Church VS the Mystery Cults

In 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 Paul tells us that speaking in tongues in our church services will confuse unbelievers, but that prophecy can minister to them. If a new person enters the church and everyone is speaking in unknown tongues (as the Corinthian church is pictured doing), that new person is going to leave as soon as they came in. They’ll say to themselves, “Whatever this church thing is, it’s crazy and weird and I don’t want to be a part of it!” Or to use Paul’s exact expression “will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Cor 14:23). The Greek word Paul uses here in which we pull this phrase from is mainomai, and its meaning is intense.

it hardly overtranslates to use (as is sometimes necessary) two English terms: raving and out of your mind…. the term carries the double meaning of emotional lack of self-control, expressed as raving, and an unattractive, even frightening loss of rational sanity. (Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. p. 1126.)

This expression has caused some scholars to wonder if Paul is comparing this image of the church to a meeting of members in a mystery religion. Mystery-religions were cults with secretive initiation rites and knowledge—like secret societies today. These cults became popular in the first century AD and were thought to have chaotic practices that whipped everyone up into a frenzy. Paul may be voicing fear that if an outsider walked into a Christian church and saw the same thing they saw in mystery cults, they might just write Christianity off as another mystery-religion. This wouldn’t be entirely difficult to do, seeing as how these cults had a bit of overlap with the church:

  • Membership by choice rather than by birth.
  • Heavy use of symbolism.
  • Focus on redemption.
  • Eschatological focus.
  • A savior-god figure that dies and is reborn.(Harvey, Bryon D. “Mystery Religions.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary.)

Given the time that these cults started rising up, it’s hard not to imagine the enemy doing his best to create his own version of the church to confuse everyone. The observant Christian knows to stay away from such business today, especially as our churches continue to restrict Christians from attending secret societies, because we know them to be highly involved with the work of the enemy.

Though the unfortunate truth is that many supernaturally-minded churches have not heeded Paul’s vision of an insane church, for I have attended churches that match Paul’s depiction here. I remember being probably a good 45 minutes into a pretty intense worship service once when the worship leader asked people in a disgruntled manner to push deeper into worship. I was caught off guard by the command because it seemed to me that the church had been pouring themselves out since the service had started. But people obeyed and revved themselves up and sang louder and belted out in tongues. After some more time had passed, the worship leader expressed their annoyance with the church and called them to worship even more intensely and so the congregation amped it up again.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this so I talked to the worship leader sometime later. It seemed that what they really wanted was for the church to give more of their hearts, and not necessarily to be more intense—but that wasn’t exactly the way things had come across. The supernaturalists interpreted it as they had been trained: be louder, hoot and holler, blow shofars, play tambourines, dance around the sanctuary, run around the room, belt out tongues, and so on. It had become similar to what Paul didn’t want the church to become.

It’s okay to practice the supernatural. It’s even okay to practice things that others might consider crazy. But as far as church service goes, we shouldn’t get to a place where we look like the mystery-cults. We should not be seen as raving and out of our minds.

This kind of madness being practiced in worship should take our minds back to the story of the false prophets who tried to wake Baal up to perform an amazing sign before them. But no matter what Baal’s prophets did, there was nothing they could do to bring the manifestation they were looking for. They went to extremes, “And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation” (1 Ki 18:28-29).

There’s that word “rave” again, which raises a very interesting observation in the Hebrew language. Of the 114 times this Hebrew word is translated in the English Standard Version of the Bible, 112 times it is translated into a variant of the verb “prophesy” (i.e. prophesied, prophesies, prophesying, etc.). But twice in this Bible translation, this Hebrew word takes on the negative connotation, “raved.” The verse above is one of those two times. When the false prophets of Baal prophesy, they rave. This is a distinguishing mark between God’s prophets and the prophets of the false gods. As Walton notes,

In Israelite prophecy, the SOL [Spirit of the Lord] manipulates the human prophet. This type of manipulation, described as the SOL [Spirit of the Lord] ‘coming upon’ the prophets, enables the prophet to deliver the ‘Word of Yahweh’. In the Ancient Near East, the prophet is overcome by an ecstatic state, but even that is expressed as the god seizing the prophet. (Walton, John H., “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Spirit of the Lord in the Old Testament.” Presence, Power and Promise. Kindle Locations 574-576.)

We see this ecstatic state displayed in Saul as it becomes clear that he is no longer following God and a “harmful spirit” comes upon him.

a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David evaded him twice. (1 Sa 18:10-11)

King Saul here is displayed as a false prophet, like Baal’s prophets. Something has come upon him and he’s prophesied, but it’s not Yahweh’s prophecy. He is performing an action like prophecy, but in light of its falsehood, it is perceived as “raving.” This manifestation sets apart the false prophets from the real ones. As Daniel I. Block notes, the false

Prophets’ authority and credibility as spokesmen for deity depended upon the presence of the divine rûah [spirit]. When their services were required they would employ special techniques and instruments to work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy that was interpreted as seizure by the Spirit of God. Once in this state, whatever utterances they might make would be interpreted as an expression of the will of God.

The great prophets of Israel deliberately rejected all such artificial methods for determining the divine will. Their messages were based instead upon direct and personal encounters with YHWH at his own initiative. Instead of emphasizing the role of the rûah [spirit], whose apparent influence could be manipulated or coerced (cf. 1 Kgs 22), they based their authority on…. ‘the word of YHWH’, which came to them almost as an objective concrete entity directly from God himself. (Block, Daniel I., “The View from the Top: the Holy Spirit in the Prophets.” Presence, Power and Promise. Kindle Locations 1770-1775.)

All of this being said, I should mention that there is a form of Godly craziness we often refer to as ecstasy, so we can’t say that we won’t look crazy when the Holy Spirit comes upon us. But this kind of craziness does not look or feel like raving, and it comes on us because of the Holy Spirit—not other spiritual beings or our own psychosis.