Church, Unity, Purpose
One of the biggest (and justifiable) criticisms of the church is related to the factions within Christianity. There are so many different kinds of churches that people are understandably confused. Churches compete with each other like businesses trying to hold on to their “market share”. This is not God’s design.
In the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 He twice prayed that we might be one just as He and the Father were one (21 and 23). He prayed that this unity might be a testimony to the world that Christ was truly sent by God. Unity in the body of Christ is to be a hallmark of the new community of saints.
We have already seen this theme several times in Ephesians. Paul has told us that Jews and Gentiles, who used to view each other as enemies are now, through Christ, brothers and sisters. He told us that we are to make every effort to preserve unity. Paul is emphasizing this issue so we can draw a couple of conclusions. First, this issue is important. When a particular theme is returned to again and again we should take note. It is repeated because it is something God wants to make sure we don’t miss.
Second, this repetition may reveal that unity was a problem in the early church. Knocking down barriers that had existed for many years was not easy. We could learn from their experiences. Listen to Paul’s words.
THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH
There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
In these short three verses the apostle Paul uses the word “one” seven different times. And says God is the Father “of all, over all, through all and in all”. Anytime you read a word or phrase that is repeated several times in a small space you can safely conclude that this word is a point of emphasis.
I think Paul is making a couple of simple yet important points. There is only One God. Paul wants us to see the absurdity of a divisive spirit. There is only one Father, One Son, One Holy Spirit. There is only one way of salvation and only one hope of eternal life. Admittedly, we wince just a little when Paul mentions one “baptism”. Baptism is one of the most divisive issues in the church. We divide over the meaning of baptism (is it necessary for salvation or does it testify to salvation?). We divide over who should be baptized (believers only, or adult believers and the children of believers). We divide over the amount of water that is necessary for baptism.
In 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul wrote,
For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Paul is not talking about the mechanics of baptism. He is telling us that the act of Christian baptism (no matter how it is administered) is a declaration that we belong to the one Lord. It testifies that we have turned to the One who died in our place for forgiveness. It is an act of surrender to Him and we claim the Holy Spirit as our seal and deposit.
Our unity should reflect God’s character. God is One. Even though many people worship different Gods, that does not mean there are numerous Gods. No matter what your “belief system” there is only one true God! We are not given license to create God in our image. We are created in His image.
Eugene Peterson captures Paul’s message, I think, in The Message,
You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.
The point is clear: as God’s people we should reflect God’s nature. He is One so we should be one. The reality is that the church is more often identified by division rather than oneness. So what is the problem?
Where Has Our Oneness Gone?
I believe our lack of unity can be traced to several issues. First, in some cases unity has been lost because the faith has been compromised. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote,
The tragedy is that men are trying to produce unity by telling us that it does not matter very much what we believe, that as long as we all come together and work together, and do not argue about doctrine, we shall all be one. But the unity of the Spirit comes through understanding, not through discounting understanding and saying that the knowledge of doctrine does not matter. The great characteristic of revival (where unity was strongest) is that men understand the doctrine and the truth in a way they have never done before. Not only so, they begin to rejoice as they have never done before, and are filled with an assurance and a sense of certainty of their relationship to God.
Theologians make a distinction between the church visible and invisible. The visible church is made up of those who attend services or are members of churches. Not all of these people are genuine believers. People come to the church for a variety of reasons: for fellowship, out of habit, to appease someone, or out of a desire to be a “better person”. Not all who attend church are Christ-followers.
The invisible church is the true “body of Christ”. These are people who have all come to a point where they rely on Christ alone for their salvation. These people are in buildings and homes around the world with a variety of names on them. They have asked Him to lead their lives and refashion their heart. These people are the ones that are called to be one body in the One Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Faith, Hope, and baptism. However, even among genuine believers there is often division.
There is a second problem. We are divided because we have yet to overcome the battle with our sinful nature and the self-centeredness that has dominated our lives. As sinful human beings we tend to view every issue as a battleground where there has to be a victor and a loser. When there is some kind of disagreement we immediately make it a personal battle that we must win or lose. If you are right, then I am wrong. We don’t like to be wrong.
