[This is a really long post, but it all fits together as a unity. I’ll try to resist posting anything else for a couple or three days to give the readers a chance to work their way through this one. It’s important.]
(Eph 4:1-6 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Restoration Movement background
This is a very famous passage in the Churches of Christ. Indeed, it was once one of the most popular passages for Restoration Movement preaching, because the Movement began as a unity movement, designed to unite the Christians in the denominations into a single body. Of course, by the late 19th Century, many were arguing that there are no Christians in the denominations to unite, and as a result, preaching on this passage was transformed.
A sense of the original intepretation in the Restoration Movement will be found in this quotation from Alexander Campbell, written in 1831 —
WILL sects ever cease? Will a time ever come when all disciples will unite under one Lord, in one faith, in one immersion, in one hope, in one body, in one spirit, and in adoring one God and Father of all? Will divisions ever be healed? Will strife ever cease among the saints on Earth? To these questions all who pray for the millennium, all who long for its appearance, answer, Yes. How, then, shall the union be accomplished? Will all be converted to any one sect? Will all become Unitarians, Trinitarians, Arians, or Socinians? Will all become Presbyterians, Baptists, or Methodists? Will all become members of any one of the hundred sects of this century? I presume no person of common intelligence will say, Yes. All sects know they have some opinions, or some customs which must be dispensed with. How then shall it be introduced? I answer unequivocally in one sentence, By abandoning opinions, and founding all associations upon the belief of gospel facts. Let every sect give up its opinions as a bond of union, and what will remain in common? The gospel facts alone. Every sect, Catholic and Protestant, admits all the historic facts recorded in the five historical books of the New Testament. Their various interpretations, additions, subtractions, and new modifications of opinions concerning these facts, and not the truth or falsehood of the narratives, create all the confusion, build the whole Babel, and set all the machinery of the contending interests in motion. Now, will not the slowest to apprehend see that, if, by any means, they could be induced to abandon their opinions, and retain the plain incontrovertible facts, the strife would be over?
But men cannot give up their opinions, and, therefore, they never can unite, says one. We do not ask them to give up their opinions — We ask them only not to impose them upon others. Let them hold their opinions; but let them hold them as private property. The faith is public property: opinions are, and always have been, private property. Men have foolishly attempted to make the deductions of some great minds the common measure of all christians. Hence the deductions of a Luther, and a Calvin, and a Wesley, have been the rule and measure of all who coalesce under the names of the leaders. It is cruel to excommunicate a man because of the imbecility of his intellect. I have been censured long and often for laying too much stress upon the assent of the understanding; but those who have most acrimoniously censured me, have laid much more stress upon the assent of the mind than I have ever done. I never did, at any time, exclude a man from the kingdom of God for a mere imbecility of intellect; or, in other words, because he could not assent to my opinions. All sects are doing, or have done this. Their covenants and creeds are deductions, speculative and abstract, from the crucible of some strong skull, and those who would not or could not subscribe them as the oracles of God, have been given over to Satan. The Baptists are doing this now, in many parts of the country, with an unrelenting hand. They will make a sect, another sect, if they can. But they will not be able to make a sect of those who advocate the ancient order of things; provided they who are now contending for the gospel, will be true to their own cause.
(Millennial Harbinger, No. 2, Vol. II, February 7, 1831). Notice the flow of his logic:
* There are Christians in the denominations (sects)
* This means the church is divided
* Unity will come about by agreeing on the “gospel facts” — “one Lord, in one faith, in one immersion, in one hope, in one body, in one spirit, and in adoring one God and Father of all” by giving up all opinions, simply by neither asking about anything else or imposing anything else. In short, “I never did, at any time, exclude a man from the kingdom of God … because he could not assent to my opinions.”
Campbell uses “opinions” to refer to everything that is not “faith.” “The faith is public property: opinions are, and always have been, private property.” In short, “faith” is summed up in the Seven Ones. All denominations agree on faith. It’s only opinions that divide. Let’s no longer divide over opinions and agree to be united based on the faith — the Seven Ones — and leave all the rest between each of us and God.
