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1 Corinthians, xiv. 15-19.—“What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also; I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else, when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified. I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

THIS chapter, and particularly the verses we have read, give us something of a real insight into the character of the earliest Christian times. They carry us back, across more than eighteen centuries, and help us to see, as in a mirror, the Corinthian Church, and what its worship was, less than thirty years after the death of our Lord. I say this with confidence; because the Epistles 251to the Corinthians are admitted beyond all question, by all critics, however sceptical, to be the genuine writings of the Apostle Paul. They give us therefore, so far, a real picture of the thought and life of their time. The Corinthian Church, planted by the apostle, with its strange enthusiasms and mingled beliefs, stands revealed in them. And how very valuable and rare such a picture is, may be estimated by the difficulty we have in calling up before our minds any true image of facts or institutions only one or two centuries past. There are few things more difficult to do. Let us try, for example, to recall our own Scottish Church of the seventeenth century—to bring clearly before us its mode of worship, the attempt to displace which, in the summer of 1637, gave rise to the memorable tumult whose force spread through England as well as Scotland, and changed our whole history—how little would we be found agreeing in our reproduction of that worship, and the famous scene connected with it; how scanty the materials for their reproduction! How much harder still is it to realise the form of that ancient Celtic Church which prevailed in these islands before it was supplanted by the Latin or Roman Ritual—the 252Church of St Columba and of St Giles!165165   This Sermon was also preached at the reopening of St Giles’s Cathedral, or the High Church, after careful restoration, in the spring of 1873. Apart from the difficulty which always exists of true historic insight and appreciation, we cannot be said, in either of these cases, to have adequate means of recreating the image of the past. Facts are wanting. But here at least we have before us a series of undoubted facts. All that the primitive Church was is not told us here. But the features which are given are clear and unmistakable. The picture may not be complete; because there was no intention of making it complete. But the lines are fresh and vivid, and they are from the hands of a master.

Let us contemplate the picture first in its details; then as a whole; and, lastly, draw from it the meaning or lessons which it contains for us.

I. The several details in the primitive Christian worship are here plainly indicated as four—to wit: (1.) Prayer; (2.) Praise; (3.) What is called “Giving of thanks;” and (4.) Prophesying. These all receive attention, and to some extent description.


(1.) Prayer takes precedence, if not in the chapter, in the verses we have more particularly made our text. And rightly so. For prayer is a primary instinct of all worship. Wherever there is any recognition of a Supreme Being, the heart rises spontaneously in adoration, gratitude, or supplication. The reality and intensity of this spiritual feeling is its own justification. And whatever difficulties it may involve to reason—however we may explain, or be content to cease from explaining, the relation of the Divine and the human will—the aspiration of prayer will never fail while men look beyond themselves to an invisible Power above them. Prayer was a prominent feature of the worship of the Synagogue; and thence, no doubt, passed in its customary form into the service of the Christian Church. But it took also a new spirit and mould in doing so.

As described here, it was obviously of a twofold character. “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also.” The prayer of the “spirit” and the prayer of the “understanding” were not the same. The language points to a pervading distinction which runs through the chapter, and the general nature of which is easily apprehended, whatever 254difficulties its more special explanation may involve. The allusion is to the gift of tongues, spoken of at the commencement and in the close of the passage. This endowment was one of the most remarkable of the early Church. It appears to, have been common, to have been a mark of the Divine presence, and yet to have served no practical purpose of instruction or even intelligent devotion. For the apostle says, in the 14th verse, “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.” The prayer of the spirit was, therefore, an ecstatic utterance, somehow edifying to the speaker, but of no use to the Church. We are unable to tell more particularly what it was. Such phenomena of ecstasy have prevailed in later times, and can well be imagined as a phase of that powerful spiritual excitement out of which the early Church came. In the nature of the case, it is impossible to give any satisfactory explanation of a spiritual state which obviously transcended reason and the working of ordinary intelligence.

