What is God’s responsibility for unity and what are the believers’ responsibilities?
In the first section of Ephesians 4, Paul makes reference to unity or describes unity. The oneness of the faith in vss. 3 – 5 stresses a theological unity. Vss. 11-14 describe leadership roles that build up the maturity of the body in unity. Inferred unity in vss. 15 – 16 described by a complete working body.
Unity was important. The Ephesian church, centered in a city that was a social and economic power house, completed with a multitude of world views and religions . It was very easy for different outside unorthodox views to creep in and cause disunity among the believers. Keeping unity was important to keep the mission of the church growing and thriving.
But the question remains, what is man’s work and what is God’s – the Holy Spirit’s – work? Starting in vs. 1, Paul calls the believers to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (emphasis mine). The effort in the form of walking ( a euphemism for living a daily life) is the first instruction. The details of this walk come in vs. 2:
“with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”
In vs. 3, Paul introduces unity of the (Holy) Spirit. The concept is then described further by vss. 4-5:
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (vss. 4-5)
The verse continues the theme of theological unity. So it appears that the believer’s job is to live a life based upon attributes given by the Holy Spirit. This is the life that believers live, bound by a commonality of believing as revealed by the Holy Spirit. These concepts are further borne out in vss. 15-16:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (vss. 15-16)
Unity in living right and having a unified theology is the mark of the mature believer. As the believer, empowered by the Holy Spirit, walks rightly and adheres to the theology revealed by that same Holy Spirit, he becomes more “in Christ.” By being “in Christ,” the believer is now joined (unified) to the other believers, making up the whole body.
What is it about the Gentiles that Paul wants believers to avoid?
Paul starts off this section of the passage in vs. 17 with a clear declaration against the lifestyle of the Gentiles:
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” (vs. 17)
Notice that there are two parts to this – walking (living) and thinking. Paul is calling the Ephesian church away from the lifestyle and worldview of those who surround them. Recalling the environment mentioned in Interpretation #1, Ephesus was a commercial center and metropolis. It is also a good assumption that a number of the members of the Ephesian church came out of the Gentile community. This background will be important to understand what Paul is calling the church to do.
What Paul might be specifically referring to is a popular Greek religious practice of worshiping the god Dionysus (or Bacchus). The practices of worship for this god, the god of wine, included much of what Paul refers .
“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” (vss. 18-19)
The Ephesian church needed to be careful not to integrate the Dionysian practices or the practices of many other cults and religions that would have been brought in to the Ephesus. Paul instead calls the church to a better way of living.
“But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (vss. 20-23)
Indeed, Paul refers to the old way the believers in Ephesus lived and then encouraged them to think differently (renewing of the mind) and live differently, “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Our culture surrounds us. It is inescapable. Our culture affects how we talk, dress, eat, and think. It affects our entertainment (music, dance, theater, movies) and influences our politics. Culture is an expression of the worldview of those who are living in the culture. For the Ephesians, their culture was in a lot of ways similar to the American metropolitan experience. Many diverse cultures came together with many different worldviews. The coming together of all of these worldviews and cultures created a culture in and of itself.
It reminds me of living near Boston, MA. That city was a city built on a Puritan foundation. However, it is now the seat of the materialistic and humanistic thinking of Harvard and MIT (OK, they are in Cambridge, but that is right across the Charles River from Boston). The Christian Science Center represents Eastern mysticism, and Evangelical Christian beliefs have a home in Park Street Church. Leftist progressive politics rule the State House on Beacon Hill, but a variety of political views abound from the soap boxes at the head of the Boston Commons. One can take in the music, art, theater, and food from a multitude of diverse cultural experiences throughout the city. Boston is a modern-day Ephesus.
The modern-day Christian comes to faith within the context of the culture he/she lives. But being “in Christ” means elevating out of the culture and into a new way of thinking and living. Living “in Christ” means that we are living according to the life that Jesus led and are living by the power of the Holy Spirit. This tension can sometimes put the Christian at odds with the culture.
In Boston, the Christian believers can enjoy the benefits of a diverse culture, but that cultural worldview should have a distant second place to the thinking and living “in righteousness and holiness.” This tension has been from the beginning of the church and will continue until Christ returns. But for the community of believers – the church – to influence the culture, they must remain distinct. I’ve heard it said once, “it is good for a boat to be in the water, but it is bad for water to be in the boat.” We as Christians will have a voice if remain true to who we are in Christ and live lives that represent who He is by the power of the Holy Spirit.