What does Christian unity look like in the Bible, especially as it applies to this study going forward?

Our group began our study of unity in Ephesians 4:1–16.

1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 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. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 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. (Ephesians 4:1-16 ESV)

We discovered these verses have a wealth of powerful information about the source of unity and the goal of unity in the body of Christ. The importance of unity is immediately obvious as Paul uses the word “one” seven times in one sentence (v. 4–6).

  • One body
  • One Spirit
  • One hope
  • One Lord (Jesus)
  • One faith
  • One baptism
  • One God and Father.

We observed that Paul started this discussion of unity by listing some fruit of the Spirit — humility, gentleness, patience, and love — as part of our calling. This is our first clue that we can only do unity by asking God to do something in us — a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. It would seem then that surrendering to the Holy Spirit rather than self helps to lead to unity.

Let’s start by exploring love, which seems to command some emphasis here by being mentioned repeatedly (v. 2, 15, 16). 1 Corinthians 13 also makes a clear case for elevating love above other virtues:

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13:13 ESV)

What would it look like in a Christian community if everyone was pursuing love above all other actions? What would it look like if all Christians entered into relationship seeking to hear and understand the other person, rather than trying to first promote our own point-of-view? What if all of our words were spoken as a blessing, trying to encourage and build each other up?

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,
(Ephesians 4:11-13 ESV)

These verses clearly give responsibility to the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers to equip the saints and build up the body of Christ. However, do these verses, or any other Scriptures, suggest that those with these gifts are the only ones who equip and build up the body?

So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. (1 Corinthians 14:12 ESV)

In the above verse, Paul is addressing all of the believers in Corinth with instructions to build up the church.

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.
(1 Corinthians 12:24-25 ESV)

It seems that all of these Scriptures taken together suggest that the responsibility for building up and equipping the body is carried first by those gifted as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers and, second, by the whole body. As we continue to look into Ephesians 4:11-13 as a call to leaders and the body in general to equip and build one another up, we must continue to keep at the front of our minds the call to love. Verse 15 returns us to love (“speaking the truth in love”). We return to the emphasis that everything we do in pursuing maturity and unity must be covered in love. Maturity and unity cannot be achieved unless all parts of the body, especially leaders, are operating out of love rather than self-protection.

As we continue to progress through this Ephesians 4 passage, we see the ultimate goal of maturity and unity — to “grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ.” Christ is at once our source for unity and our goal in unity. There is a divine order with Jesus as the head — the brains, if you will — and the rest of us as the body, joined together, each working together to do the part we were designed to do. No part of the body can function without the head. Not a single muscle in the arm can move with purpose without a signal from the head. And not a single one of us can accomplish anything towards God’s purposes without a constant connection to the Head, Jesus Christ.

The contrast to this divine order with Jesus as the head is described in verse 14:

so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:14 ESV)

This verse describes disorder, chaos, and an immature body that is led away from the truth. This entire Ephesians 4 section concludes in verse 16 with a “so that.” What is the “so that?” So that the body builds itself up in love. The building cannot be done without love.

This image of the church seen as a body working together in the way the human body works together is central to the next passage our group turned to — 1 Corinthians 12.

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:4–31 ESV)

This passage exists within the context of a discussion on spiritual gifts. But is it only about spiritual gifts? There is a profound message about unity in this passage — a unity that grows out of our differences. It is significant to start looking into this passage in verses 4–6. First of all, these few verses mention gifts… service… and activities. This is one clue that this passage may apply more broadly than a strict discussion of spiritual gifts, stretching to a discussion of all the things we do as believers. Yet the real eye-opener in these few verses is the reference to the Trinity. Note that in verse 4 the gifts are paired with the Spirit; in verse 5 service is paired with the Lord (Jesus); in verse 6 activities is paired with “the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” The full cooperation of all the Trinity, working in perfect unity, oversees our gifts, services, and activities as the body of Christ. No member of the Triune God operates outside of this united relationship with One another.

