Imagine, if you will, that Ephesians 4 is a practical instruction given to all the churches in one town as a way of understanding just how they might work together.
And then consider that that might be pretty close to how Paul saw things. It might even be the real context of at least some of his letters. We know they had multiple housegroups in the one town, with a variety of leadership styles. We know that on occasion Paul had to address a lack of harmony between different groups. He had to urge people to agree, after all. Ephesians 4 can easily be understood in that vein:
“I, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, 3 diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling— 5 one Lord,one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
So here’s the methodology of how “churches” (in our modern way of viewing them) might operate together. Perhaps we should take it in reverse order.
- There is “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” First, we stand together to lay claim to the sovereignty of God, to His authority (“above all”), His empowerment for service and mission (“through all and in all”).
- This is not a set of doctrines to which we subscribe, but a relationship which we enjoy. Think of it as a bicycle wheel with Christ as the hub. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord,one faith, one baptism.” The repeated word “one” indicates the important point.
- So how does that work out? Paul was fully aware that division is possible even at this early point. But if the centre holds, then all will be well. And this is the fruit of that connectivity, that we are enabled to “walk worthy of the calling [we] have received, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, 3 diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us.”
A Committed Family
But this is only the beginning point. Paul has described a relatedness which works horizontally between the fellowships and vertically towards their Lord. And, let me say, that given these parameters it is bound to succeed. It’s a family, after all, and no matter how annoying a particular member is, they remain a family member. And if we “accept one another in love” and operate with patience, humility and gentleness, then there is simply no question of our falling out.
But you do have to recognise the concept of family, right? You do have to acknowledge there is only one faith, and only one Lord.
And this is the central reality towards which Paul is directing us: a place where we “grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. 16 From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.” This is the whole point of the recognition of the family….God has something bigger in mind than individual people or churches or denominations proudly insisting on their “distinctives.”
Something much much bigger than all of that.
And yet those individual pieces of the jigsaw are beautiful, wonderful, essential and vital. They are each carefully crafted to produce one massive result. Paul begins his explanation by sketching the dimensions:
7 Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift. 8 For it says: When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people. 9 But what does “He ascended” mean except that He descended to the lower parts of the earth? 10 The One who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.
Who are the captives here? It’s a quote from Psalm 68 which makes it clear that they were the enemies of Israel who were defeated when Jerusalem was captured. So inthis new context we may interpret the captives as either: (1) the enemies of Christ, namely, Satan, sin, and death; or (2) the people who have been the captives of Satan, sin and death, and who are now taken captive by Christ in redemption. Probably both explanations can combine: Christ had victory over Satan, sin and death and gives gifts of the Spirit to those who have been identified with him.
11 And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. 14 Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. 15 But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. 16 From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.
Maintaining and Attaining
There’s an interesting difference between verse 3 and verse 13 in Ephesians 4: in verse 3 we are told to maintain unity but in verse 13 we are told to attain unity. In verse 3 it is a reality to be maintained. In verse 13 it is a goal to be attained. The reason for this is not that there are two kinds of Christian unity but that Christian unity has in one sense already been accomplished and in another sense hasn’t.
This text shows that, in a decisive act of atonement and reconciliation, Christ has already made us one. But what he has accomplished at Calvary we should maintain by the Spirit. And yet, in another sense, the unity Christ purchased and guaranteed with his blood must now be lived out and brought to full expression in the life of the church. In this sense it is a goal to be attained.
So there’s a continual journey to be made from what is done in Christ towards what must be developed in the body of Christ.
And how is it developed? The passage is quite clear: it’s through the service (or ministry) of people that God gives to the body of Christ. The point of the passage is the “we” who are working to “attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the son of God” but the people who help us on the journey are described as “some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.”
It’s not helpful to make these people the focus of church life. They are –quite simply- helpers who are working away until the body of Christ becomes what it is intended to be.
In this regard, it’s always worth remembering the words of Jesus:
“Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 20:25-26)
So what do these servants do? An old sermon I heard on this always sticks in my mind as a thumbnail sketch of what Paul is talking about. The preacher said: 1. Apostles Govern; 2. Prophets Guide; 3. Evangelists Gather; 4. Pastors Guard; 5. Teachers Ground.
It’s not bad as a start, I think.
Perhaps the problem of self-importance only arises when we attach capital letters to these statements of function.
But the point of the passage is the WE.
Lord, I pray this, that the WE, -all our fellowships as a committed family working together- make a mosaic, “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.”
Lord, I suspect -in fact I’m sure of it- that the individual excellencies of separate fellowships are actually a gift to the whole body of Christ. So far from those diverse strands being troublesome, without them the whole picture cannot be presented.
We really do need each other.
Empower us, fill us with your love, that we may be completely one,
so the world may know You.