ephesians 4:1-16: unity in the body of Christ
Chapter four of Ephesians begins with Paul describing how we, as Christians, are to unite in one faith:
2 Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. 3 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. 4 For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. 5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism,6 and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all.
(vv. 2-6, NLT).
Two thousand years later, I wonder what Paul would make of the proliferation of denominations proclaiming the Christian faith. Without too much mental strain, we can easily rattle off a list: Assembly of God. Baptist. Catholic. Congregational. Disciples of Christ. Episcopalian. Friends. Lutheran. Methodist. Mennonite. Presbyterian.
I find it remarkable that both the Metropolitan Community Church and Westboro Baptist Church identify as Christian. Is there a single Christian faith? A single church?
I think there is. To illustrate the unity of the Christian church, I’m going to tell you about my dogs.
Years ago I owned a pair of basset hounds. Grace and Glory were sisters, littermates, even adjacent in birth order. They were also about as different from one another as two dogs could be. Gracie was a clever, active imp. She greeted each day wiggling with enthusiasm for its inherent opportunities to make mischief. Glory, just five minutes younger, was quiet, calm, and eager for everyone to be happy. (She was the household peacemaker, not a small task in a family that included two dogs, two cats, a potbellied pig, and a big, mean lizard—and humans. But that’s a tale for another day.)
My neighbor had an Anatolian Shepherd. The beast was majestic, dignified, and aloof. He was also content to be solitary. His human, Mark, could describe Brutus’ temperament with the same detail that I could provide for my hound-girls. But Mark saw my two bassets as “alike,” yet quite different from Brutus.
An individual unfamiliar with dogs might see Brutus, Gracie, and Glory as “the same.” And indeed, they were all dogs, and shared all the essential canine traits, despite their differences.
We might look upon our denominational differences the same way I’ve described these dogs. When you know a denomination as well as I knew my basset hounds, you can spot differences even between two congregations within that same denomination. If you are unfamiliar with the Christian faith, the denominations all seem the same.
We would do well, I think, to remember that people outside the faith don’t make the distinctions that we do. When a pastor strays, when a congregation behaves hatefully, the world shakes its head at us hypocritical, vicious Christians.
It’s tempting to console ourselves with the notion that “those other guys aren’t real Christians.” But it’s wrong. We’re told over and over, throughout Scripture, to forgive one another, to “make allowances for each other’s faults,” as Paul puts it in this passage. We’re also told that judgment is reserved for God. And we’re exhorted, here, to be united in our faith, not divided by it.
It’s all about perspective, you see. And it is possible that our God (Whose ways are not our ways) sees not dozens of denominations, but One Christian Church, Unified. Maybe He chooses to focus on our similarities instead of our differences. Maybe the interdenominational squabbles and bickering are invisible to He Who does not look upon sin.
Maybe, in a lovely paradox, the One Who sees all and knows all, looks upon the church(es) today and draws the same conclusion, albeit for different reasons, as the casual unbeliever:
They’re all part of a single church.
Paul knew that maintaining unity would be difficult. Look again at verse three, wherein he advises us to “make every effort” to remain united. It’s easy to chalk the difficulty up to our sinful nature, our fallen world. It’s so, so human to want to distance ourselves from others whose practices differ, who are embroiled in scandal, or who behave in ways we understand to be unchristian.
What might happen if instead we asked ourselves:
What efforts are we making to unite?
What similarities can we build upon?
What could a unified Christian church accomplish?