We’re about to hit Paul’s instructions on the role of women, and so, before we get entirely away from spiritual gifts, we need to reflect just a bit on Paul’s teaching on that topic.
First, to me, of critical importance is Paul’s teaching that the assembly is about edifying the members — helping them become more like Jesus — rather than seeking to convert the lost.
The Restoration Movement was born in the Second Great Awakening, a time of great revival meetings when thousands were converted at “camp” meetings, that is, meetings held out in the woods because the church buildings in town were too small to hold the crowds.
But as important as evangelistic preaching is, it’s not the central purpose of the Christian assembly. The assembly is for the members. It’s perfectly permissible to conduct “meetings” for the sake of the lost, but many churches have forgotten that the point of the assembly is to edify the members, not the visitors.
In fact, the “invitation” that traditionally concludes our sermons is an innovation that goes back no earlier than the First Great Awakening of the 18th Century, in the years prior to the American Revolution.
Second, even though the assembly is for the members, Paul instructs us to be sensitive to the impression we make on unbelievers who are present. Obviously, he expects that unbelievers will be present on a typical Sunday, and so the recent criticism of seeking to save others by inviting them to church is not biblical. Yes, we should also be out in the community serving and lifting up the cross, but, no, that hardly means that attractional evangelism — inviting visitors to the assembly — is bad or second rate. Why not do both? Paul did.
Third, “edification” means helping our members become more like Jesus, which is about encouraging them to love and good works, to be humble and submissive, to be active in God’s mission to redeem the lost and the creation, to live sacrificial lives, and to be servant-hearted. Hence, pounding the pulpit about our denominational distinctives, such as weekly communion and believer baptism, is not at the heart of the purpose of the assembly. Yes, teaching healthy doctrine is good, but the teaching should be targeted much more toward how we live — orthopraxy — rather than having the right positions on the issues — orthodoxy.
Fourth, the assembly should be thoughtfully organized toward edification and its other purposes. The chaos and loss of purpose that Paul wants to avoid can arise not only from rude prophets and tongue speakers but also from slapdash planning that fulfills no real purpose other than to fill the hour with spiritual-seeming activities.
Fifth, those things that spur us on to love and good works should be respected as proper and necessary. And in the modern church, we often find more encouragement to love and good works in our conversations in the aisles and in the announcements than in the sermons. We really need to learn to respect and appreciate announcements — enough to do them well. They don’t suit our self-indulgent culture and so church leaders tend to minimize them — as though news about the sick, the mourning, and opportunities to serve should somehow be avoided so we have time to fill the hour with lessons on why we don’t believe in transubstantiation.
Sixth, God is present in our assemblies even when we handle them very poorly. But we can make it hard for a visitor to perceive the presence of God. I mean, would we act differently if Jesus himself were sitting in a pew during the service? If we were truly seeker-sensitive, how might our prayers change? How might our singing change? How might the sermon change?
Seventh, there’s a bit of a controversy within the Churches of Christ about whether the assembly is for “worship” or for edification. And by “worship” we largely mean singing praise hymns. And Paul mentions singing praise to God three times in chapter 14 (v. 15, 16 and 26 (NIV)).
So how do we reconcile “singing praise” with “edification”? Well, I think the answer is found in this insight from N. T. Wright in his excellent book Simply Christian —
You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship.
And so, if our praise is focused on the right God, then it’s also edifying and spiritually forming. But if we praise a misunderstood God, perceiving him to be someone other than who he really is, our praise will not be edifying because it won’t build us up to become like Jesus — who is the very image of God.
In short, worship and praise only achieve the purpose of the assembly if God is rightly understood through Jesus. Getting to know the character and nature of Jesus therefore becomes central to our praise and to our assemblies.