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Walking Together -- Christian Unity (a study of Ephesians 4:1-10)

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

[Ephesians 4:1-10] Because we have been saved by the grace of God in Christ, we should desire to live every moment of our life in thanksgiving for this priceless gift. That starts by being unified with other Christians, particularly in our own church. It continues by living out the power and gifts Christ gives us in life beyond salvation.

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Creating a Life Change

Ask your class what has successfully led them to change a habit/lifestyle. Maybe they stopped drinking or smoking, or they started exercising, whatever. Have them think of a change in their behavior, and then have them think of what caused that change. My guess is that you’ll have a number of “scared” changes (as in something happened to them or a loved one that scared them, and the doctor said “if you don’t change . . .”). That can be really effective, but that’s not the best parallel for what Paul will be doing in our passage. I’m hoping that someone in your class will offer a “reasonable” change (as in they learned some new information and it caused them to rethink parts of their life). Here’s one of my favorite stories: The first warning label that smoking might be hazardous to your health didn’t appear until 1965, and it was a long time before scientists effectively demonstrated how bad smoking was for a pregnant woman. Well, my mom smoked. She read some of these early studies, and she decided that there was enough truth in them that when she became pregnant with me, she quit cold turkey. I love that story. (For this lesson, the wording would be “I am going to be a mom, therefore I should . . .”) Maybe your class has stories like that? I remember the first time I saw a wild animal tangled up in a six-pack ring. Ever since then, I have tried to pick up any trash like that I see when I’m out hiking or at the beach. (“I live in the same area as these animals, therefore I should . . .”) In order to get a driver’s license in Houston, I had to take a defensive driving course. It taught me things to be aware of in other drivers, things about driving impaired, and things to be aware of on the road, and it backed everything up with safety data. Because I was just learning how to drive, I incorporated all of those lessons into my habits. (“I share the road with many other people, therefore I should . . .”)

In our passage this week, Paul gets us to one of his famous shifts—the indicative to the imperative. After explaining what’s true about them, he now explains what that means in their lives. It’s the equivalent of saying “You are a duck; you should quack and swim.” We are Christians now; there are things that should be true of how we live.

Silly Church Splits

The primary consequence Paul tells us about in this passage with respect to being a Christian is unity. Of course, we all know some silly reasons Christians have not been united. I have read stories about people leaving churches because the coffee blend was too strong, because they served deviled eggs at a potluck (seriously), because someone hid the vacuum cleaner from them, and because someone didn’t like the length of the worship pastor’s beard. If you get enough people upset about that issue, they can band together and form their own church (in which every staff person must be clean shaven, or whatnot -- "Clean Shaven Community Church"). Inside, I will point out some legitimate reasons why churches have split over the years, but for the icebreaker, I think you would want to stick with the things that we can look back on and say, “Maybe that wasn’t such a big deal after all.” Paul thinks unity should be a priority for Christians.

This Week's Big Idea: When Church Splits Are Inevitable

In our passage this week, Paul is going to tell us that there is “one body”, by which he means a universal church. And he is absolutely right! There are not different kinds of Christians (even though we give ourselves different names) because there is only one Jesus. There are not different heavens for different denominations (although those do make for funny jokes). If you are a Christian, you are going to spend eternity worshiping Jesus in a giant group with every other Christian who has ever lived!

So, why do we have so many churches on earth?

As I mention in the icebreaker, sometimes we have churches split for very silly reasons. But sometimes those reasons are important. Let me describe three. (1) Martin Luther leaves the Roman Catholic Church. To make a long story short, the Roman Catholic Church had developed a very complicated path to salvation that involved doing specific things in the Church. In Luther’s town, one Catholic was raising money for St. Peter’s Basilica by telling the people it would get their loved ones into heaven. Luther read the Bible for himself and realized that salvation was a gift of God by grace. He asked the Catholic hierarchy to reform their beliefs, and when they refused, he left the Church. (2) English Baptists leave the Church of England. (This is what I did my dissertation on.) It really comes down to corporate worship. The Church of England was telling everyone exactly how they could and could not conduct a worship service (including infant baptism and a sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper). These early Baptists believed that the Bible gave them responsibility (and accountability) for their own actions in worship, and so if they were not allowed to worship according to their sincere convictions of what the Bible said, then they were obligated as Christians to form their own churches. (3) The Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy. I’m thinking specifically of the events of the 1920s to 40s (which included the Scopes Monkey Trial) in which “modernists” believed that “fundamentalists” were turning their brains off to read the Bible, and “fundamentalists” believed that “modernists” were abandoning critical Scriptural truths at the whims of changing scientific consensus. Many conservative Methodist and Presbyterian denominations broke away as a result of this era, including the Association of Independent Methodists, the Evangelical Methodist Church, the Bible Methodist Connection, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and (most famously) the Presbyterian Church in America. If you believe (as I do) that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that that’s important, then why would you raise your children in a church that would teach them otherwise?

