I believe that Scripture clearly points out that the church should assemble (whenever believers get together) for the purpose of “mutual edification.” Scripture does not tell us exactly what actions should be taken when the church meets. But, in this series, I am attempting to show that Scripture demonstrates the purpose of the gathering of the church through example, principle, and command. So far, I have “introduced” this series, and I’ve presented some “examples.” In this post, I examine examples in Scripture of the church gathering together for the purpose of “mutual edification.”
While many of these “principles” are actually “commands,” I’m separating them for one particular reason. The passages that I list as “commands” are specifically given in the context of believers gathering together, while the passages I list as “principles” are not given in that particular context.
When it comes to finding principles relating to believers gathering together, the main problem is deciding where to start and where to stop. It is almost impossible to read one paragraph of the New Testament without finding some principle or instruction related to the relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ.
Consider, for example, and as a starting point, the “one another” commands of Scripture. These are always given within the context of two or more disciples of Jesus being together. How can you have a “one another” without having more than one, and thus a meeting of believers, and thus, the church. Here a few that specifically seem to apply to “building up” one another (although all of the do):
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV)
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:13 ESV)
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. (Romans 15:14 ESV)
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13 ESV)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 ESV)
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace… (1 Peter 4:10 ESV)
In would be difficult to understand how these commands could be carried out when believers are not meeting together. And if some want to suggest a special type of meeting of brothers and sisters (“Sunday worship service”)—a differentiation which is not found in Scripture—it would still seem that these principles would apply.
There are a few passages that specifically show principles of interrelationships between believers that lead to mutual edification.
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you [who lead you] in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:12–15 ESV)
In this passage, Paul does not specifically state that these things should happen when the church is gathered together. But the instructions here cannot be carried out without more than one disciple of Jesus being together. It would even seem that the instructions for all the “brothers (and sisters)” would be in the same context as “those who labor among you.”
Here is another one that shows even more clearly that the church must work together (“mutual”) in order to build one another up (“edification”):
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:11–16 ESV)
In this passage, Paul clearly shows the important principle of mutual edification—that the whole church must work together in order to build themselves up in Christ.
Through the “one another” passages and many others, it seems that mutual edification is a consistent principle throughout Scripture. The authors of Scripture expected the church to work together in order to help one another in their life in Christ.
As I “introduced” in a previous post, I believe that Scripture clearly points out that the church should assemble (whenever believers get together) for the purpose of “mutual edification.” Scripture does not tell us exactly what actions should be taken when the church meets. But, in this series, I am attempting to show that Scripture demonstrates the purpose of the gathering of the church through example, principle, and command. In this post, I examine examples in Scripture of the church gathering together for the purpose of “mutual edification.”
Looking at examples from Scripture of the church assembling for mutual edification is both the easiest and hardest of the three (example, principle, and command). It is easiest to examine because there are so many examples. It is the hardest of the three because of context.
What do I mean by context? Well, when Luke was writings Acts (the location of most examples), he was concerned with the continuing work of Jesus Christ through the apostles, primarily Peter and Paul. Thus, he usually talks about what the apostles did when they were with the church. However, if we look at what Luke said, we find that the apostles were not working alone when they were with the church.
For example, consider Acts 13:1 where several people are listed as “prophets and teachers” among the church in Antioch. In Acts 15, we see that “men from Judea” (obviously among others) were “teaching the brothers and sisters” (Acts 15:1). After Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem, they met with the church, and again we see several people speaking to the church (Acts 15:4–5). Because of the questions raised by the conversion of Gentiles, the whole church in Jerusalem (including the apostles and elders and others from Antioch) worked together to come to a solution (Acts 15:6–22).
The Jerusalem church sent a letter to the churches of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. But they didn’t just send the letter back to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, they also sent along Judas (Barsabbas) and Silas. The church in Antioch rejoiced because they were encouraged (Acts 15:31). Then, Judas and Silas (who were not “members” of the church in Antioch in the modern or traditional sense) continued to “encourage and strengthen” the church in Antioch (Acts 15:32). But Judas and Silas were not the only ones prophesying and teaching in Antioch in order to strengthen the church. We also read the Paul and Barnabas were teaching “along with many others” (Acts 15:35).
An important example is found in Luke’s description of Paul’s work in Ephesus. As usual, Paul began by proclaiming Jesus and making disciples in the Jewish synagogue meetings:
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8 ESV)
The practice of allowing several people to speak and discuss and argue during the synagogue meetings seems to have been common during the first century. (For example, we see Jesus speaking often in the synagogue, even though he was not officially a rabbi. We also see Paul and Barnabas being offered the opportunity to encourage the Jews when they visited the synagogue in Pisidia in Acts 13:14–15.) (By the way, there is other evidence—outside of the NT—that confirms that discussions about Scripture were common practice in the first century synagogues.)
When the Ephesian Jews decided that they did not want to hear about Jesus any longer, Paul and the other disciples starting meeting elsewhere. But notice that they continued “reasoning” or “discussing” together in their new meeting location:
But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19:9–10 ESV)
For two years, Paul met with believers in the hall of Tyrannus where they “reasoned” (from the Greek verb often translated “discussed”) together. This discussion did not just happen at the beginning, when Paul was trying to convince them of the veracity of his message (notice that they were already disciples). Nor did the discussion only take place after the disciples had matured and learned enough information. Paul used discussion as a means of teaching disciples from the very beginning.
