From the pages of the New Testament we can discern the existence of what we call “local” churches, spoken of as the ekklesia, church, in a given city (e.g. Corinth, 1 Corinthians 1:2; Thessalonica, 1 Thessalonians 1:1), or as the ekklesiai, churches, in a given area (e.g. churches of Galatia, Galatians 1:2; churches of Asia, 1 Corinthians 16:19). Paul speaks of these as the “churches of Christ” in Romans 16:16. Ideally they reflected the members of the “universal” church in their local areas at that time. Where present a plurality of qualified men shepherded an individual local church with deacons serving at their discretion (Acts 14:23, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-12, 1 Peter 5:1-4). While the majority of the work to be done to serve the Lord Jesus falls upon individual Christians to accomplish, the New Testament authorizes and expects every local church, as a corporate collective, to also accomplish the works of benevolence, evangelism, and edification (Acts 2:41-47, 4:34-35, 6:1-6, 11:28-30, 1 Corinthians 9:14, 2 Corinthians 11:8-9, Ephesians 4:11-16).
Edification means “to build up,” it can refer to the construction of buildings as easily as it can in the spiritual sense of strengthening and encouraging (Mark 13:1-2, 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 2:21). In a very real sense, all the work expended by the local church, collectively and among its individual members, should be done unto edification, as is seen in Ephesians 4:11-16. Nevertheless, not everything people would like to call “edification” really is or fits what is seen in the New Testament. Edification may involve emotions and feelings but must go beyond them; prayers, songs, and speech must be comprehensible and understood so as to convey spiritual meaning and thus to truly spiritually build up (1 Corinthians 14:9-20). Emotions and feelings fade away; edification should lead to true “building up,” with our faith and knowledge more fortified and better constructed. Edification happens when Christians are equipped for the work of ministry, attaining unto the knowledge of Christ so as to no longer be tossed by the winds of every doctrine, and working together to strengthen the ties of association so that the body of Christ, the church, can grow (Ephesians 4:11-16).
The church can edify itself in many ways that have little to do with its collective function; individual Christians can and must spend time strengthening one another, building one another up in their faith, strengthening those connections within the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16). Yet the local church, by its very name, nature, and identity, is charged with facilitating the assembling of the saints, an important environment in which Christians can build one another up (1 Corinthians 14:12, 26, Hebrews 10:24-25): the church is the ekklesia, the assembly, and the coming together of Christians in spiritual association to participate in spiritual acts commanded by the Lord is critical for edification.
To this end the local church must make some provision for a place to assemble (Hebrews 10:25): they may meet in the home of a member, lease a facility, or maintain a facility for that purpose (Acts 19:9, Romans 16:23). The local church may also make provision to maintain the materials necessary to participate in the acts of the assembly so that Christians can edify one another: Bibles and books for Bible study, teaching, and preaching, the bread and the fruit of the vine for the Lord’s Supper and the vessels in which to contain them, songbooks for singing, and whatever amplification may be useful for hearing the teaching and preaching (Acts 2:42, 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, 14:6-20, 26).
We do well to see that in these respects the local church is working to facilitate the edification to be accomplished by its constituent members through the specific spiritual activities commanded and exemplified by the Apostles in the assemblies of the churches of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 14:6-26). Beyond its continued existence and manifest growth it is difficult to see how the collective can edify itself as a collective: the local church is the “place” where Christians can edify one another and accomplish God’s purposes within the body as seen in 1 Corinthians 14:6-20 and Ephesians 4:11-16. The local church is to make sure that sufficient facilities and materials exist to that end. Meanwhile, no authority has been granted to the local church to decide to facilitate other opportunities for edification which the Lord has given for individuals to accomplish (James 1:27, 1 Peter 4:9): just because something may lead to edification does not mean that the local church ought to use its collective resources to facilitate it!
Paul’s exhortation resounds throughout time: we are to build one another up, and a major opportunity for such edification is during the assembly of the saints (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16). Edification can and should take place outside of the assembly but never to the neglect of the assembly; after all, since ekklesia means “assembly,” what is the church if it is not assembling? And how can the church assemble if its members do not come together? May we strive to build one another up in our faith!
Ethan R. Longhenry