The Church as a Self-Edifying Body


When we read through the New Testament, we find the church being described in several different ways. In the passage below, the church is depicted as a self-edifying body.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:11-16).

In these verses, Paul indicated that when the church functions according to God’s design, it causes itself to grow and be built up. What does this mean? How did God design the church to do this? How are we to act in order to help accomplish this?

Let us consider these questions as we learn how the church is a self-edifying body.

What Does This Mean?

To begin, we need to define some of the words in our text:

  • Body – Earlier in the same letter, Paul defined the body as the church (Ephesians 1:22-23). This body has Christ as the head (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23) and the church submits to Him (Ephesians 5:24). In this context, Paul was referring to the local church. We know this because it has pastors (Ephesians 4:11) and these men do their work within the context of a local congregation (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). We can also know this because the local church – not the universal church – functions as a unit like is described in the text.
  • Growth – This means increase. It is derived from a word that means growing in strength and maturity. This is not just any increase in numbers by any means possible, but “growth which is from God” (Colossians 2:19) – growth that is accomplished by following His will.
  • Building up – The King James Version uses the word edifying. It is that which causes the body to increase in “wisdom, piety, holiness, happiness” (Thayer). This encourages and equips us to increased maturity and greater service in the ways of the Lord.

So what does it mean for the church to be a self-edifying body? It means that without needing outside help or interference, the local church is able to strengthen itself and grow.

How Did God Design the Church to Do This?

Paul began this passage by listing what God “gave” in order to make the church a self-edifying body (Ephesians 4:11). He listed different “offices” or “roles” in the church. These fall into two categories – those who are found in the word of God (apostles and prophets who are no longer living today) and those who are still found in person (evangelists, pastors, and teachers). Let us notice how these are distinct from one another:

  • Apostles – Paul described the apostles as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20) because they were His official spokesmen, revealing “the mystery of Christ” through the gospel (Ephesians 3:4-5). The apostles were part of the foundation of the church with Jesus being the corner stone (Ephesians 2:20).
  • Prophets – Similar to the apostles, prophets revealed God’s will (Ephesians 3:4-5) and, therefore, were also part of the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). The gift of prophecy was one of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7, 10) – gifts which would cease once the word of God was fully revealed (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).
  • Evangelists – They were ones who proclaimed the gospel (2 Timothy 4:2, 5). Many times when Christians discuss the work of evangelists, there is an emphasis placed upon teaching those who are outside of the church. While this is certainly important, part of the work of an evangelist involves teaching those who are already in the church (2 Timothy 2:2). This is how evangelists are able to help build up the body.
  • Pastors – This term helps to describe the role of these men – they were to shepherd the church (Acts 20:28). Many people think of preachers as pastors. Pastors can certainly preach (1 Timothy 5:17), but this is another name for the elders in the local church (Acts 20:17; 1 Peter 5:1-2).
  • Teachers – Elders/pastors taught (1 Timothy 3:2). Preachers/evangelists also taught (2 Timothy 2:2). Yet there were to be other teachers in the church as well. The Hebrew writer indicated that after a period of time, it should be expected that Christians develop the ability to teach others (Hebrews 5:12).

According to God’s design for the church, these individuals would work within the local church and help the congregation to be able to build itself up.

What Is the Result of This?

What happens when we take advantage of the words of the apostles and prophets in the Scriptures and the work today of evangelists, pastors, and teachers?

  • Saints are equipped for the work of service (Ephesians 4:12) – Every member is able to be involved in the work. Evangelists, pastors, and teachers were not placed in the church to do all the work themselves; instead, their responsibility is to equip others to be involved in the work as well.
  • The body of Christ is built up (Ephesians 4:12, 16) – As individuals are strengthened, the local body as a whole is strengthened as well.
  • Christians enjoy the unity of the faith (Ephesians 4:13) – Division is destructive (Mark 3:25). Unity facilitates growth. Therefore, we are to be diligent to preserve unity (Ephesians 4:3). This is possible as we follow the words of the Lord’s apostles (John 17:20-21; 1 Corinthians 1:10).
  • Christians develop a deeper knowledge of the Son of God (Ephesians 4:13) – Greater knowledge of the Lord produces spiritual maturity.
  • Christians are not carried about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14) – Peter described these different doctrines as “destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). The more we grow in our understanding of the word of God and are united upon the faith, the better prepared we will be to recognize, resist, and refute error when it is presented to us.

How Can We Accomplish This?

How can we ensure that the church is growing as it ought to grow? There is more to this than just the availability of the apostles’ and prophets’ words in the Scriptures and the presence of evangelists, pastors, and teachers in the church. So what must we do?

  • We need to study the Scriptures – Paul told Timothy, “Be diligent [study, KJV] to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). It is in the Scriptures that we will find the words of the apostles and prophets.
  • We need to listen to teaching from the word of God – Timothy was to teach others who would then be able to teach others themselves (2 Timothy 2:2). The Hebrew writer said, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you” (Hebrews 13:7). We must listen to those who teach the word – the evangelists, pastors, and teachers – in order to be encouraged and equipped in the Lord’s service.
  • We need to “[speak] the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) – Growth that is not based in truth is meaningless. When people “turn away their ears from the truth,” we are not to change the message to win them back; instead we must boldly “preach the word” and “fulfill [our] ministry” (2 Timothy 4:2-5). However, this does not mean we speak the truth in a belligerent manner. We must maintain a humble attitude in our efforts (cf. 2 Timothy 2:24-25).
  • We need to “grow up in all aspects (Ephesians 4:15) – By working together, we will improve every aspect of our service to God. Our worship, Bible study, understanding of the will of God, ability to teach others, example before others, and more will all be made better as we encourage and equip one another.
  • We need to remember that we are part of a body – This is emphasized in other passages as well. Paul told the brethren in Corinth, “For the body is not one member, but many. […] But now there are many members, but one body” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 20). We need to make sure we are functioning as a member of the body.
  • Each individual part” must be working (Ephesians 4:16) – In that passage from Paul’s letter to Corinth, he explained how the members were to work together and how they were to view one another. No one was to think they were an insignificant part of the body (1 Corinthians 12:15-19). No one was to look down upon other Christians as if they were not needed in the function of the body (1 Corinthians 12:21-26). In other words, every member of the body is important. Therefore, as each member of the body is making his/her own contributions to the work, the body will be strengthened and continue to grow.


Being a member of a local church is not merely about having our name in a directory. Instead, it is about being a functioning member of the body of which all are working together and all are important. We need to be working together in the cause of Christ as members of a local body (church).

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  1. Wayne D. Teel says

    Very good article and very important information to think upon. I appreciate this fine teaching.