Thus, in Campbell’s mind, the Seven Ones are the existing grounds of unity, and yet we sinfully fail to make the unity that God has given us real — resulting in a divided church. Today, we conclude that if you disagree with our deductions and opinions and speculations, you are damned, not a Christian, and we have no obligation to be united with you at all. Indeed, the path to unity is through the exclusion of those who disagree with us — and yet this is the very thing Campbell rejected!
Follow the link and you’ll find this quotation followed by Campbell’s illustration of his point with the story of Aylette Raines, a universalist whom he accepted in full fellowship. Yes, really.
I have to add this most excellent quote from the same article —
If I were to attempt to produce the greatest uniformity of opinion, I would set about it by paying no respect to opinions, laying no emphasis upon them, admiring and contemning no opinion as such. But if I wished to produce the greatest discrepancies in opinion, I would call some damnably dangerous, others of vital importance; I would always eulogize the sound, and censure the erroneous in opinions. We all know that strife is like the bursting forth of water — it always widens the channels; and many a broil in churches, neighborhoods, and families, would have been prevented if the first indication had been sympathetically attributed to the infirmity of human nature.
In other words, rather than damning each other, let’s recognize that we’re all pots of clay, cracked and imperfect, not likely to agree on every bit of theology, and instead focus on faith and just faith.
So, with that background in mind, we turn to the text, by reviewing the context.
* Chapter 1 speaks of God’s cosmic plan to redeem mankind through Christ, a plan that predates the Creation itself.
* Chapter 2 begins with an explanation of the heart of the gospel —
(Eph 2:8-10 ESV) 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
* He concludes chapter 2 and begins chapter 3 by pointing out how this gospel — salvation through faith — allows God to bring the Gentiles into the Kingdom, and this unity of all nations is the “mystery” that is now revealed, one of God’s cosmic purposes in his plan.
* God did this so that the church could display his wisdom —
(Eph 3:8-10 ESV) 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
Notice, it’s not just the gospel of chapter 2 that accomplishes this. It’s the entry of the Gentiles into the church because of the gospel, and the resulting unity, which shows God’s “manifold wisdom.” Salvation through faith makes it possible for the Gentiles to come into the Kingdom, and the fact that the Kingdom unites Jew and Gentile demonstrates to the world that the Kingdom is God’s Kingdom.
* At the end of chapter 3, Paul prays that his readers will be given divine power to comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love so that we may be filled with the fullness of God — so that we may become image-bearers who show the world who God really is. And this requires that we understand the incomprehensibly vast magnitude of God’s love — so vast that God can love Jews and Gentiles and all nations so much that he unites them into a single Kingdom under a single God.
Now, we need to harken back to 3:8-10. God’s wisdom is to be displayed by the church “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” This is not just an earthly battle. The unity of the church on earth defeats God’s enemies in the spiritual realms. We struggle with this as Westerners, but Paul was speaking in the context of the ancient mind. You see, every pagan worshipped a god of his city or country, and when his state was at war with another state, he saw that war as also a battle between the gods of the two states for supremacy over the other. Will the followers of Zeus defeat the followers of Mars? Well, only if Zeus can defeat Mars!
This was so strongly felt that when one state conquered another, the defeated state adopted the gods of the victorious state. Indeed, the gods of the loser might be redefined as the lesser gods of the winner, and the mythology of the loser might even be revised to reflect this new reality.
Therefore, when states unite into a single Kingdom, under a single God, the newly united body shows the entire world — on earth and in heaven — that God is the One True God and God Over All. God wins! All knees must bow! There is no god that can stand against the One True God! And it’s the unity of the church that shows God’s victory through Jesus.
To an ancient, the idea of two people worshipping the same god and yet being at war with each other would have been unthinkable. “How can you worship the same god (God) and not be united? Are you sure it’s not two gods by the same name? Are you sure one of you isn’t worshiping a god disguised as the god of the other?” A single God means a single community of worshipers means unity. It was just that simple.
(Eph 4:1-3 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
“Therefore” refers to all the precedes, particularly Paul’s prayer for a divinely-granted understanding of God’s love and the importance of the church being united to demonstrate God’s wisdom to all — as planned by God before the foundation of the universe. It’s a big “therefore.”
Therefore, Paul urges that his readers get along.