The long and short of it is this: sometimes our differences are significant and important. Martin Luther did the right thing by attempting to reform Catholic belief (they responded with a version of “because I said so”), and when they would not engage in civil debate, he was faced with the option of staying in a church that he believed had abandoned biblical doctrine and leaving. His conscience before God demanded that he leave. And that’s where things get challenging for us today. Yes, some of the splits in churches today are trivial and silly and shouldn’t have happened. But some are understandable. When we talk about church splits, we don’t want to minimize differences that someone finds very important (even if you don’t think it’s important). However, we also don’t want to champion our differences so much that we give people the impression that we’re “on different teams”. As Paul clearly says, all Christians are in the same family. We have to be able to acknowledge one another even if we sincerely disagree on how the Bible should be interpreted or applied. In other words, though we meet on Sunday mornings in different buildings with different traditions, we still work together to reach our community for Christ. But at the very, very least, we must be unified with the members of our local church. If we can’t be unified within our local church, how can we be unified with other Christians?

Our Context in Ephesians

Now, we finally get to the payoff. Chapter 4 is where Paul transitions from the indicative (“this is what is true”) to the imperative (“therefore this is what you must do”). Paul spent the first three chapters reminding/explaining to the Christians who they are in Jesus, and we made a number of applications along the way (i.e. if we are all saved the same way, then we are all equal before God). Now in chapter 4, Paul begins to explain to them all of those applications and more. We will start with the idea of Christian unity (which is one of Paul’s major themes), but Paul will move on to behavior, relationships, and even how to approach the world around us. It is truly a brilliant letter (aren’t they all?). But though we will tell our classes that Paul has shifted to a more “practical” information, let them know that he will still be including very deep theological truths for the rest of the letter. For Paul, there is no separation between “theology” and “practicality”. “Knowing” Jesus and “following” Jesus are not two separate disciplines to Paul; they are intimately dependent on one another. Paul will always explain the “what Christians should do” with “why God wants us to do it”.


Part 1: Walking Worthy (Ephesians 4:1-3)

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

“Therefore” marks Paul’s transition. He has expressed his prayer for them and has explained who they are in Jesus. Now, he wants them to understand what that means. And it’s really simple: you’re a child of God; live like a child of God. I applied for a lot of scholarships during my years in school, and something I always made sure to say in my applications was something to the effect of “If you award me this money, I will do everything in my power to conduct myself in a manner that reflects well on you and is worthy of your investment in me”. (As a side note, I think that’s the attitude we should all have in all walks of life—if we’re a student, an employee, a citizen, whatever—it’s a privilege to work, to go to school, etc., so we should live in such a way that reflects that. Are we going to live entitled, or are we going to live with thanksgiving?) Ask your class if they’ve ever had a hard time “living up to the standards” of a parent or an older sibling. That kind of approach can make life really hard—crushing, even. Can we ever live up to God’s standards? Of course not! So what is Paul saying? Well, make sure your class understands the attitude behind “living up to the standards of…” Usually, we do that because we think it is necessary to be loved more. A child wants to please a parent because we think it will make the parent love us more. That is not how God works! God will not love us more or less based on what we do, but because He loves us. Period. When we realize that love is not dependent on us (and therefore not threatened by our mistakes and failures), we are freed to willingly and joyfully choose to live in a way that brings honor to the person (in this case God, but it works for parents or whomever) who loves us. Does that make sense? That’s why we “live worthy” of our calling. (The Greek term is better translated “walk” rather than “live”; I like “walk” more because it’s active—it’s something we do.) One of my favorite tear-jerker testimonies is from a man who had become very well educated and successful and influential. His father had been uneducated and lived a very simple (but good) life. On the father’s deathbed, he called his son and said “I did the best I could. I’m sorry I couldn't do better”. And the son was able to say “You did great, dad. I’ve always been proud to be your son”. The roles were reversed from the way we usually think, but the impact has always been strong on me. The father was able to die at peace, knowing that his son loved him, mistakes and all. If only they had had that conversation years before! God has promised to love us unconditionally. Therefore we are free to live for Him, not because we have to, but because we get to. That’s what Paul means by “walk worthy”.

With that in mind, the characteristics Paul mentions here should only make sense. Humility. Realizing that we have not earned God’s love, and we are not keeping it because of our conduct. If a person has this correct self-understanding, can he/she be arrogant toward other people? Clearly not. Gentleness. This is not about being weak or passive, but the word is better used in the context of self-control or self-discipline. The “gentle” person knows he could overwhelm someone with strength or words, but chooses to be restrained. Jesus used this term to describe Himself (Matt 11:29). Patience. This is about being long-suffering—being willing to endure inconvenience, discomfort, and even insult or injury without retaliating or lashing out. This word is commonly used to describe God’s approach toward people, and Paul uses it a lot on lists of Christian behaviors. Bearing with. This phrase specifically applies “patience” to other people. In his sermon last week, David said that God did not call us to “tolerate” one another but to love one another. That’s where the idea of “bearing with” comes into play—it means actively setting aside those things about someone that bother or offend us so that we can love them. Love. This, of course, is agape, the self-sacrificing kind of love.

