Word Study #104 — Building: on “Building Churches”

Some years ago, I tried to comfort and encourage a very earnest young man, who was deeply distressed at having been sharply criticized by the “superiors” in the corporate structure of his denomination (a problem addressed in chapter 6 of Citizens of the Kingdom) for failing to succeed at their stated goal of “building churches.” Neither he nor those “superiors” had ever noticed that Jesus said that was his job (Mt.16:18), or that he had never subsequently delegated it to anyone else. I don’t think that observation helped him much; he had been pretty thoroughly indoctrinated into a “corporate” model of “church”, a model that exalts a few and discourages most, and bears no resemblance whatever to the New Testament church.

Because, of course, to Jesus, the “building” process had absolutely nothing to do with either impressive-looking real estate, or the weekly entertainment of an audience of thousands of admirers.

The theme of “building” does appear, in at least four different aspects, in the New Testament narratives, but with a distinctly different flavor. Most of these occurrences employ a form of oikodomeo, of which classical uses include “to build a house, to design or fashion something, to construct on a foundation (physically or philosophically), to edify, or to be emboldened.” The other verb, kataskeuazo, “to equip or furnish, construct or build, prepare, arrange, establish”, appears only ten times, and refers primarily to physical construction, although that sense is broadened in four references to “preparing the way” of the Lord (see #102). All the rest are in Hebrews, and reference the old, obsolete ways.

Out of 24 uses of oikodomeo, 14 refer simply to physical construction, and most of those describe activity under the old covenant: Noah’s ark, the temple, a synagogue, the tombs of the prophets. The rest are in parables (Mt.7:24-26, Lk.6:48,49; Mt.21:33, Mk.12:1, Lk.12:18) except for the physical location of Nazareth (Lk.4:29). Other than Jesus’ then-enigmatic statements (Mt.26:61, Mk.14:58, Jn.2:20) and reactions to them, in which he was referring to his resurrection, the only gospel use of oikodomeo in a sense other than physical construction is his word in Mt.16:18, “I will build my church.”
But after Pentecost, everything changes. The transition is marked by the fulfillment of the event described in Ps.118:22 and quoted in Mt.21:42, Mk.12:10, Lk,20:17, Ac.4:11, I Pet.2:7, where, in each case, the participial form, “builders”, is used. The power of this figure is lost for those who are unacquainted with ancient construction, due to the mistaken use of the word “cornerstone” in most translations.
A cornerstone, today, is strictly ornamental. It is usually formally added at the dedication of a building – its space and shape carefully prepared beforehand and left vacant until its ceremonial installation. The scene described in scripture, however, is that of the construction of the ubiquitous Roman arch. Its keystone, a carefully fashioned, wedge-shaped component at the very top, holds the whole thing together. Without it, the arch would collapse, and the whole building with it. The message is, that the (self-appointed) builders were clueless – and discarded the most crucial component because of its odd shape, ignorant that it was, in fact, absolutely essential. Both the phrase “the head (kephale) of the corner”, and Isaiah’s akrogoniaion, which combines akros – high, with gonia, – knee, or corner, make it obvious that the stone in question, which is identified with the Lord Jesus, is ON TOP, and necessary to the entire structure, not a decorative “dedication” or memorial!

With Jesus himself holding everything together, as Paul asserts in Col.1:17, the figure changes completely. The construction materials, “you all”, are now “living stones” (I Pet.2:5), being built into a “spiritual house” and a “dedicated priesthood.” Paul chimes in also with plural you‘s in every case: Eph.2:20 – “you all also are being built on the foundation of apostles and prophets”, Col.2:7 – “rooted and built up in him (Jesus)”, Eph.2:22 – “in him, you all are being built together into a permanent dwelling place for God, in the Spirit.” (These latter references use prefixed forms of oikodomeo.) Notice the passive voice of the verbs. The “building materials are being acted upon, they are not the agents of the action.

Of the six uses of the noun form, oikodome, building, three refer to the temple complex, which Jesus expected to be destroyed – “not one stone left upon another.” Three refer to the new orientation: I Cor.3:9 – “You all are God’s building”, II Cor.5:1 – “a dwelling made without hands, a home from God”, Eph.2:21 – “the whole building grows into a holy temple in the Lord!” Here we see a transition to active verb forms.

It remains to consider the other lexical domain of oikodomeo and its related words, usually translated “edify”. This is an admissible choice, but only if one remembers that it is the same word as the one translated “build”. Unlike the former group of references, most of these are active. And please remember, they are all from the epistles – letters which were written to groups that are already committed to the Lord, though at varying stages of maturity. The task of “building” is intended to be shared by the brotherhood – but (I Cor.3:10) “Each one must watch out how he builds,” and later in the same letter (ch.14), Paul details both hazards and assets, emphasizing (v.12) “seek to excel in what will edify the congregation.” Whether the question involves the use of tongues and prophecy, or any of the other group activities listed in v.26-31, the mutual goal is that “all may learn and all be encouraged” (v.31).
The same concern occupies Eph.4:12 – God’s people are to be equipped, by workers with varied responsibilities, (v.11), to all be involved in “building up the Body of Christ” toward maturity (v.13). The goal is enabling the “whole Body” – v.16 – for “building itself up in love.” One’s speech (v.29) is to be focused on “building what is needed” in order to “give grace to the listeners.” Similar instructions are found in I Cor.8:1, 10:23; I Thes.5:11, Rom.15:2, II Cor.10:8, 13:10; I Tim.1:4.

Conspicuously absent is any reference to real estate, or to attracting crowds of curious spectators. The direct object of “build” is overwhelmingly focused upon “the congregation”, “yourselves”, “the Body of Christ”, and “each other”!

“Building the church” is the Lord’s job. Mt.16:18, with which we began, is the only place where “church” is the direct object of the verb, “to build.”
“Building up” each other is our job; as well as being responsible to present ourselves to the Master Builder in order to be built into the Body through which he can continue to redeem his world.

Building / edifying seems to include any activity that serves to enhance the faithfulness of a Body of disciples.

May we continually build and encourage each other to that end!

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One Response to Word Study #104 — Building: on “Building Churches”

  1. terry welborn says:

    Amen!

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