To understand his point, we need to pause to consider the meaning of “calling” in v. 1. This same word shows up several times in Ephesians —
(Eph 1:16-18 ESV) 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
(Eph 4:4 ESV) There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call —
“Calling” is not used in the modern church-talk sense of “I’ve been called to the ministry.” Rather, all Christians have been called to “the hope,” that is, to inherit the new heavens and new earth. I think Paul had this passage in mind —
(Isa 51:2-6 ESV) 2 “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. 3 For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.
4 “Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples. 5 My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait. 6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.”
God, through Isaiah, combines the calling of Abraham with the promise of salvation. To be “called” to “hope” is to be joined with Abraham as a true heir of the promise. For Gentiles, this means being grafted onto the Israelite trunk to share in Israel’s calling, promises, and hope. You see, the deeper you dig, the more this is about unity stated in cosmic terms — the unity that is essential to God’s plan being realized.
Therefore, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” means to walk in a manner worthy of your hope, the cosmic plan, and the necessity of unity to fulfill that plan. We are told to live up to the calling. We’ve been blessed by being added to God’s Kingdom. We now have to act like we belong there.
That means that we behave “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” Now, notice how very poorly this characterizes much of how we do church. Humility requires respect for others’ opinions and recognition that we just might be wrong about the best worship style or sermon topic. How can we damn over our opinions and deductions when we aren’t inspired?
“Gentleness” prohibits all power plays. A gentle church member can disagree with another member or with the church leadership, but he can’t engage in church politics to get his way. He can’t manipulate and maneuver. Rather, a gentle person says what he needs to speak out of love and compassion for the person he is speaking to.
“Patience” means, of course, that we give others time to be convinced. We give others time to convince us. We take the time to talk, commiserate, and trade ideas. We share our hearts — even though this can be a painfully slow process. If we are unhappy with someone in our own church or in the church down the road, we are willing to hear them out, develop a relationship of trust, and work through it. We don’t slander, divide, and condemn.
“Bearing with one another in love” means, first, that we bear with one another. We aren’t really all that unbearable! Annoying? Yes. Difficult? Yes. Obstinate? Yes. Sometimes wrong? Yes. Unbearable? No. You see, God puts in every congregation certain Christians whose task it is to teach us endurance. We call them “extra-grace Christians,” not because they need extra grace, but because the rest of us need is to bear them. And I firmly believe that we’ll be judged mostly by how well we treat the hard-to-bear members of our church. Anyone, even a pagan, can deal well with nice people. (Just pray that you’re not thought of as an EGC — extra-grace Christian!)
Now, the implicit lesson here is that unity comes about by getting along. Paul’s first teaching after his prayer for us to comprehend the scope of God’s love is about interpersonal skills. You see, God loves so deeply and so broadly that he loves even the unlovable. And how well we love those whom God loves is the biggest test of our faith and hope there is. After all, to God, we’re all extra-grace Christians.
Unity of the Spirit
In v. 3, Paul says we should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” We understand “unity” — at least, in the abstract — but “of the Spirit” is a bit surprising. There’s just one Spirit. What does he mean?
As always, context is everything. Paul had just prayed,
(Eph 3:14-19 ESV) 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Surely, his reference to “Spirit” refers to the work of the Spirit, in our inner beings, to cause Christ to dwell in our hearts and to comprehend God’s incomprehensible love. The “unity of the Spirit” is the unity that the Spirit helps us to understand through faith in Jesus and grasping the breadth of God’s love. Unity comes from seeing — by the Spirit — just how incredibly broad God’s love is!
Some corrupt the Word by teaching that “unity of the Spirit” is everyone agreeing on how to interpret the Bible exactly the same way as the church paper editors — who can’t agree with each other. No, unity of the Spirit is the unity the Spirit works through us to maintain.
Now, “maintain” is a critical word here. We usually think of working to achieve unity, but Paul tells us to maintain unity. You see, unity was achieved at the cross through the resurrection of Jesus, which opened the floodgates of God’s grace to admit the Gentiles into the church through faith, not works. Unity is a gift already received because the church — the Kingdom, the body of Christ, the set of all Christians — was created united. God does the uniting.