The resulting actions according to Paul? The unity of the Spirit. I talk about unity in several other places in this handout. If someone complains about church splits, this is where you point out why Paul says “make every effort”. Unity is not easy. Unity requires work, investment, and sacrifice. We do it for the sake of one another. However, there are times when our differences cannot be overcome, and that is when splits occur. We just have to make sure that we have truly made every effort and are not taking the easy way out (which is to leave). Note that unity is in the Spirit. It is not something we create on our own. We need to pray for and seek after unity in our church and among churches in our area. And Paul brings back in the idea of “peace”. Remember—because we now individually have peace with God, we by extension have peace with one another. When we are antagonistic/combative toward one another, we violate the spirit of the peace we have with God. We are not at war with other Christians! That’s why we can have the hope of working through our differences.

That’s a lot to consider in just the first few verses! Ask your class if they think they are living worthy of the name “Christian” (which means “little Christ”). Those characteristics Paul lists—are they true of your class members? What do your class members need to focus on in their own lives?


Aside: Differences That Make Cooperation Difficult

I have heard Christians over the years say something to the effect of “you guys take church differences too seriously”. That’s obviously coming from someone who hasn’t studied the biblical arguments. Methodists and Baptists have debated infant baptism for hundreds of years; they believe (and I agree) that the Bible takes baptism seriously, and so should we. It would be impossible for a Methodist and a Baptist to plant a church together in which they teach both that infants can be baptized by virtue of a godparent’s faith and that believers are to be baptized by their own faith. Or—if you believe that the Bible teaches a woman should not be a senior pastor, how well are you going to do in a church with a woman as senior pastor? Or if you believe that speaking in tongues is a miraculous gift reserved for few Christians, are you going join a church that requires speaking in tongues of all members? The important thing to explain (if this comment comes up) is that there are important differences on key matters in which Christians sincerely hold mutually exclusive interpretations. Who gets to decide which answer a church goes with—you?

But even in those instances, Christians can still cooperate together in ministry (i.e. Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals can work together in their community in many ways). But there is one line that Christians should never cross—confusion about the gospel. When Paul says “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” he means “one way of salvation and one true group of saved”. There are groups who claim to be Christian churches who are wishy-washy on that point. We cannot cooperate with such groups, potentially spreading their confusion. (Blessedly, that’s not a big problem around Thomson.) Paul’s call for unity and cooperation extends to all true Christians who believe the true gospel; we need to make sure that the groups we partner with are teaching the true gospel.


Part 2: Living Unified (Ephesians 4:4-6)

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

The purpose of this sentence is very simple: there is only one Savior, and so all Christians should rally together under the name of Jesus. It’s meant to be encouraging and edifying. Of course, we have found ways to argue about it. “Body” refers to the church, the body of Christ. Paul is specifically referring to the so-called “universal” church (all Christians), but his point applies to the local church as well. In Ephesus, there was not a Gentile church and a Jewish church; there was one church, and the Gentiles and Jews needed to recognize each other as full members. Of all the things God likely frowns upon with our proliferation of churches, the idea that churches have formed out of specific ethnic or economic groups because they were unwelcome in other churches has to top the list. Language-based churches and culture-based churches make sense—people are more comfortable in a setting they are familiar with. But churches filled with people who were shunned elsewhere? That exactly what Paul was warning against. “Hope” refers to the outcome of salvation. There is no greater gift than to know that Jesus has prepared a place for us in heaven, and that gift is given equally to all Christians. “Faith” refers to the Christian religion, founded on Jesus and established by the apostles. There may be multiple denominations within Christianity, but there is only one kind of Christianity. These strange groups that have appeared calling themselves a new kind of Christianity or a different kind, well, they’re beyond the limit that Paul is establishing. There is only one faith, and we must all live within it. If we do not, then we have no leg to stand on in calling ourselves a Christian in the first place. “Baptism” could mean a few things. It could be referring to the ritual of water immersion. In Corinth, apparently some members were using who baptized them to distinguish themselves from other Christians (1:10-17). It could be referring to baptism in the Spirit, which basically was used to describe salvation (see 1 Cor 12:13), which we have said is a theme creating unity in this letter. Most likely, though, Paul is using “baptism” as something which combines both of those.

