The People’s Work—A Reformation Recovery


This year we celebrate the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a theological movement that restored many biblical doctrines and emphases that had been lost or confused during the Middle Ages. Men like John Huss, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and others recovered doctrines like justification by faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone and Sola Scriptura.

But among these reformations, they also recovered a biblical theology of worship. The Church of Rome had developed a theology of the Lord’s Table that viewed it as a mystical ceremony in which the bread and cup transformed into the body and blood of Christ himself, and that he was sacrificed each time the mass was observed. The Reformers rejected this doctrine of transubstantiation and proclaimed Christ’s death on the cross 1,500 years earlier as completely sufficient for salvation.

But other errors had crept into worship during the Middle Ages as well. In particular, worship had been taken away from the people. Worship became the work of priests and professional musicians instead of the people’s work.

One of the earliest hints we have of this is a Church Council in Laodicea in 365. Among other decrees, the council established a guild of professional singers in each church and declared that “No others shall sing in the Church, save only the canonical singers,” and “The Psalms are not to be joined together in the congregations, but a lesson shall intervene after every psalm.”

Thus during the Middle Ages singing was taken from the people, the language of worship was restricted to Latin, a language fewer and fewer laypeople understood, and worship degraded into a performance of a few select individuals such that they would perform the worship acts even if no one was in attendance.

Now, many of the reasons for some of these changes appear noble initially. The fourth century was a time of theological controversy and unrest in the Church. Church meetings were disorderly; heretics like Arius were spreading their false doctrine through the use of propaganda hymns. And so part of the reason for restricting the acts of worship to ordained leadership was to prevent this disorder and heterodoxy. But what resulted was worship taken away from the people.

We have in our New Testament an account of similar problems that these fourth-century church leaders faced. 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 recounts the disorder that the Corinthians church was experiencing in its worship, and here Paul gives them instructions for how to resolve their problems.

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. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.

Now, as I’m sure you noticed, this passage has several theological and practical landmines, and we’re going to do our best to tip-toe around those issues for our purposes here. My main goal is to grasp Paul’s primary concerns with regard to worship, and I think we’ll notice that they are some of the very same concerns that drove the Reformers, and that they have direct application for our worship today.

Corporate Worship is the people’s work

Notice first how he describes their problem in verse 26. Evidently, corporate worship in Corinth had become quite chaotic. Different people were coming with their own hymns, and lessons, and revelations, and tongues, and interpretations, all wanted their voice heard, and apparently speaking all at the same time. As we will see in a moment, there was even some question as to whether or not the revelations and tongues given were actually from the Lord or if they were made up.

So Paul becomes aware of these problems and wants to address them. But I want you to notice that while he deals with the problems that had arisen in their corporate worship, he does not solve the problem by removing worship from the people like the Church of Rome did later. We’ll notice some qualifications he makes to this in a moment, but Paul affirms that corporate worship is the people’s work. He does not restrict the worship elements we find in verse 26 to a few leaders; he continues to affirm the people’s active involvement in them, and he prescribes certain guidelines to bring them back to order.


So let’s take a moment and look at each of these elements and what they imply for corporate worship. First is “hymn.” This is the word psalmos, and it is often translated “Psalm.” However, at its root, it is a simply a term that means a song accompanied by stringed instruments, so most scholars believe it is being used in its generic sense here to describe congregational songs in general.

So congregational singing in Corinth had become quite chaotic, but Paul does not therefore take it away from them and give it to professional singers like the Council of Laodicea did later. We know from his letters to Ephesus and Colossi that Paul wanted the people to sing to one another Psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs. This was a way for them to let the Word of Christ richly dwell within them; it was a way for them to express their hearts’ affections of gratitude to the Lord; it was a way for them to teach and admonish one another. Singing is the people’s work!

The Reformers recognized and emphasized this point. Martin Luther, especially, believed that “next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” He appreciated good music in worship, and even commended the highly complex “performance” music of Renaissance composers such as Josquin.

But he also wanted the people to sing. He said, “Let God speak directly to His people through the Scriptures, and let his people respond with grateful songs of praise.” This meant that the songs needed to be in the language of the people. The music of Rome was performed by professionals in a language the people did not understand. Luther demanded “as many songs as possible in the vernacular which the people could sing.” He argued, “For who doubts that originally all the people sang these which now only the choir sings . . .? But poets are wanting among us, or not yet known, who could compose evangelical and spiritual song, as Paul calls them, worth to be used in the church of God.”

