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Paulís Letter to the Ephesians


 

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 are.

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. 

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