What sort of speech is “good for building up”?

coffee talk, by AnyaLogic on Flickr

I wanted to take a few minutes and share my thoughts on a passage from the Bible that’s been on my radar lately:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:29 (ESV)

Y’know, I think there’s a world of difference between what Paul was thinking when he said this, and what people today tend to think when they read it.

This verse marks the last of four times in this epistle where Paul uses the same word (Gr. oikodome, but your translation probably says something like “good for building up,” or “edifying”). Even so, when I’ve heard pastors preach on this topic they’ve typically focused in on an understanding of the word that’s informed solely by the verse itself, and divorced from other passages where Paul’s usage could shed light on what he means by it. This sort of thing always bugs me: if pastors are trying to build a true understanding of what Paul’s telling us to do here, then at the very least they ought to point us to those previous instances of the word. Right?

Because let me tell ya… it certainly helps it all make sense!

Here’s all four appearances of oikodome as they’re translated in the ESV. I’ve bolded (emboldened?) the word we’re talking about, and pointed out what I see as the key takeaway point from each (well, the key for understanding what Paul’s getting at with this “edification” stuff, at least):

  1. Ephesians 2:19-22
    So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

    What’s the goal? In Jesus, we are being “edified” into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

  2. Ephesians 4:11-14
    And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

    The purpose of “the 5-fold ministry” is to get the rest of us to a place where we’re equipped/trained/able to “edify” each other until we all reach the point of mature, Christ-like unity.

  3. Ephesians 4:15-16
    Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

    Here Paul starts connecting our words with this concept of “edification.” He describes something like a circuit, where loving words of truth lead to our growing up into Christ, which feeds back into our expressed love leading to more growth, etc.

  4. Ephesians 4:25-32
    Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

    Now that we have the previous passages as context, we can see that when Paul talks about “building up,” he’s referring to talk that leads to increased spiritual growth and purity. (In a nutshell, “edifying speech” could also be called “sanctifying speech.”)

What concerns me is that, in the sermons I’ve heard addressing the topic of “edifying speech,” most pastors seem to have taken a cue from pop psychology, and changed this word’s meaning away from “sanctifying” and toward something akin to “affirming.” No longer is “edifying speech” about growing the body into greater Christ-likeness, but now it’s a tool we use to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, and avoid any unpleasantness we’d rather not deal with.

When we do this, priorities shift. Jesus being glorified by our increasingly pure reflection of Him? That’s no longer as important as making sure we only ever say things that give out brothers and sisters (and pastors) warm fuzzies.

That’s just messed up.

Now of course, we’re supposed to speak in love! And we’re to stash the bitterness and malice. But according to 4:25, Paul doesn’t think truth should be sacrificed on the altar of flattery.

So this passage doesn’t seem to say anything definitive against “sharing a bad report” (as I’ve heard some pastors seem to have recently implied). If you’re sharing such things it out of bitterness or malice, then it would be wrong to do so… for other reasons.

But if you’re sharing that “bad report” so that Jesus’ Bride can see it, be alarmed, and focus on those blemishes being cleaned… then in fact Paul encourages the behavior!

So in summary: Paul’s goal is for us to leave each other a little more like Jesus. Sometimes, that means we need to “share a bad report,” to staunch the flow of disease and call attention to some behavior that’s damaging the Body.

Even—no, especially—when that behavior is coming from those who presume to lead and teach. The Body of Christ is not built up when wolves are praised as wonderful leaders.

2 comments

  1. I agree Travis.

    The thing I’ve always struggled with the cliche phrase of “building up” is what that looks like. Obviously you know me and that I like to laugh. “Building up” for me is someone cracking some jokes when I am down, which serves as my encouragement. For other people, they want nothing to do with comedy when they are in need of being built up. Maybe they need a more traditional form of encouragement in words of affirmation or just being there (which I don’t mind as well) :)

    I agree with your point that the definition of “building up” should be sanctifying speech, as well as calling us to challenge those who are “damaging the Body”, but I also think that that looks different for each individual person. Thanks for the post man.

  2. “…but I also think that that looks different for each individual person.”

    I totally agree with you there, Siggy!

    I guess what was foremost in my mind is this one situation in southeastern VA, where some pastors in a church were caught basically “disciplining” a woman for wanted to get herself and her kids away from her abusive husband.

    When the congregation found out, the pastors had to say something. So they held a congregational meeting, where they apologized for half the things they did, and then passed out an article to everybody, explaining how sinful it is to tell one person about another person’s sin (the implication being that what the pastors were doing should have stayed a secret).

    My point is that, while the pastors may have felt embarrassed or ashamed because of what went public, they now have a greater chance to grow more like Jesus then they would have if their sin had remained secret. In addition, they won’t be able to get away with doing things like that to other women in the congregation… so the people there are being protected by “secret things being shouted from the rooftops.”

    I’m just concerned that the pastors’ actions in that meeting—and the way they interpret this verse in particular—imply that they’re more concerned with protecting themselves from embarrassment than they are protecting their people from harm.

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