We see another example of Paul discussing with believers in the church when he met with the church in Troas on his way back to Jerusalem:
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight… And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. (Acts 20:7, 11)
The verb translated “talked” and “conversed” above is the same verb translated “reasoning” in Acts 19:9. It indicates a two-way conversation. Paul had a discussion “with them” in Troas. This was not a long-winded lecture on the part of Paul.
(As a side note, if you follow the narrative in Acts 20:7ff, you get a good picture of the church meeting in Troas. They talked together for a while, then they ate a meal together, then they continued talking together. However, the length of the discussion was probably longer than usual because of Paul’s presence.)
Through these examples, we see that when early Christians met together, several people spoke in order to encourage or strengthen the church. The people speaking were not always the same people, and often they were “strangers” (but still considered brothers and sisters).
These are a few of the examples that we find in Scripture of the church meeting together for the purpose of “mutual edification.”
“Scripture does not tell us how the church should meet.”
I’m sure that you’ve read statements like the one above before. And, technically, the statement is correct, as far as it goes.
You see, you will not find any command in Scripture in which the church is told to do certain things, say certain things, pray certain things, teach certain things, etc. when they meet together. Read and read and read as much as you want, and you just won’t find that kind of instruction in Scripture.
And that’s what we want, right? We want things spelled out for us so that we know that we’re doing it right. The problem is, that’s not what the writers of Scripture were concerned about.
You see, they understood something that is difficult for us to understand. The church is people—really and truly and not just a slogan. So, when the church gathers together, that meeting will look different from gathering to gathering for one simple reason: the people are different. The people have different gifts and talents and concerns and struggles and abilities and preferences and etc.
When the church gets together, the form and shape and method and happenings of that meeting will depend upon the people who are involved.
Yes, I know that this flies in the face of modern Christianity and church methodology. But if the church really is the people, then it is true that the meeting will change as the people change.
However, just because the authors of Scripture were not concerned with the specific things that happened when the church met together does not mean that they were not concerned with the church gathering together. In fact, I think they were very concerned.
It is correct for us to say that Scripture does not tell us how the church should meet together. It is completely incorrect to say that Scripture does not tell us why the church should meet together. Scripture is very clear on the purpose of the brothers and sisters in Christ gathering together, whenever they gather together.
Several different terms are used to describe this purpose. I like the term “mutual edification” because it takes into account both important parts of this purpose. 1) “Mutual” indicates that the purpose of the gathering is carried out by many people working together. 2) “Edification” indicates that the purpose is some type of growth or building up of the people involved.
For the next three posts, I’m going to unpack how Scripture indicates to us that “mutual edification” is the purpose of the gathering of the church. Scripture spells this out through example, through principle, and through command. I think that only one of these (example, principle, command) would be sufficient, but we have all three in the pages of Scripture.
I’m going to make one final claim. I’m not going to back this up in this post, since it is impossible to prove a negative. Scripture does not give us any other purpose for the church meeting together other than mutual edification. (I’ve asked for examples to prove me wrong, and I haven’t received any examples from the New Testament that specifies a different purpose for church meetings.)
If the purpose of the church gathering together is so that we can all build up one another, then we should be concerned if that’s not the reason we are gathering with the church today. I hope this series helps demonstrate why I think Scripture is clear when it comes to mutual edification and the church.
This coming Sunday, we’re doing something a little different when we gather together with the church. Instead of having a particular passage to study and having someone designated to guide us through that passage, we’re simply setting a theme: thankfulness. Everyone is planning to come together with a song, a passage of Scripture, a lesson, a prayer request, etc. concerning thankfulness and gratefulness.
(Yes, I know that many believers meet together in this way all the time. We’ve met together this way before. However, this is not the way we normally meet together.)
As Margaret and I were talking about being grateful to God this week, I kept thinking about a passage in Habakkuk. Yes, Habakkuk. This is actually one of Margaret’s favorite passages.
To set the passage in its context, Habakkuk foresees the coming invasion of the Babylonians. They are growing in strength, and he knows that God is going to use that nation to punish Israel for its disobedience.
At the end of this short book, Habakkuk records this prayer/song:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
The prophet looks forward to a time (perhaps after the Babylonians invade the land) when there are no figs, no grapes, no olives, no grain, no sheep, no cows, nothing. The people will be starving.
Yet, in this midst of these, Habakkuk says that he will find joy in God. This is the attitude that I want in my own life.
There have been many struggles in our life lately, and we often do not find joy in the presence of God, even though we know that he is with us. In spite of our struggles, we have never been in a situation where we had nothing, where we were hungry.
If Habakkuk can look ahead to a time when he has nothing and yet continue to see himself finding joy in God, surely I can do the same thing.
Unfortunately, today, I still look at times when my wants are not met (my wants, not my needs), and I still seek others things for my joy.
I recognize that in order to live continuously and consistently in a state of gratitude and joy in the Lord, I must be content in him and only in him.
Alan Knox is a PhD student in biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a web developer. His interests include PHP and ecclesiology. His dissertation topic is the purpose of the gathering of the church in the New Testament. By God’s grace, he tries to live what he is learning about the church.
He writes about how our understanding of the church affects (or should affect) the way the we live our lives among other brothers and sisters in Christ. He's found that many aspects of our understanding of church (gathering, leading, teaching, etc.) are woven together such that it’s almost impossible to focus on only one aspect.
Find out more on his website, The Assembling of the Church.