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Luther recognized the biblical mandate for the people to sing. Yes, when people write their own hymns and all the people sing them, there are bound to be some problems and controversies! But this does not mean that we solve the problem by removing the singing!

Luther’s emphasis led him to write around 35 hymns himself, and by the time of his death he had facilitated 60 hymnals of songs in the German language, and sixty years later, almost 25,000 German hymns had been produced.

Congregational singing should be a central emphasis of the people’s work in worship. And yet unfortunately many churches today have returned to the practice of Rome, putting all the emphasis upon performers on a stage instead of the people. Trained musicians can certainly be a help and aid to corporate worship, but ultimately, all of God’s people should actively participate in the singing of God’s praise.


We also see in verse 26 two more elements that could be grouped into one category: lesson and revelation. “Lesson” is a translation of a term that simply means “teaching”; “revelation” is a direct message from God himself. Grouped together, we could categorize these two terms as the proclamation of God’s Word.

These people did not have the complete canon of God’s Word yet, and so they need direct revelation from him. This is why Paul says in verse 29 that what a prophet says must be “weighed” by others. They had to be sure what the prophet was speaking was actually the word of God by literally “sifting” what was spoken with Scripture to determine of what was said was indeed the Word of the Lord.

Today, we can affirm together that what we have in the 66 books of our Old and New Testaments is our sure Word of Revelation from God for today. So at very least, these terms apply to the reading and preaching of Scripture—God’s revelation for us today.

So again, evidently these practices had become disorderly. But as with singing, Paul does not solve the problem by removing the elements from the people. Rather, he gives them guidelines for how they are to conduct themselves when they engage in these things.

During the Middle Ages, preaching, too, had diminished to the point that in some churches it was no longer practiced. The Roman Church also prescribed that only specific Scripture passages be read on particular days of the year, and they made sure to skip any passages that would cause theological misinterpretation or controversy, and even then, the Scripture was read in a language the people couldn’t even understand.

There remained in the liturgy a place for a sermon, but if a church had something, it was usually a short homily comprised of stories and statements from the church fathers rather than exposition of Scripture.

The Reformers recognized the mandate to follow Paul’s instructions to Timothy to “Preach the Word” and “Give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” Luther said this:

Therefore, it must be a grievous sin not to listen to the gospel, and to despise such a treasure and so rich a feast to which we are bidden. But it is a much greater sin not to preach the gospel, and to allow so many people who would gladly hear it to perish, for Christ has so strictly commanded that the gospel and this testament be preached that He does not even wish the mass to be celebrated unless the gospel be preached. For this reason, it is so dreadful and horrible to be a bishop, pastor, and preacher in our times, for no one knows this testament any longer, not to mention that they ought to preach it; although this is their highest and only duty and obligation. They will certainly have to account for the many souls who perish because of such feeble preaching.

The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli gave special emphasis to the regular expositional preaching of God’s Word. In contrast to the restrictions of Rome, Zwingli began the practice of preaching lectio continuo, that is, simply preaching straight through books of the Bible. He began in Zurich with the book of Matthew, and simply preached verse by verse through the book from week to week.

This practice accomplished a few important things: First, it allowed the preacher to explain the text and admonish the people within the broader context of a whole book of the Bible. In other words, it is far less likely for a preacher to be able to rip a passage of Scripture out of context to prove a particular point he wants to make if the people see the text in its context. And second, preaching verse by verse through a book prevents the preacher from skipping difficult texts or ones that he is afraid will cause controversy. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and it is all profitable.

Thus the reading, explanation, and admonition of the Word of God is part of necessary corporate worship, yet how many sermons today have diminished to little more than brief self-help homilies rather than thorough exposition of God’s revelation?


Finally, we have mention of tongues and interpretation. Paul says in verse 2 that “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God.” So tongues is at least a form of prayer to God.

Here we find the dialogical nature of corporate worship. God spoke to the people through the reading and explanation of Scripture and through direct Revelation, and the people spoke back to God through the singing of hymns and with prayers, sometimes in other languages that needed interpretation. Here we find the nature of worship: God speaks to us, and we speak back to him.

