1 Corinthians 11 to 14 is the main passage I will be considering in this study. If you are not familiar with these chapters could I suggest that you take time to read them in their entirety.
The Corinthian Christians were ill-disciplined when they met together. In this section of his letter, Paul is encouraging them not only to get their practices in order, but primarily their understandings of spiritual principles. He knew that if their foundations were in good condition then their conduct would be also. Paul appears therefore more concerned with right attitudes than the content of their gatherings, though he does give some practical instruction. Paul's teaching on Breaking Bread together may not be relevant to meetings specifically for prayer, but the rest is. I also realise that there are other passages in the New Testament which make some mention of right attitudes when the Church gathers (e.g. James 2:1-9), but here we have the largest block of teaching.
The first thing Paul teaches them is that there is a God given order of authority/responsibility between men and women, and this should be recognised in their times together. He returns to this topic towards the end of Chap. 15. It seems that Paul suspected that then, as now, that there would be some resistance to this teaching (11:16). His response was to remind them "we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God."
In the next section (11:17-34) he dealt with right attitudes to THE LORD and each other when they broke bread. As indicated above this is not directly relevant to our topic. However, it is worth remembering that Jesus taught that a right attitude was essential when we stand before His Father in prayer.
2. Prayer is not one way communication
In Chap. 12 Paul addresses the diversity of the gifts Christians receive from the Holy Spirit, and then emphasises at length that these are given so that the Church, Christ's body, works together effectively. In Corinth, as elsewhere no doubt, pride was causing these good gifts to become the focus of competitiveness within the Church. The oneness of the Holy Spirit is stressed along with the truth that no one believer can minister the fullness of Christ on earth. There are two principles in this section that I believe are of prime importance when Christians meet to seek THE LORD together.
First, several of the gifts (prophecy, knowledge and wisdom) bring revelation from THE LORD. (NB tongues/languages seem to be primarily for prayer and praise, but occasionally may be used to bring revelation). John wrote that it is when we pray in agreement with God's will that we receive what we ask for (1 John 5:14-15). James's instruction that we should acknowledge THE LORD's authority in matters (4:15) does not equate with the superstition of keeping one's fingers crossed. We are called to be those who discern the will of our Father in Heaven. The revelation of that will when some expression of the Church is assembled to pray is a normal expectation. Later Paul details how such gifts are to be managed and tested, but here we are concerned with the principle that one of the most important purposes for gathering for prayer is to listen for THE LORD's voice. Remember that Elijah discovered the still, small voice of THE LORD (1 Kings 19:12).
3. Every true member of the Body of Christ is equally important in fulfilling its function.
This is stressed at length in Chap. 12. However, this does not mean that all have the same role, but that all are interdependent. When we gather the prominent members should not think they can do without the contributions of those less noticeable. On the other hand, apparently lesser members of the Church should not think that they have nothing to contribute. In the Holy Spirit's wisdom he distributes His gifts to whom He wills and He does so in such a way to cause the whole body to work together. (We struggle today in both aspects of this due to the division between clergy and laity, even in those fellowships which have rejected one-man-ministry. In the majority of situations the full functioning of the body is often focused on jobs in and around the fellowship and not on participation when the Church is assembled.) When Christians meet to pray every believer there is as important as any other. Roles and responsibilities will be different, but the whole body needs to be fully functioning.
4. Love for THE LORD and our brothers and sisters;
1 Corinthians 13 is not a poem extolling the qualities of love. It is practical instruction that highlights the truth that our attitudes to God and one another, govern how we behave. The noisy gong is not the result of the gift, but the emptiness of the recipient when their heart is motivated by something other than sacrificial love. Paul emphasised to his correspondents that their salvation depended on their love for THE LORD first and foremost and then their faith and hope. His reminder was that they could not speak in a language (tongue) all the time, nor could they expect a "prophecy for every situation". The foundation for daily living and ministry has to be a sacrificial love for God; which finds expression in love of the brethren. This principle is as vital today when we meet to pray as it was in the first century. If our prayer comes from a heart which is self-centred then we will be nothing more than a noisy gong! We will be nothing!
