Indeed, the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. – 1 Corinthians 14:32 (NET)
Paul reinforces the social leveling that he desires to see happening within the church when, having effectively put some boundaries around the usage of ecstatic speech (speaking in tongues, glossolalia), and encouraging prophecy as something that is encouraging and strengthening, by writing “Indeed, the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (14:32). When we read this, it would behoove us to focus less on the “spirits of the prophets,” as this most likely is simply a reference to the Spirit being at work within the assembly through those engaging in body-strengthening words of prophecy, and more on the side of being “subject.” This subjection is a declaration that one person is not going to vaunt themselves or be vaunted over the community of believers.
Any type of movement related to the activity of prophecy being used as an elevating factor within the body, as glossolalia was apparently being inappropriately used (as can be easily gleaned from the fourteenth chapter of the letter when construed from within an honor and shame society), wherein those that prophesy began to be afforded certain honors or by which a certain class of individuals within the church body began to appear, would be very much out of order. Thus, rounding out his thought about the mutual subjection of those that engage in prophetic activity (which Paul hopes to be as widespread as reasonably possible in the assembly), Paul concludes with “for God is nor characterized by disorder but by peace” (14:33a).
It cannot be said enough that honor competitions had no place in the church that is to be the visible representative of the One who eschewed being honored at every turn. These honor competitions, as can be conclusively derived from this letter to Corinth, were conducive of animosity and productive of factions. This would unfortunately and decidedly militate against the order and well-being of the body of Christ, damaging its ability to engage in true fellowship for and among believers, while also damaging its ability to witness to a King and a kingdom to which all are subordinate. If the members of the body of Christ are pre-occupied with participating in social systems that result in the subordinating of one believer to another, is there going to be a focus on all being completely subordinate to their Lord that subordinated Himself by going shamefully to a cross?
Skipping past what appears to be an interpolation that does not seem to fit at all with the ethos of Paul’s letters (verses 33b-35, which is sometimes found in manuscripts at the conclusion of verse forty, with this fluid placement indicative of its potentially extraneous nature, not unlike the story of the woman taken in adultery of John chapter eight, which is not found in many early manuscripts and sometimes shows up after Luke 21:38), we pick up with Paul asking the question “Did the word of God begin with you, or did it come to you alone?” (14:36) This is a rather pointed question, and seems to flow quite naturally from the statement concerning disorder and peace. It is clear that the question is directed to the wider church, but we are forced to wonder why.
Though dogma-level assertions are probably not possible, considering the regular competitions for honor that took place amidst the meal associations of the day, it is possible that here Paul speaks to the possibility of multiple church bodies within the same community entering into some type of similar honor competition that pitted body against body in their attempts to honor their object of worship (namely Jesus). As we see churches effectively competing against each other for members, for recognition, and for the types of public honors that are available in our own time, this possibility does not seem overtly remote. Closer to home, an individual member of the body that was the primary recipient of this message (leaving open the possibility that this letter was directed to multiple assemblies of Christ-worshipers), could hear these words in a more personal manner, as they follow hard upon Paul’s insistence that participation within the church should be widespread, with all exercises attributed to the influence of the Spirit accorded equal value.
This equal valuation of the Spirit’s presence and the person through whom the Spirit is active (with whether or not Jesus’ Lordship, which can be declared in any number of ways, and especially in ways that are derived from the understanding of the Jesus tradition that was then in circulation prior to the formation of the Gospels as we have them, is affirmed as the sole determiner of the activity of the Spirit of God), along with the insistence upon mutual subjection (preferring one another in humility) in the exercise of the gift that Paul most highly encouraged, provides a helpful framework in which a hearer could understand the words of verse thirty-six, making it possible to understand it as Paul’s encouragement for individuals to continually disavow the personal accumulation of honor. Hearing these words in this way could lead to seeking opportunities for community affirming mutual subjection that is based upon the desire to emulate the one to whom they look as Lord (who consistently sought out the lowest place rather than the highest place while instructing His disciples to do the same, who performed the role of a slave, and who set Himself amidst those considered to be possessive of shame or who stood completely outside the system of honor and shame, such as children) and who is deserving of all honor.