So although there were problems in the Corinthian church with singing and preaching and praying, Paul did not remove these responsibilities from the people and give them exclusively to professionals. We’ll see in a moment that church leadership does have special authority and importance in these matters, but ultimately, corporate worship is the people’s work.

In fact, we get our word “liturgy” from a compound Greek word that means just that—the people’s work. Corporate worship demands active participation of every person in the congregation; every person must be involved with the work of worship. This was one of the most significant recoveries of the Reformation.

Corporate Worship should build up the body.

Instead of taking away these things from the people, Paul offers some guidelines for how they should be conducted, beginning with the last statement in verse 26: “Let all things be done for building up.” This admonition fits right with our emphasis on worship as the people’s work. Worship is not something done simply out of duty; the elements of worship are for the benefit of the people.

And Paul’s emphasis here is not only for the benefit of individuals; his emphasis is on the building up of the body. Throughout the book of 1 Corinthians Paul stresses this, for example in 14:3 where he says, “the one who prophesies builds up the church,” and verse 5 which says, “so that the church may be built up,” and verse 12, “strive to excel in building up the church.”

In each case Paul uses the same Greek term for “build”; here in verse 26 he does not explicitly say, “for the church” as he does in the other verses, but in the greater context of the chapter and the entire book, it is a foregone conclusion that he intends the same emphasis here.

So corporate worship is not a time for professionals to simply do their duty or for individuals to receive a blessing; corporate worship is the people’s work whereby the body of Christ is strengthened and built up.

Now this emphasis upon building up may strike you as a quite man-centered worship philosophy. Here Paul is talking about corporate worship being the work of the people with the goal of building up the church; where is the Godward focus in all of this?

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Unfortunately, because for many years Godward worship has been lost in many churches in favor of Sunday morning services given over exclusively to evangelism or revivalism, the idea of Godward worship and the building up of the body are seen by many as mutually exclusive. You either have services that are focused on God or services that are focused on people; you can’t have both, right?

On the contrary, God-focused worship and edification are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the most edifying, building up content for worship is Revelation from God himself and response of praise and thanks to him. Think about it; what is it that the church really needs? The church needs God’s revelation read and explained and opportunity to express their hearts of adoration and gratitude through the singing of hymns and prayer. That is exactly what we find here. These elements of worship that are to be done for the building up of the body, are themselves acts of worship toward God. For example, in Romans 1:9 Paul says, “I worship God with my whole heart.” How? “in preaching the gospel of his Son.” He says something similar in Romans 15:16: “God gave me the grace to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” These are acts of worship toward God that also build up the body of Christ. As we’ve already seen, in corporate worship, God speaks to us, and we speak back to him; and all along through this dialogue between us and God, people learn, are encouraged, and the body of Christ is built up

Keep in mind as well that in this passage Paul is addressing a specific problem with tongues and prophesy, and so his immediate focus is on the building up of the church, but notice the foundation for his whole discussion in verse 33: he builds his argument on the fact that God is not a God of confusion—literally “disorder.” These guidelines regarding the horizontal aspects of corporate worship are God-centered themselves.

Corporate Worship Should Be Orderly

Thus he specifically addresses the problem at hand in verses 27-33. For our purposes we will not get into the particulars of theses verses; our objective is to note the larger principles. But do notice what he says about speaking in tongues and prophesying in corporate worship. He limits those speaking in tongues to “only two or at the most three,” he insists that someone interpret what has been spoken, he allows only two or three prophets to speak as well, they must do so in order, “one by one,” and they must not prophesy at the same time. And as we’ve already seen, the word of prophesy must be tested to be sure it is truly from the Lord.

In other words, Paul insists that corporate worship should be orderly; it should not be chaotic, for God is not a God of disorder. Each element of the people’s work should be done one by one “so that all may learn and be encouraged.”

But in order for this to happen, according to Paul, it must be orderly. These elements of worship cannot happen haphazardly; each is to happen one by one. This is why the term “liturgy”—“the people’s work”—came to describe the careful ordering of corporate worship. The people’s work is an ordered work.

Now there are those today who say that an ordered liturgy prevents the Spirit of God from doing his work; how dare we put God in a box and demand that the Spirit of God follow our ordered liturgy?

