Ephesians 4:4–7, 14–16, 25–32comment (0)
December 30, 2010
By Scott McGinnis
Related Scripture: Ephesians 4:4–7, 14–16, 25–32
Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Department of Religion, Samford University
A Lifestyle of Community
Ephesians 4:4–7, 14–16, 25–32
Is it possible to be a Christian without being a part of a Christian community? The 20th-century German Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the short book “Life Together” based on his experiences as part of the Christian movement in Nazi Germany that opposed Adolf Hitler. For Bonhoeffer, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.” We learn to love one another only through Christ, and we come to love Christ more fully as we meet Him in our fellow Christians. We really do need each other.
Needing each other and finding a way to live with one another are, however, two different things. The perennial human problem is that we act in ways that keep us from what we need most. Adam’s first instinct upon being discovered in his sin by God was to break community with his partner: He blamed Eve, and indirectly God, for his own decision (Gen. 3:12). Ever after, like a patient parent, God repeatedly calls the faithful together: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” the Psalmist observed (Ps. 133:1), and part of the pleasantness perhaps lies in its rarity.
The Foundation for Community (4–7)
The Letter to the Ephesians bases it call for unity in the oneness of the God who calls the Christian community into being. The Roman world that the first Christians inhabited was filled with stories of pagan gods constantly at war with one another, their relationships marked by petty jealousies and insults, craven desires for power and incessant scheming. In contrast, Christians drew from their Jewish roots the grounding of their faith in an unshakeable monotheism: God is one (Deut. 6:4). So this passage, which may have been an early Christian confession or liturgy, assumes that the nature of the Church should mirror the nature of the God it worships.
Bringing a diverse group of Christians together is much easier said than done, which is why this hymn to unity is introduced by the admonition that we are to act with humility, gentleness and patience, so that we can bear with one another in love (v. 2). The community envisioned here is no pie-in-the-sky utopia, since perfect communities presumably don’t require “bearing with” each other. Indeed Bonhoeffer argued that such idealism was one of the greatest enemies of real community, since it causes us to sit on the sidelines always waiting for the perfect moment to get in the game. The person who looks for the perfect church to join will spend a lifetime searching and no time belonging.
The Purpose of Community (14–16)
While no sane person seeks out conflict, neither should we avoid it at all costs. In fact, finding ways to deal constructively and creatively with disagreements in the church is a mark of “growing up in every way” into Christ. The key lies in that deceptively simply phrase, “speaking the truth in love.” It is not hard to imagine the great harm that could be wrought in the church under the banner of truth-telling, and the admonition to do so “in love” calls to mind Paul’s marvelous reflection on the greatest of the virtues (1 Cor. 13).
At the same time, Christians should care about one another just as they care about their own bodies. (I don’t want my doctor to avoid telling me that my habits are making me sick solely because he is worried he might hurt my feelings.) We should care enough about one another to tell the truth about our hopes and fears, joys and hurts, especially when we’ve been hurt by one another. Working toward a common life that excludes no member of the church is one way the body “builds itself up in love.”
The Characteristics of Community (25–32)
Modern people, particularly Americans, are marked by a sense of individualism that was not characteristic of the ancient world. We tend to think of ourselves as individuals first and only then as part of something larger than ourselves. Thus the notion that we are “members of one another” has a hard time finding a place in our way of thinking as anything other than an occasionally useful analogy.
However, Ephesians pushes us to be willing to give up even this basic part of ourselves, know ourselves as part of a larger whole and act accordingly. As we learn to speak truthfully, be angry without sinning, find satisfaction in honest work, discover one another anew in rich relationships of forgiving love — when we do all these things — we begin to understand something of the God who has forgiven us “in Christ.”