So that is the backdrop for moving into a discussion on how we followers of God operate as one body with many members. Just try to imagine for a minute a disembodied hand trying to function in this world on its own. Comical, right? That’s what we look like when we try to do this Christian life on our own. Even if we partner with our closest friends, we might not be doing much more than living as a disembodied hand and arm. How about the eye and ear and mouth getting together to try to accomplish something? How will they get anywhere without hands and feet? We need the whole body! Joined together! We have absolutely no Biblical grounds to live like we have no need of another member of the body of Christ. People are not dispensable.

Now take a really close look at this verse in 1 Cor. 12.

On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable (1 Corinthians 12:22 ESV)

Indispensable. Pick someone who you think may not be as strong a Christian as you are — maybe someone not quite as far along on the maturity scale. That person is indispensable to you. Pick a believer that has hurt you deeply, maybe even with a grievous sin. That one is indispensable too. The attitude of members of the body of Christ as we approach every other believer should be, “This person is indispensable to me and I cannot do what Christ has called me to do without this person.” What if leaders, who we presume to be the strongest, had the attitude that they cannot be the leaders that God has called them to be without the input of the weakest believer in their church? And what role does that indispensable person play? Is it just an act of service like putting away the chairs or serving the coffee? Or could it be valuable insight into the Scriptures?

As our group sought a Biblical answer to that question we looked at this verse of 1 Cor. 12:

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV)

Is there an example in the Bible of this verse put into practice? This is the Apostle Paul, writing a letter to the believers in Corinth. In this verse, he is writing about unity and about suffering. Wouldn’t it be great if there was another place where Paul went into more detail about what it actually looks like to suffer in unity? As it turns out, Paul wrote another letter to the Corinthians and he did just that.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
(2 Corinthians 1:3–7 ESV)

The word “comfort,” in its various forms, appears ten times in this passage. The Greek word used here is “parakaleo.” The word means more than just coming alongside to give solace. It has meanings such as beseech, exhort, entreat. This begins to look like urging someone to do something. As we study this 2 Corinthians passage, we need to keep this meaning in mind. When we suffer affliction, God draws near. He draws near to help carry the burden, but He also provides exhortation — urging to some action. We learn something from Him. When we receive “parakaleo” from God, we are able to provide “parakaleo” to others. When we are afflicted, it is for the “parakaleo” of others in the body. Others share in our sufferings so they can share in our “parakaleo.” Now bring that concept of comfort and exhortation back to 1 Corinthians 12:26 ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” This also takes us back to the equipping and building up in Ephesians 4. Again, we have to ask, doesn’t it seem that the equipping and building up responsibility falls to all the members of the body? And shouldn’t we be looking to even the weakest and lowliest members of the body for some of the equipping and building up?

As one of the members of our discussion group stated, she has observed that one who suffers due to personal sin or the sin around them is “marked for the circumstance, but not honored for the exhortation that you can give from what you have learned.” Is that the way the body of Christ should operate, based on these Scriptures?

As we discussed these various Scriptures, we began to see a picture they paint of a body that is moving toward unity and maturity in love, strengthening one another because each member has a piece to share about how God has comforted and exhorted them. As we share these testimonies (stories) about what God has done in us, we build each other up, driving us closer to unity and maturity. The goal of our stories should always be pointing others toward growing up into Jesus (Ephesians 4:15), sharing how our stories are a part of His story.

In summary, it seems that achieving unity and maturity takes a tremendous amount of hard work and discipline. It also requires us recognizing our own immaturity where it exists, allowing each and every member of the body permission to comfort and exhort us. Above all, it demands hearts filled with love which can only come from the Spirit of God working in lives transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This discussion opened up a number of new questions for us to pursue. It also reinforced for us the need to grow and work together in community in the Body of Christ, which is the reason we have come together for this Bible Study. And it keeps us open to the viewpoints of other members of the body of Christ who would like to have a voice in our conversations, either by meeting with us weekly or by following our blog and replying with thoughts of their own, speaking the truth in love.

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