Christian Unity (Ephesians 4:1-16)
We have said that a New Testament church is one that derives its doctrines from the New Testament. Further, a New Testament church derives its principles and practices for church life from the New Testament. Finally, a New Testament church is one which exhibits the life of Jesus Christ to the world.
To further pursue this last point, let us be more specific and suggest four key elements which can serve as the ‘measure of a New Testament church.’ The first of these, and the one to which this lesson will be devoted, is what might be called the measure of ‘body life.’ No passage deals with this fundamental to church life more clearly than that of Ephesians 4:1-16.
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.” 9 Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. 11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
This passage can be logically divided into three parts, all of which relate to the central theme of Christian unity. The first six verses deal with the fundamental unity which exists between all believers in Jesus Christ.
Fundamental Christian Unity Is to Be Preserved
This unity of which Paul wrote is not one which the Christian needs to create, but one which already exists and must be diligently preserved (vs. 3). It is based upon our sharing life in one body, the universal church, the body of Christ (vs. 5, cf. 2:15,16). All Christians are sealed, possessed, and indwelt by the same Spirit and look forward to the same hope (vs. 5, cf. 1:18). We possess one Lord, that is, one Supreme Commander, one common faith (one system of fundamental truth) held by all Christians, and one baptism (i.e. spirit baptism, cf. 1 Cor. 12:13).
Unity, although it can not be created by the Christian, must be preserved by him. This is to be diligently pursued (vs. 3) by an attitude of humility (seeing ourselves as God does, unworthy recipients of His grace). Our humble spirit should be demonstrated by a gentleness and graciousness in our dealings with others. This gentleness should be longsuffering, patiently enduring prolonged irritation. The love which we have for one another should prompt us to put up with the eccentricities of our fellow-Christians. As Ironside put it, “lovingly putting up with all that is disagreeable in other people.”
Unity in Diversity
Unity does not imply uniformity. It does not mean that all Christians will think alike or perform identical ministries. It does imply a common purpose and interdependence within the body of Christ.
To every individual within the body of Christ is given a particular capacity for ministry. This capacity (or capacities) is commonly called a ‘spiritual gift.’ Although the particular function involved may not appear to be particularly ‘spiritual,’ the outcome is spiritual benefit to the body of Christ. For example, there is seemingly little difference between writing a check to the mortgage company and one to say Dallas Seminary. The difference is that in giving to the seminary, men are being trained to teach and preach which will bring growth and blessing to many Christians. The man who has the gift of helps may fix the washing machine of one of the saints, not only meeting a very real need but saving money which can be used in the Lord’s work and bringing real encouragement and blessing to the one helped.
Since my intention here is not to emphasize the important subject of spiritual gifts, and since we will deal with that subject later in this series, let me simply summarize the major contributions of this text relative to spiritual gifts in general.
1. Spiritual gifts are given to every Christian: “… to each one of us was given …” (vs. 7).
2. Spiritual gifts are a gift of grace: “… grace was given …” (vs. 7).
3. Spiritual gifts are a token of the victory of our Lord over Satan, wrought by His incarnation, work of atonement, resurrection and ascension (vss. 7-10).
4. Spiritual gifts are not given primarily for the benefit of the individual, but for the edification of the entire body (vss. 12-16).
5. Spiritual gifts are not contradictory to Christian unity, they are complimentary to it (vs. 16). Calvin put it this way: “No member of the body of Christ is endowed with such Perfection as to be able, without the assistance of others, to supply his own necessities.”8
Paul did not deal with all of the spiritual gifts in Ephesians 4. Rather he concentrated upon those gifts which we might call equipping gifts. These gifts are the gift of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher (vs. 11). Apostles and prophets were the men who laid the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20; 3:5). In the most restricted sense an apostle was one who had seen our Lord (1 Corinthians 9:1) and who had been with our Lord during His earthly ministry (Acts 1:20-22). These men were given the task of proclaiming the terms of salvation and establishing the primitive church. Prophets were those men through whom God spoke directly. Sometimes the revelation would pertain to future things (e.g. Acts 11: 27-28), but not always (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:1-5). Although in a lesser sense there are men today who are instrumental in establishing churches and proclaiming God’s word, we believe that apostles and prophets are no longer needed or to be expected (cf. Hebrews 2:3,4; 2 Corinthians 12:12).
