The Mandate for Christian Unity – A Study of Ephesians 4:1-6
While many in today’s world are engaged in celebrating “diversity,” the Bible places an extraordinary emphasis on the value of “unity.” The Persons of the Godhead are a grand tri-unity of absolute perfection (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4; John 10:30). The majestic universe, though bearing the abrasions of divine judgment (Romans 8:20), nonetheless exhibits the glory of God in a harmony of celestial laws (Jeremiah 31:35-36). Albert Einstein said:
We see a Universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations (Brian, 186).
There is an amazing unity of revelation in the two major testaments of the Bible. “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is by the New revealed.”
Domestic unity is a “good” and “pleasant” environment (Psalm 133:1), and religious “oneness” is the antidote against infidelity (John 17:20-21). Unfortunately, the divisive spirit seems to be more common than that of tranquility, and a host of problems are the result.
It is difficult to find a church within the framework of New Testament history that did not experience some level of discord. The church in Jerusalem was troubled with Judaizers (Acts 11:2; 15:1ff), the Corinthian congregation had their factious elements that gave inordinate adulation to leaders (1 Corinthians 1:10ff), and even the beloved Philippian church had its Euodia and Syntyche problem (Philippians 4:2-3). These examples by no means exhaust the list.
Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is a document that addresses unity. The first three chapters provide a theological basis for unity; the final three are principally concerned with the practical implementation of “oneness” in Christ. In 4:1-6, God’s inspired apostle lays down a micro-platform for unity that concerns the two main sources of discord among those who profess to follow Christ. One has to do with temperament, the other with teaching. The recognition of these two problematic areas could go a long way towards healing division.
Under the impulse of the Spirit of God Paul wrote:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith you were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all (Ephesians 4:1-6).
A consideration of this paragraph reveals the following important elements:
- Paul’s credibility as one who exhorts for Christian unity (v. 1a);
- the charge to walk worthily of one’s calling (v. 1b);
- the disposition necessary for oneness in Christ (vv. 2-3); and
- the theological platform that is the basis of unity (vv. 4-6).
Let us reflect upon each of these matters briefly.
Paul the Prisoner
Paul frequently refers to himself as a “prisoner” (Ephesians 3:1; 4:1; Philippians 1:13; Philemon 9,13; 2 Timothy 1:8). He is both a prisoner “of Christ” (3:1) and a prisoner “in the Lord” (4:1). The apostle was a prisoner literally on many occasions during his ministry (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23), and specifically when he penned this epistle (cf. 6:20). But in a richer sense he had become the prisoner “of” Jesus in that he had surrendered his self-interests to the bondage of his Lord (Philemon 10,13) for whom he gladly suffered. Too, his relationship “in” the Lord placed his sufferings in an altogether different dimension. There is no virtue in hardship when one is estranged from the Savior.
Temperamental Unity (vv. 1-3)
In the pursuit of Christian unity, it is absolutely crucial that one appreciates the importance of the ideological system he has embraced. Christianity is the sole avenue to God in this concluding dispensation of human history. It is not merely “a religion,” it the “the religion” of divine sanction (cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14). In view of this foundational truth, the following plea is appropriate.
Christians must “walk worthily of the calling to which [they] are called” (v. 1b). The “calling” is God’s invitation (Acts 2:39), by means of gospel preaching (2 Thessalonians 2:14), to people who are accountable, to partake of the blessings of the kingdom of heaven by means of the “in Christ” relationship (Philippians 3:14). Those who respond to the message, and submit in obedience, are designated as the “called” (see Thayer 1958, 321).
The term “walk” (
peripateo—“to walk around”) refers to the entire “sphere” of one’s existence. Christianity is not a mere sideline, nor is it a spiritual “hobby.” It is a consuming passion. “Worthily” is an adverb that suggests a comparison between two objects that correspond with one another in some fashion—in this instance, both in kind and in quality. Christian conduct must measure up to the pattern imposed by God.
