Ephesians 4:1-6: A Call of Christian Unity, Part 1

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This series is based on Ross Hastings’ presentation at the Vibrant Dance of Science and Faith Symposium in Austin, TX., October 26, 2010. In this post, Dr. Hastings explores Ephesians 4:1-6, which lays out the model for Christian unity that should form the foundations for our dialogue.

The complete essay can be found here.

In what follows, I want to give a basis for the preservation of the unity of the church as it comes at the issues of science and faith, and in particular as it dialogues over the more controversial areas in this arena. I would suspect this first point is not groundbreaking, new information for most of us, but it is necessary exhortation nevertheless, especially given the disparate opinions of the kind that characterize the Christian church on matters of science and faith. Consider Ephesians 4:1-6:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Let me offer brief comments on this text and its relevance to believers in this dialogue (or any other, for that matter):

(i) The priority of unity

I am always struck by what comes first in Paul’s exhortational or paraenetical section of this epistle. There are five exhortations towards “walking” (peripateõ) and most of us would perhaps assume the first should be about holiness or right living or ethics. But the first is about unity. This reflects the weight Paul places on it, and it is in keeping with the primary theme of the theological section, which is the creation by the reconciling God of a new humanity in Christ.

It is one new humanity, it is one body, it is one temple. In making unity first, Paul is faithfully reflecting the heart desire of his Great High Priest Jesus as that is reflected in John 17. We Evangelicals and Protestants in particular seem to worry least about what Jesus and Paul worry most—unity and catholicity. We readily use our aversion towards organizational oneness and our theology of eschatological oneness in the future to justify our ever-growing multiplicity of unconnected churches, and also the potshots we take at each other in areas such as this one.

(ii) The urgency of unity

This urgency in Paul here is further accentuated by the forcefulness of the exhortation in verse 3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This phrase can be rendered “take pains to keep the unity!”

Markus Barth expresses this very potently:

It is hardly possible to render exactly the urgency contained in the underlying Greek verb. Not only haste and passion, but a full effort of the whole man is meant, involving his will, sentiment, reason, physical strength, and total attitude. The imperative mood of the participle found in the Greek text excludes passivity, quietism, a wait-and-see attitude, or a diligence tempered by all deliberate speed. Yours is the initiative! Do it now! Mean it! You are to do it! I mean it! Such are the overtones in verse 3. Those given the “vocation” to walk worthily (4:1) appear to be urged to race ahead, to meet the deadline, or to receive a “prize.”1

We should not naively imagine that the preservation in earthly practice of the heavenly and organic unity that is Christological and more real will be easy. But pursue it we must. It is inimical to who we really are and it is crucial to our witness that a new humanity has been formed in Christ, and into which all are invited.

But how will this unity be preserved? Preachers are good at the “why” and not often at the “how.” There are two aspects to this “how.” The first relates to personal formation of character. The second relates to the framework for unity—a communal theological basis for unity—one that is asserted positively in an essentialist creed, which is remarkable both for its affirmations and its absences. I will take each of these in turn.

(iii) The personal character required for unity

Verse 2 reads, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” It has often been noticed that the first two of these relate to how we affect others and the last two how we are affected by others. Humble and gentle people can express their opinions and disagree agreeably without offending others. Patient and forbearing people don’t quickly react angrily when others are less than humble and gentle, and they forgive.

You don’t need me to remind you how passions run high around the issues surrounding origins, nor of the arrogance that can just very occasionally (stated ironically) be evident in very bright scientists and even more so in very bright scientists who hold theological convictions. We need a dose of humility especially to admit when we are wrong. We also need humility to ascertain when we have sufficient evidence and when we don’t. And when we don’t, we need humility to expose that our prejudices have taken over. We need humility even about our approach to knowledge given that we are all influenced by presuppositions that influence our reason.

Scientists especially need humility to know that the existence of pure reason or objectivity does not exist! Furthermore, on this pilgrim journey in which the kingdom has come but has not yet fully come, we must have the humility to know that there are some things we may not know until we reach the celestial-terrestrial city! Paul wraps all four of these traits under the head of love. He reminds us of what he says on other occasions, that there is something more important even than knowledge in the economy of God and what he wishes for us… this is love.

The Eastern Orthodox monasteries, which privilege love over knowledge, and silence over noisy thought, can teach us Western theologians a great deal about this. The words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:2 seem timely: “If I … can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

(iv) The communal union with Christ, which is the ground of unity:

Communal unity with Christ is expressed by Paul here in the phrase “keep the unity of the Spirit” (v. 3). This is a reality that sits over every exhortation here. It is the reality that we are one. Paul is building on all he has said in the first three chapters, and late scholarship has suggested particularly the opening paragraph which functions in this lyrical epistle like a refrain in a symphony.

What is its emphasis? That all believers in Christ are just that: in Christ. They are that by the pre-mundane electing covenant of God the Father in the Son who is both the electing God and the elect human for us (1:4; 3-6a); they are that by the redemptive reconciling work of the Son (1:6b-12); they are that by the regenerating and sealing and earnest and incorporating work of the Spirit (1:13, 14). These ontological realities are crucial to Paul’s and to my exhortation towards unity of all who profess to be believers in Christ.

Pertinent to the theology/science interface, then, we are:

  1. United in the Christ of creation and redemption. We are united by the desire to honor that Christ who is the Alpha and the Omega of creation: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty'” (Revelation 1:8);

  2. Fearless in our pursuit of truth in all aspects of science, for nothing can ever transcend the One who is the Alpha and the Omega of creation;

  3. United in the desire to participate in the redemption and reconciliation of creation (Colossians 1:15-20):

    15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

We are also united, irrespective of our positions—Creation Science, Progressive Creation, Intelligent Design, or Evolutionary Creation—in the endeavor of rescuing the church from latent dualisms, helping them affirm a theology and praxis of creation, helping them to see that Christian salvation is not salvation out of creation but of and forcreation.

(v) The communal confession that is the framework for unity

We read in Ephesians 4:4-5:

4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

This seems to have been an early creed of the Christian church, either one before Paul or perhaps written especially for this letter. It is remarkable for what it contains and for what it does not contain. It is Trinitarian in structure. It is minimalist in terms of content. It is salvifically oriented or kerygmatic in its intent.

It does two things: first it unites us around the core essentials of the faith and thereby minimizes and relativizes our differences with respect to secondary issues. For example, it speaks of baptism but says nothing of its mode or timing. It defines our Christian hope without specifying whether it is premillennial, amillennial, postmillennial or pan-millennial (it’s all going to pan out in the end).

But secondly, it also provides some limits to unity. We cannot be in Christian unity with those who cannot affirm the Trinity and these essentials of triune, Christian faith. This early creedal statement, and creeds which developed from it in response to clarification of heresies and new cultures which the gospel encountered, is the guideline for our unity. In particular, the Apostles', Niceno-Constantinopolitan, and Chalcedonian creeds are sui generis in that there is nothing else like them as widely-agreed narrative and/or propositional summaries of key points of Christian doctrine.


1. Markus Barth, The Broken Wall: A Study of the Epistle to the Ephesians (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1959), 428.


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