Evangelists are those whom God has enabled to proclaim the gospel in such a way that men respond in greater numbers. These gifts are still very necessary and still very important today. Pastor-teachers9 are vital today as well as they are gifted not only to communicate the truths of Scripture, but are also qualified to pastor the flock of God. While teaching communicates the principles of God’s word, pastoring applies it to the lives of individuals in specific situations. Pastor-teachers are teaching shepherds given by God to His church. Someone has aptly compared the evangelist to an obstetrician and the pastor-teacher to a pediatrician. While the evangelist is instrumental in bringing about the numerical growth of the church, the pastor-teacher is more concerned with the spiritual growth of the church.
Diversity of Gifts Leads to Unity
Far from undermining the fundamental unity existing between individual Christians, the diversity of spiritual gifts enhances, even necessitates unity. While in verses 1-6 the basis for Christian endeavor was fundamental unity, in verses 12-16 functional unity is the goal of Christian endeavor. We might call the unity of verses 1-6 positional and that of verses 12-16 practical.
A decade ago the vast majority of churches would have virtually stopped at verse 11, thinking that the work of the ministry was the work of the clergy. Thank God many churches have had the courage to study and apply the remaining verses of this section.
The immediate goal of the ministry of gifted evangelists and pastor-teachers is expressed in verse 12: “for the equipping of the saints.” The Greek word rendered ‘equipping’ is a very interesting term. It is used with the idea of equipping … of the fitting out of a ship … of the fitting out of an army … of developing certain parts of the body by exercise. It is also used of restoring or putting something in order … of mending nets and preparing them for another day’s fishing (Matthew 4:21) … of pacifying a city torn by faction … of restoring a limb that was dislocated (cf. ‘be made complete,’ NASV, 1 Corinthians 1:10).
In both senses of this word the pastor-teacher is like a coach. He strives to equip his men for winning ball games. He endeavors to tighten up flabby muscles and to train men to play well. In addition he must also work in such a way as to get the men playing as a team. Petty squabbles and differences must be dealt with. Men must be united in spirit and working toward a common goal. Such is the responsibility of the pastor-teacher as well. Shaping up the saints and getting individual members of the body of Christ to work together harmoniously.
The saints are equipped for ministry. What an amazing reversal has occurred. Christians are often not turning the world upside down, but the Scriptures upside down. This passage tells us that the ministry is the saint’s work, not the preacher’s. We say that the preacher is ‘in the ministry’ but Paul says everyone else is.
What, then, is the ministry to which all the so-called laity are called? In general terms the answer is given in verse 12: “… to the building up of the body of Christ.” The ministry to which every Christian is called is to build up the body. How this is accomplished is described in verse 16: The body is caused to grow when every individual member of that body carries out its assigned task to the best of its God-given ability. This is where the other gifts, not listed in verse 11 by Paul, fit in. If evangelists and pastor-teachers are equipping gifts, all the rest are serving gifts or ministry gifts, helping, administration, giving, and so on.
If the immediate goal for those gifted as pastor-teachers is equipping the saints to minister to the needs of the body, the ultimate goal of all ministry in the church is given in verse 13:
“Until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”
1. The ultimate measure of maturity is the standard of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The ultimate goal for all ministry in the body of Christ is maturity. The measure of that maturity is suggested by several standards in our text (vs. 13). To be fully mature is to be Christ-like. We must conclude, therefore, that complete maturity in this life is never attained. We must also realize that we should never gauge our maturity by comparing ourselves with anyone other than our Lord.
2. The second measure of maturity is that of stability.
“As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (vs. 14).
The stability to which Paul referred is being so well-grounded in doctrine that we can recognize and avoid those who teach out of impure motives and by questionable methods, and reject their teachings. Immaturity is equated with instability, wavering every time some new teaching is introduced.
3. The third measure of maturity is what we might call loving truthfulness.
“… speaking the truth in Love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him …” (vs. 15).
The term rendered ‘speaking the truth’ is literally ‘truthing.’ It can mean ‘holding to the truth’ or ‘walking in truth’ as well as ‘speaking the truth.’ We are surely to hold or adhere to what is truth in a loving way, just as we should speak the truth in love. Neither rendering can be completely isolated from the other, since both are true.
4. One final measure of maturity is unity.
“Until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God …” (vs. 13a).