“Lowliness” translates the Greek term
tapeinos – “low,” and
phren – “mind”). The noun form occurs seven times in the New Testament, and the adjective once (“humbleminded” – 1 Peter 3:8). The word suggests an unselfishness that manifests itself in sacrificial love for others—a concept generally disdained by the Greeks (Patzia 1990, 229), but extolled in the New Testament. Paul, in describing his personal attitude while working among the Ephesians, employed this very word (Acts 20:19). And his life supported the claim. The word is rendered “lowliness of mind” in Philippians 2:3, and in that context is subsequently illustrated with the utterly selfless love of Christ in becoming human, and going to the cross on behalf of the lost (vv. 5ff). What an insurmountable challenge this is for the people of God!
praytes—a noun, found eleven times in the New Testament) denotes a “calm and soothing disposition.” It is used of “mildness” and “humaneness,” in contrast to the “harsh” attitude. It is the opposite of “roughness” and “severity.” In the Greek Old Testament,
praytes conveys the idea of “submission to the divine will” (Psalm 132:1, LXX). Moses was described as the “meekest” man of the earth (Numbers 12:3). In summary,
praytes involves “radical submission to God and modesty in dealings with other people” (Spicq 1994, 160-171). Just think of how this temperament could ameliorate church problems.
makrothymia—found fourteen times in the New Testament) is a term that hints of taking a “long” time to come to “anger.” It is employed accommodatingly of God who demonstrates this virtue in his dealings with sinful humanity (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 1:16). It is likewise applied to a patient human quality (Acts 26:3; James 5:7b). It is one of the virtues of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), and is a requirement for Christian cultivation (Colossians 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). Longsuffering stands over against impulsive hostility or impetuous reaction. In a manner of speaking, it suggests a “long-burning fuse” that ultimately fails to ignite!
Following the three foregoing nouns, are two participle phrases. The first is “forbearing one another in love.” The term “forbearing” derives from a compound word portraying the idea of “holding up”—with reference to a potential action. The present tense, middle voice form indicates a pattern of behavior that one exerts, which, ultimately, is in his personal best interest.
The word assumes that in the relations of Christians with each other occasions of differences, even of threatened alienation, are sure to arise (Smith 1890, 60).
But kinsmen in Christ are not to respond quickly and hatefully when conflicts surface; to the contrary, they are to resist every inclination to explode and attack.
The underlying emotion that calms edgy nerves and promotes good will is “love” (
agape—116 times in the New Testament).
Agape is not “heart” love; it is “head” love. It is a premeditated principle by which one lives as he attempts to operate in the noblest interest of others. Nigel Turner defined
agape as “a calculated disposition of regard and pious inclination” toward an object deliberately chosen (1982, 263). It is extremely difficult to act with
agape towards those we do not particularly like—who may, in fact, be somewhat repulsive. Nonetheless, by the command to “love,” we are challenged to persistently act in the genuine welfare of others.
A second present tense participle, “giving diligence” (from the verb
spoudazo—eleven times in the New Testament) carries the idea of constantly striving to put forth one’s very best effort (cf. NIV). It reflects the sustained zeal that Christians must have for the promotion of unity within the body of Christ, and it casts a dark shadow over those who engage in the mischief of contention and division.
The expression “unity of the Spirit” clearly is a reference to the “unity” that is sought and initiated by the Holy Spirit—by means of his influence through the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Unity is a “state of oneness or of being in harmony and accord” (Danker et al. 2000, 338). The word is best defined by amicable actions!
One factor that promotes unity is “peace.” Paul uses the expression “bond of peace.” “Bond” (
syndesmos) is that which “binds together,” as ligaments do for the human body. In this text the word is a metaphor for “that which brings various entities into a united relationship” (Danker et al. 2000, 966; cf. Colossians 2:19; 3:14). It is the very opposite of that rancorous attitude that “spoils for a good fight,” and always seems to be in the middle of one.
eirene—ninety-two times in the New Testament) is a term of marvelous flavor. Barclay thought the word was related to the Greek
eirein, “to weave together” (1959, 15). It is “a state of being that lacks nothing and has no fear of being troubled in its tranquility; it is euphoria coupled with security” (Mounce 2006, 503). It has a variety of uses, e.g., the relationship of being reconciled with God (Romans 5:1), tranquility with other people (Hebrews 12:14), or an inward aura of mental serenity (Philippians 4:7).
Wallace has observed that the original charge, “walk worthily” is complemented by the companion participles, “forbearing” and “giving diligence,” which express the “means” of implementing the responsibility, and actually summarize “what this little epistle is all about” (1996, 652).
It is clear to see that the chorus of qualities cataloged above, if engaged by the people of God, will facilitate an atmosphere wherein the redemptive plan of Christ can operate with optimum efficiency. Surely every genuine Christian desires to see this state prevail in the body of Christ.
