Unity of the Spirit, Bond of Peace

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Ephesians 4:1)

With Ephesians 4, we come to the “therefore” section of Paul’s letter. In the first three chapters, he wrote about God’s work in creating a church in which the barrier between Jew and Gentile has been broken down. It’s all part of God’s cosmic plan in Jesus Christ: “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). This plan reaches its fulfillment in Jesus’ resurrection, by which God “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22-23). This uniting of all things takes visible form in the church, in which Jew and Gentile now stand on equal footing before God. Equality before God is a result of the Gentiles having “been brought near by the blood of Christ (2:13).”

The salvation of the Gentiles is a visible example of salvation by grace through faith, which God has revealed in Christ to be the one way of salvation.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV)

The inclusion of the Gentiles, however, is not merely tangential to the gospel. It is essential to the gospel. It is one aspect of the core of the gospel.

… the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:4-6 ESV)

… and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord … (Ephesians 3:9-11 ESV)

Although there is only “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:5-6), divisions still exist between within the church. Paul distinguishes among the divisions that exist based on sinful egoism, those that result from God’s differing gifts and those that result from the fact that we are still maturing in our faith.

Even within the church, human self-will continues to wield its destructive power. Paul reminds these Christians that God’s grace requires an appropriate response. Lives “worthy” of God’s gracious call in Christ requires humility, gentleness, putting up with others, and doing your best to maintain unity and peace (4:1-3) Although Paul doesn’t explicitly hold up Jesus as a moral example, it’s hard not to think of Christ’s life as Paul describe the believer’s approach to life in the Christian community.

The oneness of the church in Christ does not, however, imply homogeneity. God gives different gifts to different Christians. (4:7-16). He bestows different leadership gifts so that the church body might be built up and so that all might be equipped for the work (ergon) of service (diakonia) (4:12).

While Paul mentions only some specific gifts associated with pastoral leadership (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers), I think Paul’s use of the “body” metaphor implies that God also imparts diverse, unnamed gifts to rank-and-file believers as well. Paul here uses the same “body part” analogy (4:16) that he uses in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12:4-8. Each part has a unique function and contributes to the well-being and effectiveness of the whole. Christian leaders are God’s instruments in equipping the variously joined members of the body for their particular forms of service.

In 2:19-22, Paul described the church as a temple being built by God. There, God is portrayed as the builder who is joining the parts (believers, both Jew and Gentile) together as a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. In chapter 4, Paul offers a similar growth metaphor with a different emphasis. Here, the emphasis is on the role of divinely-enabled believers growing together in spiritual maturity (as measured by the fullness of Christ) (4:13-14), doctrine (4:14-15) and love (4:15-16).

The “until” of 4:13 implies that we are still growing up as a church. We do not yet perfectly understand or apply God’s revelation in Jesus to our lives.

If God bestows differing gifts of pastoral leadership within the church, will that not always result in diversity of style, emphasis and interpretation? Doesn’t that fact that God gifted person A to be an evangelist and person B to be a teacher always mean that there is going to be some doctrinal variation within the church based on personality, experience and life-setting?

It would have been possible for God to have set up an explicit, rigid, hierarchical system of doctrine and leadership in the New Testament, but he chose not to. The leadership model and doctrinal structure we see in the New Testament are much looser than that. One finds doctrinal authority and organizational structure in the New Testament, but it comes in several flavors. I think that’s healthy.

Neither person A nor person B are always going to be right! God’s equipping doesn’t make us infallible. We need a number of currents within the stream of orthodoxy because of our fallibility. No one person, group or point of view will get it right all the time. Just as an animal species needs genetic diversity to adapt, the church needs a measure of theological diversity in order to mature into the fullness Christ. I can’t lead the church to that all by myself, and neither can you.

Note that I am not advocating diversity for diversity’s sake or and “anything goes” theology. I am only speaking of those streams of tradition and thought that exist within the wider context of the Christian orthodoxy. For example, I think that it’s a good thing that evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John told the story of Jesus slightly differently. Together, they give us a richer picture of the faith than any of them could alone.

Still, our differences are not always going to mesh like gears in a machine. We are always going to rub against each other and there are always going to be friction points.

The overarching purpose of the this entire activity, then, is a mature, loving church faithful to God’s word. In Paul’s writing here, the believer’s “work of service” is not primarily aimed at the “transformation of the world” but at the growth and transformation of the church Christ died to build.

Paul encourages us to do our best to maintain the unity on earth that exists at the foot of the cross. He encourages us to strive for doctrinal unity while recognizing that some of our diversity reflects God’s differing gifts. Even in our differences, love is always essential.

This calls for quite a balancing act. Does it mean that we never break fellowship and tolerate everything within the church? I don’t think so. But neither are we to be hateful in our dealings with other Christians, or purposely schismatic or divisive. Paul speaks to our attitudes and aspirations. Unfortunately, the full objective unity that exists within Jesus Christ is likely to remain an unfulfilled hope as long as time endures. It will, however, sit in judgment over all our differences and divisions.