CHURCH UNITY

by Bob Wheeler

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Interior, East Troupsburg Baptist Church, Troupsburg, NY

We have seen, in our last blog post, that salvation makes a difference.  A person who is saved should be different from what he was before, and he should be different from the unsaved world still around him.

But how should he be different?  What exactly is the difference?  Paul spends most of the rest of the epistle explaining what exactly that difference should be.

Interestingly he begins by discussing church unity and the attitude we should have in order to achieve that unity.  We are to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3; NKJV).

Here he calls for three basic traits that are necessary to preserve Christian unity: lowliness, gentleness and longsuffering.  The word “lowliness,” (literally, “lowliness of mind”) denotes that basic trait of humility that we should have when we think about ourselves in relation to everyone else in the church.  We are not necessarily better, smarter or more important than anyone else.  We are all brothers and sisters, members of the same family in the Lord, and we should treat each other with kindness and mutual respect.

Likewise a Christian ought to be known for his “gentleness.”  He is to be thoughtful and considerate of others.  He should be sensitive to their feelings and be unwilling to cause unnecessary hurt.

And then a Christian should be longsuffering.  The Greek word is often used to translate a Hebrew phrase in the Old Testament that means “slow to anger.”  It means restraining one’s anger in the face of provocation.  Tensions and conflicts will inevitably arise, but Christians need to be patient with each other, slow to anger and ready to forgive.

With these basic traits in mind, then, Christians are to be “bearing with one another in love.”  We come from different backgrounds and have different personalities.  We may irritate and annoy each other.  But we are called to “forbear one another in love,” to use the phrase in the old KJV.

All of this, Paul says, logically follows from the great doctrines of salvation contained in chapters 1-3.  Today we often associate that theology, with its strong emphasis on human depravity and salvation by grace alone, with “Calvinism,” although Calvin certainly did not write the Epistle to the Ephesians.  But today if someone is a “Calvinist,” if he truly understands the implications of his theology, he will be marked by humility, gentleness and patience.  He, above all others, should recognize that we were helpless, guilty, hell-deserving sinners, and that it was only through God’s grace that we were saved at all.  And that should make us truly humble and make us more forbearing of others.

Paul tells us that we are to endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  That is a foreign concept to most American evangelicals.  We are used to seeing a dizzying array of competing denominations which often seem to have little in common with each other.  And yet Paul says that we are to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  But what “unity”?

Paul goes on to tell us.  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (vv. 4-6).

First of all, there is “one body.”  Here, of course, he is referring to the Christian church as a whole, which Paul had previously described as the body of Christ (1:22,23).  Everyone who is a born again Christian is a member of that body, regardless of whatever denominational title he may claim for himself.

Likewise there is “one Spirit.”  Everyone who has been born again has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of him.  But there is only one Holy Spirit, and we each share that same Spirit.  That means that there is an intimate connection between each and every genuine Christian believer.

Paul goes on to say that “you were called in one hope of your calling.”  The “calling,” it will be remembered, is how God drew us to Christ, and hence there exists among true Christians a common, shared experience of coming out of darkness into light.

Paul notes that there is one Lord – we do not serve several different Christs; and one faith – we all have an active trust in the same Savior.  But then Paul says “one baptism,” and here we run into a difficulty.  Some of us would maintain that what Paul has in mind here is believer’s baptism, in which an adult (or at least an adolescent) makes a conscious decision to publicly identify himself publicly with Christ.  But many churches practice infant baptism in which the person receiving the sacrament (to use their terminology) makes no such formal, public commitment.  Presumably though, when that person later seeks admission as a communicant member of that church he claims his baptism as his own.  To the extent, then, that we have each made a formal, public commitment of some sort, we share that in common as well.

And then Paul concludes by noting that there is “one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (v. 6 – the majority of Greek manuscripts, along with the Latin Vulgate, read “and in us all”).  Ultimately all genuine Christian believers share a spiritual union with God Himself.  He is our Father; we are under His authority; He works through us, and He lives within us all.

Thus what unites us as evangelical Christians is far more significant than our differences of opinion on secondary issues.  And what God clearly wants from us as His people is that we “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  May we all repent in dust and ashes.

 

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