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)

This passage from the Bible has been on my radar lately. I wanted to take a few minutes and share my thoughts on it, because it seems like one of those scriptures that we can misunderstand when we read it through the lens of our culture.

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 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.