We have a hard time accepting the fact that different sometimes just means “different”. It doesn’t mean “better than” or “worse than”. It just means different. We have a hard time accepting the fact that we might both be seeing only part of the story. The truth is always richer and deeper than what we perceive. Sometimes we argue about trinkets at the expense of finding true treasure. In the Love and Respect Seminar we learn that men and women are different, they see things differently. One is not right while the other is wrong . . . they are just different.
Because of this we divide over methods, music, and management issues. We make preferences and personal conviction more important than the unity we are commanded to make “every effort” to preserve.
But there is still a third reason we lack unity. Unity is difficult because we confuse unity with uniformity. In other words, we mistakenly think that in order to be unified we have to have the same experience, preferences, and passions. That is the error Paul addresses next.
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men.”
9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. [7-13]
Paul appealed to Psalm 68:18 to underscore his contention that everyone in the body of Christ has a job to do. He argued that the passage, which alludes to the practice of victorious Kings coming back from battle, is a picture of Jesus. Jesus came down from Heaven, gained victory, and upon His return to Heaven, gave gifts to His soldiers.
Paul teaches us that the church is one yet diverse in its expression of this oneness. We are one in heart and spirit yet diverse in our service to the One Lord. Paul teaches about this diversity (often called spiritual gifts) in many places. The most extensive passage is in 1 Corinthians 12. If we lay this passage alongside our text in Ephesians we get a fuller picture of what Paul is teaching.
First, God has given each of us (1 Cor. 12:7) an expression of His grace or a “spiritual gift”. In other words He has given everyone a job to do. This is also called a “manifestation of the Spirit”. When the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives it also equips us to serve God in a significant way.
No matter how many times we talk about spiritual gifts there are some who will say, “I don’t have any spiritual gift”. All I can say to that statement is: “If that is true, then you are not a believer.” The Bible is clear: EACH ONE is given a manifestation of grace for the common good. Everyone has a job to do! We’ll turn to how you find your gift shortly.
Second, these gifts are given at God’s discretion (1 Corinthians 12:11). Our spiritual gift(s) is not a prize we earn or even a sign of our status. It is the place we have been assigned by God in accordance with His wisdom and will. I do not believe every spiritual gift is listed in the Bible. All the lists in the Bible differ so I think we are given samples of the kinds of gifts God gives. Since God gives gifts at His discretion, He can adapt the gifts to the changing needs of the church in a changing society.
Third, the purpose of the gifts is to build up the body. Spiritual gifts are designed to strengthen the unity and growth of the church. If the exercise of our gift causes division, we are not exercising the gift correctly. If our gift is causing others to stumble, it is not being used correctly. We are not given spiritual gifts to show off or to promote ourselves. Our gifts do not show who is more spiritual than the next guy. The gifts have one purpose: to build up and enrich the body of Christ.
Fourth, the church is meant to be interdependent. In 1 Corinthians 12:14-24 the apostle Paul points out that just like a body, the various parts need to work together. Every gift is important (think about the effect on your body when a toenail is ripped off) a toenail may not be prominent but no one can say it is insignificant. Most of our bodily organs are not seen yet if they stop working we are in big trouble. If the cells in our body (which we can’t see with the naked eye) don’t do what they are supposed to do, we end up ill and perhaps die.
I learned this lesson the hard way once (a story I’ve told before). I was having problem with my car when I was working in Michigan. I determined that the “head gasket” needed to be replaced. Even though I knew I was in over my head I took the valve cover off and replaced the gasket. However, as I put it all back together I couldn’t get a couple of the bolts in. I concluded, “These are probably unnecessary anyway”. I tried to start the car but it wouldn’t work. I tried everything (including kicking the car, I’m sure). The next day I called a mechanic friend to help me. I explained the situation. When he stopped laughing he asked for the bolts, put them in and explained that I was destroying the vacuum or something and the bolts were necessary. You may feel like an “extra bolt” but you are necessary!
