Gifts of Grace and Growth: Ephesians 4.7-16

In the last post, we saw how Paul starts the second half of Ephesians with a call to unity. But we left that study with the recognition that unity is only half of the equation; for unity exists in a dialectical (positive-positive) relationship with diversity. Without unity, diversity is nothing but anarchy and individualism run amok; but without diversity, unity is nothing but sameness and uniformity — and one usually brought about by coercion and force. And so it’s no surprise then that this next section of Ephesians reinforces the Spirit-driven diversity of the Christian community:

(4.7) But to each one of us is given grace in accordance with the measure of Christ’s gift. (8) Therefore it says: “Ascending on high he took captivity captive; he gave gifts to the people.” (9) And what does ‘he rose up’ imply except that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? (10) The one who descended is the same as the one who ascended above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things. (11) And he gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and others shepherds and teachers, (12) for the instruction of the saints in the work of ministry and the building up of the body of Christ, (13) until such time as we all arrive at the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, at maturity, at the measure of the standard of Christ’s fullness, (14) so that we might no longer be like toddlers, tossed about and carried along by every passing breeze of teaching in people’s underhandedness, in deceitful schemes. (15) Rather, speaking the truth in love, may we grow, in every way, into him, Christ, who is the head (16) from whom the whole body — fitted together and brought together through every joint with which it is equipped — builds itself up effectively, according to the allotted work of each part.

This passage ends with some of my favorite verses in the Scriptures; if we want to justify the idea that we are called as Christians to personal growth and that growth looks like both growing into Christlikeness and more-and-more into our unique selves, this is the clearest place to go. (And I have, on several occasions: here, here, here, and here, for example.) But despite its wonderful message, this is a difficult passage. The grammar is complicated, it uses rare vocabulary, and mixes metaphors — all of which make it difficult to translate well. It also includes what appears to be a misquotation of the Old Testament — one made all the worse since it’s entirely an ‘unforced error’ in that the quotation seems to come out of nowhere and doesn’t serve an obvious purpose at first glance. (And the ‘explanatory remark’ about it only muddies the waters further!) And so, there’s a lot to unpack here. Today’s study (and the next) will be guided by the following questions:

  • Does this grammatically difficult passage have any internal structure that can help us sort out its meaning?
  • What does the passage say about diversity and unity within the Church?
  • What is going on with the ‘failed’ quotation and explanation in 4.8-10?
  • What does the passage say about spiritual growth?

Structure

As we saw so often in the first half of the book, this section is made up of two, long sentences in Greek. The first, 4.7-10 contains fifty-five words, and the second, 4.11-16, one hundred and twenty four words. Fortunately, the text contains some structural signals to help us wade through. (Note: This section gets a bit detailed, so feel free to skip down to end if you aren’t interested!)

First, the passage begins with the linking word de ‘and, but’. So, as we start reading, it connects back to the previous section, focusing on Christian unity.

Second, several scholars point out that Ephesians 4.7-16 is marked as a unit by a rhetorical device known as inclusio, where a term or idea both begins and ends a text.* In this case, the term metron, ‘measure,’ frames the passage, which suggests that these verses unite around the theme of ‘allotting’ or ‘meting out’.

Third, if take out all of the subordinate clauses, we can find the main points of the two sentences. What we’re left with then is: “But to each one of us is given grace… He gave [different kinds of leaders].” By clearing out the explanatory material in this way, we can get a clearer sense of the argument.

Fourth, there is another inclusio within 4.12-16, in which the expression eis oikodomen, ‘unto the building up’, brackets the clauses explaining the ‘gift’ of the different leaders.

Fifth, within this inclusio, we have three clauses with verbs in the subjunctive mood, a form expressing possible or desired states or actions.

And, sixth, the first of these subjunctives is followed by three clauses introduced by the preposition eis.

All this is very technical, but in a text with so many clauses strung together, it is really helpful to see the underlying structure. And what emerges is something that can be diagrammed like this:

← link to previous section on unity
<As allotted>, to each one of us is given grace [proof text, explanation].
He gave leaders:

      • to equip the saints for ministry
      • for the <building up> of the body of Christ:
        • until we arrive-SBJNCT:
          • at the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God
          • at maturity
          • at the measure of the standard of Christ’s fullness
            • so that we might-SBJNCT no longer be infants [easily deceived]
            • [speaking the truth in love] may we grow-SBJNCT into Christ = the head
              • from whom the whole body <builds itself up> <as per its allotment>

Unity and Diversity

With this structural guidance, a clearer picture starts to emerge of how the passage understands the relationship between unity and diversity. Following the general call to unity of 4.1-6, we are told that each one of us has been given grace. Here, it seems best to understand grace not in the usual, general sense of God’s openheartedness, but in a more specific sense of a spiritual gift. (This is not as odd in Greek as it is in English, since the word charisma, which we translate as ‘spiritual gift’ is closely related to the word for grace, charis, and literally means, ‘a grace thing’.) Paul justifies this with a reference to Psalm 68; however, since it seems to be at first glance a failed prooftext, made worse by a confusing explanation, this needs a lot of unpacking. And, since it doesn’t actually do anything to change the interpretation of the passage as a whole, I’ll leave that discussion for the next post.

At any rate, this teaching is consistent with what Paul says elsewhere (1 Corinthians 12.12-31 and Romans 12.3-8) about spiritual gifts. They are bestowed graciously upon every member of the body to support its unity, growth and health. These are given ‘as per the measure of’, or ‘as allotted by’ Christ. Since the proper functioning of the community, wherein everyone is doing their part, is in view here, it is best to understand this ‘measure’ to be one of different kind rather than different quantity. It’s not that some are given ‘more’ than others, but that we are all given the gift required to properly fulfill our function in the community. This is clarified by the similar use of metron in verse 16, where the whole body is said to be fitted together, “in accordance with the allotted work of each part.

