26 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. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two– or at the most three– should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace– as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. (1 Corinthians 14:26-33 NIV)
There is an assumption behind this passage that I find especially important to our understanding of it. I think Paul assumes that the Holy Spirit is present in each believer who is present in the gathering. This is not a general presence like the air in the room. This was an indwelling of each person who was a believer that was manifested in diverse ways through the people present (see 1 Corinthians 12). This was challenging for the Corinthians and even more challenging for us today.
Paul is convinced that the goal of the Spirit’s activity in the believers was the building up of the body. Only the Holy Spirit knows what that built up body will look like. My wife’s family loves jigsaw puzzles. A puzzle is a constant presence in the family room whenever we go to my mother-in-law’s house. Along with all the puzzle pieces there is almost always the lid of the puzzle box which shows what the completed puzzle looks like. Putting the puzzle together requires effort, but at least everyone knows what the goal is as everyone is looking at the same picture.
Now imagine attempting to assemble a 1000-piece puzzle with no picture to work with. This would require even greater patience as each person guesses what the final image will be. It also requires greater cooperation as pieces are shared and compared to find pieces that fit together.
Think of these early gatherings as a box of puzzle pieces. Each piece has a place and the image will not be complete until each piece is heard from. This is why Paul places a limitation on speaking in tongues. While the experience of speaking in tongues encourages the individual it does nothing to build up the body unless everyone can understand what is being communicated. Also, Paul instructs the Corinthians to only allow speaking in tongues when someone is present who can interpret. This way everyone benefits.
It is hard to imagine what this would look like in a typical church gathering today. It is unlikely in a large gathering that everyone is going to be able to share. Still, every effort should be made to encourage everyone to participate in some way beyond taking communion and putting an offering in the plate. This requires intentionality and taking a risk. It is possible that something will go off script. If this off script moment flows out of the work of the Spirit everyone benefits.
In my mind there is no question that Paul’s instructions could benefit our small groups. Our life group has been using an approach like this as we walk through the gospel of Luke. Our diversity of gifts is not as broad as the Corinthians, but we are quite different people with individual perspectives. During the week we seek for the Holy Spirit to guide us into something to bring to our small gathering. When we gather each person shares. The experience of everyone sharing stretches each of us and new insights often come from unexpected directions. We are all still learning how to let the Holy Spirit guide us as individuals and as a group. Our desire to participate in the group challenges each of us to continue to grow.