Well, Paul anticipated that objection as well. Notice what he says in verse 32: “And the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” In other words, the Holy Spirit never takes over someone so that he is out of control; even those proclaiming a prophesy from the Holy Spirit have control over their own speech. Why? Because, verse 33, the Holy Spirit of God is not disorderly. He himself is an orderly God, and so order in corporate worship does not limit the Holy Spirit’s work; order in the service is exactly what facilitates this dialogue with Him!

This is why most of the Reformers did not abolish all liturgy. What they could retain of the liturgy, they did. They eliminated some elements that had errant theological basis, they altered the content of the liturgy where it reflected heresy, and they put the liturgy in the words of the people so that it could truly be the people’s work, but they did not rid themselves of the liturgy itself. Luther specifically addressed this:

The service now in common use everywhere goes back to genuine Christian beginning, as does the office of preaching. But as the latter has been perverted by spiritual tyrants, so the former has been corrupted by the hypocrites. As we do not on that account abolish the office of preaching, but aim to restore it again to its right and proper place, so it is not our intention to do away with the service, but to restore it again to its rightful use.

In other words, just because the Romanists used preaching to spread false doctrine, we do not get rid of preaching. And likewise, just because liturgy had been used to perpetuate a false view of worship, we do not reject liturgy.

This point of the spirit being subject to the prophets also means that worship is not stirring up the congregation into an emotional frenzy such that they have an uninhibited “spiritual” experience. One commentator notes, in light of this verse, “Needless to say, any notion of a community ‘working itself up’ by psychological autosuggestion or repetitive devices designed to heighten emotion would be entirely alien to Paul’s ethics of controlled speech.”

So corporate worship is the people’s work, it is a dialogue with God in which the body of Christ is built up, and it should be done in an orderly manner.

Corporate worship maintain God-ordained leadership structures

There are two more characteristics of corporate worship that I would like us to notice in verses 34-40. In verses 34-35 we find another one of these potential landmines that we need not dissect fully at this point. But I do want us to focus in on what Paul’s primary point is here, because I think he is making a broader point about corporate worship than just the issue of women speaking in church. So we do need to notice a few things.

Here we have a command, “the women should keep silent in the churches.” Now, we must interpret this command in light of the full context of 1 Corinthians. So I want to bring to your attention two important points that we find in chapter 11. In 11:5 Paul clearly allows for women to pray and prophesy in public worship; he is giving instructions in that passage about how they should conduct themselves while they do so. So Paul cannot mean here in chapter 14 that women cannot speak at all in public worship. Second, 11:3 says, “the head of a wife is her husband.” There is a voluntary arrangement between husband and wife whereby the wife submits herself to her husband’s loving leadership. This does not mean at all that the husband is superior to his wife; the coequal persons of the Trinity themselves have voluntarily arranged themselves in an order of authority—11:3 says this: “the head of Christ is God [the Father].” So the Father and the Son are both coequally God, but the Son voluntarily submits his will to the Father’s will. Likewise, husband and wife are both equal in terms of personhood, intelligence (actually, the wife is usually more intelligent), and honor, but the wife voluntarily submits her will to the husband’s.

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Now, with these two points in mind, let us consider this command in 14:34 in light of its immediate context. Paul has just been talking about prophecy. What must happen when a prophet gives a revelation? According to verse 29, it must be sifted by others. Now what would happen if a man gives a prophecy, and his wife begins to publicly interrogate him to determine if what he has spoken is really the Word of the Lord? A very close parallel to this might be if while I was preaching, my wife would shout out, “Is that really God’s Word? I’m not so sure!” It would be shameful, as Paul says in verse 35. It would contradict his clear commands regarding the voluntary relationship of submission between a wife and her husband.

For this reason, Paul says that women should not be a part of this process of interrogating the prophets. His point here is not that women should have no part in public worship—he has already said in chapter 11 that they should! This is the people’s work! But in this specific act of sifting the words of prophets, women should not participate.

Notice also that this doesn’t mean the wives couldn’t interrogate their husbands at home! They could, according to verse 35, and that word translated “ask” is actually a word that means something more like “interrogate.” So wives have every right to interrogate their husbands in private!

