Maintaining the Unity of the Spirit
“Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope, at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).
The book of Ephesians is not a long book, but it is filled with amazing truths rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is only six chapters long and takes about twenty minutes to read and that is if you are reading slowly. The overall theme of Paul’s letter to the believers at Ephesus can be summed up in two words: “In Christ.” The salvation and identity of God’s people, the restoration of creation, and the ethos that we have been called to live by find their source in the Lord of all and the Head of the Church, Jesus. In this post, I’d like to focus on one particular reality in Christ and that is the unity of His body. I’ll be using the passage quoted above to do so.
Unity Is Not An Option
Chapter four marks a transition in the letter and Paul begins by referring to himself as a prisoner of the Lord. This lets us know that his posture is that of a servant of Christ and a servant of Christ’s people. His plea to them is that they would walk worthy of the call that they have received from God. Paul’s desire is that they would live in a manner consistent with the salvation and new spiritual life that they have been graciously brought into by God. The grace of God that has been poured out on the people of God grants us great privileges, but these great privileges also carry with them serious responsibilities. Salvation is not void of accountability.
Paul then goes on to describe what such a life looks like. He first mentions humility which means that we should evaluate ourselves in a way that does not lift us up to the heights of pride nor take us to the depths of despair. Humility is being honest about our weaknesses while boasting in God’s strength. There is no room for superiority or inferiority.
Second, there is gentleness, and this speaks both to attitude and behavior. The way in which we engage one another should not be harsh or abrasive. The Lord has not dealt with us harshly but with kindness and compassion. Third, Paul uses a word that I struggle with and that is patience. This is a call to be steadfast in our endurance of that which may be uncomfortable or even painful. It must be noted here that I am not talking about abusive relationships. I believe that it is sinful to counsel anyone to remain in a relationship or environment that is abusive. This text is speaking to the reality of the difficulties that can come when dwelling together in community and community is not optional for God’s people. As we will see later in the text, unity is not optional for God’s people either.
Unity Is Not Selfish
Paul then calls for Christians to bear with one another in love. This is a revolutionary statement. It goes against the grain of Western thought and rugged American individualism. The apostle is urging the people of God to resist the inclination to insulate themselves from the suffering around them. This is a plea for Christ-like solidarity in which we endure difficulty, not just for ourselves but also for the sake of others.
Instead of championing our individual rights and privileges, we are to be willing to forsake them for the good and well-being of our neighbors. I would refer anyone who objects to this way of life to Philippians 2 because in that passage and in many others like it, we see the example of our Lord.
At this point in the text, the people are encouraged to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. How do we do this? We do it by living according to the characteristics mentioned above. However, there is an important matter of perspective that we cannot miss here. Paul is pleading for the saints to desire and guard the unity of the Spirit — not to create it.
God the Holy Spirit is the one who has created the unity of the body and no one is as zealous for the unity of the Church as the Spirit of God. If you want to see examples of this, I encourage you to read the Book of Acts. Some have referred to it as the acts of the apostles, but I believe it is more appropriate to refer to it as the acts of the Holy Spirit. Look for the ways in which the Spirit creates and preserves the unity of the body.
The unity of the Church is rooted in the reality that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all. The repetitive use of the word one was meant to communicate unity. This is why unity is not optional. It is not optional because it is God’s design for his people that is also meant to reflect the oneness of the Godhead itself.
Notice that the text presents us with a clear trinitarian view. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God is not playing games when it comes to the unity of his people and that is why those who work to divide and cause schisms within the body put themselves in a very precarious position before the Lord. Any assault on the unity of the Church is an affront to God himself.
As a final word, I would like to stress that unity is not divorced from righteousness, justice, and truth. Throughout history and even today, those who rightly speak out and act against injustice are falsely labeled as divisive and even harmful.
One of the ways that oppressors seek to maintain their false constructs of power is to attack the intentions and fidelity of those who rightly oppose them. Sometimes making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit involves prophetic confrontation. We must not settle for a counterfeit unity that is nothing more than a prison of silence and exploitation. If one part of the body is flourishing while another part of the body is marginalized and neglected, that is not unity.
As the Spirit zealously guards the unity of the Church, there are times when things are shaken, sin is revealed, abuse and mistreatment are brought to light, dysfunctional and unqualified leadership is exposed, and the systems that are working against the unity of the body are deconstructed. I believe this will continue until the redemption and restoration of all things.