David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

WHAT IS UNITY?

This article is based on a message first given by David Couchman at Above Bar Church Southampton on Sunday 20th July 2003. It may be used in print or on other web sites, subject to the copyright notice below.

Before you read this article, please read from the Bible Ephesians chapter 4 verses 1-6.

There are some Christians I find very difficult to get on with! I expect there are some who find me difficult to get on with! We may smile, but we smile wryly: we know that this is a real problem. This passage in Ephesians is about how God wants us to deal with it.

Ephesus was the biggest commercial center in the Roman empire, outside of Rome itself. It had a population of more than two hundred thousand people. It was a port, on a river estuary, and it was a university town. Even today, the ruins at Ephesus are the largest archaeological remains in the eastern Mediterranean.

Paul was in Ephesus for three years, between AD 54 and AD 57. During this time, he also planted churches in the nearby towns and villages up and down western Turkey.

About three years later (AD 60), Paul is in prison in Rome, when he writes the letter to the Ephesians. He writes it as a circular letter to the churches of Ephesus and western Turkey - we should not think of one central church in Ephesus, but rather a network of house churches in the city and the surrounding towns and villages.

Several of Paul's letters have a very similar structure: he starts by teaching the truth about who God is and what God has done for us, and then he goes on to a practical section on how we should live in the light of this truth. So Romans chapters 1-11 are mainly doctrinal, then at chapter 12 verse 1, Paul says:

Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices...

... and he goes on to spell out the practical implications. The first two chapters of Colossians are doctrinal, then at chapter 3 verse 1, Paul begins a practical section with the words:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above....

... and he goes on to spell out how we should live. In Galatians, the first four and a half chapters are doctrinal, then at chapter 5 verse 16, Paul says:

So I say live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature...

...and he goes on to the practical implications.

In all these verses, the key word is 'therefore', 'since', 'so'.

Ephesians follows the same structure, and the breakpoint is the beginning of chapter 4:

As a prisoner for the Lord, therefore, I urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received.

In order to make sense of the beginning of this practical section of the letter, we need to put it in the context of what has gone before. The important themes of the first half of Ephesians are:
  • The good things God has given us 'in Christ' (chapter 1 verses 3-14). The keynote is chapter 1 verse 3: 'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ...' Paul talks about God loving us and choosing us; adopting us as his children; buying our freedom through the death of Christ; forgiving our sins; and giving us the Holy Spirit.
  • (A prayer, chapter 1 verses 15-23)
  • Life in place of death (chapter 2 verses 1-9). The keynote in chapter 2 verse 1 is: 'You were dead in your transgressions and sins.... ( verse 4) But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ...'
  • Unity in place of separation - reconciliation between Jews and non-Jews (2:11-22) 'You were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners... without hope and without God. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ... consequently you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's family...'

If you went to the temple in Jerusalem, there was an outer court, which anyone could go into, and an inner court which only Jews could enter. There was a wall dividing the inner court from the outer court. On this wall there were signs saying, in effect, 'trespassers will be shot'. It was a dividing wall.

Warning notice

Photo of sign from the dividing wall: Jerusalem Christian Review

Some of these signs still exist today. Here's one of them:

No foreigner may enter within the barricade which surrounds the sanctuary and enclosure. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.

So the message of the building, the metaphor of the physical structure, was that only the Jews had access to God. However, the dividing wall is not just a wall between Jews and non-Jews. It is a wall between people who have access to God and people who do not have access to God. In fact, it is a wall between mankind and God.

But in Christ, this dividing wall between Jews and non-Jews, this wall that blocked off access to God, was broken down, as chapter 2 verse 14 says:

He himself is our peace, who has made the two [Jews and non-Jews] one and has destroyed in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace...

So in the first half of Ephesians, a key message is that in Christ, both Jews and non-Jews have access to God.

This one new person that Paul talks about is the church - Christian believers, both Jews and non-Jews. (Incidentally this is one reason why we need to be really careful when people start putting forward ideas about God's purposes for the present day unbelieving nation of Israel. I am not at all convinced that the Bible supports these ideas.)

Then at chapter 3 verse 1, Paul begins another prayer:

For this reason, I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for the sake of you gentiles...

