Unity as Witness: Ephesians 4.1-6

One of the major themes of Paul’s writings is the importance of unity within the Christian community. While it would be nice to think that this reflected a time when Christians were indeed unified, the fact that he felt the need to write so much about it demonstrates that it has always been something elusive. This isn’t a specifically Christian problem; community is hard work because people are hard work. We are bruised and battered, defensive and clinging, and so many other things that make life together a challenge. The only difference for Christians is that we have every reason to face that challenge head on and to do the real work of unity and community. This is the point with which Paul begins the second half of Ephesians. He calls his readers to unity and grounds this unity in their shared bonds of faith with and in Jesus.

Let’s begin, as always, with the text itself:

(4.1) I exhort you, therefore, as a prisoner in the Lord, to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you were called, (2) with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with each other in love, (3), diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: (4) one body and one Spirit, just as 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 things, through all things, and in all things.

There’s not a lot to be said here: Paul urges his readers to live out their Christian identities by bearing virtues (elsewhere called ‘fruit of the Spirit’) that promote unity, a unity grounded in the shared bonds of faith. But the simplicity of this passage’s message does not mean there isn’t meat here for us to chew. Today’s study will be guided by the following questions:

  • What is an exhortation anyway?
  • What is going on with the repetition of ‘calling’ language?
  • To what extent do the translations of the virtues provided here capture the spirit of the underlying Greek?
  • What is the significance of the ‘ones’ Paul uses to ground Christian unity?

Exhortation

The section begins with the phrase, “I exhort you (parakalo), therefore (oun).” The oun connects it back to the previous sections, all of which forms the background for what he is about to say next. Here, it refers to Paul’s Gospel, which is that God’s plan to incorporate non-Jews into the blessings of the covenants has been enacted in Christ, so that the former ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ dynamic has been replaced by one in which both groups together form one community in which God dwells.

But other term, ‘exhort’, is less clear at first glance. It’s not a word we use very often. In Greek, parakalo suggests a range of ideas, including summoning, chastising, entreating, and encouraging. In a New Testament context it’s also helpful to recognize that the word is closely related to Parakletos, the word Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit in John 14.16 and is often translated as ‘Comforter’ or ‘Advocate’. And these ideas are part of the range of meaning we have here as well. The sense of parakalo is of coming alongside someone and ensuring they have what they need — whether that is comfort, encouragement, or ‘tough love’. The best fit I can think of in English for this range of meanings is to think of a coach, whose job it is to admonish, to cheer, and to comfort — all these varied ideas for the shared purpose of getting the best out of someone. And I think that works well here: Paul is essentially coaching his readers to live out their new identity in Christ as fully as possible.

Here that is described as “walking in a manner worthy of the calling …” ‘Walk’ is a common Semiticism (i.e., an expression based on a Hebrew or Aramaic original that found its way into Hellenistic Jewish Greek) that refers to the whole way one conducts oneself in the world. Klyne Snodgrass notes that this term forms a backbone to this entire section of Ephesians, recurring five times in chapters 4-5.* This, if nothing else, demonstrates that we’ve moved into a new section of the letter that focuses on how to apply the theology of the first half of the book.

Calling

Paul describes this way of life as being vocational. Vocational language occurs four times in this short passage, in two rhetorical doublets “the calling to which you were called.” In the context of Ephesians, the calling in question is to be in a relationship of good faith with God and others in Christ. They first were called, then accepted that calling, and now their lives must reflect that calling. And one of the primary ways this calling can be lived out is in the unity of the community.

If we think of this in terms of the different levels of vocation we looked at in my recent series on vocation, this is the intersection of the calls to be human and Christlike, the latter being the path through which the first has been restored. In bearing the good fruit of a Christlike life we are able to live out or common human vocation to bear the image and likeness of God and acknowledge and respect that image and likeness in others. (As we will see in the next post, it also involves maturity, and contributing to the health of the community.)

Good Fruit Promoting Unity

Paul lists four virtues which help to preserve and promote the unity of the community: humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance.

Humility is perhaps the quintessential Christian virtue — when Paul famously commands the Philippians to share Christ’s own mindset, it is humility he has in mind (Philippians 2.5-11). As Snodgrass notes, “An understanding of God’s work is always an attack on the ego, not to obliterate or humiliate the self, but to bring it into relation with God and to redirect its interests. In losing life we find it.” The qualification there is critically important. Humility is not about humiliation; it’s not about making ourselves less than what we are, but about letting go of our fear of being nothing and therefore freeing ourselves to be what we truly are, in relationship to God, each other, and the rest of creation. When confronted with conflict in community, humility is a virtue that gives us space to find common ground; it frees us to ask questions like “But what if I’m wrong?” “What if they’re right?” “What am I missing?” “What can I learn?”