But the prayer of intelligence was plainly a higher gift in which all could join, and the good of which all could share. “I had rather speak five words with my understanding,” the apostle 255says, “than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Great stress is laid here and throughout upon the point of intelligibility. And there can be no doubt that the prayers of the congregation—the “common prayers,” in which all participated—were understood of all. Evidently, also, the prayers of the early Church were free prayers, as yet unconfined to any set of words. The whole description implies this. Men and women are depicted as pouring forth their deeply-moved hearts before the Lord, irrepressibly swayed by the fervour of their feelings and their devout personal enthusiasm.

(2.) Praise is combined with prayer. “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” And in the Epistle to the Ephesians,166166   Ephesians, v. 19. we read more fully of the early Christians speaking to themselves “in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs” (odes); singing and making melody in their hearts to the Lord. This language of a later Epistle167167   About five years later than 1st Corinthians, or about 62 A.D. would imply that there was even thus early in the Church some traces of a Christian hymnology—or certain forms of metrical composition—for the special expression of Christian sentiments or feelings. The Psalms, no doubt, were 256sung or chanted as in the Synagogue; but the “hymns and spiritual songs” seem to have been something in addition.

Such a point cannot be clearly settled. We have no Christian hymns—other than those taken from the Gospels—earlier than the second half of the second century, or more than a century later than the Epistle; just as we have really no forms of prayer which can be traced beyond the same period. There are indeed liturgies, which pass under the name of St James and St Mark;168168   Neither of these liturgies, in their present form, can be traced higher than the fifth or sixth century. The Liturgy of St Mark, for example, directs that the “priest” shall repeat the Nicene Creed; and it is well known that that Creed was not generally used in the service of the Church till the middle of the sixth century. See Dr Swainson’s volume on the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creeds, pp. 133, 134. and these liturgies, although they have no genuine apostolic authority, may embrace ancient fragments of common or congregational prayers. Even so the earliest Christian hymns we possess may embody in fuller composition still earlier fragments of the Christian lyre. Some have pleased themselves with the thought, for example, that the germ of the well-known Te Deum Laudamus—traditionally attributed to the great Latin teacher, St Ambrose, of 257the fourth century may be found as far back as the time of Pliny and Trajan, in the beginning of the second century, when the former reported to the latter that the Christians of Bithynia “sang hymns to Christ as to God.”169169   In the well-known letter of the younger Pliny to the Emperor Trajan. The conjecture is not without some degree of probability; while there are other hymns, or parts of hymns, such as the Gloria Patri, the Gloria in Excelsis, and some beautiful snatches of morning and vesper hymns, of very high antiquity.170170   See Bunsen’s Analecta Ante-Nicaena, vol. iii. pp. 86-90; Bingham’s Antiquities, Book xiv.; also Anthologia Graeca Carminum Christianorum. (Leipsic: 1871.) Of those from the Gospels, the songs of Zacharias, of Mary, and of Simeon—the well-known Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis of the Anglican service—I need not say anything. They had, no doubt, from a very remote period, their place in the worship of the Church. But the really significant fact is, that from the very first age there were evidently in the Church distinctively Christian hymns or songs, sung in addition to the Psalms of the Old Testament. The “new heart” given in Christ sought then, as it has always done, utterance in lyrical forms of its own. Fresh with new-born life, it was not content to 258confine itself to the older channels of devotion. It sought channels for itself, and consecrated anew both words and music to celebrate the ardour of its praise.