Doctrinal Unity (vv. 4-6)
There is far more to unity than a mere atmosphere of sweet friendliness. There also is the unity of truth. Truth is consistent, hence there is the sacred admonition that Christians “all speak the same thing,” and that there be “no divisions” among us. Rather, we are to be “perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). While this goal never will be achieved absolutely in a society of flawed people, it must be sought vigorously. The “celebration of diversity,” as that phrase is commonly used these days, is quite adverse to the divine ideal.
Seven times in verses four through six the numeral “one” (
heis) is found. In this context the term is used to “indicate the singularity of something, thus emphasizing that there is but one only” (Mounce 2006, 485; emphasis added). Various speculations are given as to why the apostle arranged the nouns modified by “one” in the particular order in which they are presented (see Hunter 1959, 64). We pass over that and, for our own thematic purpose, will consider them in a descending order characterized by a logical progression.
First, there is the oneness that characterizes the Godhead, i.e., the sacred three that possess the nature of deity. There is “one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all.” In this phrase the specific Person of focus is God, the Father. The affirmation appears to express the relationship of the Father to his spiritual children. He is sovereign over them (though this does not deny his sovereignty over the whole of mankind—Acts 17:24). Likewise he is “through” all, i.e., by his providence he works through his people to accomplish his will. And he is “in” all, i.e., he “inhabits” Christian people by means of the indwelling Spirit (Ephesians 2:22).
While some see the relationships depicted as being universal (which, in a sense, they are), the authority, providence, and pervasiveness of God in the universe at large would seem to be a rather remote evidence supporting the plea on behalf of “Christian” unity (cf. Moule 1977, 106).
The apostle declares there is “one Lord.” Clearly, this is Jesus Christ. “Lord” (
kyrios) denotes one in possession of authority. That divine authority was bequeathed to Christ at the time of his ascension (cf. Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:20ff), and it is both universal (John 17:2) and ecclesiastical (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). “By confessing Jesus as Lord, the Christian community was also recognizing that he has dominion over the world” (Mounce 2006, 423). This point is an effective rebuttal of those who thoughtlessly allege that the “world” is not amenable to the law of Christ.
Finally, there is the “one Spirit,” i.e., the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not merely divine “energy”; rather, he is a personality (John 16:13; Acts 13:2; 15:28) who possesses the nature of deity (Acts 5:3-4). He was involved in organizing the initial post-creation processes (Genesis 1:2), and appears to have been the chief agent of the revelation of the divine Mind to humanity (2 Samuel 23:2; 1 Corinthians 2:10ff). The Ephesian saints had been “sealed,” i.e., authenticated as belonging to God, by the reception of the Spirit at the time of their conversion (Acts 19:2ff; Ephesians 2:22).
One Father, one Lord, and one Spirit constitute three personalities, each of whom is deity in nature, hence “one God,” i.e., one in essence (cf. John 10:30). This united relationship should motivate all Christians toward theological solidarity.
From the concept of a united trio of divine Persons, there most naturally flows the idea of “one faith.” The term faith (
pistis) is used in various ways in the New Testament. In this context the sense of the term must be restricted to two possibilities.
Some suggest that the expression likely means the “trustful acceptance” of Christ, or “saving faith” (Moule 1977, 105). Bruce calls it a “common belief in Christ” (1984, 336), which, as Smith (a Baptist scholar) observes, includes “the accompanying incidents and conditions,” i.e., the “‘faith’ by which men are saved” (1890, 61). This would embrace the exercise of “faith” in repentance, confession of one’s confidence in Christ, and immersion in water for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Romans 10:10, etc.).
On the other hand, the “one faith” can signify the unified body of Christian teaching, wholly consistent with itself and general biblical teaching otherwise. There are a number of passages that use
pistis in this sense (Acts 6:7; Galatians 1:23; 1 Timothy 3:9; 4:1,6; 5:8; Titus 1:4; Jude 3; see Turner 1982, 157; Lenski 1961, 512).
A number of scholars agree, however, that subjective faith (i.e., one’s personal faith) cannot be divorced from objective truth (the body of revealed doctrine), and so the two find mutual concord in
pistis (see Hendriksen 1979, 186-187).
Neither of these views conflicts with Scripture, and both condemn the widely condoned confusion of sectarianism which sanctions the endorsement of conflicting doctrines (contra Romans 16:17) in the interest of a pseudo-unity, in which professed “Christians” agree to disagree on some of the most fundamental matters of doctrine. The popular notion of choosing one’s “faith” (e.g., Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, etc.) is wholly foreign to the New Testament.
