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The Unified, Unsegmented Worship Assembly

The apostle Paul commands us to "hold fast the pattern of sound words" (2 Tim 1:13). What is the divine pattern for the conduct of the church assembly? Is it all together in concert, or may it be divided up into segmented groups discussing different things and still be the assembly?

A Current Issue: Discussion Groups in the Lord's Supper

Some think it is permissible to segment the assembly into "break out" groups to discuss the personal meaning of the Lord's Supper. "The primitive church had an intimacy, informality, and degree of mutual participation largely foreign to our own experience…. The gathered assemblies of the primitive church appear to have been far more participatory than what we experience; and, almost of necessity, therefore, more spontaneous and informal…. Just as a family interacts with one another around the house, in the house churches of the first century the family of God actively participated with one another in their mutual worship" (F. Lagard Smith, Radical Restoration, 152-153). How does he know they were "far more participatory… more spontaneous and informal"? Is it his subjective speculation? Or, deductions derived from abuses in the Corinthian assembly that Paul has rebuked and corrected?

He advocates the Lord's Supper in conjunction with a social meal and says such an observance is like a Thanksgiving meal at his house: "we eagerly filled our plates and scattered all over the house…. In fact, from what we can tell, it's also very much like the house churches of the first century and their memorial meals on the Lord's Day… Earlier, I questioned how it's possible to mix a funeral [the Lord's death] and a banquet. Admittedly, those two extremes are pretty much irreconcilable. But a joyous Thanksgiving meal is certainly not ruined by pausing in the middle of the festivities to reflect upon spiritual things, and to read the Scriptures and to pray…." (ibid, 145-146).

I believe Paul's teaching on the nature of the assembly in 1 Cor. 11-14, "when you come together" (1 Cor. 11:17), does not allow this "scattering" into different groups to discuss the Lord's Supper. In 1 Cor. 12-14, the context of "the assembly… together" dealt specifically with the exercise of miraculous spiritual gifts. Yet, the underlying general principles governing the conduct of the assembly still apply as a pattern for us "when the whole church assembles together" (1 Cor. 14:23).

This article aims to show the scriptural pattern governing the unified conduct of "the assembly." It must be only united, concerted action, not different simultaneous actions in smaller discussion groups. How did Paul correct the "confusion" (1 Cor. 14:33) in the Corinthian worship, that certainly was "spontaneous," "informal" and "interactive"? Paul's pattern for the assembly from 1 Cor. 12-14 refutes Smith's assertion that the worship assembly was informal, spontaneous interaction in various segments of the assembly. Such segmented worship in the assembly of the whole church is without authority and cannot be done "in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Col. 3:17, John 8:31-32). Let us faithfully abide in Christ's teaching (John 8:31-32) and do so in love for the Lord and reverence for His order (1 John 5:3, John 14:15).

Paul's Correction for the Chaotic Assembly at Corinth

First, the Corinthians had perverted the Lord's Supper into a common meal (1 Cor. 11:17ff). Paul's inspired solution: they must eat their meals at home and "wait for one another" in the common assembly to observe the Lord's Supper together. The only elements authorized in the Lord's Supper are unleavened bread and fruit of the vine.

In 1 Cor. 12-14, based on Paul's correctives, the Corinthian exercise of miraculous gifts must have been in a state of "confusion" (1 Cor. 14:33), meaning "disorder or confusion in the assembly" (G.K. Barrett). It was like a three ring circus, with disconcerting, simultaneous exercise of spiritual gifts. There had been various ones singing, prophesying, tongue speaking, interpreting tongues, and teaching (1 Cor. 14:26a); some of it, if not all of it, was going on simultaneously. Paul says stop it! They were to observe a singular, unified order "in the church" (14:19), which is properly assembled in one place.

  1. Comments in the Assembly Directed to the Entire Congregation. The exercise of the miraculous gift in leading the assembly was "for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7), which means the whole congregation was assembled together. Hence, it was not just directed to a segment of it. The function of the assembly demonstrated concerted action as "one body" (1 Cor. 12:12). Each one who led the assembly should speak to "edify the church" (1 Cor. 14:4, 12), constantly bearing in mind this purpose "so that the church may edified" (1 Cor. 14:5). Comments must be directed to the entire congregation, not just a segment of it. Holladay observes, "The whole assembled church is the beneficiary" (1 Corinthians, Sweet, 178).

    The one who asserted himself in a tongue, without an interpreter, did not edify others who could not understand (hear) what the speaker had said (1 Cor. 14:16). "The other person is not edified" (1 Cor. 14:17). Paul says that if an unconverted visitor hears different prophets one by one, he "is convicted by all" (1 Cor. 14:24). Those who did not hear or understand what another speaker was saying, if he was speaking to a different segment of the assembly, would not receive spiritual benefit. Again, this points to the pattern that those leading or speaking were to address the whole assembly, not just a segment of it, in order to edify the whole group.