But now that we have a little better idea of the immediate point here in context, let’s extract the greater principle. Paul is insisting here that corporate worship should maintain God-ordained leadership structures. We have been talking a lot about the idea of corporate worship as “the people’s work,” and perhaps we could get the idea that this emphasis leads to mob rule in corporate worship.

But as this immediate contextual issue that Paul addresses illustrates, the people’s work does not mean there is no rightful authority in corporate worship. Just as wives voluntarily submit themselves to their husbands, so we the people voluntarily submit ourselves to the elders of the church. They are the rightful authority in matters of church life and especially corporate worship.

For example, Paul writes a letter to the lead elder of the church at Ephesus, Timothy, so that he might know how to behave in the house of God. 1 Timothy is written for that purpose. And much of the letter is comprised of qualifications of the leaders of the church—it is they who lead the people in their work of corporate worship.

The Reformers dealt with this issue as well. They were reacting against a Church that prohibited the people from doing their work of worship and that had an authority structure that was domineering and claimed to be infallible. So in their attempt to bring worship back to the people, the Reformers could have put in place a fully democratic rule of the people in corporate worship. But they did not; they certainly did bring worship back to the people, but they maintained a proper emphasis upon God-ordained authority structures within the church.

Martin Bucer, a little known Reformer but one who influenced each of the more well-known Reformers, addressed this issue of pastoral authority specifically. In Concerning the Care of Souls, he says:

“Our Lord Jesus, now in his heavenly nature, is with us and rules and feeds us from heaven; this rule and feeding, that is, the work of our salvation, he exercises among us through his ministers, whom he calls, ordains and uses for that purpose.  Through them he calls all nations to reformation and declares to them forgiveness of sins, pardoning their sins and accepting them as his disciples, giving them new birth to godly life in holy baptism and then teaching them all their lives to keep everything that he has commanded them.”

Thus corporate worship is the people’s work, but is must be led by God-ordained ministers.

Corporate Worship should be regulated by God’s Word

Finally, notice Paul’s basis for all of these instructions in verses 36-38.

36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

Ultimately corporate worship must be regulated by the commands of the Lord. The Corinthians wanted to order their worship according to their own creativity and ingenuity, as if they alone had received the word of God. But Paul admonishes them that what he writes to them is the inspired Word of God. It is Scripture. And if what they determine to do in worship, whether or not they think they are prophets or spiritual, if it does not find warrant in inspired Scripture, then it should be rejected. Corporate worship must be regulated by God’s Word.

This was also a significant emphasis of the Reformers, especially John Calvin. He said, “[God] declares all self-made worship, however splendid and beautiful it may be in men’s eyes, accursed . . . If all voluntary worship which we ourselves devise apart from God’s commandment is hateful to him, it follows that no worship can be acceptable to him except that which is approved by his Word.” Thus Calvin insisted, as Paul does here, that all elements of corporate worship find explicit warrant in the Word of God.

Yet the cry today is that worship must be fresh, it must be new, it must be exciting. People are used to simple worship ordered by Scripture, some argue, and so worship has become boring. Yet this emphasis itself reveals that worship is no longer the people’s work. The people’s entertainment, yes; the people’s feel-good experience, perhaps. But the people’s work? If churches today would recover this emphasis of worship being the active work of the people to hear from God’s revelation, speak back to him, and all along edify one another, then worship regulated by Scripture would never be boring; you can’t be bored while you work.

Corporate worship will be evangelistic.

I would like mention one more brief observation of what directly precedes our text. Notice what Paul says in verses 24-25:

But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

We have noticed in our text the dialogical nature of worship—God speaks to us, and we speak back to him—and we have also seen the benefits of worship in building up the body of Christ. Here now we find the third priority of the church accomplished in corporate worship—evangelism.

There are times in the ministry of the church where the focus is primarily evangelism, and other times when the focus is primarily the building up of the body. But in corporate worship we find all three priorities of the church beautifully melded together: When the people do the work of worship—when that worship is well-ordered, led by God-appointed leadership, and regulated by God’s Word–communion with God is nurtured, the body is built up, and unbelievers who attend recognize the presence of God and fall on their faces before him.

This was the emphasis of the Reformation we celebrate today, and I pray that this will be our emphasis as Christ’s church in the twenty-first century.