(3.) But besides “prayer” and “praise,” there is a special part of the early Christian worship described in the 16th verse as “giving of thanks” (eucharistia). It hardly admits of any doubt that the reference is to the solemn eucharistical service which accompanied the “breaking of bread”—the central service of communion round which all the other worships of the early Church gathered. To speak of this service at length, as it is depicted in the Epistles to the Corinthians, would lead us away from our subject. We remark merely on the one feature of it emphasised here. The eucharistical service was designed to be understood of all. The intelligibility commended by the apostle throughout is here specially enforced. For unless the thanksgiving was intelligible, how was it, he implies, to be responded to? It was that part of the Christian service, more than any other, meant to evoke the assent of the congregation, and to call forth their intelligent response; and its meaning would be defeated, therefore, if it partook of the nature of mere spiritual rapture 259or ecstasy. “Else, when them shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.” In short, when the solemn thanksgiving was offered, which remains to this day in all Churches so impressive a feature of the communion service, it was to be in words that all could follow, so that all with loud voice might say Amen. There was nothing in the early Christian worship more striking or beautiful than this loud-voiced Amen. “All the people,” Justin Martyr171171   1 Apol., 45. says in the middle of the second century, testified their assent to the great thanksgiving prayer “with audible voice, saying Amen”—an unerring witness of the antiquity of a beautiful usage, and of the clearly intelligible character which in the first ages characterised this most solemn act of Christian worship.

(4.) The fourth element of worship, and the prominent subject of the chapter, is “Prophesying.” We are in the habit of associating with this word the idea of prediction. But neither the English nor the original Scriptural expression 260necessarily contain this meaning. They convey the idea rather of “speaking out;” and what we mean by preaching is nearer St Paul’s meaning, and indeed nearer the function of the Old Testament prophets, than anything else. The prophets were preachers of truth, righteousness, and judgment to come, far more than they were predicters or foretellers. “He that prophesieth,” says the apostle, “speaketh unto men, to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.” Prophesying was therefore no mere giving of an oracle, but the utterance of earnest and reasonable speech. It aimed at the mind and conscience. Those whom it addressed were intelligent auditors, “convinced of all, judged of all.” The secrets of their hearts were drawn forth, and their spiritual being awakened, so that “all may learn, and all may be comforted.” As prayer was the free utterance of devout feeling in the early Church, so “prophesying” was the free utterance of the “word in season”—the Divine message which searched the intelligence, quickened the spirit, and sought to exalt and purify the lives of those who heard it. And is not this the ideal of preaching always?—no mere formal discourse, or theological argument, or polemical or moral essay, or sentimental 261rapture, but a living message from speaker to hearers. If sermons were always living, reasonable, and luminous with intelligence, should we find them spoken of as they too often are? Do not men always gather willingly to listen to a true voice, and the words of free and earnest thought, animated by faith, and winged by the quickened impulses of the preacher’s own heart.

II. But let us now turn from the details of this feature of primitive worship to contemplate it as a whole. What is the general impression which it makes? Do we not feel, as we call it up before us, how like in substance, how unlike in form, it is to later modes of worship? Here we have the several elements of worship to this day—prayer, praise, preaching, the eucharistic solemnity,—all with which we are familiar, whether as Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, or Congregationalists. In the Corinthian Church, about the year 57 or 58, we see the Divine original of our common service. We cannot ascend to a higher source. No one has a right to call upon us to descend to a lower. We are content to stand by this early fountain-head of Christian ritual, and to recognise thankfully 262how much there is here which the piety, hope, and sacred joy of eighteen Christian centuries have consecrated. Shall any one venture to say, in the face of this picture, that wherever men and women are seen humbly engaged in prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving in the name of Christ, there can be any doubt of the Christian character of the worship, and of its Divine sanction?

But the Corinthian ritual is not more like in substance than unlike in form and detail to our diverse modes of modern Christian worship. The idea of an order of service is hardly found in the picture. The features have the freshness, but also something of the rudeness, of an original sketch. All the subjects are present, but they are indefinitely grouped—indistinctly, although powerfully outlined. We get the impression throughout of freedom, variety, unsettledness—a common and strong enthusiasm pervading all hearts, and venting itself without restraint. “How is it then, brethren?” says the apostle; “when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.”

