Beneficial Behaviors in the Body.
In addition to all the matters mentioned in previous posts, there are some specific behaviors that are needed and others that must be eliminated in order to have unity in the body of Christ, as God wills (Ephesians 4:25-5:2). All these behaviors are either good or bad in and of themselves, but they also have special importance to unity.
The first behavior Paul mentions that we are to “put off” is speaking falsehood (Ephesians 4:25). Lying, deceiving and exaggeration are inappropriate and will also destroy unity. We must also make certain we do not sin when we are angry (4:26). This verse seems to acknowledge that we will indeed get angry at times but must make certain we are on guard against sinning, which is ever so common when we are angry. Many relationships have been harmed or destroyed when people act in anger. We must also make sure we do not steal (4:28). As Paul states elsewhere in regard to immorality, so with stealing—it is wrong period but especially wrong when done against a brother or sister (1 Thessalonians 4:3-6). We must also make sure we do not engage in any unwholesome talk (Ephesians 4:29). The word means “rotten, putrid, bad, vicious, foul, or impure.” Such talk, too, hurts people and relationships. Also to be eliminated are bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and malice (v. 31). We noted that anger is not always wrong (v. 26), but we must be sure to get rid of it by the end of the day (v. 26) so that it does not become the more deeply seated kind of bitterness, rage, or anger which is destructive and which must be eliminated (v. 31).
On the positive side, we are to speak truthfully to each other (v. 25). This should not be abused, however, but rather should always be done in love (v. 15). We should make sure we are working, not only to be preoccupied with something worthwhile, but also so that we will have something we can share with others (v. 28). People who share with each other learn to care for each other. We need to speak in ways that are beneficial and edifying to others, based on their needs (v. 29). And we must be kind and compassionate toward one another (v. 32). When there is genuine kindness and compassion among a group of people, it endears them to each other and holds them together.
We are also to forgive one another (v. 32). This is essential to unity. As long as we hold matters against each other, we are going to have negative feelings toward each other and focus on faults. I am struck with the simplicity of the statement in the parallel passage where Paul matter-of-factly tells us that if we have a grievance against anyone we should just forgive them (Colossians 3:13). We might object or try to make it more complicated, but Paul says just forgive. He also tells us our forgiving is to be “just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Forgiving like Christ forgave us means at very least that the other person doesn’t have to deserve it or be worthy of it. We need to be merciful as he is (Luke 6:36). What’s more, Jesus taught plainly that he will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:12, 14; 18:21-35). Most of us know this, but we don’t always act like we truly believe it. It is imperative that we forgive.
We also need to feel and practice love, as mentioned in a previous post (Ephesians 5:1-2). Notice that this instruction is accompanied by some words that give incentive for following it. To love is to follow God’s example (5:1). To love is to return the love he has for us (5:1). To love is to be like Christ (5:2). To love is to give ourselves up for others as Jesus did (5:2). To love is to offer a fragrant aroma to God (5:2). A part of the uniqueness of Christian teaching is that it includes not only how we are supposed to act but also good reasons for doing so. A closer look at the context of the teachings mentioned above shows that there, too, incentives and reasons are given for behaving in the ways described.
For example, Ephesians 4:17-24 is a rich section that goes into some detail about the change of life that has happened and needs to happen when we leave the world and come to Christ. I won’t go into it here, but that basic change is a basis for the new ways of treating other believers. The “therefore” at the beginning of 4:25 indicates these new behaviors we considered above are indeed based on the foundational change described in 4:17-24. That section is a motivational foundation for all the specific exhortations that follow it and is well worth spending time with.
In addition to the basis provided in 4:17-24, 4:25-5:2 intersperses several other reasons and motivations for the behaviors enjoined upon us. For example, a good reason to speak truth instead of falsehood is “for we are all members of one body” (4:25). Unity, our oneness in Christ, is clearly at the forefront here. A good reason not to sin in our anger or hold on to anger is that it gives the devil a foothold in our lives (v. 27). A good reason to stop stealing and to work instead is so that we will have something to share with people in need (v. 28). A good reason to get rid of unwholesome talk and add edifying talk is because the latter will actually benefit people (v. 29). This (v. 29), as well as getting rid of bitterness and rage (v. 31), are further motivated by the fact that it makes the Holy Spirit sad when we do not live according to the will of God (v. 30). Kindness, compassion, and forgiveness are motivated by the fact that God forgave us in Christ (v. 32). These motivational phrases show that we can help ourselves and other people by considering healthy Christian reasons for living well in addition to contemplating the behaviors themselves. This is true Christian exhortation: urging + specific attitudes, speech, and behaviors + good spiritual reasons for doing so.
One other dynamic worth noting in this passage is “sin replacement therapy.” In short, Paul here sometimes prohibits a certain thing followed immediately by something else we are to do instead. Don’t lie but speak truth (v. 25). Don’t steal but work and share (v. 28). Don’t engage in unwholesome talk but speak helpful, upbuilding words (v. 29). Get rid of bitterness, rage and anger and replace them with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness (vv. 31-32). Focusing on the negative can set our minds on the flesh and lead to more sin (cf. Romans 7:7-8). Instead, we need to set our minds on the things of the Spirit and follow his ways (Romans 8:5-13, for more on setting our minds on the Spirit, see post).
For those practical souls who like nuts and bolts, Ephesians 4:25-5:2 is goldmine for behaviors that are beneficial to the body of Christ and that will preserve the unity of the Spirit. But the section and context also remind us that these are not mere legalistic requirements. There are many good reasons and incentives for living in these beneficial ways. We can cooperate with God’s purpose of uniting everyone in Christ by training ourselves to live in these ways and remembering them even when tension arises in our churches or relationships.