In any of its various forms, the word worship occurs only six times in the Pauline Epistles (Rom. 1:25; 1 Cor. 14:25; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:18, 23; 2 Thess. 2:4). Of these, only one passage (1 Cor. 14:25) specifically speaks of worship in a church setting. This reference is especially striking because we would have expected that if Paul had used the word only once in First Corinthians, it surely would have been in his teaching about the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34). Instead, he used it in the only explicit information given in Scripture about worship in an actual church service.
An examination of this passage (1 Cor. 14:23-25) brings out truth of great value for all churches. Paul begins by speaking of the whole church’s having come together into one place (14:23a). He argues with a rhetorical question that demands an affirmative answer that if all the believers were to speak with tongues, the resulting effect on unlearned or unbelieving people present in the service would be undesirable and unedifying (14:23b-c). Saying this, he makes clear that a proper church service is not one that is focused on speaking with tongues.
He then contrasts what would happen in that case with what would happen if all the believers were to prophesy (14:24). In that situation, he describes the very beneficial effects such activity in the church would have on unbelievers and unlearned people (14:24-25). Paul’s fivefold explanation of the effect on them provides crucial understanding about public worship.
First, he says that an unbelieving or unlearned person would be “convinced by all” (14:24c). Because of the congregation’s ministry, the person would be brought into conviction of sin.
Second, he would be “judged of all” (14:24d). The believers’ prophesying would bring conviction of judgment upon the person. Saying this, Paul made known that a church service is supposed to be a setting in which people become convicted of sin and judgment.
Third, his secrets would thus be made manifest (14:25a). Here Paul reveals that through the prophesying, God would make manifest to the sinner the secrets of his heart. In some unexplained manner, God would supernaturally confront the sinner with conviction of judgment to come upon him for his secret sins.
Fourth, he would therefore fall down on his face and worship God (14:25b). Recognizing that only God could have brought about such exposure of his secrets and convinced him that he deserves judgment for them, the person would publicly abase himself and worship God. Paul thus made known that the consummation of public worship includes sinful unbelievers’ and unlearned people’s publicly manifesting that God has convicted them of judgment and brought them to the place where they openly worship Him in acknowledgement of His supernatural working through the congregation.
Finally, he would report that God truly was in that body of believers (14:25c). Paul notes that the person thus brought to worship God openly would confess in some unexplained manner to the congregation that God was truly present among them.
Putting all these ideas together, we see that public worship is consummated fully when those whom God convicts of judgment for their secret sins openly acknowledge Him as God by publicly abasing themselves in some appropriate manner and then testifying of God’s working in their heart to that congregation. This passage therefore provides biblical justification for the use of some appropriate manner of public invitation in church services.
Moreover, Paul’s contrasting statements about the effects of the speaking with tongues versus prophesying strikingly show that speaking with tongues by all will not result in the desired worship of God by unbelieving and unlearned people. For them to be brought to worship God, they will have to hear prophesying by the congregation.
Furthermore, this passage teaches that unbelievers and unlearned people will only worship God aright in a service when they have been convicted of judgment to come for their secret sins. This teaching thus stresses that God desires to bring about that outcome in them through the believers’ prophesying to them. Those who minister publicly should consider these truths as they plan what the content of their prophesying will be.
Believers in all churches should be taught these important truths about the consummation of public worship. The Father desires that people worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23) according to the teaching of this important passage.