We now have emphasised again that Paul was not promoting love at the exclusion of the the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but that love had to be the reason why a believer desires to contribute when the Church is gathered. In contrasting the benefits of a contribution in a language with doing so through a prophetic revelation, Paul is clear that only the latter builds up others. He continually calls for the desire to build others up to be our motivation. Similarly, non-gift contributions can arise from a heart of service or one which seeks self-prominence. Jesus warned His disciples that their prayers would be useless if they prayed as the Pharisees did on the street corners - to be seen by others. We do not need to stand on the pavement to pray with pride.
5. That our conduct should reflect the orderly character of our Father;
It is the principle of doing everything out of love for others that motivates Paul to teach that those who do pray in a tongue, should also desire the gift which will enable them to interpret that prayer for the benefit of the rest. He specifically outlaws the practice of all praying in a language at the same time, because that brings no benefit to the hearers. Instead he says that at any time, two or three at the most should so contribute before another interprets what has been prayed. Paul puts the same limits on the number of prophets allowed to speak consecutively before the meeting pauses for the "words" to be evaluated. In this passage (14:27-33) Paul states that all present at a gathering have the opportunity to prophesy if inspired to do so. He emphasises though that it is to be done "one by one". This makes it clear that in limiting prophets to "two or three" he is not restricting the number in a meeting, but insisting on the careful and timely assessment of what each has contributed. It would be reasonable to assume that he was applying the same principles in the matter of tongues. The good order he encourages demands that each awaits their turn and that no one seeks to dominate the meeting. One prophet should give way to another if THE LORD gives the second a word. All these disciplines reflect THE LORD's character "for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" (14:33). They are built on principles which are as important when the Church meets to pray as they are at other times.
These are the principles I believe we have set before us by the Holy Spirit. In the scope of this guide we now need to consider how these can best be applied in prayer gatherings today.
Bringing a shopping list (especially when it consists of our wants,) is of very little help and often a hindrance if we are to allow time to discern the will of the Father. Paul expected his readers to come to the meetings with contributions which they had received from THE LORD in advance (14:26). These, when brought for the approved purpose of building up others, aid those present to listen to the Holy Spirit. Shopping lists, or any other input which comes from the inspiration of our human nature will cut across His still quiet voice.
Listening to THE LORD requires that we are seeking to be both sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit within us and to His words through others as they pray. This requires us to listen closely to what others pray and for the witness of the Holy Spirit confirming when they are asking according to THE LORD's will. When we have that confirmation, we can then build upon another's prayer perhaps adding another block of understanding which the Holy Spirit has impressed upon us. Don't rush in though, there may be another with something to build first. Equally, don't hang back thinking it is not your responsibility.
Listening also requires us to discipline the length of our prayers. As indicated above, prayer requires us to discern what THE LORD is saying and build upon that. Often this has the effect of focusing our requests onto specific issues and we find the faith growing in our hearts to ask in confidence that they should be granted. If our own prayers are too lengthy, then we can easily build on our own thoughts without knowing if they are finding a "Yes" in the hearts of others. The result without such confirmation is that we go off at a tangent, imagining that others are agreeing with us, when they may not be and so we lose the harmony (Matt. 18:19) that is required if our prayer is to be successful.
Such a disciplined approach to prayer and praise also requires us to stick to the subject! In a long prayer this is virtually impossible. If we are seeking to build on the prayers of others we have to pray for the same matters as they are. If we try to cover several needs in one prayer, or if we switch topic unnecessarily then we will almost certainly prevent others building on what has been prayed previously. Remember, you are one member of the body, not the whole body. If we have come as a true servant, then we will want to ensure that we are in step with THE LORD and enabling others to play their full part in the business in hand.
