So, brothers and sisters, keep on eagerly desiring to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But let all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:39-40, my translation)
This verse teaches us to allow the exercise of all spiritual gifts. It does not, however, endorse a chaotic, unedifying display of such gifts. Thus, Paul corrects a misunderstanding of spiritual experience that was common among the Corinthians, and is sometimes found today. Following the lead of their culture, some of the Corinthian believers thought that genuine spirituality always took the form of ecstasy, spontaneity, and even pandemonium. Paul shows, on the contrary, that the power of the Spirit is not something that leads to uncontrolled excess. Rather, the gifting of the Spirit is something that we can and should express in a calm, ordered, and sane way. Just because the Holy Spirit is empowering you, that’s no justification for interrupting a meeting or disrespecting appropriate leadership. You must express that which the Spirit gives you in a way that helps those gathered, or you should just keep quiet (1 Cor 14:26-33).
I know some Christians who believe that the work of the Holy Spirit must always be unplanned and spontaneous. “Lord, do something in our worship service today that we have not planned,” they pray. Now, I’d never want to limit the Spirit’s ministry, and I’d be willing to let God interrupt my carefully wrought plans for a worship service. But, rather than pray only for the Spirit’s interruption of the planned service, I pray, first of all, for his leading in the midst of my planning. I prayed this way when I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, and I continue to pray this way when I plan worship for Laity Lodge. My hope is that what I plan for worship already reflects the guidance of the Spirit, and doesn’t need unplanned surprises in order to fulfill God’s intentions. Genuine spirituality and the power of the Spirit are fully consistent with orderly, decent, well-planned gatherings. If our planning is so rigid that it quenches the Spirit, then let the Spirit explode our plans. But may God help our planning and our order to reflect his will so that his church may be edified!
I realize that most of my readers are not planning worship services, so let me relate Paul’s counsel to your situation. You may feel nervous about certain spiritual gifts because you associate them with disorder and inappropriateness. The year before I arrived at Harvard, a Christian undergraduate walked into the Faculty Club in the middle of a busy lunch hour. In a loud voice, he began speaking in tongues. Nobody could understand him, of course, but they listened in stilted silence. After a couple of minutes the student stopped and walked out. When I heard about this event during my freshman year, it certainly didn’t encourage me to be open to unfamiliar spiritual experiences! In retrospect, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Holy Spirit did not lead that young man to interrupt the Faculty Club with an unintelligible message in tongues. The event was not edifying for anyone and it was quite disorderly. Without a doubt the Spirit will sometimes lead us to do daring and scary things, but they will not violate the biblical principle of “decently and in order.” Though you can’t be sure what the Spirit wants to do with you in the future, you can be confident that you will not be led into silly displays of immature spirituality. (Photo: Harvard Faculty Club)
Scripture urges you to be open to everything the Spirit would do in and through you. Eagerly desire those gifts that most obviously build up the body of Christ, and don’t forbid the exercise of any particular gift. Find ways to express your gifts that respect the ethos of your Christian community. Some churches make time in public worship for individual members to exercise spiritual gifts. Most do not. If your church does not, join a smaller fellowship group or ministry team where you can let the Spirit work through you to for the sake of others.
Moreover, remember that the Spirit is with you to empower you for ministry, not just in the gathering of the saints, but also as you’re in the world. Whether you’re at work or a school, whether you’re coaching soccer or visiting a friend in the hospital, you are a minister of Jesus Christ. He will use you for his purposes if you are available. And he will empower you through his Spirit to do his ministry with supernatural power.
But our focus should never be upon our spiritual gifts or our experiences. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post in this series.