Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “When you come together… let all things be done for building up.” (1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV) The “when” that begins that sentence is a subordinating conjunction that is often translated “whenever.”
But, what does Paul mean by “whenever”… or, perhaps it would be better to ask it this way: “When” does Paul mean by the term “whenever”?
In stating “whenever you come together…,” Paul helps us begin setting boundaries for his state. With “you” being plural and the verb “come together,” Paul is definitely talking about times when more than one believer is present. (Remember, Paul is writing to the church in Corinth, not to anyone in Corinth.)
But, is Paul only talking about times when “the whole church” comes together as he says in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25? It is possible. However, there seems to be a paragraph break between 1 Corinthians 14:25 and 1 Corinthians 14:26 because of the question and the address “brothers and sisters.” So, it is not necessary to connect “the whole church comes together” in 1 Corinthians 14:23 and “when you come together” in 1 Corinthians 14:26. (Also, 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 appear to be a hypothetical situation, even if it is stated in a way that indicates it could actually happen, while 1 Corinthians 14:26 is stated as a command.)
So, can we specify when is “whenever” beyond an occasion when more than one follower of Jesus Christ is together? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that Paul left this command (and many others) vague so that readers could not become too technical and picky. For example, I could imagine someone saying, “I don’t have to follow Paul’s instructions in this situation because it doesn’t match us specifically with what he said.” In fact, it is easy to imagine this because it happens often. 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 is perhaps one of the passages that is least applied to the church today, and yet it is the most specific (even though it is general) in the way we should meet together.
In the case of this passage, “whenever” is broad and inclusive. Are you together with at least one other brother or sister in Christ? If so, then are you seeking to build up one another? I believe this is Paul’s emphasis.
I was reminded of this passage and the inclusiveness of “whenever” a few days ago. As I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, I start exercising a couple of months ago by walking (then running). Last weekend, a friend and I decided to run together.
As we were running through a local park, we talked with one another, asking questions, responding to questions, encouraging and helping one another… all the while running for exercise. We had decided (without discussion, by the way) that “whenever” (a la 1 Corinthians 14:26) included that moment while we were exercising.
Can you imagine how much life (and maturity) would be different if we seriously sought to build up one another any time we were with other believers? Yes, I think that the church (in general) has a long way to go to work toward mutual edification during our normal meetings (i.e., Sunday morning). However, that time is only the tip of the iceberg. That time of gathering together is only a few minutes of the “whenever” that Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 14:26.
Is that time included in the “whenever” of 1 Corinthians 14:26? Yes, I think so. But, the “whenever” is certainly not limited to that time of gathering together.
So, like Paul said, I encourage you, “Do all things to build up one another… whenever you come together.”