Emphasize Major Matters.
In order to cooperate with God’s purpose of uniting humanity in Christ, we also need to emphasize the major matters of the faith that we all share in common. After the exhortation to be humble and make every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:2-3), Paul wrote:
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism;one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
These words have been described as the theological foundations for unity, and I won’t dispute that point. I’m not sure, however, that description helps us grasp what he is saying. I heard the verses referred to that way decades ago but still didn’t get the point. In context, Paul is saying that, if we want to be united, we need to focus on the major matters we all share in common.
These seven major matters may or may not be a comprehensive list. It surprises me that the resurrection and love are not included. At the same time I don’t want to add to the inspired list or try to establish a more “definitive list.” Instead, I think we do well to view these as illustrations of the need to emphasize the major truths every believer shares.
Unfortunately, we can have disputes even over some of the specific aspects of these major matters. I haven’t figured out how solve that, but I will share a few basics about each one as I understand it, focusing on how it unites us.
The one body is Christ’s universal church. Every disciple of Jesus is a part of it. Earlier in Ephesians Paul wrote that people as different as Jews and Gentiles are all reconciled to God in one body (Ephesians 2:14-18). Like a human body, we are all connected, though different, and each of us “belongs to one another” (Romans 12:5). There is no room for any part of the body to feel inferior to others (1 Corinthians 12:15-20) nor superior (1 Corinthians 12:21-26). Sadly, though, the body of Christ sometimes suffers from auto-immune disease.
The one and same Holy Spirit lives inside everyone who is in Christ (Ephesians 1:13-14). If anyone does not have the Spirit, they do not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9). Like the first century Jews, we may sometimes have difficulty thinking the Spirit could be poured out on certain “other types” of people (Acts 10:44-48), but God gives his Spirit to every believer and that indicates they are welcome to him (Acts 15:8). Regardless of the various kinds of gifts, ministries or workings of the Spirit among us, they all come from the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 4:4-6). The Spirit is also the source of our unity (Ephesians 4:3).
When God calls us through the gospel, we are called to one hope (Ephesians 4:4). This hope is described variously as Christ (Colossians 1:27; 1 Timothy 1:1), grace (1 Peter 1:13), the hope that Christ will return (Titus 2:13) and raise us from the dead (Acts 23:6; 24:15), will transform our bodies (Philippians 3:21), will make us like him (1 John 3:2-3), and will give us eternal life (Titus 1:2; 3:7) and salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:8) with him and his father in heaven (Colossians 1:5). These are magnificent promises that every Christ-follower shares and that help hold us together.
The one Lord is Jesus. We refuse to attribute absolute authority to anyone or anything else (1 Corinthians 8:5-6). We are held together by our common devotion and submission to Christ the Lord. On a practical note, related to unity, we also remember that no one in the church is Lord either. Since no human being was crucified for us nor were we baptized in the name of any human, we refuse to identify ourselves as people who belong to anyone or anything else (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). Personally I am even trying to stop identifying myself as any certain kind of Christian (such as progressive, conservative, evangelical, etc.) Further, since we are all Christ’s servants, it is inappropriate for us to judge servants who belong to someone else (Romans 14:4).
The one faith could be a reference to “the faith” (Acts 6:7; 14:22; 1 Corinthians 16:13; Jude 3), as a synonym for Christianity or the body of Christian teachings. Since “the” is not present in Ephesians 4:5, however, I tend to think he is referring to our common trust in Jesus as Lord and Christ (Romans 3:22; Galatians 2:16; Philippians 3:9; Colossians 1:4). Our belief in him and confession of him is something we all share, and it holds us together.
The one baptism entails both an immersion in water and the work and reception of the Holy Spirit. Those who are baptized with faith in Christ receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39). The Holy Spirit is also the true baptizer, so that we are born “of water and the Spirit.” The single preposition “of” (Greek ek) governs both nouns and indicates that Jesus was not referring to two different births (physical and spiritual) but rather to two aspects of one birth (water and Spirit). Titus 3:5 points to the same truth and also states overtly that the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit is not a righteous thing we have done to save ourselves (Titus 3:5). Rather, God is the one who gives new life through his Spirit when we respond to him by being baptized in faith.
Combining three elements in the list, Paul writes,
“For just as the body is one and yet has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13, NASB).
We all shared the one baptism by the one Spirit into the one body and consequently received the one Spirit. Notice the emphasis on unity in this passage as well. The dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Greeks that is mentioned in Ephesians 2:11-18 Is referred to here also. But what we share in common is greater than that divide.
There is only one God and Father. Even Father, Son, and Spirit are one (Mark 12:29; John 17:11; Romans 8:9-11). Notice the repeated word “all.” God is the Father of us all, is over us all, works through us all, and is in us all. One thing the common Fatherhood of God means for us is that we ought not to be unfaithful toward one another (Malachi 2:10).
These major matters that we all share in common help hold us together, and they must be emphasized. If we don’t see eye to eye on every aspect of them, perhaps we can garner the attitudes of Ephesians 4:2, keep our commitment to Ephesians 4:3, and have a peaceful discussion about it. Should not fellow servants of the One Lord seek both to gently help each other and humbly learn from each other instead of judging one another (Romans 14:4; 15:14).
Unfortunately, we tend not to emphasize these major matters. Our seem to quickly tire of these central truths and, like the Athenians of old, give our attention to new and controversial matters (Acts 17:21). It’s true that will liven up our Bible class discussions, but I’m not real sure that is our purpose. Paul warns us about “…controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth … (1 Timothy 6:4-5). Some people have “an unhealthy interest” in these things, but whether that is true for us or not, focusing on controversy will bear the ugly and destructive fruit mentioned in the passage. I have seen it with my own eyes and unfortunately even been guilty of some of it.
That’s why the Spirit inspired Paul to write in Romans 14 that in disputable matters, stronger believers should sacrifice their preference so that other people are not grieved or destroyed, as long as it does not violate their consciences to do so. One important basis for this instruction is the same as what we read in 1 Timothy and Ephesians, namely, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Recognizing that eating and drinking here refers to the controversial issues of their day, we might say, God’s kingdom is not about controversial or disputable issues but about living righteous lives and sharing a common peace and joy by the power of the Holy Spirit. That should be our focus.
I realize this doesn’t solve all the problems we have with unity. But as stated previously, this is God’s word and wisdom for us from Ephesians 4:4-6, and we really do need to heed it.