Structuring the Church for Maximum Edification

Along with the resurgence of Reformed theology and gospel centrality, I believe there is a resurgence of biblical ecclesiology taking place as well. I’m grateful for the influences of organizations like IX Marks, and even more churchmen and practitioners who are bringing reformation to local churches according to the Word of God.

One of the practical benefits of examining our ecclesiology is being more deliberate and intentional in what we do as a body of believers. What is the nature of the church? How should a preacher handle a text? What should covenantal membership entail? These are questions reflecting a pursuit of a healthy, robust ecclesiology.

Being intentional not only means that we consider the practices or marks of a healthy church, but we also need to examine structures and systems to best accomplish the purposes as well as honor the marks of a healthy church.  In this post, I want to consider the need for structure for maximum edification.  Let me explain.

When Paul addressed the church in Corinth, there apparently was confusion and selfishness when it came to the exercise of spiritual gifts.  Some were given special recognition while others were devalued. The improper exercise led to further division instead of unity. Some were used for self-promotion instead of building up the church.  So what Paul does is lay out five overarching principles for the church to understand and implement:

1.  Spiritual gifts are given. We don’t pick and choose the gifts. They are sovereignly assigned by the Holy Spirit as He desires (1 Cor. 12:11, 18).

2.  God designed a variety of spiritual gifts but for one singular purpose–“for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-10).

3.  Every single member of the body matters, no matter how big or small (1 Cor. 12.12-26).

4. God so designed the body with many various parts so that (a) there would be no division in the body (b) all the members would have the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:25).

5.  The generous, regular exercise of the spiritual gifts among all members of the body should have as its goal the building up (edification) of the church (explicitly mentioned eight times in 1 Cor. 14).

With that as a grid, the question I want to pitch is this:

“How are we structuring for maximum edification and building up of the church?”

If we believe the Holy Spirit has sovereignly gifted each member of the body as He so chooses, then our church commitment should reflect that divine desire.  Does our church structures or programs functionally communicate that the Holy Spirit has sovereignty gifted only a few people?

If we believe the Holy Spirit divinely designed the diversity of gifts, then our church should structure for the full expression of all the gifts of the Spirit operative in the body. Are we structuring body life so that only certain gifts are exercised (such as the gift of teaching) but other gifts are ignored (such as exhortation or mercy)?

If we believe the Holy Spirit is so intentional with the distribution of the gifts so that the end goal would be (a) no division in the body, (b) same care for every member, and (c) overall edification of the church, then how are we intentionally pursuing those goals if the means is the universal exercise of every members’ gift, whether big or small?  Could it be that a lack of unity in the body is through the spiritual atrophy or dysfunction of members?  Could it be that the absence of care and growth among members is not due to lack of preaching or teaching but the lack of other, “unpresentable” members’ gifts?

Here’s my point. If we are going to be intentional about preaching, membership, worship, disciplines, and other such marks of a healthy church, then we must also be intentional about our commitment to the priesthood of all believers and their ministry to the body.  God dedicated two chapters with great detail and design to explain his desire for the church.  We should not only recover the commitment and practice, but we should facilitate the full exercise and ongoing demonstration of each member’s gift through systems and structures toward the goal of maximum edification.

Don’t think that a church can grow simply through the exercise of teaching and preaching. God didn’t design it that way. He wants every member involved. That’s why the Holy Spirit gifted them. The danger for churches is to specialize in certain gifts because of certain passions so that certain members gifted for those passions are used while others are neglected (I don’t need to create the stereotypes for you to imagine what churches might emphasize certain gifts over others).  If your right index finger was no longer useful, would it not affect how you function? Moreover, if it was cut off, would the rest of the body feel it? And yet, do we not have members in the body who aren’t useful, and yet we become content to function without them? Do they not detach from the body, and we aren’t aware of it?

I don’t believe we have a comprehensive listing of spiritual gifts in the Bible, but I do believe we have a clear directive for comprehensive commitment to the exercise of the gifts sovereignly distributed by the Spirit for the building of the church.  And where we have adopted structures, systems, or programs preventing the generous demonstration of spiritual gifts among all members, then we need revisit them.  The greatest catalysts for the health and growth of our churches are the people God has already given us and already gifted for the common good, the mutual care of all members, and the unity of the body.  Our challenge is to be good stewards of what the Spirit has given the church so that He would magnify Jesus through each member as they are robustly used, reflexively edified, and regularly employed in the mission of the church.

