Monthly Archives: December 2012

Results of Christian Unity

The pursuit of Christian unity (ecumenism) is a noble quest, but it doesn’t end with a unified church alone. The unity of Ephesians 4:1-6 leads to the maturity of Ephesians 4:7-16. The result of Christian unity ought to lead to authentic discipleship and conformity to the image of Christ for all involved. If not, then the unity we are pursuing might have lost its moorings.

The unity we embrace has substance – it is a unity of “faith” and “knowledge of God’s Son” (Eph 4:13). As a unified church we fix our gaze on our God and Savior, delighting in him as we grow to know and love him more and more.

Ours is a unity focused on the truth of Christ, with false portrayals of him being rejected (Eph 4:14). Our unity and growth brings theological maturity in the form of discernment and love for God’s truth.

The maturity we grow into is the maturity of Christ – “let us grow in every way into Him who is the head – Christ” (Eph 4:15 – HCSB). As a unified church, our experience begins to reflect more and more the divine character and fullness of Christ, in whom all the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9).

God has designed us to grow into maturity as a body, with each member contributing to growth – “From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part” (Eph 4:16).

Christian unity centered in Christ needs to be a top priority for the church. Without it, we can’t become who we were called to be.

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The Beliefs of Christian Unity

One. Paul repeats this adjective over and over in Ephesians 4:4-6.

Christians of all stripes are joined together as one body. As was mentioned last time in our discussion of the virtues of Christian unity, this is something that Christ brings about, through his death for us on the cross (Eph 2:14-16). Today, the focus shifts to what we believe as one body.

Trinity fellowship window

We are one body, no matter what our backgrounds.

One Spirit gives us life and makes us the holy temple where God dwells (see also Eph 2:20-22). We are more than a voluntary association of like-minded people. We are a dwelling of God, by the Spirit.

One hope keeps us waking up each day with a sense of purpose and confidence. We are part of a story that is heading somewhere.

One Lord is our master. Christians proclaim “Jesus is Lord,” declaring our allegiance to the King of Kings.

One faith is our experience (“it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” – Eph 2:8), a faith whose object is the King who died for us.

One baptism forges our identity. This baptism reminds us that we left our old lives behind and we now walk in the newness of life (see Rom 6). What matters most about us is that we are “in Christ,” or united in his death and resurrection.

One God and Father of all. He is a God to those who once were “without God in this world” (Eph 2:12), and He is our Father, who has adopted us and blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph 1:3).

God, the Father, Son, and Spirit. We are united in our worship.  True Christian ecumenism draws a line in the sand about God. From the earliest centuries of the church, Christians were stubborn about defending how God should be understood, talked about, and worshiped. The great creeds confess, “we believe in one God . . . be believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . we believe in the Holy Spirit.” Christians said, “This is what we believe about Father, Son, and Spirit, this is what we don’t believe, and our view of God matters more than anything.”

Faith, baptism, hope. We are united in our experience. We have cast our lot with the Christian God, the Christian story. Our hearts have been converted, and our lives are being transformed. Leaving behind the old life, we walk towards the bright future that Christ has prepared for us.

One body. Being one body makes sense only in this context. Ecumenism is pursued not at the expense of truth, but guided and enriched by it. Next time we will see the results of unity that we as one body can anticipate.

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The Virtues of Christian Unity

Christians are brothers and sisters with other believers across time and space. We are joined together by the Holy Spirit into one Body (1 Corinthians 12:13). “Ecumenism” comes from the Greek word οἰκουμένη (meaning the entire inhabited world). Those who are involved in the ecumenical movement desire to see Christians around the entire world living together in unity. Healthy ecumenism aims for a Christian unity that is still distinctively Christian. In other words, it recognizes the threats of both divisiveness (disregarding unity) and false teaching (disregarding truth) to Christian community and ministry. Ephesians 4:1-16 is a great passage that describes our oneness as Christians.

Ephesians 4:1-16 emphasizes the virtues and beliefs that make Christian unity possible, along with the results of that unity. Today we will look at the virtues presented in the passage.