Point out to your class the grouping:

  • Body / Spirit / Hope

  • Lord / Faith / Baptism

  • God and Father of all

First and foremost, it’s a reference to the Trinity, except in reverse order of expected. The Holy Spirit is associated with our ability to be unified in the church (body) as well as the source of the hope we have which inspires us to continue to live worthy of Jesus. The Lord Jesus Christ is associated with the content of our faith and our baptism. God the Father is simply above all and through all and in all. Everything always comes back to God the Father. This implies to me that Paul is using “baptism” in parallel with the Christian faith, not our salvation (associated with the Spirit). Water baptism, the ritual, is supposed to be a public declaration of the faith we profess; we aren’t supposed to do it if we don’t believe in Jesus. Therefore, “one baptism” is supposed to be the bridge connecting the “one salvation” with the “one church”—the outward sign of the inward reality. (In chapters 4 and 5, Paul describes 4 types of unity within the church: unity of our faith/confession; unity of our ministry in the name of Jesus; unity in our relationships with one another; and unity in the purpose and process of our corporate worship. That would mean that Paul’s main point in these first few verses is really hammering home the idea of Christian orthodoxy—the right beliefs about Jesus that all Christians should have.)

Paul gives four cool affirmations about God the Father: (1) God is the “Father of all”. In the Greek world where everybody had their own God, Paul repeated that God was not another god, but the One True God of All—even of those who did not believe in Him. “Father” is good; it implies the possibility of an intimate relationship. But “Father” also implies discipline and chastisement. (2) God is “above all”. This speaks to God’s ultimate sovereignty and power. To say that God is above all is to make a very grand statement. (3) God is “through all”. This is a very important preposition in the Greek language which has a wide range of possible meanings. Essentially, Paul could be saying that God works “through/by means of/uses” all. There is nothing in existence that rebels against God’s plan and purpose. Or, God works “through/in the space of” all. There is nowhere God cannot go, no place that God cannot work. Or, God works “through/throughout history” all. There is no time, no part of history where God has not or will not be sovereign. I think Paul uses each meaning here. (4) God is “in all”. I think Paul is using this to be encouraging to the Ephesians, that God is intimately with them.


Aside: Unity vs. Uniformity vs. Conformity

There are a lot of confusions in our English language that lead to confusions of belief (like understanding the difference between reconciliation and restoration). “Unity”, I believe, is one of those concepts today. There are some people who essentially interpret “unity” to mean looking and dressing and acting the same. That view actually defines “uniformity” (the idea behind the “uniform” is that everyone working in a place looks the same—”uniform” = “one form”). We can see that in places with strict dress codes. Today, I think a lot of people interpret “unity” to mean thinking the same way and having the same values. We see that among the liberal “tolerance” crowd in which people who disagree with them in any way are not unified with them and must be corrected. That desire is actually for “conformity” (to “conform” is to be made into the same form). Uniformity and conformity are easy to achieve, and they are common in autocratic societies—it’s easy to tell if someone is acting, dressing, and talking in the “right” way. But unity is something far deeper and greater than either of those. The biblical definition of unity is “being undivided” or “having oneness” or “being in harmony”. What the Bible says we are to be the “same” in is to have the same love, have the same faith, and have the same mission. There is room for a lot of diversity in that kind of unity, and indeed God has created humanity to be extremely diverse. Our diversity makes us stronger; our talents and gifts make us able to tackle very difficult tasks and problems. And it makes unity more difficult (because we are all so different). But when it comes from within us—by choice—it is a true unity. “Forced” unity is not unity at all, but conformity. God does not want that of us (any more than He forces us to love Him).


Part 3: Enjoying Victory (Ephesians 4:7-10)

Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. For it says: When he ascended on high, he took the captives captive; he gave gifts to people. But what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth? The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, to fill all things.

Really, I see these verses as introducing next week’s passage more than anything. As we (all Christians) are a part of Christ’s body the church, we are a part of Christ’s program. Just our unity is made possible in the Spirit, our service is made possible through Christ. Paul will talk about some of the ways Christ has established for people to serve Him in the church next week, but his point is for the Ephesians to understand that each one of them have a special, Christ-chosen and empowered place of service in the church. Paul quotes Psalm 68, a text about the return of the king from victory in battle bringing spoils of war. (Interestingly, it was a passage the Jews read on the Day of Pentecost.) Paul has repeatedly established the supremacy of God the Trinity; now he uses that to turn the “Victorious King” image on its head. In this victory parade, the King takes the people who were captive (to sin/disobedience), makes them captive to Himself, and then gives them gifts (instead of receiving gifts from them). Those “gifts” are essentially spiritual gifts, but more on that next week. (Note: the descended/ascended talk is a reference to the Incarnation of Jesus.) So, summary: this lesson is about living worthy of the salvation Jesus has given us by being united with all other Christians (maintaining the unity He has created). Are we doing that?


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