Church growth seems to be big business these days. Walk into any Christian bookshop, and books on Church Growth will be on the shelves. Or try Google – I did the other day and got 52 million sites, talking about church growth.
Another big issue is church unity. We see it in many forms today – from the ‘four main church leaders’ of Ireland speaking and acting together, to the ecumenical movement. According to Google, 17 million sites are interested in church unity.
This morning we’re going to look at church growth and unity, and what Paul has to say on these matters, as we continue to study Ephesians. These things are important, but we need to go about it the right way.
As in many of his letters, Paul starts off with the grand theological truths, reminding his readers of what they have received in Christ (for example in Ephesians 1 – adoption, redemption, forgiveness, grace, being chosen and the Holy Spirit, to name but a few). He then moves on to show the practical application of these truths – a sort of, ‘because we have this, then we should live like that’.
And so we find in the first verse: ‘I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.’ But before we move on to see the application; it might be useful to remind ourselves of the calling we have received.
Chapter one ended with the theme of Christ as the head of the body, and chapter two returns to the theme, enlarging on it to show that in Christ’s body there is peace and reconciliation; as the body, the temple, is being built up. ‘And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.’ (Eph 2:22)
So if the calling the Ephesians have received is to become part of the body, and to grow together in unity, then how should they live? And how should we live and grow together in the body of Christ? As we consider these verses today, we’ll notice the unity of God, the diversity of the gifts, which leads to the growing unity of the growing body.
As I said, Paul reminds us of the call to live together in the church, in the body. But as you and I know all too well, living together, and putting up with other people isn’t always easy. After all, that other person gets on your nerves a bit… or just ignores you… or really annoys you with how they talk or what they say!
Or as the old verse goes:
Living above with the saints we love, oh, that will be glory!
Living below with the saints we know, now that’s a different story!
Into these situations, Paul urges the Ephesians to do the following: ‘Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ (4:2-3)
You can probably hear the Ephesians muttering, or saying out loud… but Paul, you can’t mean that… it’s all fine in theory, but not in practice. Not when they’re being so annoying…
But remember, this is the command for behaviour inside the church! Jesus talked about loving enemies, and it can sometimes seem easier to love those on the outside who we don’t have to deal with, than the brothers and sisters around us. Yet we hear Paul’s instruction – be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
He then goes on to say ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ This unity of the Spirit within the body is so vitally important, that Paul tells us to make every effort to keep it. Why is this? What is so important about unity?
We immediately find out, as Paul reveals the motivation for unity – the next three verses. Notice how many times we hear the word ‘one’: ‘There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’ Seven ‘ones’. Recently with the worldwide crisis in the Anglican church, we have heard of the so-called instruments of unity – the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Lambeth Conference, The Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates Meeting. But these cannot compare to the instruments of unity within the church that Paul reminds the Ephesians of.
It is precisely because there is only one body, Spirit, hope, Lord , faith, baptism, God and Father that they are called to unity in the body, and to bear with one another in love. But the church is not static – the community is growing and developing, and growing closer together as well.
Yet some might be saying to themselves… if unity is so great, then how come there is such variety in the church? Well, we must remember that unity is not necessarily uniformity. Paul says as much himself, as he moves on to deal with the diversity of gifts.
‘But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.’ (4:7) Notice the ‘one’ again in ‘each one of us’ – all of us have been given grace from Christ to fulfil our purposes in his purpose, as we will see. But the things that we will do with the grace we have are very different. You’ll see in verse 11 that Paul outlines some leadership roles or functions which some people think are ‘the ministry’ – ‘It was he (that is Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.’
In thinking about these roles, what did the people do, or what do they continue to do? Some think that ‘apostles’ refers only to the twelve who started the church, or they can refer to those who plant the church in a new area. Prophets are those who speak God’s word – in Old Testament times by direct revelation from God, but nowadays through the preaching of God’s word. Evangelists are those who primarily tell others about God and preach the gospel. Pastors and teachers (the two go together and shouldn’t be separated) are those who work in the local congregation to pastor (oversee and care for) and teach the congregation.
The tendency today is to see this pastor and teacher role as that of the minister – with the connected assumption that ‘the ministry’ is something that only the ordained do. But we stopped in mid-sentence as we read earlier… let’s return to the end of verse 11 and continue:
‘It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service.’ (11-12). Do you see? It isn’t the minister who does the ‘works of service’ – but that the pastors and teachers prepare us to do the works that God has equipped us for through Christ’s grace (7).
And what is the purpose in all this? The final goal is ‘that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the full measure of Christ.’
Can you see what Paul is saying? From the unity of God, the members of the body are given a diversity of gifts so that they can be built up into the unity of the body to accomplish maturity. This maturity is important, as we see in verses 14-15, to prevent several things.
Paul wants the Ephesians to no longer be infants – babes in Christ – but to be growing up to maturity, to stand on their own feet against false teaching and false scheming. Because this false teaching would be like a wind blowing their boat away in the wrong direction, and unsteady on the waves.
Rather, Paul wants them to grow up – by speaking the truth in love. This is the tricky thing – doing it in love. Speaking the truth can be easy enough, especially when it is the truth about someone else. But to do it in love? That takes wisdom, and sensitivity. Did you notice that love is important in the passage? We find it in verse 2 (bearing with one another in love), and again in verse 16 (From him the whole body… grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work).
So what is this love that we need in order to grow and build the body? We find a description of it in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 – ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’
So the question we should be asking ourselves today is this – how committed to church unity are we? Are we living a life worthy of the calling we have received – the humble, gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love, life? Are there those around us we haven’t been bearing with in love? Are there steps that you and I have to take for reconciliation within our church?
[This is even more vital as we come to the Lord’s Table, and remember Jesus’ death on the cross together as the church body. Jesus’ death was the means for our forgiveness and reconciliation with God, and should lead us to reconciliation with one another too.]
Are we pursuing church growth by identifying and using our gifts and graces in love? And are we striving to maturity in Christ together? Because church growth depends on how we are individually growing in grace!