Gentleness is not a virtue we talk much about these days, and in many circles — sadly especially many Christian circles — it is actively mocked and despised. And yet, it is a virtue we desperately need if we are going to find a way forward together, both in the Church and in society as a whole. It is also reflective of the heart of God and of Jesus. As the hymn of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah describes the Lord’s anointed:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or lift up his voice
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42.1-3)

Gentleness is not weakness. It is genuine strength that is confident and strong enough to know it doesn’t need to force its way or “lord it over others,” as Jesus put it. Gentleness is the choice to speak with kindness and not anger, loving concern and not contempt. When faced with conflict in community, gentleness allows us to builds bridges and, like a gentle rain wearing away at a stone wall, soften hearts and erode defensiveness.

The word we translate as ‘patience’ is makrothymia, a compound of makros ‘long’, and thymos, ‘spirit, passion, spark of life, temper’. A similar metaphor in English might be saying someone ‘has a long fuse’. So, yes, it’s about patience — being able to delay gratification and wait for what we want — but it’s also about self-control and temperance. It is “the exercise of a largeness of soul that can endure annoyances and difficulties” (Snodgrass). It should be obvious how important this virtue is in community life. When faced with conflict, this patience and self-control allows us to take a deep breath and find the space between stimulus and reaction, to respond well instead of reacting impulsively, and to wait to build consensus or for the right moment.

The final virtue is forbearance. It is often translated as ‘bearing up one another’, but this is a bit too positive, with connotations in English of being uplifting to one another. As lovely as this image is, what Paul is getting at here is less lofty. He’s talking about putting up with one another, tolerating one another’s foibles, annoying quirks, and aggressions, macro- and micro- alike. The reciprocity here is important; for as much as others may annoy us, we undoubtedly annoy them too. To once again quote Snodgrass:

The focus on “one another” is significant. This word occurs forty times in Paul’s letters. Christians are part of each other and are to receive one another, think about one another, serve one another, love one another, build up one another, bear each other’s burdens, submit to each other, and encourage each other. Christianity is a God-directed, Christ-defined, other-oriented religion. Only with such direction away from self do we find ourselves.

All this is only possible ‘in love.’

Unity and the Sevenfold Ones

The point of all of this is unity, which is understood to be a gift from God. It’s awkward to put into English, but what I have here translated as “diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit” literally means something like “Rushing effortfully to keep the unity.” There is an urgency to Paul’s language here — clearly unity is no small matter. (I’m reminded once again of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ comment about schism being a worse sin than heresy.)

This unity is grounded in seven ‘ones’. While there is no evidence to suggest this is intentional on Paul’s part, it is a nice coincidence that seven is the number of perfection in the Bible. The seven ‘ones’ are also reminiscent of the ‘sevenfold Spirit’ of Isaiah 11. At any rate, the seven ‘ones’ are:

  • One body (see the comments on Ephesians 1.15-23 and 1 Corinthians 12.7-11)
  • One Spirit: In a religious context of many spiritual powers, Paul reminds his readers that they are united in one and the same Spirit, dwelling in them and empowering them (see comments on Ephesians 1.15-23 referenced above)
  • One hope: In 1.13, the Spirit is called the deposit or first installment of the blessings of God’s people; this is the hope that unites the faithful and preserves them within the vicissitudes of life
  • One Lord: Whether echoing with the Jewish shema (the daily confession of faith), or as a challenge to the cults of Artemis or the Emperor (both of which used the title kyrios/kyria), this language would have been resonant for Paul’s readers
  • One faith: Christians are united in one common bond of faith with Christ and each other
  • One baptism: As the ritual through which the faithful are brought into the one body, baptism is the primary sign of their unity with Christ and each other
  • One God and Father of all: See the comments on Ephesians 1.2. Here God’s Fatherhood is expanded and described in terms that stress God’s sovereignty (‘over all’, cf. Ephesians 1.3-14), power (’through all’, cf. 1.15-23), and presence (’in all’, cf. 2.11-22)

Summary and Assessment

So then, Ephesians 4.1-6 is a summons for unity within the Christian community. While it is grounded theologically and ritually, this unity is something that must be intentionally cultivated, and is a critical part of our witness as Christians. This is a good and true teaching. At the same time, a lot of terrible abuses have occurred throughout history in the name of unity. When unity is stressed, diversity and difference are often vilified. But in a healthy community, unity and diversity exist in a ‘positive-positive polarity’ — both are virtues but neither can exist truly as itself without the other. Unity without diversity is a bland, meaningless, sameness. Diversity without unity is a chaotic anarchy that makes shared work for common goals impossible.

So, this section is good and helpful, and so important. In a divided world and divided Church, we cannot stress enough how integral unity is to Christian witness. But unity is only half of the equation. We’ve already seen how Paul understands the incorporation of Gentiles into the blessings of the community of faith (that was essentially Jewish) as the extension of privilege rather than their assimilation into the already-privileged community. In this way, Paul has already addressed this concern about diversity within unity. But he carries on with this theme in greater detail in the next section of the letter, to which the next post will turn.

 

* Please see the bibliography for the series for cull citations.

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