There is plainly no trace of a formal worship, or of that “uniformity” which, in later times, has 263been deemed so important a note of the Christian Church. I hardly think that any existing ritual, whether Presbyterian or Episcopalian, Latin or Greek, would claim to be the counterpart of the picture here presented. No doubt they would severally say with truth that this is to be accounted for by the fact that the order of Christian worship was as yet unformed. With less truth they would probably add that their special mode of worship represents this order in its finally settled form. Statements of this sort hardly admit of an answer. The historical student nowhere finds anything absolutely settled in the ever-advancing growth of institutions, whether civil or ecclesiastical. All that need be said now is, that this picture of the primitive worship, however unsettled, is the only picture that, on any Protestant view, can claim a Divine original. Subsequent developments may be good or bad; but, at any rate, they are not apostolic nor primitive. This is the original whence they have grown. This is the first sketch, whoever may have filled in the picture.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing in the chapter, as well as throughout the Epistle, is the absence of any allusion to an order of clergy 264or office-bearers appointed for the conduct of worship. The “presbyter” or “elder” so often mentioned elsewhere, especially in the later pastoral epistles, is not even indicated. And this is the more remarkable, that the apostle here and elsewhere in this Epistle gives special injunctions as to certain disorders which had sprung up in the Corinthian Church. He says distinctly that such and such things should not be, but he nowhere says that presbyter or bishop is to take order to prevent them in virtue of his authority. No idea of presbyter or bishop, of priest or prelate, seems to cross his mind.

It is hardly necessary for me to say that this is no evidence that a Christian ministry or order of clergy is not good in itself, or even of Divine appointment. It would be unwarrantable, from the absence of allusion on the part of the apostle, to draw any such general conclusion. The real sanction of the Christian ministry rests upon that Divine necessity for order which is distinctly recognised and enforced in this very chapter. At the same time we may, we are bound to draw this inference, that an order of clergy of this or that definite type, with such and such grades of office, is not vital to the validity of Christian worship. It is scarcely 265possible to conclude less than this. For if the idea of Christian worship is only true or complete when a certain order of clergy conduct it, it is inconceivable that St Paul should not have let drop some hint of this in all that he says here or elsewhere as to the organisation of the Church and its service. Not a word escapes him to this effect. Whatever he says implies the contrary. Two rubrics, and two alone, he lays down, and both are inspirations of Christian sense rather than formal impositions of authority. “Let all things be done unto edifying.”172172   Ver. 26. “Let all things be done decently, and in order.”173173   Ver. 40.

III. Let us, finally, inquire as to the practical meaning of the picture, or the lessons it bears for us.

Plainly it bears, first of all, a lesson of tolerance. If there is no existing mode of Christian worship that can truly pretend to be in all respects apostolic rather than others—if our several Churches so far preserve the apostolic lineaments in their service, while none can claim an exclusive identity with those lineaments—there is a clear duty of mutual respect and charity resting upon all. We may greatly prefer 266our own mode of worship, but we should have the intelligence and elevation to recognise that there may be good in other modes than our own. This may be styled latitudinarianism; but there is no harm in the word, nor, indeed, in the thing, whatever some good people may think. There is an unhappy craving nowadays after what are called decided and definite views in this as in other matters. The indefiniteness of the New Testament does not satisfy. There must be the voice of authority, and the clear-cut formula ready at hand. And, strangely, the same cry is heard with no less emphasis from the camp of unbelief. Here, also, authority is the watchword, and “uniformity” the borrowed flag flaunting once more its old lie in our face. For ourselves, we are content with New Testament freedom. People forget that to be authoritative and definite—what they call decided—in religious matters, where there are no data for decision, is folly and not wisdom. It is just as much our duty to hesitate when we do not see our way, as it is to advance without flinching when the path is open and clear. Suspense of mind may be painful, but it may be the only course in many cases for a wise, thoughtful, and fair mind. Plainly we are not bound to affirm—nay, we 267have no means of affirming—whether this or that form of worship be the true or only right form. There is no well-informed, enlightened, and candid mind but would shrink from such an affirmation. Our duty is therefore clear to use our best judgment, but to concede to others the same privilege. I have worshipped according to many forms in the West and in the East; and I have never found any where I could not find God, if my heart sought Him. Let us prize our own worship more than any other if we will, but let us never look with contempt or irreverence on worship other than our own. There is no inconsistency nor laxity in such an attitude. Nothing is further from true tolerance than indifference. When we belong to a Church, we may have—we are right in having—a special care for its worship; but let us never turn away in scorn from our Christian neighbour or his worship, while we love the gates of our own Zion and the sanctuary where our forefathers prayed.