Therefore, if we’re divided, it’s not because we failed to unite the church but because we divided the church. Division is not just a product of history. It’s a product of continued apathy and false understanding of God’s hearts by his children. We are dividers unless we are uniters. We cannot pass to our children and grandchildren a divided church, when we were charged to maintain it as united.
Indeed, the command is for to be “eager” to “maintain” unity. We have a lot of work to do!
“The bond of peace”
The unity we are to maintain is unity “in the bond of peace.” “Bond” refers to the string that ties a bundle of twigs together. It’s peace that binds us together. Hmmm …. It’s not a new word in Ephesians —
(Eph 2:13-16 ESV) 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Peace — shalom — is right relationship created by the grace of God through Christ — by allowing us to be saved by grace through faith — abolishing law as a barrier to fellowship. Or in less theological and more pragmatic terms, because we’ve received grace, despite our unworthiness, we should receive each other despite the unworthiness of each other. We receive grace and so we extend grace. It’s not complicated.
Peace holds the church together because peace with God, by his grace, shows us how to have peace with each other, by being gracious. Indeed, when God answers Paul’s prayer, and we see how very broad God’s love is, we learn how very gracious he is, and so we learn how very gracious we must be. (Cool how it all fits together, isn’t it?)
Now, you can’t grasp the Seven Ones until you’ve grasped the context, you see? God doesn’t change personalities between verses 3 and 4, and he doesn’t become less loving or less gracious. Therefore, the Seven Ones are a partial answer to Paul’s own prayer — they are an explanation of the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ, so that we can’t know it except by the power of God through his Spirit.
(Eph 4:4-6 ESV) There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
“There is” means that this is a fact. He doesn’t say “There should be.” The essential unity of the body is given by God. It’s true. Our job is to recognize that it’s true — even if it requires God’s own Spirit to change our hearts to make it possible. We may not look or feel or act united, but that’s because our perceptions are warped by the world. If we were to see the church as God does, we’d see one family — fighting — but one.
I do estate planning, and I’m often called on to help clients whose children are fighting. They may even hate each other. In their parents’ eyes, they are still one family and it’s the fault of the children for not seeing what is so obviously true.
Now, Paul lists seven ones —
* God and Father of all
Notice that the Holy Trinity is there, which is no surprise. But, oddly, we find faith and hope but no love. Why not “one love”? Well, because Paul has just explained in some depth how love — God’s love — holds it all together. Love isn’t listed because all seven are immersed in love. You can’t comprehend the seven without first having a grasp of God’s love. Love is the path that leads to the Seven Ones. If you don’t follow that path, you won’t understand.
Now, we modern Christians just ever-so desperately want to read this through Greek/Western/Reformation eyes. We want to write a book with seven chapters, and put in each chapter the doctrine of each of the Seven Ones — and then declare as damned all who disagree with the book! And that’s the kind of thinking that led to European Christians spending the centuries after the Reformation killing each other. And led to Christians fleeing to America just to practice as they see fit. And seeing fit to damn each other, which is better than killing each other, but not by much.
If Paul wanted us to define the Seven Ones doctrinally, he’d have written his own seven-chapter book. No, what he wants us to do is what he just said: “Maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” It’s not our job to draw lines for God or create unity. It’s our job to recognize as united all who have the Seven Ones.
Remember chapter 3:8-10? One God means one nation. One Kingdom. One church. That’s how the ancients thought, and that’s how we should think. Those who have these seven things in common are united by God — even if they disagree over how many elders a church must have, the instrument, congregational autonomy, the name of the church, etc., etc. Campbell got it right!
But just how much leeway is there? I mean, we all know some pretty awful error that might apply to any of these seven. Just where do we draw the line? Well, the history of Christianity is of bishops, councils, popes, Reformers, and even editors drawing lines — leading to division. That’s not been a real good plan. History tells us that the humanistic plan of everyone agreeing on everything is futility.
Consider “hope.” I think “hope” is an inheritance of a redeemed and purified renewed heavens and earth. Many readers — maybe most — think hope is disembodied bliss as a soul in heaven with God. Which one of us is damned? And even among those who have one hope or the other, there are disagreements. There have been libraries of books written on the End Times. We Christians are masters of disagreeing about “hope.”
