The primary focus of this blog – and my primary academic focus over the last few years – is church gatherings. Even more narrowly, I have been asking the following question: “According to the New Testament, why should believers gather together as the church?” (For that reason, just over five years ago, I named this blog “The Assembling of the Church.”)
Obviously, when you begin to study the gathering (or assembling) of the church, many other ecclesiological issues become important, not least of which would be leadership, fellowship, community, spiritual gifts, Lord’s Supper, baptism, and many, many more issues. In fact, a person’s understanding of the nature of God, of Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit will affect the way that person gathers with other believers. And, in reverse, the way a person gathers with other believers demonstrates what that person understands about God, Jesus, the Spirit, salvation, etc. (In fact, the way people gather together often says more about their beliefs than what they state concerning those beliefs.)
In the modern church, you will find two primary reasons given for the church to gather together: 1) worship or 2) evangelism. Both of these fall short of the scriptural evidence. First, according to Paul and other writers in Scripture, every aspect of the life of a child of God is to be worship. Second, since we’re talking about the church (i.e., those who are already God’s children), then evangelism is not needed – they have already been evangelized. (This does not mean that believers should not work together for the express purpose of proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers, but this should not be called a gathering of the church.)
So, according to Scripture, for what purpose should believers gather together?
Paul answers this question very succinctly in 1 Corinthians. Now, when reading this letter, it is clear that the Corinthian church has many problems. Some of those problems surfaced when they gathered together. Paul addressed these issues in 1 Corinthians 14, as part of a longer section in which he addresses spiritual gifts.
However, from a grammatical and discourse standpoint, 1 Corinthians 14 – and especially the last half of the chapter – are the focus of this teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Thus, Paul began teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:1 so that he could get to 1 Corinthians 14:1 and begin instructing them about meeting together.
So, according to Paul, why should believers gather together:
The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (1 Corinthians 14:4-5 ESV)
So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. (1 Corinthians 14:12 ESV)
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Corinthians 14:18-19 ESV)
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV)
In each of these passages, Paul continuously and consistently stresses the same point: when you come together as the church, you should seek to build up (edify) one another. Notice that building up others is more important to Paul than manifesting some gift of the Holy Spirit. (He says it’s better not to manifest a gift of the Spirit if that gift only builds up the individual.)
Why is prophesy to be preferred over speaking in tongues (uninterpreted) when the church meets? Is prophesy inherently better than tongues? No, they are both manifestations of the Holy Spirit. But, when the church meets, exercising gifts of the Holy Spirit is not to be our goal. Our goal – our purpose – is to edify one another. So, prophesy is preferred over speaking in tongues when the church meets because the whole church can be edified through prophesy.
These statements are incredible in their scope. Paul says that when gathering with other believers – in fact, any time you are gathered with other believers – you should seek to edify one another, mutually. Paul does not leave an opening from some gatherings of believers in which mutual edification is NOT the purpose. The point of this entire chapter is clear: anytime we are with other believers, it is all of our responsibility to help one another grow in maturity in Jesus Christ. This is not the responsibility of some; it is the responsibility of all.
And, it is in this purpose of gathering together (mutual edification) that we understand Paul’s previous instructions concerning spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12) and love (1 Corinthians 13).
Can we come together for other purposes? Well, sure. We can come together for many different numbers of purposes. But, if we wish to follow the examples, principles, and instructions that we find in Scripture, then we will only come together for the purpose of building one another up.