Our unity grows out of our mutual comprehension of those doctrines which constitute ‘the faith’ and out of our ever-increasing intimacy with the Lord Jesus Christ (vs. 13).
A couple of weeks ago it came time for me to go to the doctor for a check-up. I know that physicals are not the most delightful experience, but they are a necessity. I cannot help but see an analogy between determining the health of the church, the body of Christ, with the physical exam with which we are all so familiar.
The doctor wants to check for a kind of stability. He wishes to know if there have been any dramatic changes, such as loss of appetite, loss of sleep, or significant gains or loss of weight. He also, when giving a check-up to a child, looks for regular healthy growth. But most significant he checks to see that every part of the body is working and working in co-ordination with the rest of the body. The doctor looked in my eyes and ears, checked even my hair, he poked here and there, hammered my knees and checked my toes. What he could not see from outside, he x-rayed or tested in some other way.
The first measure of a church is, in my estimation, a check of what has been called its ‘body life.’ We are to some extent arriving at the goal of a New Testament church when those who have the equipping gifts are doing just that and when the saints are carrying out the work of the ministry. To the extent that any member is not involved or is failing to carry out his task in the body, the body is in poor health.
One of the great concerns of our elders is that we provide the environment, encouragement and opportunities for each of you to fulfill your responsibilities to the body of Jesus Christ. I think we would want to confess that we have attempted to do far too much ourselves and spent too little time equipping and encouraging you to assume your responsibilities to the body.
Conclusion and Applications
If we are to take this passage in Ephesians chapter 4 seriously, there are a number of specific applications. Let me begin by making some to myself.
1. The function of the pastor-teacher is to equip people for the ministry. There are two extremes for those who have this gift to avoid. The one is trying to do all of the ‘ministry’ ourselves. If we do not equip you to minister, our ministry is a failure. The second extreme is to sit in our offices all day long and refuse to do anything but study. You cannot be a pastor in a locked study with the phone off the hook. You cannot equip people for ministry without giving them the example to follow. No wonder Paul could instruct others to follow his example. May God give the elders and others at Community Bible Chapel the wisdom to keep those of us with the gift of pastor-teacher walking the tight rope of balance between these two extremes.
2. The goal of our teaching should be maturity, growth and unity. I have a dreaded feeling in the pit of my stomach that much of our teaching does not create greater unity among all the saints, but further divides us. That is probably because we have been majoring on the minors. God keep us from harping on our ‘distinctives’ and neglecting the matters which determine one’s spiritual destiny.
Now let me make a few suggestions as to how this text applies to your life.
1. The work of the ministry is in your hands, not in ‘the minister’s.’ You should insist that neither I nor anyone else hinder you from carrying out your part of the ministry by trying to do everything. You should understand when we who are pastor-teachers fail to do something for you which others expect their pastor to do. You should defend those who are pastor-teachers when they are criticized for failing (or refusing) to do what many expect of ‘the pastor.’
2. We are dreadfully deficient in our expression of Christian unity, not just within the church, but between churches which have a like faith as ours. In our effort to set our church or our doctrinal position apart as the New Testament way we have also created unnecessary and harmful divisions with those who are of the household of faith.
3. The Sunday meeting of the church is not designed for ministry so much as it is for the equipping of the saints for ministry and the expression of worship to our God. I would go even further to suggest that the ministry will not even be done primarily in the ‘ministry group’ meetings, but hopefully within the context of the ministry group all during the week.
4. Find out your place in the local church and get involved. Let me suggest some benefits of personal involvement in the work of the ministry as Paul defined ministry.
First, there is the benefit to the body of Jesus Christ.
Second, there is the satisfaction and fulfillment of doing what God designed and created you to do.
Third, there is the growth which you will experience as a vital part of the body and from making use of the truth which you have learned (cf. Mark 4:24,25).
Fourth, there is the joy of being able to see God at work. When our Lord Jesus turned the water into wine in John chapter two, it was only those who were involved by filling the water pots who knew what our Lord had done (John 2:9).
Finally, there is fellowship and intimacy in working with other Christians which cannot be experienced in any other way.
9 For a defense of the position which takes pastor-teacher as one gift rather than two, cf. Wm. Hendricksen, New Testament Commentary: Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967), p. 197, fn. 113.