2. Be ready to share any revelation you believe THE LORD gives you.
Of course this is not to prove your own value, but for the benefit of all gathered and those you are praying for. Present it for examination (testing), that others may confirm if it is from THE LORD. The responsibility for this is particularly upon the others present who have a recognised prophetic ministry. However, all present remain responsible to weigh every contribution. Every true believer has the witness of the Holy Spirit and can discern the voice of Jesus from that of others. The testing should be done there and then, and if more time is required to asses the content/implication of a prophecy this should be recognised. (If such a situation arises, then those with this responsibility need to make their judgement known at the next appropriate opportunity.) The witness of the Spirit is of prime importance in testing, but all revelation should also conform to the truth as recorded in the Scriptures.
If a prophecy or similar is accepted and it gives clear direction for prayer, then those with leadership responsibilities should guide the gathering accordingly. If one's own assessment of the prophecy differs from that of the leaders then, as I have said above, seek to let them know this in an appropriate way, but do not try to force your convictions upon them. They are responsible to THE LORD not you for their decisions, both good and bad. Similarly, no Christian should follow a course in prayer, as in life, about which the Holy Spirit denies them peace. If you are uncomfortable with a direction or emphasis set by those who are leading the meeting, and your voice is not being heard, stand back from involvement for that period. Do not deny your own convictions even if everyone else seems enthusiastic. Arguing with others through your "prayers" will be of little benefit. Where the matter involved is important, I would recommend that you share your unease with one or more of the leaders afterwards. Sensible discussion should resolve matters if you and they are truly open to THE LORD's voice. (What happens if either person is not is beyond the scope of this study.)
As we have seen, we are to expect THE LORD to speak to us before we meet with others and to lay on our heart some contribution which will be for their benefit. If this is our experience then we need to be able to wait for a good time to make it. If it is from Him then there will be no need to push it in at an inappropriate time (even if for some reason the whole meeting has not followed the Holy Spirit's leading there will be a right time). If you fail to share with the meeting something you believe was from THE LORD, don't panic! It may be helpful to share it with a responsible person afterwards. This would keep the leadership informed if the word was relevant as well as providing you with a check for your own convictions. It may also encourage you not to hesitate on the next occasion.
3. Keep to God's order for authority and practice.
We live at a time when many in the Church are questioning the authority of Biblical writings. This is nothing new as Paul's letter to Corinth (and most of his others) demonstrates. If we desire that our Father's will should be done on earth as it is in heaven, then we must ourselves abide by that will. Not everyone agrees that tongues/prophecies should be handled in an orderly way - the practice of all speaking at the same time in a language is popular at present and many prophecies are untested. I would ask why those who act this way consider themselves wiser than Paul or even the Holy Spirit? Others would forbid prophecy all together, but this is also outside Biblical teaching (1 Thess. 5:19-22). When it comes to leadership, some seek complete control of proceedings. Others, often claiming to be spiritual, would have no identified human leader. Neither finds Biblical support. In the body we have seen there are different roles and responsibilities. The good leader is a servant who seeks the proper functioning of the whole body. This means they encourage good and guard against bad. Where such care is missing, then confusion results.
It has long been my conviction that Paul's teaching on the recognition of God's created order in Christian gatherings is largely ignored today to our detriment. In the first part of Chap. 11 he states how we demonstrate our agreement with this order (the Father, then The Lord Jesus Christ, then man and then woman) to the spirit world. It is relevant to our topic because Paul teaches that whenever people pray or prophesy, men should do so without a covering (e.g. hat or cap) on their heads. The opposite, he wrote, is true for women. I recognise that this is a contentious issue and that much more space is required than is available here to consider it properly. If you are uneasy with this teaching I would encourage you to prayerfully ask THE LORD to help you understand why He permitted it to be in the Scriptures. (Please see below for availability of further study materials.)
I have been motivated to write this paper by the conviction that good
understanding, leads to good practices which in turn result in maximum
benefit to others and ourselves (John 16:24). This with a desire to
see THE LORD's will being accomplished day by day until the Lord Jesus
Christ returns. May He grant you wisdom as you consider these things. May
you know the encouragement of prayer that receives what is asked for because
it is in accordance with His will.
Prayer and Fasting, by Denis G Clark;
The Gift of Tongues by R H Johnston;
Biblical Authority and Head-coverings by R H Johnston and
The Baptism in the Holy Spirit by R H Johnston.