There is a digression about God's calling on his life, chapter 3 verse 2-13.

He picks up the prayer again at verse 14:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth gets its name....

'His whole family' is the Church, both Jews and non-Jews, believers in Jesus the Messiah.

The reason I have gone through all this is to show that in the first half of Ephesians, the theme of unity between Jews and non-Jews is important, and so is the breaking down of the dividing wall that separates people from God, and separates different kinds of people from each other.

Then at chapter 4 verse 1 he starts into the practical section of the letter.

He calls on us as followers of Christ to 'walk worthy' of Christ. To live up to what God has done for us. 'Worthy' is literally 'bringing up the other side of the scales - a balance between what we believe and how we live.

This is very important. If you listen to some messages and some children's talks, what sometimes comes over is that the Christian message is all about being good: do not get angry, tell the truth, do not steal and so on. This is how to please God.

But this is not the Christian message. The Christian message does not say 'do this and you will please God.' It says, 'you are a sinner. You can never do enough to please God. In fact, you are under his judgment. You are under God's wrath. But here is the good news: what you could not do, God has already done for you, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.' God accepts you into his family, and he loves you, not because of anything you do, but because of what Christ has already done.

There is all the difference in the world between seeking to live a certain way in order to earn God's favor, to put God in my debt, and seeking to live a certain way out of gratitude for all that God has done for me and faith for all that he will do for me in the future. All the difference.

Paul never separates the practical instructions from the doctrinal reasons. But neither does he just give us doctrine without practical implications. There is always a 'therefore' - in the light of what God has done, this is how God wants you to live. Walk worthy - live up to your calling.

If you had been writing the letter to the Ephesians, what would you have put first under this heading? Financial integrity? Sexual purity? The first specific place where Paul says our walking worthily - our balance between what we believe and how we live - should show itself is in unity with other followers of Christ (chapter 4 verses 2-6)

Hence the title of this article: What is unity?

Followers of Christ around the world do not look very united, do we?

As we have seen, the problem in the churches in Paul's day was the division between Jews and non Jews. What are the problems today?

  • attitude to homosexuality
  • gender issues
  • generational issues
  • different races
  • the work of the Holy Spirit - charismatic issues
  • issues about who we baptize, and when and how
  • issues about how the church is led
  • personality conflicts

All these things have divided, and continue to divide, followers of Christ.

So what is unity? What does Paul teach us about unity in this passage? Three things:

1. It is something we already have

Paul says (verse 3)

make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

In other words, unity is not something we have to create. It is something God has already given us. Look ahead for a moment to verses 4-6:

Even in the 'practical' sections of his letters, Paul keeps going back to doctrine. It is almost as if he is so excited about who God is and what God has done that he cannot stop talking about it.

What he says here falls into three parts, and the three parts reflect the Christian belief in the Trinity. Trinity, of course, is more than just the name of a character in a film. It is the Christian belief that there is only one God, but this one God lives in three persons - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Some people would like us to believe that the doctrine of the Trinity was made up by the church a couple of hundred years after Christ, and is never found in the New Testament.

Well, the New Testament doesn't have the word Trinity, but it does have the reality - right here in Ephesians chapter 4.

The Spirit (verse 4)

There is

  • one body - the Church - meant to be a visible community
  • one Spirit - the Holy Spirit
  • one hope - the great future that we are looking forward to

The Son ( verse 5)

  • one Lord - Jesus Christ, a real human being, the Son of God, died for our sins, risen from the dead
  • one faith - the core truth that all followers of Christ believe
  • one baptism - one rite of initiation that marks us out in public as belonging to Jesus Christ.

The Father (verse 6)

one God and father of all who is

  • over all
  • through all
  • in all

Now Paul says, since all these 'ones' are true of us, since we already have this unity, in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, shouldn't we keep it? Shouldn't our lives balance what is actually true about us?

This unity comes from the Spirit - the Holy Spirit. It is tragic that the Spirit who gives the unity has in our time become one of the main causes of disunity between followers of Christ.