The noun “baptism,” along with the corresponding verb, “baptize,” come directly from Greek into English with only a slight spelling modification. The verb (
baptizo—seventy-seven times in the New Testament), when used literally, denotes to immerse, dip, or submerge. When the word is employed metaphorically, it suggests the idea of being overwhelmed. There are several senses the term can take in the New Testament, depending upon the context.
- It is used with reference to the overwhelming suffering Christ would endure at Calvary (Luke 12:50).
- “Baptism” describes the extraordinary measure of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, received by the apostles on Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:4), and later by the first Gentiles to whom the gospel was extended (Acts 11:15-17). The latter instance was not wholly analogous to the former in that it merely authenticated the Gentiles as proper candidates for the kingdom of Christ.
- Finally, it is symbolically used to describe the overwhelming punishment of hell (Matthew 3:10-12).
The most common use of “baptism” has to do with an immersion in water as an act of spiritual obedience that, in form, reflects the burial and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12). This significance is almost universally acknowledged by scholars as the “baptism” of Ephesians 4:5 (cf. 5:26; Thayer 1958, 95; Danker et al. 2000, 165).
Baptism was first administered by John the Baptizer (Matthew 3:6), and subsequently by Jesus’ disciples (John 4:1-2). Finally it was authorized under the “great commission” (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16). The baptism of the Christian age embodies: immersion in water (Acts 8:38-39; Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12), for the person who has both the ability and willingness to believe the gospel message and repent of sin (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38). The purpose of the ordinance is to access the saving blood of Christ (cf. Hebrews 9:14; Ephesians 5:26), receive the forgiveness of sins, and enter a relationship with Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27). Any “baptism” that does not conform to the pattern set forth in the New Testament is not the “one baptism” of divine sanction.
The “one baptism” is the means by which the sinner is transitioned from a state that is antagonistic to Jesus Christ, into a relationship of communion with the Lord (Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27). Metaphorically speaking, this is the equivalent of entering his spiritual “body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). “Body” (
soma—ninety-one times in Paul’s writings) frequently is the equivalent of the “church” (cf. Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12ff, etc.). “For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
This “baptism” is not a reference to “Holy Spirit baptism,” such as occurred on Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:4), and later at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-45; 11:15-17). Rather, the phrase “in
en one Spirit” is to be viewed grammatically as an “instrumental dative.” The preposition “in” (
en) frequently is used as the equivalent of “by” (
hupo) (cf. Matthew 4:1 with Luke 4:1). Wallace identifies “in” (
en) here as a “dative of agency” (1996, 374), though we do not agree with his application of the form in this context.
The preposition thus indicates the instrument or agency by which one receives the instruction that motivates him to be immersed, namely, the Spirit’s role via the message of the gospel (cf. Ephesians 6:17). The “instrument of means” is the most prevalent use of the dative case in the New Testament, and is the method “for expressing impersonal [i.e., indirect] means” (Dana and Mantey 1968, 89). Note the comments of McGarvey and Pendleton.
One Spirit, acting through the apostles and all other evangelists and ministers (1 Thes. 1:5), had begotten people of different races and nationalities and conditions (John 3:5), and had caused them to be baptized into the one church, and had bestowed itself upon them after they had been thus baptized (Acts 2:38) (n.d., 124).
For a more extended discussion, see McGarvey’s essay, “Immersion in the Holy Spirit,” (1952, 428-442).
There is another point worth mentioning here. Observe Paul’s use of the plural, personal pronoun “we” (v. 13a). It reveals that the Corinthians and the apostle had shared a common baptism. This could not be Holy Spirit baptism, for the Corinthians never experienced that. Paul did share with these brothers the common baptism in water (Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 1:16).
The baptism in water for forgiveness of sins perfectly parallels Paul’s subsequent instruction to the Ephesian church, that these people had been “cleansed” by “the washing of water” in conjunction with the “word” (Ephesians 5:26). This is a baptism that occurs as a result of submitting to the message of the New Testament gospel (Acts 2:41; cf. Moule 1977, 141; Bloomfield 1837, 285).