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8 Comments on “Structuring the Church for Maximum Edification”

  1. Corey Says:

    I really understand and sympathize with your thoughts here. I’ve been thinking through this same topic lately. But I wonder if your assumption is correct. Should it be that every spiritual gift is going to have (or even needs) a specific “outworking” (i.e. structure, program) in the local church? Paul doesn’t set up a structure. He teaches the church about spiritual gifts. Through that every member realizes that they are involved, though there isn’t a specific “role” for them to fill. I think what you proposing could lead to an “over-programming” of the local church. Just a few thoughts. This is definitely a discussion well worth having. Thanks for the post.


    • I did not elaborate on this prescriptively due to the length, but I would argue that the best structure for this is the intentional lack of structure in the church. A book that explains this well is The Trellis and Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. I think the practical outworking of this would call for interactive gospel community happening in ordinary life where the church engages one another ongoingly rather than fulfilling a time slot one or two days of the week. I think Steve Timmis and Tim Chester really get at this with their book Total Church.

      For there to be an every member ministry, I find that (a) ministers need to consider themselves as equippers and less as the uniquely gifted few who edify the church, and (b) the church needs to have multiple expressions of life together–large gatherings, small communities, and life-on-life. If church life is reduced to large gatherings, then only those whose giftings suited for that venue or structure will be appreciated.

      If we want to cultivate and celebrate, for instance, the gift of exhortation, then we need training and help for the exercise of that gift in the body, which will most likely happen in ordinary, behind the scenes life of the church where one-on-one conversations have the potential to do more in the life of a fellow member than a sermon or study.

      • Corey Says:

        Great response. Thank you for elaborating, I would agree.

      • chadbarnes Says:

        Thanks for the explanation. I had the same question Corey asked. Great answer. And I also enjoyed and am trying to implement the few-programs approach essentially recommended in both of the books you mentioned. Matthias Media, the company that published The Trellis & The Vine, produces some really well done discipleship material that is aimed at helping cultivate some of the not-so-visible-on-the-corporate-level gifts like encouragement and exhortation.

  2. Gregg Love Says:

    Check out September 17 and 18, 2011 messages from Hong Kong Pastor Ben Wong speaking at Manor Park Christian Centre in London about how this subject is playing out in the Churches across Asia- http://www.manorparkcc.org/messages.htm
    Very different from our Western ideas


  3. I’ve been considering this very same thing. Churches naturally are led by leaders. Most leaders in the church tend to lead according to the pattern of the gentiles in Matthew 20, albeit subtly. Most such leaders are stuck on their own leadership rather than equipping the gifts of the non-leaders. I feel ill every time I hear that those who are natural leaders are strong and those who are not natural leaders are weak when we have no power that has not been given to us from above. And He who is truly powerful has instructed the use of that power in the Body of Christ according to the revelation through Paul to the Corinthian Church.

    On the other hand, if someone is gifted in hand-whistling, you don’t necessarily start a hand-whistling ministry. Gifts not listed in the Bible need to be analyzed for usefulness. And I hate to say it, but some gifts are simply not useful. Even some gifts listed in the Bible vary in practical usefulness at the hands of different people. By way of example, we have teachers in my church who can attract many people to the classes they teach. My Sunday School teacher averages 120 people every Sunday. I get good comments from the people who come to my classes as to what I have been able to teach them, but those are very few people indeed. The practical value of the use of my spiritual gift isn’t very high although the revealed value is apparently no less than anyone else’s. The only thing to do is be faithful to keep plugging away.


  4. […] apply that to my recent blogpost about structuring for maximum edification.  Every person has a story to tell, indeed.  If Chick-fil-a is willing to read them for the […]

  5. Chase Abner Says:

    Tim,

    I will be following your thoughts on this closely. I am leading a small gathering of church planters in a discussion of this issue next week.


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