We don’t start from scratch with our growth towards unity. Paul introduces the whole passage by referring  back to the great blessings of Christianity that are described in chapters 1-3, saying “walk worthily of the calling that you have received” (Eph 4:1). The virtues we need for unity are an overflow of the work that God has done for us in Christ. In fact, ecumenism is about “keeping” (Eph 4:3) the unity that Christ has already forged, rather than creating that unity on our own. It is God who in Christ has created us as “one new man” (Eph 2:15). We simply attempt to maintain and reflect the oneness that is ours in Christ.

Unity is experienced through relationships among believers. The unity we cultivate is not meant to remain an abstract concept. It is meant to be lived out in real relationships. The postures of humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance need to characterize these relationships (Eph 4:2). In this combination, the virtues describe people who recognize their own limitations and accept the limitations of others. The road to Christian maturity is a process. We need to present ourselves authentically to others and be ready to engage with others in their frailties and imperfections. Christ’s forgiveness covers us all.

Finally, Paul tells his readers that they must “make every effort” to keep unity (4:3). The pursuit of Christian unity ought to be a priority for believers. This reflects the heart of Jesus, who prayed for unity among believers (John 17), and made that unity possible through his sacrificial death. Just a chapter earlier in Ephesians, Paul notes that God intends to display his great wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Eph 3:10). How would God do this? Through his magnificent creation? Through mighty miracles? Through his awe-inspiring presence? Paul says that God has chosen to reveal his great wisdom through the church (Eph 3:10), a people God has made alive in Christ and has brought together as one. Our oneness as Christians helps testify to God’s great wisdom and power, even to heavenly beings.

Evangelical Christians often place such a high value on truth that we overlook the urgent call to preserve unity in Christ. This can create devastating consequences for our churches (church splits) and our mission as believers (blemished testimonies).

Equally devastating is to dilute Christianity through misguided attempts at unity. The beliefs upon which Christian unity is founded will be our next stop with this topic, in the coming days.

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Misplaced Zeal

06.14 Go in Peace

“Be contentious and zealous, brothers, but about the things that relate to salvation.” So says the ancient Christian letter known as 1 Clement (I read this earlier today as part of day three in a “read through the church fathers in 7 years” program at this site).

1 Clement may be the earliest non-canonical Christian work that is not found in the New Testament (the Didache is another possibility). A likely date for 1 Clement is right at the end of the first century, A.D. In the letter the church at Rome encourages the Corinthian church to support its church leaders rather than resist those leaders, who had not gone astray in any doctrinal or moral area. The problem was that a handful of influential younger people in the church wanted to push aside the older leaders and do things their own way.

It is in this context that 1 Clement challenges the Corinthians to avoid misplaced zeal. In other words, the Corinthian church members shouldn’t stir up disunity and rebellion based on relatively minor issues of theology or practice. They should be passionate and unyielding only about things “that relate to salvation” (1 Clement 45:1).

The New Testament supports the similar perspective of fighting for the essentials of the Christian faith but showing humility in the non-essentials. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are never shy about condemning false teaching in central areas (Jesus denounces the teaching of the Pharisees as well as those who denied that he was sent from the Father; Paul confronts false teaching in Galatians, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus; 2 Peter and Jude speak strongly against false teaching; and 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation use sharp language against promoters of false doctrine). At the same time, Jesus prays for the peace and unity of believers in John 17, and Paul shows that unity is a high priority in places such as Romans 15:5-6; all throughout 1 Corinthians; Ephesians 4:3-6; Philippians 1:27-2:4, and Colossians 3:15.

The real question is, “How do you determine what are the essentials, and what is secondary?” 1 Clement says that things connected to salvation are the things worth defending. The New Testament connects salvation (and true doctrine) to the person and work of Jesus (his identity as Son of God and Messiah, and his ministry culminating in his death, resurrection, and return). Other thinkers in early Christianity identified a biblically-rooted “rule of faith” (regula fide) that ought to guide all Christians. This “rule” was not a fixed formula (like the later creeds), but was a series of judgments about God the Father, Son, and Spirit, along with an understanding about how God has intervened in this world to carry out his saving purposes. For early Christians, these were the defining elements of Christianity (along with a common Christian ethic of love, holiness, and service).

It is good to be zealous about the right things. But we should guard against the temptation to divide over smaller matters. 1 Clement offers words of wisdom for our churches today. Along with the central truths of our faith, unity and peace are worth fighting for as well.

For a related post, see “Lessons learned from Church History.”

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