The “one body” is identified as the “church” in its universal capacity. That “body” consists of many “members,” yet is “one” in its essential composition (1 Corinthians 12:12). The expression “one body” is thus the equivalent of “one church” (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18,24). While there are many local congregations of “like kind” that make up that one body (Revelation 1:4), the modern practice of many denominations proclaiming varying doctrines, is a manifest apostasy from gospel truth. Paul affirmed that Christ is the “Savior of the body” (Ephesians 5:23); none outside the “one body” is promised salvation.
The imagery of the “body” further suggests that all direction to the “members” is received from the “head,” Christ (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18), and such excludes popes, councils, and human creeds. What sort of sideshow monstrosity is a creature with one “head” and yet “many bodies”? Moreover, if the body is to function as God intended, unity among its members must prevail (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12ff). If there were no cooperation between the nervous, circulatory, respiratory systems, etc., could any body function?
In his comments upon this “one body” phrase, Baptist scholar Justin Smith laments the sad reality that the modern system of “Christendom,” with its divisions into many “sects,” is not consistent with the New Testament pattern. He purposefully declined to identify “causes” or to assign “responsibility”; he simply noted the error of the current status of the numerous conflicting “bodies” (1890, 60-61).
But the cause is quite transparent; it lies in a repudiation of the New Testament as the sole pattern for church polity, and the responsibility rests with all who applaud the diversity of sectarianism and choose to remain entangled in that maze of a self-willed religion (cf. Colossians 2:23).
The culmination of the divine scheme of redemption is in the “one hope” of those who embrace the Savior, and commit to doing his will. Earlier in this letter, Paul defines the “hope of [the Lord’s] calling” as the “riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (1:18); or elsewhere, the “hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).
The Christian’s hope is “laid up for [him] in the heavens” (Colossians 1:5), “reserved” for those who guard their faith and happily await the final dimension of their “salvation” (1 Peter 1:4-5). Such a wonderful fruition will be realized fully for the faithful at the time of the Lord’s return (Titus 2:13), and the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6).
The Christian hope is a vital component of the church’s evangelistic thrust (1 Peter 3:15). Tragically, for those who remain separated from God and his precious Son, there is “no hope” (Ephesians 2:12). Life is dismal indeed when bereft of hope!
Contrary to the claims of cultists, who see a hope for some in heaven (only 144,000 according to “Watchtower” theology), and an ultimate residence on “God’s glorified earth” for the remainder, there is but one hope—and that is heaven. And “heaven” is not a renovated earth (see Will Heaven Be on Earth?).
En route to the cross, Jesus prayed for the “oneness” of all those who profess to believe on him through the testimony of the apostles (John 17:20-22). Those who take seriously their claim of faith in Christ will work conscientiously for unity among fellow believers. They will not celebrate differences that segment people into warring factions that disgrace the name of Christ and the oneness of the Christian cause.
It is a strange circumstance that men will stress the importance of the first three verses of this context, but minimize the unity required of the second three verses. It is stranger even that commentators will maximize the few items upon which “Christendom” is mostly united, and dismiss the numerous crucial matters upon which it remains so hopelessly divided (Hunter 1959, 64-65). Surely the Lord is not pleased with such a disposition.
For more on this subject see A Divine Platform for Christian Unity.
- Barclay, William. 1959. The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.
- Bloomfield, S.T. 1837. The Greek New Testament with English Notes. Vol. 2. Boston, MA: Perkins & Marvin.
- Brian, Denis. 1996. Einstein: A Life. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.
- Bruce, F.F. 1984. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Dana, H.E. and Mantey, Julius R. 1968. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. New York, NY: The Macmillan Co.
- Danker, F.W. et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Hendriksen, William. 1979. Exposition of Ephesians – New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Hunter, Archibald M. 1959. Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians – The Layman’s Bible Commentary. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press.
- Lenski, R.C.H. 1961. The Interpretation of Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians. Minneapolis: Augsburg.
- McGarvey, J.W. and Pendleton, Philip Y. n.d. The Standard Bible Commentary – Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians and Romans. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Co.
- McGarvey, J.W. 1952. Immersion in the Holy Spirit. Lard’s Quarterly. Vol. 1. Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club.
- Moule, H.C.G. 1977. Studies in Ephesians. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.
- Mounce, William D. 2006. Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Patzia, Arthur G. 1990. Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon – New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Smith, Justin A. 1890. The Epistle to the Ephesians. Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society.
- Spicq, Ceslas. 1994. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Vol. 3. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Thayer, J.H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, England: T.&T. Clark.
- Turner, Nigel. 1982. Christian Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
- Wallace, Daniel. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.