What Must Be Preserved of the Churches of Christ? (The Assembly, Part 1)

churchofchristLet’s see. We assemble to edify one another.

(1Co 14:4 NIV) Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.

(1Co 14:5 NIV) I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

(1Co 14:17 NIV) You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

“Edify” translates the Greek word from which we get “edifice,” that is, a building. To edify is to “build up,” as the ESV and many other translations say.

Edification or performing Five Acts of Worship?

Notice that when Paul is confronted with a question regarding what is permitted in the assembly, he does not refer to the Five Acts of Worship or any list of pre-approved “acts.” Rather, he asks whether the suggestions would “edify” the church. If so, the proposal is permitted. If not, not.

Moreover, it’s not a simplistic yes-no analysis. When the answer is “no,” he asks whether the proposed act might be done in another way — a way that edifies. Thus, tongues are permitted but only if a translator is present. Prophecy is permitted if the number of speakers is limited.

In short, the assembly is not about checking off five acts of worship and then praying that God please, please, please consider our worship to have been done “decently and in order,” as though God’s only real concern is whether we satisfy this very minimal standard.

A fair reading of 1 Corinthians 14 —

(1Co 14:40 KJV) Let all things be done decently and in order.

— is that the assembly will fail to adequately edify those present if it’s too indecent and too disorderly — not that God we not “accept” our “worship” if we fail to satisfy this standard.

“Decently” is also found in —

(Rom 13:13 ESV) Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.

“Decently” doesn’t mean “mournfully, staring at the floor, entering silently with a pickle-juice face.” It means, well, decently as opposed to such indecencies as drunkenness and fornication! Remember, it was these same Corinthians were getting drunk during communion and having sex with prostitutes.

And I would take very seriously the phrase “not in quarreling and jealousy,” meaning that quarrelsome sermons are sinful — and that jealousy of other churches is sinful, also — no matter how seriously you act in the auditorium.

“In order,” in context, essentially means “one at a time,” as opposed to a three-ring circus or chaos. This is a very low standard, given by Paul to a church drenched in immorality and disorderliness.

“Edification” is a much higher standard. It focuses more on result than on what we do. That is, we can’t edify without actually changing someone. The action is tested by the result.

So why do we pray that our “worship” be decent and in order rather than edifying?

Well, because we see the assembly as being about checking off certain requirements necessary to appease God for another seven days rather than being about helping our fellow members grow in Christ.

Thus, so long as we do all Five Acts, we can slip in late and slip out early and refuse to greet or be greeted by our fellow members, much less be concerned about someone else’s edification. “Worship” is just between us and God, and God worries about whether we got the rules and ritual right.

Edification, however, is horizontal rather than worship, which is vertical. To actually apply the scriptures to the assembly requires a dramatic change, not just in how the leaders approach preparation for the service but how the members see their purpose in being there.

Next question: edify the church or edify the church members?

Well, both are true, I’m sure, but we Westerners can hardly keep ourselves from focusing on individual edification. But 1 Cor 14:4-5 (quoted above) speaks of edifying “the church.” Why? Does it matter?

Well, Jesus referred to himself as the “temple” (John 2:19), and Paul calls the church the “temple” of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17) and a building (same root as “edify”) in 1 Cor 3:9 (in parallel with Eph 2:21). Of course, the church is the body of Christ — his very presence on earth by the power of his Spirit. And so it makes all kinds of good sense to refer to “edifying” or “building up” the church, when Paul had earlier described the church as a “temple.”

So what does it mean to “edify”?

Does it mean to give an emotional lift that help us make it another seven days? Earn seven days of grace? Learn something interesting? Be entertained?

We rarely go deep enough into the text to actually consider that “edify” means something more than “please your neighbor” or make sure the members feel “fed.” We are very, very vague in our thinking.

As Alan suggested in one of the comments, the best definition of edification as applied to the church is found in —

(Eph 4:11-14 ESV) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up [edifying] the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

So let’s break it down. Building up the congregation, as a body, includes —

* Equipping the members to do ministry

* Attaining unity of the faith

* Attaining knowledge of [not about] the Son of God

* Attaining mature manhood

* Attaining the fullness of Christ

* Attaining a stable doctrinal perspective

I’ve commented on this passage several times. I just want to emphasize one element: attaining the fullness of Christ. This does not mean becoming fully saved. That happened when we were saved. Rather, this is about becoming like Jesus.

(Rom 8:29 ESV) 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

(2Co 3:18 ESV) 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

(Eph 5:2 ESV) 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

The “fullness of Christ” is the ultimate goal — to be as much like Jesus as is possible in this life.

And if that it the core purpose of the assembly, we have to figure out what being like Jesus is like — not just so that we can individually become like Jesus but so our congregations can be shaped into the image of Christ in the assembly.

