Introduction, A Question of Unity
Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians from prison in Rome. The best date
offered by commentators is A.D. 63. The theme of the letter is unity, but
what may not be recognized is that this was an interest, not merely of the
church, but of society at large. The Expositorís Bible Commentary points
out that "Unity was a topic of general interest in the first century,
A.D." It was a focus of interest among the stoics and other philosophers
and religious mystics.
Unity is an abnormal state in the world at large. This is odd in a way,
because there seems to be a need in the human heart for unity, a yearning
to be joined to something or someone. In spite of this, we seem destined
to struggle with one another. But why should it be this way?
There may be something very elemental at work. We have known for a long
time that one of the basic drives in human nature is the desire to be free
from external restraint. It is manifest even in little children. Everyone
knows what it means to say that a child is in the "terrible twos." It is
an early occasion in a childís life when he wants to be free from
restraint, to be autonomous. Then again in the early teen years comes the
desire to spread our wings, to be free. The problem is that two-year-olds,
and even teenagers, are not equipped to be free. For that matter, neither
are many adults.
Down through time, the struggle between manís desire for unity and
manís desire to be free has nowhere been more evident than in the church,
and Paulís letter to the church at Ephesus addresses the problem directly.
The church had turned out to be just as fractious as the world at large
and it is easy to see how frustrated Paul became. The theme arises again
and again in his letters. The world at large seemed destined only to be
united by force of arms and coercion. But since that option wasnít
available for the church, Paul had to think about persuasion instead. The
result is the beautiful plea for unity we will read in chapter four. Any
time a church is having problems, the pastor will usually try to craft a
sermon around Paulís "One Lord, one faith, one baptism."
There is a curious thing, though, about unity. The harder people work
at it, the more it seems to escape them. Unity, to most people, is a
matter of barriers. It is not unlike the instructions on how to carve an
elephant from a bar of soap. Itís simple really. You take a bar of soap
and a knife and you carve away everything that doesnít look like an
elephant. Sad to say, too many people think that is the way to carve a
church. You take a crowd of people and you carve away everything that
doesnít look like a churchĖor at least the church as you envision it.
Uniity then becomes a process of exclusion of what differs. So you end
up with a smaller group that appears to be unified. But then the process
of maintaining unity requires that further purification is necessary, and
that means anyone who threatens unity has to be excluded.
Now if you are thinking ahead, you will have realized that this means a
considerable loss of freedom on the part of those that have been "unified"
and you would be right. So when a church takes Ephesians 4 and sets out to
unify itself, it sets up a struggle between the desire for unity and the
desire for freedom.
Is there any way to reconcile these conflicting desires? I think there
is, and I think Paul assumes it. The evidence of this arises in the very
first chapter of Ephesians when Paul tells us what God is after. It is
easy to miss, because it is lost in the flowery introduction of the
letter. We have to remember when reading these New Testament Epistles that
we are reading someone elseís mail This letter was written by Paul from
prison to the church in Ephesus. Both Paul and the Ephesians knew what the
issues were, and what is a throwaway line to us may have been highly
significant to the original readers. One of the most helpful things you
can do in reading Paulís epistles is to try to put yourself into the mind
of the people to whom the letter was written. We habitually look at things
from our own point of view, and as a result, misunderstand what the issues
The way to understand the conflict of unity and Freedom in Ephesians is
to realize that Paul is not merely talking about the unity of the
churchĖthough that is a consideration. Paul visualized a higher unity.
Paul visualized the unity of everything (vv. 9-10). This is
important. The objective is the unity of everything, not just the church.
And out of this simple principle flows the answer to the question we
have been asking. How do you reconcile unity and freedom? The normal
approach to organizational unity is exclusionary. That is, you exclude
everything that differs. But it should be obvious that if you are going to
gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and
which are on earth, you are going to have to include everything and
everybody. To put it simply, the unity Paul envisioned was inclusive,
not exclusive. And that is some kind of challenge.