrist for His sacrifice on the Cross and telling others about it….and as Paul mentioned in Romans 12:1-3, our lives are now to be a living sacrifice. These Christians could now be encouraged in their Jewishness, despite how Hebrews 10:32-39 describes the massive persecution that the Hebraic Christians were facing …

    In Hebrews, the author is very specific in limiting what he says. An offering for sins is no longer needed and ruled out. But the other sacrificial offerings remain part of God’s order even after Yeshua’s death, as proven by Sha’ul’s activity in the temple at Acts 21:25-27 and his own offering of sacrifices which he himself speaks of at Acts 24:16-18. It was apart of their heritage to see worship as a very symbolic act—-much as it was for the Eastern Orthodox in seeing structure as a way of honoring the Lord.

    With the destruction of the temple, sacrifical offerings became impossible; but if the temple is rebuilt, thank offerings, meal offerings, and praise offerings could be offered once again. ..for they were being given even as early as Genesis 4 with the ways others gave thanks unto the Lord in such a manner. When I read Hebrews, it seems the author of this letter does not proclaim the end of all aspects of ceremonial/symbolic worship…but rather, the end of animal sacrifices for sin and looking unto certain things for redeemption rather than seeing how it points to Messiah.

  • Rick Duncan

    Well written, David! Thanks for being a charitable, edifying “organic” church leader. Some that I have met have a “no set order one size fits all” approach that ignores the richness of what God has done historically and is even now doing in the “big box” settings.

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