Walking into an unsupervised toddler nursery is enough to overwhelm most people. It’s chaos. The children might be screaming, fighting, throwing toys, holding their hands over their ears, or doing any number of other things all at once.
Children need unstructured play time or ‘free play’ for their development, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Still, an adult observer might reasonably conclude from the disorder that these children haven’t agreed upon what they’re doing.
We can tolerate a loud nursery, but in other contexts, such a free-for-all is objectionable. A disordered graduation or wedding ceremony would be inappropriate because it would distract from the unified focus of the gathering. The same principle applies when we worship.
The image of nursery chaos is something like how Paul described the worship at Corinth: ‘What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up’ (1 Corinthians 14:26).
The issue wasn’t hymns or lessons, but that each person worshipped as he saw fit. That climate resulted in believers not growing and unbelievers being hindered from understanding the gospel.
If we compare the first and last verses of the section, we see what prevented believers from growing. The command to ‘let all things be done for building up’ (v.26) is followed by a parallel command to let ‘all things’ be done ‘decently and in order’ (v.40). Our edification is one by-product of adoring the Lord with our brothers and sisters.
The notion of ‘free worship’, where each individual participates as he is led, misses the profound reality that our worship is meant to embody our unity. Our worship is meant to demonstrate to us and to the watching world that Jesus has the power to transform wayward individuals into a family. But when we do not act unified, an outside observer might reasonably conclude from the disorder that we have not agreed upon what we’re doing.
It is significant that Paul teaches us to be decent and orderly in worship and to do all things to build up the body in the chapter immediately after he teaches us about Christian love. After describing true, gospel love as ‘patient and kind … not arrogant … not insist[ing] on its own way’ (13:4-5), Paul urges us all to ‘pursue love’ (14:1) and goes on to describe right worship. In other words, he instructs us to worship in a way that reflects our love for one another and for Christ.
We can conclude that disordered worship isn’t just an alternative approach — it is unloving. The ‘decency’ of worship is not a neutral idea; it is a moral one. The other two times Paul uses that particular word are when talking about moral behaviour (Romans 13:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:12). Our worship will either demonstrate God’s power to bring us together or belie it. After all, ‘God is not a God of confusion but of peace’ (1 Corinthians 14:33).
But the chaotic worship at Corinth wasn’t a problem for just the church itself. It was a hindrance to the gospel. It prevented unbelievers from even being able to understand the truth. Most parents wouldn’t leave their children in a nursery where chaos is raging. Paul makes a similar argument about unbelievers coming into a disordered service where everyone is speaking and no order is followed. He concludes: ‘Will they not say that you are out of your minds?’ (v. 23).
At first, we might be inclined to argue against that point. We might reason that until the Holy Spirit changes a person’s heart, he can’t appreciate worship or understand the gospel. But it’s more than that. It’s not simply a matter of a non-Christian’s being ‘unspiritual’ but of recognising that love is missing. Isn’t that what Jesus told his disciples in the upper room? ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:35). Our worship is meant to be the chief place where we demonstrate love for God and for each other. It is the clearest place where Jesus’ prayer for us is illustrated: that we would be one (17:11, 21-23).
Every part of our worship should reflect the unity that Jesus prayed, lived, died, and rose to accomplish. But, Jesus’ promise that the way we love each other will demonstrate that we are his disciples cuts both ways. If we allow our worship to become reflective of our individuality instead of our unity, we are illustrating to the watching world that Jesus does not bring people together. An ‘outsider’ (to use Paul’s term from 1 Cor. 14:16, 24) should be able to watch the gathered saints confess Christ as one, sing as one, pray as one, and actively listen with a unity in their devotion as Christ their Lord addresses them in the preached Word. He should be able to perceive that there is a singularity of purpose and worship. He should see the power of God to bring different people and personalities and unite them in a holy purpose and holy love.
After he had reminded the Corinthians that ‘love never ends’ (13:8), Paul went on to say, ‘When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways’ (v. 11).
Next time you step into your place of worship, remember the great commandments: love God and love your neighbour.
This article was first published in Tabletalk, the Bible study magazine of Ligonier Ministries. Find out more at TabletalkMagazine.co.uk or try it free for three months today at TryTabletalk.co.uk.
Dr David P. Barry is assistant pastor at Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Georgia, USA, and adjunct professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.