(Not just the assembly of course, but the assembly is part of it.)

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to What Must Be Preserved of the Churches of Christ? (The Assembly, Part 1)

  1. Steve says:

    Great!! I think you are so right. We need to strive to live like Him!!

  2. And doing things “decently and in order” simply does not mean having everything scripted so that if the Spirit moves it disrupts and disturbs the entire assembly!

  3. Mark says:

    For a congregation to strive to be like Jesus is difficult. It has long been taught from cofC pulpits that everything that matters is personal action, i.e. not sinning, showing up to church whenever the doors are open, etc. To say that you want a congregation to be like Jesus means that some people in said congregation are going to have to accept others who are not like them. It may mean that some are going to need to keep quiet about their prejudice of liberals, single females, social justice advocates, et al. It may mean more outreach. I may mean allowing non-Christians to participate in service projects. It might mean having the discussions of difficult topics.

    The hardest part of this will be getting people to call down their personal friends who are increasing the risk of people leaving as a result of their actions. This is a case of “condemn it or condone it.” This has not helped the reputation of the cofC. For all the times that a minister lashed out at those in the congregation, I don’t think I ever heard of his peers telling him he got carried away. They were they only people who he would have listened to. He sure would not have listened to those on the receiving end.

  4. Charles McLean says:

    This is the second time I have heard mention of the operation and results of the “ascension gifts” described in Ephesians 4 without any mention of those gifts themselves or the functioning of people in those gifts. I do not know if this rather curious oversight is intentional or not.

    While I like Jay’s ongoing refrain of developing a Christlike community, not just Christlike individuals, I am reminded that in most cases, we consider our community to be the people who have placed membership with our 501 c(3) corporation. We consider the 501c(3) across the street to be -at best- a different community of believers. In my view, this perspective is NOT Christlike, and actually battles against our developing a community of the sort Jesus hoped for. As long as “those people are THEM, and they are not one of US”, then we deny Jesus the answer to his prayer for our oneness. Do our meetings lead us toward fulfilling Jesus’ desire, or are we building our own thing?

    Are we building up “the house of God”, or building up “a house for God”?

    “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” I do not want to have to explain to our Father that, “Oh, yes, I do love my brother. I just don’t have anything to do with him, that’s all. ” Not sure how that explanation is going to fly.

    Oh, wait. I AM pretty sure about how that explanation is going to fly….

  5. Ray Downen says:

    Jay is right as usual. He says

    Next question: edify the church or edify the church members? Well, both are true, I’m sure, but we Westerners can hardly keep ourselves from focusing on individual edification. But 1 Cor 14:4-5 (quoted above) speaks of edifying “the church.” Why? Does it matter?

    And I have to wonder what is “the church” except the people who are members.

    So far as I can read the apostolic writings, the people who in any place love and serve Jesus ARE His church in that place. If they have elders, that’s good. But they’re the church with or without elders, and with or without any other “marks” of belonging to Jesus. We who are His ARE His church and should be in fellowship with all other believers we contact. As for a congregation meeting across the street, it’s surely possible some of them will be members of Christ’s church also, and with each of those persons we should be in fellowship. Jay does well to urge us to care about one another! And to say so, and to act to bless our fellow believers.

  6. “As for a congregation meeting across the street, it’s surely possible some of them will be members of Christ’s church also…”

    I wonder if the folks across the street say the exact same thing about our congregation –that it is surely possible that some of us are members of Christ’s church– or if their assumptions about us are more charitable?

  7. Jay Guin says:


    Regarding the distinction between an individual Christian being like Jesus and a congregation of Christians being like Jesus, teams of people working in concert can accomplish things that individuals cannot do.

    I have a son who wants to program games for a living. He can’t do it by himself despite being highly motivated and talented. I imagine that there are thousands of young men and women in the same posture — unable to develop the gaming software of their dreams because the task is too big for one person — even though there are thousands of talented, motivated people wanting to do just this.

    What has to change for the individuals to realize their individual dreams? Well, it’s obvious, I think.

    If we see being Christ-like as individuals as the same as the church being Christ-like, then we have very small dreams.

  8. R.J. says:

    I think in context, edification has more to do with what the gathering can get out of assembling. As a church we must make our congregation as meaningful as possible for everyone present and not just about US.

    For instance, Latin Chanting no doubt could be very edifying. But only to those who understand Latin. Yet if someone were to thoroughly explain the meanings behind the chanted words, that would make a whole world of difference! Everyone out of that meeting would be benefited. They would all be built-up in the Lord.

    That’s just an example. I’m sure many others could be employed.

  9. laymond says:

    Jay said, “If we see being Christ-like as individuals as the same as the church being Christ-like, then we have very small dreams.”

    I say, even the great pyramids were formed one stone at a time.

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