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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3 Comments

Filed under Biblical Theology, Church, Discipleship, New Testament

3 responses to “The Virtues of Christian Unity

  1. Cortney S

    So true. I was just reading an article on that yesterday. I have a question about something I read yesterday that goes along with this. Since we as Christians ought to also be doing evangelism and reaching out to other non-Christians, the church should be numbered with non-Christians as well as Christians. How does this concept apply to those that are in the church but may not have accepted the gospel and fully given their life to Christ? How do we maintain unity, or is that something we’re called to do with those who have not yet accepted Christ? Just something I was thinking about.

    • Great question! I think that the virtues in Eph 4:1-3 are transferable to how we interact with non-Christians as well. In fact, Titus 3:2 says so explicitly and gives added incentive for humility towards unbelievers (understanding where they are coming from and knowing what grace means – Titus 3:3-6). The motivations are different (with Christians we are preserving the unity that Christ created), but many of the same virtues are present.

      On the truth side (which I’ll get to in the next post), the clarity of our own convictions as believers will also help “seekers” know up front what we are about.

      In a way we are inviting seekers to see what all of the fuss is about – with both the relationships and beliefs of Christianity.

  2. Alan Weese

    Great subject! After graduating, I had the opportunity to share messages on John 17:20-26; Eph. 4:1-16, and Titus 3:1-11 at different churches, and many responses sounded as if the subject of unity had not been mentioned in the recent past. I also discovered that keeping truth intact in any promotion of unity can be difficult. Maybe that is why it gets little treatment. But it is no less necessary.

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