As to our own worship, the passage is full of instruction. (1.) This worship should be always intelligent. A ritual which is not plain and comprehensible to all minds, reaching the soul through all its forms, and flooding it with some true light or interest through all its elements of 268aesthetic grandeur or beauty, is so far imperfect. It is making more of the form than the substance—of the sign than of the thing signified. And this is a mark of corruption in all things, as it is a tendency against which all worship must more or less strive. When we see the mode displacing the matter, and the ritual made a substitute for the spiritual, there is always danger—and that of the worst kind—of lapsing from Christianity into a sort of paganism, and placing an idol in His room who is a Spirit, and must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.

(2.) But while our worship should be always intelligent and spiritual, it should also be always seemly or decorous. “Let all things be done decently, and in order.” While our reason and conscience are addressed, and our higher feelings evoked, our sense of order, propriety, and beauty should not be offended. Our taste and sense of art, in short, should be consulted as well as our spiritual intelligence. What really interferes with the one will outrage the other. This seems the simple and right rule in all questions of improving worship. Culture has its claims as well as reason, and we are bound to beautify our worship as well as to make it intelligible and earnest. Some of the disorders which the 269apostle rebukes in this Epistle were plainly the result of mere confusion and unmannerliness. Let not any think that when they are unmannerly in the House of God they are practising evangelical simplicity. Rather they are disobeying a clear apostolic precept, “Let all things be done decently.” So when we allow our worship to be unseemly in any respect; our prayers to be informal, confused, and dogmatic; our praise to be a harsh discordant noise, instead of a grave, sweet-toned melody; our communion service to be what it should not be—a series of preachings rather than a devout contemplation with solemn thanksgiving and loud-voiced Amen,—let us remember that the apostle is not for us, but against us. And let us strive to bring all things into harmony with his mind, which in this as in other respects was the mind of Christ, to which all our highest instincts, as well as our common needs, should be bound in blessed union.

(3.) Lastly, our worship should be always real and profitable. “Let all things be done unto edifying.” The aim of all Christian worship is to bring us nearer to God and to Christ—not merely to touch our heart, or soothe our conscience, or improve our minds, but to “edify” 270us—that is, to build us up in faith and holiness and comfort unto salvation. This is its highest end—the improvement of our spiritual character and of our daily lives. If a Christian Church be not a temple in the old sacrificial sense, neither is it a mere lecture room or hall for discussion. It is, or ought to be, a school to bring us to Christ, that we may learn of Him whatever is true and good and holy. If it knows no altar save in a memorial or symbolic sense, all its lessons should yet point to the Great Sacrifice offered up once for all, and all its ritual lead to the Cross as the power of God and the wisdom of God for our salvation.

It is easy to think lightly of these things, or in these days to speak lightly of them. But life, for all this, does not lose its old seriousness, nor death its great awe. And there is one Power, and one alone, fitted to do battle with the evil of the one and the sadness of the other. There is one wisdom higher than all other wisdom, and which can alone save us either from old falsehoods or new follies,—the wisdom which is from above. There is one righteousness which is ours in Christ. All our worship should bring this reality of spiritual truth, and righteousness of grace and purity, more home to us, and help 271us more to make it our own. There is no higher life for us here or hereafter. The sacred aim that binds all Churches and the Christian centuries together, and hallows the worship alike of monk and priest and presbyter, is to make men more like Christ. What work can be so great? The Church that most owns this work—whose worship most serves it—will be most owned of God and most blessed by Him. And those who have most of the mind of Christ are most Christian, whatever be their special mode of worship. Let us not deceive ourselves with forms, when God demands of us reality; but let us humbly use all our means of grace that we may “put on the Lord Jesus,” and walk in love, as He loved us and gave Himself for us. And to His name be all the praise. Amen.

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