But that’s Western thinking. Paul’s point isn’t that if you have the right doctrinal position on hope, you are therefore saved. It’s that God has given you all the same hope (whatever you believe it to be) and you are therefore one (and, of course, saved, but the issue is oneness, not savedness). We may be surprised to learn what our inheritance is, but whatever it is, it’s been given to us, we share it, and we’re united — despite our weakness and inability to grasp the idea.
Consider “faith.” All Christians have faith in Jesus, but some have faith that moves them to foreign lands to seek and save the lost. Some have faith that put them in Islamic lands where some have been tortured and killed for their faith. Most of us have a lot less faith than that, but still enough faith to live changed lives. Some have faith that is much less than a mustard seed, but it was enough to get us to confess Jesus and submit to baptism, and over time mature from a weakling faith to a strong faith.
Now, we traditionally think that you have to have “faith” to be baptized. Most Churches of Christ require their converts to confess Peter’s Great Confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mat 16:16 ESV). But our proof text for “confession” as one of the Five Steps is —
(Rom 10:9 ESV) if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
If a 12-year old has been instructed to say and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but hasn’t been taught that Jesus is Lord, did the baptism take? If she learns about the Lordship of Jesus later and submits wholeheartedly to him, is it too late? Does she have to be rebaptized? How perfect does a convert’s faith have to be? If the convert has faith that’s not strong enough to confess Jesus before her friends at school, does she have saving faith? What level of works are required so that she doesn’t have a dead faith?
You see, we don’t require that faith or hope to be perfect to count someone as saved. We don’t even think in these terms — and likely find the whole inquiry extremely uncomfortable, because who has a faith or hope that couldn’t be nitpicked into near nothingness by a skilled cross-examination? Especially if we’re testing faith at the moment of baptism?!
But when it gets to other topics, such as baptism, we expect a convert to have a mastery of the topic, so expert that they know that baptizo in the Greek means immerse and not sprinkle or pour, even though some Bible dictionaries say to the contrary!
Now, we covered this ground at some length in the series on Imperfect Baptism.
That’s a lot of ground to repeat, and I’ll not do so. Rather, it should be sufficient to observe that neither we nor God expects perfection from his children. And if he were going to expect perfection, he’d expect it in the most central doctrines, such as our understanding of who Jesus was and is and in our faith, and no one demands a perfect understanding of Jesus or a perfect faith to consider someone brother. Rather, we understand that babes in Christ come to Christ with baby understandings — incomplete, imperfectly, vaguely formed. And if the Phillippian jailer could be converted in one night, from an entirely non-Christian, non-Jewish, pagan background, a very immature understanding is quite sufficient.
Of course, baptism is a little different, in that it’s the responsibility of the baptizer to get it right. The convert only knows enough to submit, not enough to judge the expertise of the baptizer. How could he? And, therefore, if there’s any judging to be done when a baptism is done imperfectly, I think God will judge the one doing the deed, not the one submitting in trust and innocence — the perfect heart and mind for entry into the Kingdom.
One could make the same argument other ways, which I’ve covered in Born of Water. (This post is already too long, and yet there is so much more that could be said!)
Ultimately, the point is that our unity is a gift, just as baptism is a gift. God gives us baptism, and it should be understood as a uniting event, not a dividing event. Dividing over baptism would be like siblings splitting a family over which child was delivered by natural childbirth and which by Casarean — as though the children even had a choice! The point is that we have a common birth into Jesus, not that we have differences and therefore must damn those who share the same faith and Lord as we. No — the wisdom of God is shown by the unity of those who are different and whom the world says shouldn’t even be united.
One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
You see, Paul concludes with the Father, who is “over all,” that is, both Jew and Gentile. All believers, all who believe in Jesus, all who’ve been given hope, all who’ve been baptized — all are under God and God is in them — through the Spirit.
Paul is, I believe, alluding to the “filling” doctrine covered in the last post. The point is that we all belong to God, all united by his love, and its his birth to give or not give. And if we ever doubt the scope of his love, we need to pray that God answers Paul’s prayer by expanding our hearts to be able to take it all in.