Unity of the Spirit

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6, ESV).

While meditating on Ephesians 4:1-16 recently, I realized that the entire passage focuses on Christian unity, which St. Paul here refers to as “unity of the Spirit.” Paul often addressed threats to Christian unity. To this day, the unity is threatened.

Before I proceed, I would like to clear up a major misunderstanding about Christian unity. The unity of the Spirit is not developed by an absolute adherence to common dogma. Some who profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ will reject those who disagree with them on secondary (or even less important) doctrines. Whether it be eternal security, methods of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, eschatology, etc., these are not issues that allow one Christian to condemn others to hell. None of us has a right to claim that others are not saved, or are somehow second-rate Christians, if they disagree with us. I am not saying that doctrine is completely unimportant; we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8), and doctrine is important insofar as it keeps our eyes on the true Jesus of Scripture (as opposed to a “Jesus” that we make up to suit our own needs). However, doctrine is only useful as a means of fostering our relationship with Christ. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ comes first; doctrine and church practices are tools to foster that relationship.

What is truly important in the “unity of the Spirit” is the personal relationship with Christ. Through that relationship, we are bound to other Christians in the church. Scripture often very appropriately uses the language of family to describe the church: God is our Father, and we are brothers and sisters through our relationship with Him.

In Ephesians and elsewhere (First Corinthians 12, for example), St. Paul refers to the church as “the body of Christ,” which is also a fitting image. We are tempted to view some members of the church (including the pastor, worship leaders, Sunday school teachers, or others with visible roles on Sunday morning) as “more important.” Yet, as 1 Corinthians 12:15-26 shows, the less glamorous or visible members of the body are important too. Some organs seem more important than others, but each one fulfills an important role.

Since we are a body, it is not our job to create spiritual unity. Ephesians 4:3 calls us to maintain the unity of the Spirit. It is already there. Just as my right hand has maintained a connection to the rest of my body since before I was born, so every Christian has a vital spiritual link to other believers. I do not have to buy a right hand and glue it on; I just need to preserve it and care for it, so that it can continue to fulfill its role in my body.

This unity of Christians is multi-faceted. It is a unity of existence: There is one body and one Spirit. We share a unity of purpose: One hope that belongs to our call. We share a unity of Lordship and fellowship: One Lord (Jesus), one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.

Unity is preserved through the ministry of the church. God has appointed certain people within the church to a role in the fourfold ministry (some sincere believers think it is “fivefold”; the original Greek implies four ministries, but this is a subject for another study): apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers (the Greek suggests these are the same; the same word can be translated either “shepherd” or “pastor”). Though different ministries, they share a common mission:

… to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:12-14).

Unity of the Spirit is something we gain through our spiritual birthright, by being believers in Christ. Unity of the faith and of knowledge is something we grow towards. Perhaps this is something that will not be completed until we get to heaven. As long as we see in a mirror dimly or through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), we have room to grow. Nevertheless, those who are called to teach and preach the Word of God to the church are not called to promote division or denominational distinctives, designed to set themselves apart from other Christians. They are called to preach the truth about Jesus Christ: to bring people to knowledge of the Son of God. They are called to bring people to spiritual maturity.

Their mission includes promoting unity through their diversity. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers have different skills, perspectives, and talents. They approach their ministries from different angles. Yet, they work together to carry out a common goal: to bring people to maturity in Christ.

The true measure of success for these ministers is when those within their flock develop their own ministries (Ephesians 4:12). Each of us has a different place of service within the Body of Christ. The church needs those who serve in the fourfold ministry. It also needs the secretary, the prayer warrior, the musician, and the janitor. It needs the person who holds no official title in the church, but is always ready to encourage the downtrodden. The church needs the guy who is willing to drive people to and from church. Whether it is a “spiritual” ministry that demands in-depth Bible training, or serving others with talents one could use in the most secular of businesses, your skills and talents are needed.

Christians are called to work together to glorify Jesus Christ. We are called to grow up into Him: to become more like Christ as we mature. We are called to unity, not uniformity: We build the church and preserve its unity not by forcing everybody into the same mold, but by allowing people to grow in their own gifts, talents, and passions, so that together we can strengthen the church, glorify our Savior, and draw people into relationship with Him.

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