The truth of the “place of the unlearned” is not practiced in most of Christendom today. Sadly, a number of places that once honored this Scriptural practice, have abandoned it in favor of inclusion, or “inclusivism.” Separation is one of the most important protective doctrines in the NT.
It is found in 1 Corinthians 14:15-16, 23-25. Some have said that being mentioned only in one place lessens its significance. Actually, the weekly observance of the Lord’s supper (Acts 20:7), and the weekly collection of the saints (1 Cor 16:2), are each only mentioned once, yet faithfully carried out by God’s assemblies. It is also found in Corinthians, called “the charter of the church.” In the NT, all church truth is assembly truth. There is not church truth for Christendom, and assembly truth for assemblies. Finally, it is found in chapter 14 where the word “church/assembly” is found more than in any other chapter in the NT (nine times).
Some have taught that the context of chapter 14 is the misuse of tongues and the improper public participation of women in an assembly meeting. In actuality, the context of this entire section from chapter 11 on, is the assembly – more specifically, the Lord’s Supper. This is the only meeting of an assembly where physical elements are used (the loaf and the cup), and where the true fellowship of an assembly is publicly put on display. This is what makes the teaching of this specific location so important, as the NT consistently teaches a “within” and a “without” in relation to God’s assembly.
The word used in 1 Corinthians 14:16 is “room.” Every other time it is used in the NT, it is translated “place.” The Greek word is “topos,” from which we get our word “topography.” Strong’s says it means “a spot, generally in space, but limited in occupancy.” And Thayer’s says it means “any portion or space marked off, as it were, from surrounding space.” Why this is so critically important is because in verse 23 a completely different word for “place” is used. There, it refers to the entire assembly having come together into one place for the meeting, but the place of the unlearned is designated as a unique geographic location unto itself. This, in effect, is God’s statement of separation.
Notice how it is used by the Spirit of God in other passages. In Luke 4:17, where the Lord Jesus first teaches publicly in the synagogue in Nazareth, He finds the specific “place,” the verse, that He wanted to read aloud. In Luke 9:10, it is used of the specific “place” that Jesus and His disciples went to rest away from the crowds. In Luke 19:5, it is used of the specific spot to which Jesus walked under a sycamore tree, to meet Zaccheus. In Luke 16:28, it is used by the rich man concerning this “place” of torment. In John 14:3, it is used by Jesus, of Heaven, where He promised His disciples that He was going to prepare a “place” for them. It is used of Calvary (Luke 23:33). In Revelation 16:16, it is used for the location of the final battle where God will call the armies of the world together into a “place” called in the Hebrew, Armageddon. So while some are now teaching that the “place of the unlearned” is only really a “matter of heart,” an “attitude of the soul,” the repeated use of this word would clearly teach otherwise.
Two separate types of individuals are mentioned as occupying this place: the “unlearned” and the “unbeliever.” The unbeliever is someone who has not yet been saved. The unlearned one is there to observe the Lord’s Supper; this person has either not yet learned the truth of being in God’s assembly, or sadly, has “un-learned” what they once believed. The Spirit of God takes special care to separate these individuals from those in assembly fellowship at the Lord’s Supper. Mr. Crawford has written that a better title would be “observers.” The common euphemism, “back seat” is not Scriptural. But, the location of this must be separate from the circle of assembly fellowship.
An assembly is not “our” assembly nor is it “my” assembly. It is God’s assembly. As such, it must be protected. Numerous cases of sin require discipline and removal from God’s assembly; literally removing a guilty party from “within” to “without.” The doctrine of the place of the unlearned protects God’s assembly from error and false doctrine from without. God’s anticipation of the Lord’s Supper long preceded Pentecost. He asked the Levitical priests to wave a sheaf of first fruits before Him on the morrow after the Sabbath (Lev 23:11), and at the Lord‘s Supper, we present Christ, our Firstfruits, to God Himself. In the OT, He repeatedly spoke against, and hated, the mixed multitude. He does not want a mixed multitude in one of His assemblies, and this truth is His protection against error being brought in.
The NT does not teach reception simply to the Lord’s Supper; it teaches reception to the assembly. So, a person received into the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, even for that single meeting, must carry with him or her nothing that diminishes the doctrinal truths of God’s assemblies. There must be fellowship. This could not happen with one unsaved, or one from Christendom, who has never learned or who has rejected NT church truth.
It is in this very chapter that Paul tells the Corinthians that what he has written to them, are “the commandments of the Lord” (v 37). This teaching is one of the Lord’s commandments. Sadly, few realize it. And even more sadly, some who once practiced it, have rejected it. The Lord Jesus once asked His disciples “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the things that I say?” (Luke 6:46). He requires our obedience. He asks for our faithfulness. He has not given us His Word so that we can pick and choose what we like, or what we may dislike. This is a command. May God help us all to understand it, implement it, and honor it, for His sake and glory.