I originally published a series of posts three years ago dealing with implications of meeting together to edify one another (“Individualism,” “Leadership,” “Excellence,” “Reverence,” and “Activities“). I decided to combine this series into one post.
Implications of Meeting to Edify One Another
I have argued previously that the purpose for the gathering of the church in the New Testament is mutual edification (1 Cor 14:26)â€”each believer building up other believers and being built up himself or herself (see here, here, and here). If most churches understand their purpose in gathering to be something other than edification (i.e. worship or evangelism), then this change in understanding will have significant implications for the contemporary church. These implications fall into both philosophical as well as practical categories.
This series will examine several of the implications of mutual edification for the gathering of the church.
First, each believer in the church must break away from an individualistic mindset (focusing only on himself or herself) in order to focus on the spiritual needs of others. David Peterson states,
In contemporary English, to say that something was â€˜edifyingâ€™ usually means that it was personally helpful or encouraging. It is easy to misinterpret Paul and to think of edification individualistically, meaning the spiritual advancement of individuals within the church. This term, however, regularly has a corporate reference in the apostleâ€™s teaching.(David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 206.)
When believers forget the corporate aspect of their gatherings, the resulting â€œepidemic of individualism quite simply leads to spiritual death by isolationâ€ (Curtis Freeman, â€œWhere Two or Three are Gathered: Communion Ecclesiology in the Free Church,â€ Perspectives in Religious Studies 31.3 (Fall 2004), 261-62) in spite of any extant individual devotion to God. Frances Schaeffer recognized that this idea of community is necessary both for the church to grow, as well as for the church to impact the culture at large. (Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the 20th Century (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 42.) Mutual edification will not be the purpose of a group of believers as long as their thoughts are on themselves. Instead, the body must develop an attitude in which the spiritual growth and nurture of others is as important, if not more important, than their own (see Eph 4:7-16).
This community aspect of the church must exist at all times within the life of the believer, not just during the gathering, such that the community becomes a family, aware of the weaknesses, needs and problems of their brothers and sisters, and such that the community cares enough to take action to strengthen the weaknesses, meet the needs, and correct the problems. (Robert C. Girard, Brethren, Hang Together (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 23.) Among a group of believers, this type of dynamic family life develops simultaneously with mutual edification during the gathering of the church. Edification will not occur without community awareness, and community awareness will not develop apart from mutual edification.
Second, the church should recognize that focusing on the gifts and abilities of one individual (or a small group of individuals) will not lead to the spiritual growth of the body, regardless of how large the audience becomes. The current trend of Christian celebrities and mega-church personalities does not lead to every believer accepting their responsibility to build up the body of Christ. Instead placing the spotlight on â€œthe man of Godâ€ or the pastoral staff promotes the unbiblical distinction between clergy and laity, between trained ministerial professionals and ordinary Christians. As Robert Girard expressed, â€œThe Church was never meant to be a one-man show. The Body was never expected to draw all its life, teaching and leadership from any one person â€“ however spiritual or well-trained that person might be (Eph. 4:16).â€ (Robert C. Girard, Brethren, Hang Loose (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 51-52.)
Considering Paul’s hypothetical situation in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, the unbeliever was not converted because the Holy Spirit was with a â€œman of God,â€ but because the Holy Spirit was with a community of believersâ€”the people of God. In order for mutual edification to be the result of any gathering of believers, every believer should recognize and accept their own callingâ€”all are called to be ministers (servants), all are called to be preachers (proclaimers), all are called to be evangelists, all are called to be teachers, all are called to make disciples.
Third, if the purpose of the gathering of the church is mutual edification, then much about the way believers come together should change. For example, mutual edification depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit among a group of believers. This requires that the Spirit is free to work in the lives of individuals, both before the meeting and during the meeting. In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul recognizes that the believers were coming to their meeting prepared to offer gifts of the Spirit, and he says this is acceptable as long as the gifts edify the body. Later, he also recognizes that there may be times when the Holy Spirit inspires someone to speak during the meeting. This is also to be accepted.
However, the current trend is toward â€œexcellenceâ€ during the gathering of the church. Professional ministers plan each part of the â€œserviceâ€ in order that the activities flow smoothly with very little â€œdown time.â€ While this type of meeting makes for great observation, it does not allow for participation, which is necessary for the various members of the body to build up one another during the meeting.
In fact, it could be that times of silence are necessary to permit the Spirit to direct those whom he desires to participate during the meeting. We do not have to worry about someone planning the meeting, or someone being “in charge”. We can trust the Holy Spirit to direct his people as he sees fit. And, if someone does not act according to the Spirit or does not act in a way that edifies the body, then the people are to judge among themselves after that person speaks.
This is what it means to be decent and in order according to Paul. What do we consder decent and in order? Do we strive for excellence, or can we allow the Spirit to plan our meetings?
Fourth, Christians should adjust their understanding of what it means to please God during the gathering of the church. In many gatherings and for many people, â€œreverenceâ€ during the meeting equates with silence for everyone except for those who are specially qualified to speak.
However, there is no indication in Scripture that an â€œuntrainedâ€ personâ€™s silence pleases God nor that education, training, knowledge, or role in the body qualifies anyone to speak. Instead, only the indwelling of the Spirit of God and the prompting of the Spirit makes someone eligible to speak during the meeting.
The body should allow any of its members to speak as long as the Holy Spirit directs that person to speak, love motivates the person, and mutual edification is their aim. Notice that in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul does not give these instructions to church leaders. He gives his instructions to the entire church. Everyone is responsible to edify the church, and to make sure that Paul’s instructions are carried out.
Fifth, and finally, believers should remember that while certain activities may aid in the edification of the church, the activities themselves do not please God. Even eating the Lordâ€™s Supper, which Jesus commanded the church to partake in order to remember his sacrificial death, does not please God if the believers eat and drink in a way that does not build up others (1 Cor. 11:20-21).
There are many activities that believers performed during the gathering of the church in the New Testament, including teaching, reading, praying, sharing (partnership), debating, disciplining, prophesying, speaking in tongues (with interpretation), and breaking bread. However, incorporating certain activities in the meeting does not necessarily mean that the church is edifying itself. Activities do not produce a successful gathering of the church; mutual edification does.
Modern pragmatism teaches that churches should imitate the activities of other groups of believers who are â€œsuccessful.â€ Scripture teaches that churches must work to ensure that the body of Christ is built up during their meetings.
If the purpose of the gathering of the church is mutual edification – and I believe it is – then there are certainly other implications. If you think of other implications, tell us about them in the comments.