Issues Facing Missions Today: 52. Paul’s Concern for Unity and Peace in Ephesians
[This post continues the study of mission as church renewal by examining the theme of unity and peace running through Paul's letter to the Ephesians (over against merely social understandings of unity in certain heretical groups today).]
A rather humorous misuse of Scripture surrounds a very sad state of affairs in the Anglican Communion. The heretical Episcopal Church, seeking ways to remain engaged in ministries in Africa, recently brought together 23 representatives from parts of Africa, on the basis of Galatians 6.2’s ‘bear one another’s burdens.’ The idea was to skip over differences on homosexuality and just get on with needed social programmes. Underlying this idea is the conviction that unity can be held despite different views on sexuality. Mainline denominations in general move between the views that differences on sexual ethics are (1) matters of indifference or that (2) the less evolved and enlightened human groups will eventually come around to the West’s way of thinking. Rather sad. What is humourous from an exegetical perspective is that Galatians 6.2 follows the directive to help someone who has fallen into some sin! Galatians 6.1-2 reads:
Galatians 6:1-2 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Bearing one another’s burdens in this passage does not mean skipping over sin but dealing with it. It does not mean social ministry over against sexual ethics. The ease with which Scripture gets misused arises because such interpreters come to the text with a preconceived notion that unity can be formed through social relationships and not based on core convictions. Their reading blinders pick up 'bear one another's burdens' without seeing 'if anyone is detected in a transgression.'
A careful look at unity and peace in Ephesians can help to sort out this fundamental error. Truth matters. Ethics matters. Unity is not merely social, it is not simply about common projects—no matter how good a social project might be. It is first and foremost about the reality of Jesus as Lord in every area of our lives, including our convictions and our ethics.
Ephesians: Paul’s Politics
Eph. 2.14 states simply and profoundly that ‘Christ is our peace.’ The immediate context is that Christ has become the peace between Jews and Gentiles. This conviction extends to other points in the epistle—to every part of the epistle. Indeed, Ephesians is what we might call Paul’s Politics, if we mean by ‘politics’ how a society works or should work. (I have here in mind a comparison with Aristotle’s Politics). The aim of Paul’s Politics is to show how unity and peace are established in the society of what we call ‘church.’ As Ephesians progresses, we learn that Christ establishes the unity and peace of the Christian community—a rather different understanding from, say, the Roman Empire’s pax Romana, ‘peace of Rome,’ that establishes peace and unity through oppressive power.
- Christ is cosmic head, overpowering all other authorities and establishing peace (1.15-23)
- Christ has produced a peace between God and humanity by dealing with sin (2.1-10)
- Christ has produced peace between Jews and Gentiles (2.11-3.12)
- Christ has produced peace and unity in the Church (4.1-5.20)
- Christ is the peace and unity within the household (5.21-6.9)
- Christ is the way to victory over hostile, spiritual powers that threaten our peace (6.10-17)
Jesus is Lord
Absolutely essential to the peace that the Church knows and offers to the world is the reality of Christ’s Lordship. There is no peace and unity apart from the Lord Christ: He is our peace. Thus the epistle begins with an application of Psalm 110.1 to Jesus as the resurrected and exalted Lord:
Ephesians 1:20-23 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet [cf. Ps. 110.1] and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Any theology or understanding of the Church that begins with the social reality of the Church rather than devotion to Christ as Lord will, sooner or later, fail to experience or offer a true peace and unity, which can only come from Christ. This is not only because devotion involves worship of and obedience to Christ but also because Christ is the one who accomplishes peace. He accomplishes peace:
- by setting believers free from the prince of the power of the air who is at work in disobedient humanity, who eagerly give free rein to their passions (Eph. 2.1-2);
- by reconciling sinners to God through his own sacrificial blood (Eph. 2.13) and granting us the Spirit of God so that we might have access to God the Father (Eph. 2.18);
- by giving gifts of ministry to the church in the roles of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, who build up the body of Christ until the church comes to a unity of faith (Eph. 4.11-13);
- by equipping believers for the spiritual battles they face with the armor of God: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, and salvation (Eph. 6.14-17).
Core Convictions for Social Unity
Paul’s Politics knows no peace that is merely a matter of social agreement despite convictions. Rather, peace and unity arise at the social level only because there is first a coming together around core convictions of the Christian faith. The unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4.3) entails the following Trinitarian convictions:
4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,
5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph. 4.4-6).
The working out of these convictions in the life of the Church entails correction of false teaching and growing up into Christ:
Ephesians 4:14-16 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.
The working out of these convictions in the household entails submitting every relationship to the Lordship of Christ. Paul is certainly not offering an egalitarian vision of the family in Eph. 5.22-6.9. But he is not really offering a complementarian view of the husband – wife, parents – children, masters – slave relationships either. Granted, he accepts different functions and authoritative roles in the household, but all this is background to his real point. That is, he assumes the relationships of the 1st century household (whether Jewish, Greek, or Roman). His point, however, is that Christ makes a difference to the household relationships, and the difference he sees is one of removing power relationships because all relationships are now experienced in Christ. The wife submits instead of being contentious. The husband loves to the point of laying down his life for the wife instead of using his position for his own gain. Children obey their parents, and fathers do not provoke their children to wrath but rather bring them up on the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Masters treat slaves as they wish to be treated by their master, God. And slaves serve their masters enthusiastically as to the Lord. Each of these instructions removes power from the relationship and submits the role one has in the household to the Lord. Paul’s vision for equality is not an equal sharing of power but an equal submission to the Lord and letting his rule make all the difference.
Thus, unity and peace for Paul is social. It has to do with our relationship to God, with ethnic relations such as those between Jews and Gentiles, with relationships within the community that is the church, with relationships in the family (including work relationships), and with relationships in the world itself. But peace and unity are not established across these relationships despite our beliefs. We do not agree to disagree. We do not have unity because we lay aside our differences for the greater good of fellowship. On the contrary, the reality of Christ’s Lordship among us works itself out in unity of faith and ethics. We proclaim the truth that Christ has died for our sins, he has risen from the dead, and he is exalted and rules among us as Lord. His rule calls us to truth in every area, including the ‘truth’ of moral purity, as Paul says:
Ephesians 5:6-9 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be associated with them. 8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-- 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.
Those advocating a unity in the Church by agreeing to disagree over moral matters are those trying to deceive God’s people with empty words when, in fact, God’s wrath is coming on those who disobey.