Unity in the body of Christ
There is no doubt that Christians should take the matter of unity very seriously. It is something for which Jesus prayed (John 17:23) and it arguably an essential requirement for our witness to the world (John 13:34,35). And yet no-one has to be a Christian for very long before realising that unity seems a long way away from the inter-denominational and inter-church battles that beset God’s people today. We can easily find ourselves asking if there is any hope for the unity for which Jesus prayed to be a reality in the contemporary church.
In his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, the apostle Paul gives a clear instruction about the pursuit of unity. ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,’ he writes (Ephesians 4:3). But as with all our bible reading, it serves us well to step back from this perhaps familiar verse and to look at it as if chapters and verses had not been added – for this verse is part of a letter which not only commands effort to to be made but tells us how unity might really be achieved.
Note that Paul’s command is not to create unity – that is something fallen sinners could never do – but rather to keep it, to ensure that what has already been achieved in Christ, in the heavenly realms, might be seen in the church today. But in order to understand what this means, Paul spend a considerable amount of time reminding people what they were – and that humanly, such unity is impossible, particularly in the midst of the hostile Jew-Gentile relationships of the first century.
And so he says of the the Gentiles (‘you’) “were dead in sin” but “like the rest [including Jews] we were objects of God’s wrath.” He asks Gentles to “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” In each situation, Paul reminds Jew and Gentile that they were alienated, both from God and from one another. But in both relationships – the ‘vertical’ with God and the ‘horizontal’ one another – the grace of God in Christ has triumphed, such that the dead have been spiritually raised with Christ Christ and the spiritually alienated reconciled through his blood. The result of such powerful, comic rescue is what we know of as the church, a people made up from those the world could never unite, brought together in Christ as a ‘new man’ and now indwelt by the Spirit of God (2:14-21).
This is the unity that God has made in Christ, which we are now to ‘keep.’ And in Ephesians 4:1-16 we are told how that might happen. It might help to read the first few verses of that section and then the last few – for Paul begins by speaking about unity and love, something that appears to be the responsibility of the people to work at – but he ends by speaking as if that unity and love has been achieved . . . “until we all reach unity in the faith and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:12) . . . “Instead, speaking the truth in live, we will in all thing grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ” (4:15). Paul seems to think that the unity and love which he ‘requests’ in the first few verses is possible; that we can live out what we already are in Christ.
It is in the verses that are sandwiched by these truths that we discover how this might happen – and it is the simple reality that the Lord has given word ministers to his church: apostles and prophets (who appear to be foundational cf. 2:20; 3:5), evangelists (who proclaim this transforming gospel) and pastors and teachers (who teach those rescued by that gospel). These word ministries prepare people for work of service and ministry one to another; and as members of the church respond to the word and serve one another, so then we will be built up ‘until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God and become mature’ (4:13). We already have every blessing in Christ in the heavenly realms (1:3); the church is already fully filled with Christ (1:23); we have been raised with Christ (2:6) – and that spiritual reality, of a rescued and united people, will be seen in our midst as we respond to the word in obedience and thereby minister and serve one another.
Such unity cannot be achieved by lowest-common-denominator theology. It comes from the humble submission to that which is revealed, the readiness to be taught, corrected, rebuked and encouraged; the expectation that obedience will be the natural outworking of that response, seen in our concern one for another (as in Ephesians 4:29). Then, wonderfully, we slowly become what we already are – and the principalities and powers in the heavenly realms, over whom Jesus has complete victory and authority, see in us the multi-coloured wisdom of God (3:10). Such is his very purposes, accomplished in Christ – and for which we should pray, as indeed he did.