    So, if they were in different discussions amid different subgroups, one cannot hear all being said or be convicted by all. This apostolic order of one speaking to edify the entire assembly points to singular comments directed to the entire assembly, and not just a portion of it.

  2. Only One Speaker at a Time Addressing the Entire Assembly. In 1 Cor. 14:27-30, Paul says to those leading the assembly, whether tongue speakers, interpreters or prophets, that they were to "go one by one" (Greek ana meros) or "in turn" (Vincent). Those men not leading the assembly were to remain "silent" (1 Cor. 14:28, 30), so they could listen and be edified by the one leading the assembly. Leon Morris properly observes, "They are to speak one at a time, which seems to show that the Corinthians had had experience of a number of people exercising this gift simultaneously, which must have been very confusing. Paul forbids it" (1 Corinthians, IVP, 195). Willis agrees, "The phrase forbids more than one person speaking…Paul allowed only one person to speak at a time [in the assembly]" (1 Corinthians, Truth Commentaries, 412, 413).

    This counters Radical Restoration's contention of "informal," "spontaneous," "participatory interaction" in the worship assembly, by different subgroups discussing the Lord's Supper simultaneously. I think Gordon Fee nails the problem in the Corinthian assembly on the head: "The argument of this section suggests that more than one of them was accustomed to speaking forth at the same time. There appears also to have been a higher degree of individualized worship at their corporate gatherings" (1 Corinthians, NICNT, 688). Paul wrote to rebuke these disorders of simultaneous speaking in the assembly and then instill correct conduct in the worship assembly. Fee observes, "The reason for such orderliness is given in the final purpose clause [1 Cor. 14:31]. Paul is emphatic: 'All may prophesy, so that all may be instructed and all may be encouraged" (ibid, 695). The whole assembly, not just different segments, was to be edified by all the comments made in the assembly. Paul's instructions would insure concerted "peace" (unity) and eliminate "confusion" of concurrent, spontaneous subgroups (1 Cor. 14:33).

  3. The Pattern of the Concerted Assembly. This all demonstrates a uniform pattern of the assembly, of one male speaker at a time (1 Cor. 11:2, 14:27-30, 34-35) addressing and leading the entire group, not just a segment of it. Nor is there any indication that individual segments could be chattering among themselves to edify only their little segment. The liberal, "free-wheeling" practice at Corinth of their prior, disjointed action in the assembly Paul terms as "immature" (1 Cor. 14:20). Ralph Earle observes, "Paul is urging the Corinthian Christians to stop being (present tense) childish in their thinking" (Word Meanings in the NT, p. 241).

    Paul's concluding directive in the exercise of worship in the assembly: do all things "decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40). "Orderly" (Greek taxis) means "order, a fixed succession observing a fixed time, due or right order, orderly condition" (Thayer). This word "orderly" applies to the assembly moving in unison with each other, like a column of soldiers in the Lord's army, as Albert Barnes has observed. "Paul uses the word to suggest that members of the church do things one at a time, not all at once" (G. K. Barrett). So, "orderly" worship directs unified worship by all members acting jointly, with a one male leader at a time leading the entire assembly.

Questions for Innovators

For those who think the assembly can be broken into smaller segments (discussion groups) for the Lord's Supper and still be the authorized assembly: can you "in the assembly" (the whole church together in one place for worship) segment into different groups to discuss and sing the songs independently of each other in the different corners of the room and still be the assembly? Can you break up the assembly into different groups to simultaneously discuss prayer and then have different prayer groups and concurrently praying aloud in the same room and still be the one assembly of the church? If you call it "the assembly of the whole church" by sitting apart in different, segmented discussion groups a few feet away from each other, then why could you not sit apart a few more feet from each other in different rooms in the same building and still be the assembly of the church? Based on the principles discussed above, the answer to all these is "no."

Some think discussion groups for the Lord's Supper is nothing different than what we do in small groups like breaking up into Bible classes and/or prayer groups. A group in Bible class is not the assembly proper of the whole church, but it is simply a method of edification or teaching by generic authority for the church to teach "as the pillar and support of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15; cf. Matt 28:18-20). Such is separate from the formal assembly of the whole church. The unified assembly for worship specified by Paul in the Corinthian epistle is NOT merely a method, among other options, of worship. It is a specified, ordained arrangement for worship, with scriptural parameters. The assembly of the whole church is a joint exercise of concerted worship. It is not a concurrent, segmented worship, which Paul specifically forbade the Corinthians to do.