God created us so that we would be incomplete without each other. When a person tells you that you must have the same experience or gift as they have had, they reveal both enormous arrogance and a severe misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches.
Finally, Paul tells us that spiritual gifts are to be used in love (1 Corinthians 13) and that all the gifts should be used in a “fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
Find Your Place
In light of what we have seen I hope you see that it is important to find your place. Many people feel frustrated because they can’t identify (or label) their gift. Understand that just because you don’t have a “prominent gift” (you can’t speak in public, carry or play a tune, or disciple children) that doesn’t mean you don’t have a role to play. In fact, I think it takes a greater faithfulness to continue to do what you have been enabled to do . . . even when no one but God sees that faithfulness.
Some will ask: But what can do to help me discover my spiritual gift? How do I find what it is that God has given me to do? Let me restate what we have said often,
- Don’t make this harder than you need to. Most of the things God has called us to do are right in front of us. God prepares our hearts, gives us the abilities, and provides the circumstances for us to serve Him effectively. Most likely your area of service is right in front of you. It may be something you are already doing.
- Understand this idea of spiritual gifts by studying what is taught in the Bible. Read this passage carefully. Read through 1 Corinthians 12-14, Read Romans 12:3-8. Follow the cross-references. Learn the purpose of the gifts.
- Ask God to reveal to you how He wants you to serve Him. Be careful here! It is not a matter of telling God what you want to do . . . it is about asking Him to show you what He wants you to do.
- Look at what it is that you are good at and what you have an interest in. There are times in the Bible when God has called people to jobs they did not want (think about Moses and some of the prophets). However the notion that serving God means doing something distasteful or way beyond our skill set is in error. God equips us for our jobs with the skills, and I believe, the passions or desires, to serve as He directs. In other words, look at what you are already doing or would like to do and find a way to do that to the glory of God. Look for a way that you can use your talents and abilities to build up the body of Christ. We too often conclude that because we are satisfied or enjoy doing something it cannot be from God. That is wrong thinking.
- Listen to others. Sometimes we are blind to our own gifts. Pay attention to the things people see in you. By the same token, help others by pointing out the areas where you recognize expressions of God’s grace in their lives.
- Experiment. There may be things you have a desire to do or feel a “calling” to do but you don’t know whether you have the skills. Experiment. Find out if you have those skills by volunteering. Go into the job with an open mind. Understand that some skills must be developed, so give yourself time to learn. Remind yourself also that you have not “failed” if you aren’t good at something. If something doesn’t work it may mean it is not your gift, it may mean it is not the right setting, or it may mean it is not the right time. God honors those who step out in faith in an effort to discern His will. If we truly are open to His leading, we will be led.
- Finally, don’t limit God. He may be calling you to do something that is fresh and new. He may lead you to do something that has never been done before. Just because your interests are different doesn’t mean they are wrong (unless of course, they are sinful).
If we have heard what the apostle is teaching us then we know there is work to do. Our challenge is to focus more on building bridges and finding points of agreement that lead to us working with other churches rather than enumerating weaknesses and competing with these other believers. We need to see other believers as our family rather than as our competition. Rather than pick at each other we must make an effort to encourage each other.
I believe we not only CAN but we MUST stand together in the cause of Christ. A military force that is fighting each other will not, and cannot, win against a formidable enemy. Our enemy is the most formidable of all. If we do not stand together we will fall separately. The Christian community has lost some of its influence in our culture because we do not stand together. Our country’s moral decline is partially because of a divided church. The unity of the church is important for our future.
We must also fight the notion and trend toward spectator Christianity. Too many believe that you pay someone (like me) to do ministry. Your job is to hold that person accountable and to give money to their support. Paul says Pastors are supposed to help “equip the saints for ministry”. The work God has called us to do requires “all hands on deck”. If we want to be “healthy” we need all the parts of the body to be functioning.
God has called us to something wonderful, and the only way we will be able to do it is by working together.