The ultimate goal of this provision of gifts is for Christ to “fill all things,” but the first step of this is the — no less daunting — building up of the Church. As part of this goal — and as a demonstration of the diversity within Christian unity — God has given the Church different kinds of charismatic leadership, each with a different role to play. Paul lists four roles here: the apostle, whose primary job was to act as a witness to the resurrection; the prophet, who explained the relationship between the community’s circumstances and the Gospel message; the evangelist, who preached the Good News; and the ‘shepherd-and-teacher’, who protected the community through solid instruction and care. This is not an exhaustive list, but provides examples of the types of gifts given to the Church through its leadership. The point here is not that leaders are particularly empowered more than or better than the rank-and-file, but that they have been given to the Church for its own building up. These leaders exist not to rule over the faithful but to equip them for their own service.

Christian Maturity

These roles exist “until we all arrive” at our spiritual destination. That is to say that they are only means to an end. That end is described in three complementary ways. The first is a unity of faith that is synonymous with “knowledge of the Son of God.” As the subsequent verses demonstrate, Paul is concerned about false teaching that can mislead people and send them down the wrong path. Beliefs have practical consequences, and so we must also share Paul’s concern for right teaching, even if, as Christian history has shown us time and time again, we have to be careful in our determinations of orthodoxy — and especially how we go about maintaining it. (It should be pointed out one more time here that Jesus himself says that true teaching is discerned based on the fruit that it produces in people’s lives. If our version of ‘the Good News’ harms people, then it is not true.)

The second spiritual destination is maturity, literally ‘the perfect (’final, ‘complete’) person.’ The Greek word teleios is often translated as ‘perfect’; but the primary sense of its understanding of perfection is something that has reached its natural end or, we might say, fulfilled its destiny. Only secondarily does it mean ‘perfect’ in the sense of ‘pure, spotless’, which is how the Septuagint used the term in ritual settings, and how Jesus uses it in the Sermon on the Mount. The translation ‘maturity’ is preferable here because the passage is pervaded with growth imagery, but we also need to keep the perfection idea close at hand.

The third spiritual destination is “the measure [metron] of the standard of Christ’s fullness.” This is really an explanation of what is meant by ‘the mature (or perfect) person’. As I’ve previously written on this line:

We are to grow up into the full maturity of the true humanity of which Christ is both the prototype and perfect completion. To the Christian mind and heart, Jesus is the perfect — complete, whole — human person. And certainly, from the Gospel stories, we see Jesus as a mature adult human in the best senses of those words: he is generous, joyful, assertive, humble, loving, knows who he is, and on and on. He lives out the fruit of the Spirit wholly…. (Indeed, there is an ancient Christian belief that Jesus was incarnated, born into humanity, so that he could fill and bless every season and stage of human life with his divine life.) He represents a complete person.

Note also that we have another use of the word metron here, which reinforces the interpretation of difference in kind rather than quantity: While we are all given gifts ‘as allotted’, we are all also called to grow up into the ‘allotment’ of Christ’s life in all its fullness. Klyne Snodgrass helpfully reminds us that this connects well to the book’s overarching theme of the life ‘in Christ’: “Christians are attached to Christ by faith; as they grow, they are more closely brought into relation with him and into conformity with his character and his will.”

The goal of all this is that we may no longer be like little children, who are gullible and believe everything they’re told, but like grown ups, able to stand on our own two feet, knowing right from wrong and truth from error. In the face of misleading teaching, we must instead speak — and do — the truth; but this must be done ‘in love’. Much can be said about this little phrase, ‘in love’, but there are three things I’d like to highlight here:

  1. Love must be our guiding principle in discerning what truth is (for God is love)
  2. Love must be our motivating principle in our speech and action; and
  3. That speech and action must be delivered in a loving way.

Too often Christian attempts at ‘correction’ violate at least one, if not all, of these. Since the whole point of all this is to grow into Christlikeness, legalism, purity codes, rivalry, pettiness, threats, humiliation, and controlling behaviour have absolutely no place here. This is no small matter, especially within a passage that also speaks of the Church growing into the fullness of Christ, who in turn is to fill the whole cosmos. If we’re not careful — as Christian history sadly demonstrates — this can become an excuse for people to build empires and seek domination over others in the name of Christ. But, this is a gross violation of everything Christ stood for and stands for. Filling the cosmos with Christ does not look like triumphant military processions and banners; it looks like humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance, and most of all it looks like love.

The passage ends with a final call to growth, one that returns to the Church-as-Body, Christ-as head image developed earlier. Here the description is more reminiscent of the discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12: each part of the body has a necessary role to play in the proper functioning of the body.

Summary and Assessment

This final image is a perfect recapitulation of the passage as a whole, and how it understands the relationship between unity and diversity in the Church: As individual persons, we are given gifts and called to grow into the fullness of Christ, in order to properly benefit the common life of the community; but the community is only as healthy as each of us is encouraged, empowered, and enabled to use our gifts and to grow. Again, it’s a positive-positive polarity, not unity vs. diversity, or corporate wellbeing vs. personal wellbeing, but unity-and-diversity-together, and corporate-and-personal-wellbeing-together.

So, this is a powerful and important passage and one that, as Snodgrass puts it, “summarizes what Christian living is about: truth, love, and continual growth into Christ in everything.” It is empowering, encouraging, and growth-oriented, and is profoundly ecological in its desire to fill the cosmos with love.

 

* Please see the series bibliography for full details.

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