These verses tell us that all true followers of Christ have a deep spiritual unity which is more important than our surface divisions. Wherever I have traveled, I have found Christian brothers and sisters, and immediately had a bond with them, whether they're Indians or Russians or Americans or Africans or Germans or Iranians or Pakistanis or Australians, because we are united in Christ.

But talk about the spiritual unity of all true believers can easily be a cop-out. God intends that the world can see our unity, even in spite of our differences and difficulties. We are meant to be a community of believers.

We live at a time when people are hungry for true community - and the church is meant to be such a community. Jesus said, in John's Gospel chapter 13 verse 35:

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another

What is unity? The first thing Paul says is that unity is something we already have, not something that we need to produce.

2. Unity is something we have to work to keep

'Make every effort...' (verse 3) This speaks of a real difficulty - and of a determination to overcome it. It is not just a case of relaxing and letting God work through us. We have to make a strenuous effort to keep this unity that God has given us.

We are to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace - it is this peace that holds Christians together when we could fly apart.

How do we make the effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Four words, in verse 2:

Be completely humble. The opposite of arrogant, or proud. It means do not think too highly of yourself. The Greeks did not think much of humility! We do not think highly of it either. We say that it is important that we have sufficient self-esteem. Well, the Bible warns us that we can have too much of a good thing, and that as followers of Jesus Christ we are not meant to be arrogant towards each other.

Gentle. This speaks of being considerate, of restraint - of not lashing out against a brother or sister who is daft or disagreeable. This is an attitude that is not easily provoked or needled by other people. It does not resist. It means being slow to insist on our rights. Our culture teaches us the importance of our rights, and of standing up for our rights. But the Bible teaches us not to stand up for our rights. It is the opposite of assertive. We say that it is important to be assertive. You can even go on courses to train you to be assertive instead of aggressive. But as followers of Christ, we are not supposed to be aggressive, nor assertive. People often confuse this kind of gentleness with weakness. But which requires more inner strength? To explode with anger at someone, to assert yourself, to insist on your rights - or to quietly accept it when those rights are infringed? Which is harder?

Patient. The old word was long-suffering, and it means just that. It speaks of bearing injuries without looking for revenge. This speaks of steadfastness, endurance, being reluctant to 'get your own back.' In view of the fact that God has been so patient with me, shouldn't I be patient with this brother or sister who I find so difficult?

Forebearing in love . This speaks of putting up with the other person's faults and characteristics - their 'little ways.' Hold yourself up! Do not be shaken by it!

So the key idea here is that we are to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit by not being arrogant or assertive, by not insisting on our rights, not trying to get our own back, putting up with other people's little ways...

So what is unity? Unity is something we already have, but it is also something we have to work hard to keep. Finally,

3. Unity is not the same as uniformity

Verse 6 is a bad place to break the passage, because the thought continues from verse 2 to verse 16:

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

This is the goal. So we can see the 'shape' of the passage as being:

God gives both the unity and the diversity, so that there may be maturity. This is the argument of this whole passage.

Unity without diversity is just dull uniformity. Diversity without unity just means everyone doing his or her own thing. It is when the two come together that they promote growth and maturity.

I wish we could grasp this! It would make more difference than almost anything else, if we could only see that being united does not mean we all have to be the same. That being different is not the same as being wrong. That it is God who makes us different and gives us different gifts, for the purpose of growing his church towards maturity.

Conclusion - what is unity?

Where has this look at Ephesians chapter 4 taken us? Paul is concerned that as followers of Jesus Christ, there should be a balance between what we believe and how we live. The first specific thing he is concerned about is that we should be truly united. He says that:

Unity is something we already have

We have one Father, one Lord, one Holy Spirit. And this one God has already given us unity when he built us into Christ. In Christ's death, all dividing walls have been broken down.

Unity is something we have to work hard to keep

But unity does not just happen: we have to strenuously strive to keep this unity of the Spirit, through the bond of peace.

To this end, he says we are to be

  • humble
  • gentle
  • patient
  • bearing with each other in love

Unity is not the same as uniformity

God has made us different, and given us different gifts, to promote spiritual growth and maturity. Psalm 133 begins with the words 'How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity...' and ends with the words 'There the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for ever more.' God has promised that where there is unity, there will be his blessing.

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