What is it then, brethren? When ye come together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying (1 Corinthians 14:26).
If you hang around Christians or a church long enough chances are you will hear someone talk about “edification” or being “edified.” Edification is a term used frequently by Christians yet not nearly as often in society in general. What is edification all about?
In English, edification has come to mean “the instruction or improvement of a person morally or intellectually,” according to the Internet dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary agrees, also recognizing “to build or establish” as an archaic meaning. Edification or “to edify” translate the Greek terms oikodome and oikodomeo. These terms are rooted in the language of construction: their basic meaning is “a building” or “to build,” respectively, and even in the New Testament are occasionally used to describe physical structures or their construction (e.g. Matthew 23:29, Mark 13:1-2). Therefore, as Thayer’s Lexicon notes, these terms become metaphorically used to describe a spiritual construction, or building up, of people: “to promote, or the act of one who promotes another’s growth in, Christian wisdom, piety, happiness, holiness.” The English term ends up where the spiritual use of the Greek intended to go.
Edification, therefore, is about building up other people in Christ and being built up in Christ, not unlike the process by which a building is built. The Apostles encouraged Christians to think in these terms: they spoke of individual Christians and the church as temples of God in whom the Spirit of God dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20), and envisioned the church as a temple founded on the Lord Jesus as cornerstone and the apostles and prophets and being edified, or built up, through the efforts of Christians (Ephesians 2:20-22). Paul considered the work of the church in general terms as the means by which it edifies, or builds itself up, in love (Ephesians 4:12, 16).
But what does this edification process look like? The prophets and Apostles were given, and shepherds, evangelists, and teachers continue to be given, the task of equipping Christians for the work of ministering and to thus build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12). Thus, we can be built up in faith through the words of the prophets and Apostles as well as from the instruction, mentoring, and encouragement we receive from shepherds, preachers, and teachers. All things which Christians do in their assemblies are to be done unto edifying (1 Corinthians 14:26). Therefore, sermons, class instruction, prayers, songs, the Lord’s Supper, and the collection are to be done in ways that facilitate the edification of all Christians present. For this reason Paul insisted that all messages be comprehensible to the Christians present, for how can Christians be edified in their faith if they have no understanding what was said (1 Corinthians 14:3-19)? All Christians are to work to build up and edify their neighbor (Romans 15:2): the work of edification is not limited to the assembly, but should also be practiced as we have opportunity to provide a word of instruction or strength, pray, or provide some other meaningful gesture which strengthens the faith of our fellow Christian. By extension we ought to live as the light of the world so as to give those who are outside of the faith reason to believe and come to repentance in Christ Jesus (Matthew 5:13-16).
We do well to note the disconnect between the Biblical concept of edification and the casual way the term is often used today in “Christendom.” Many times people will speak of an intensely emotional or sensory spiritual experience as “edifying”; many people will consider themselves “edified” when they experienced a spiritual or emotional high. Whereas there may be times for such emotional experiences, if there is nothing substantively gained in faith, no compelling moral instruction grounded in Scripture, or no real strengthening of faith experienced, it is not “edification.” It was an emotional high. While we should not disengage our emotions from our spirituality, an experience need not be highly emotional to be edifying. We can know if a given spiritual experience is truly edifying by whether a substantive addition has been made to our faith on account of it: if another brick has been added to our spiritual temple, so to speak. Thus, just because someone says a thing is “edifying” does not make it so in reality; we have been warned that not all things edify (1 Corinthians 10:23).
Edification is a crucial element of our faith and working together as the body of Christ in the church. Edification, after all, is one of the primary means by which we are to influence one another for good and be influenced in turn (Ephesians 4:11-16). Christians must pursue those things which truly edify in the faith: participating jointly in activities surrounding the faith, the acts of the assembly, and preaching, teaching, praying, singing, and giving in other contexts. Christians must give thought to how they speak so as to make sure their words will truly build up and not tear down or cause other hindrances (Ephesians 4:29). There may be times when tearing down is necessary so as to build more properly on the foundation, but demolition without reconstruction only serves Satan’s purposes. Thus all things should be done so as to build up (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Christians do well to hold to both the original metaphorical concept behind edification as well as its practical meaning in life and faith. Edification demands building up, adding on to a construction project. As we speak with each other, exhort each other, instruct each other, pray for each other, etc., we should envision ourselves as seeking to help fortify and build each other’s “building,” and receive assistance in building up our “buildings” as well. It is not for us to tear down other’s “buildings” through judgmental attitudes, indifference, neglect, undue chastisement or rebuke, or through hasty or angry words (Ephesians 4:25-29, James 4:11-12). If we are reduced to petty infighting or strife on account of selfish ambition, strife, jealousy, or envy, and tear down each other’s work in Christ on account of it, only Satan wins! And yet we must turn to God in Christ in Scripture to understand what precisely can build that “building”; it is not mere emotional experience but substantive messages which promote growth in Christian faith, virtue, and character. May we all seek to edify each other and thus build up the body of Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry