What is edification, and why is it so important in the lives of believers? The word used for “edification” in the New Testament is oikodomé, which translates literally as “the building of a house.” The word appears in the King James Bible only about 20 times, and then only in the New Testament. It is translated into phrases such as “building up” in more modern translations. Interestingly, its usage is also limited to Paul’s letters. The dictionary definition of edify is “to instruct and improve, especially in moral and religious knowledge.” According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, the word indicates the promotion of “spiritual growth and development of character of believers, by teaching or by example, suggesting such spiritual progress as the result of patient labor.”
Vine’s definition captures the meaning rather well. Edification is more than just encouragement; it includes any activity that results in more Christlikeness, either in oneself or in another believer. Edification may be individual or corporate. Individually, one can edify oneself by participating in the various spiritual disciplines (Bible intake, private prayer, private worship, etc).
Generally, however, the concept of edification in the New Testament is applied to the corporate body (mutual edification). Mutual edification involves helping one another along the road to Christlikeness, and it requires the participation of all members of the church. Teaching and preaching improve our understanding of God; encouragement promotes conduct that develops Christlike character. When we exhort one another and hold one another accountable, we are prompted to engage in activities that promote godliness. Accountability means we lovingly check each other’s spiritual progress. Christlike service ensures that the needs of the church are met, and true fellowship is the interaction we have with each other on a deeper spiritual level. The corporate nature of edification cannot be overemphasized. Without mutual edification, the church becomes a collection of spiritual weaklings, a perpetual nursery for spiritual infants, rather than a body (1 Corinthians 12:27) or a building (Ephesians 2:20-22).
Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:12 and repeatedly in 1 Corinthians 14:1-26 that edification is one of the reasons that spiritual gifts are given to believers. In 2 Corinthians, Paul states no fewer than three times that the “building up” of the church is the reason for his apostolic authority (10:8, 12:19, and 13:10). Paul’s goal was to edify. In 1 Corinthians 10:23 and Ephesians 4:16, he states that the church must work to edify itself for the overall health of each member. Finally, each of us is commanded to engage in edification (Romans 14:19; 15:2; Ephesians 4:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:11).
The church exists in community. Throughout the New Testament, the language is rich with communal imagery. The church is described as Christ’s flock, His body, and His building. None of these metaphors denote an individual entity. Paul expounds on this concept in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, describing the interdependence of the parts of the human body and the necessity of each. He goes so far as to say that we’re actually “members of one another” in Ephesians 4:25 (NKJV).
An analogy is instructive here. The Gothic arch was a very popular structure in medieval architecture. The primary advantage of the arch was its strength and stability, which it derived from the fact that each stone in the arch leaned on the one beside it. This system of mutual support enabled the construction of much larger structures than might otherwise have been built. The Gothic arch could be a symbol of the church. The very fact that we need one another gives the church its strength. And the minute we decide to stop leaning on one another, we fall.