Selections on New Creation Week 6
Associate Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry
Read this week’s Scripture: Ephesians 1–4
Everyone needs community. We all need each other if we are to flourish as people. Studies across the disciplines — psychology, anthropology, sociology — have shown that interaction with other persons is needed for nearly every positive marker of health and vitality. However, precisely how people define community and its function can vary greatly. Some see it as a means of protection or sustenance, others as entertainment, and still others as insulation from the rest of the world. We have all experienced community as each of these things. But followers of Jesus have always defined the nature and function of Christian community in a very particular way. The name of this sort of community is called “church.”
But defining the precise nature and function of church can be quite challenging. Is it the means by which Christ is present to us? Is it simply when and where Christians come together? Is it the springboard for God’s reconciling work in the world? All of these definitions hold merit. To combine these understandings, we might say that the church is where God engages us in community so that we might be equipped by the Holy Spirit to be disciples of Jesus in his mission.
However, this definition could include many things. Many insist that they can get what they need for the sustenance of their faith outside of what we typically think of as “church.” In fact, most of us could point to times when we have experienced God’s presence, nourishing community, or spiritual equipping in a variety of “non-churchy” ways — a hike in nature, a small group, prayer, reading Scripture, just to name a few. So what is the usefulness of church? Is it merely one more resource for my personal faith development that may or may not work properly for me at any given time or place? In an age when we have access to countless resources for growing in our faith, are we approaching a post-church era? Why do we need the church?
This is actually not a new question, but rather a very old one. In the epistle to the Ephesians, in defining the nature and function of the church, Paul speaks about some of the things that he sees as indispensable to the conception of Christian community. In this Lectio we’ll walk through the first four chapters of the letter, and then we’ll try to draw some conclusions regarding the nature and function of the church.
Theological Foundations of the Church: Ephesians 1–3
The epistle to the Ephesians has been called the “queen of the epistles,” [Author’s Note 1] displaying the heart of Paul’s message to the Christian church in perhaps its most lucid and eloquent form. Probably written as a general encyclical, Ephesians speaks of the theological foundation of the church (chapters 1–3) and of the lived experience of the church (chapters 4–6). In other words, Paul speaks of the church’s objective nature in Christ, and how that nature is made subjectively real in the work of the Holy Spirit.
First, what is this theological foundation upon which the church resides? Succinctly, it is that the eternal will of God takes shape in the world through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that the church continues to discern and participate in that will as those who remain connected to (or “in”) their Lord. This will of God is a “mystery” (Ephesians 1:9), and yet it has been made known to us: “to gather up all things in him” (1:10). The church, then, is made up of those who have been “destined” and “adopt[ed]” (1:5) to carry out this purpose — to be the agents of God’s gathering up. As followers of Christ, we have been given an “inheritance” (1:11), made into people who inhabit a new heritage, who live according to Christ’s “counsel and will” (1:11). This drives us toward a life that is hopeful (1:12), that brings glory to God, and that is marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit (1:13).
To live this sort of life, Paul prays that the church might be given “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him” (1:17), so that we might grasp our own identity as people of hope and calling — an identity that finds its grounding in God’s “greatness” and “power” (1:19). This greatness has been glimpsed in Christ’s resurrection and ascension (1:20), and continues to be expressed in Christ’s placement as “head over all things for the church” (1:22), which is “his body, the fullness of him” (1:23). In sum, the church is made up of those people who follow Jesus into the hinterlands of God’s will, which we might come to know, even if only in part.
Second, how might the church live out this impossibly high calling to be a people of God’s will? Paul links Christ’s resurrection to our own. We were once “dead” (2:1) to our true identity. We have lived in embrace of our “trespasses and sins” (2:1), followed “the course of this world” (2:2), succumbed to “the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (2:2), and given way to “the desires of flesh and senses” (2:3). In other words, we have embraced a life of discipleship to ungodly things that command our allegiance rather than obediently following our true Lord. But Paul sets this state of death in light of God’s “great love” (2:4) and mercy; “by grace” (2:5), meaning by God’s good will, we have been made “alive together with Christ” (2:5) even in the midst of our sin.
Yet this resurrection is not something that we have achieved on our own — it is a “gift of God” (2:8), “not the result of works” (2:9). Further, this new life is not even something that we possess to do with what we want. What we have received is not a status or ability. Rather, we have received a connection with our Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are “in Christ Jesus” (2:7), the exalted Lord, and it is only in connection to him that we have this new life. Through this connection Christ exhibits “the immeasurable riches of his grace” (2:7) in our renewed identity, and we receive our commission to live out that identity, “which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:10). In sum, despite our sin, we are enabled by God to be people of the divine will by the power of the Holy Spirit, which connects us to Jesus the Lord.
Third, what is the lived-out nature of this renewed identity? What does it look like to be a person of the church — a Spirit-enabled follower of Jesus and doer of God’s will? Paul gives a concrete example of what it means to embody the connection we have with God in Christ. Gentiles (those who are not Jewish) have been “aliens” (2:12) to Israel and therefore “strangers to the covenants of promise” (2:12) that the Jewish people have received. Without this history embedded in the life of God’s people Israel, Gentiles do not apprehend the presence of “God in the world” (2:12) and therefore have “no hope” (2:12). But Christ has made a way for those who are “far off” (2:13) to be “brought near” (2:13), “[breaking] down the dividing wall” (2:14) between Gentile and Jew, making “both groups into one” (2:14). Each group is connected to their Lord, and through this mutual connection, they are “one new humanity in place of the two” (2:15).
It is therefore not the Jewish law that demarcates inclusion in the people of God, but rather connection to Christ. Within this connection, Christ has “reconcile[d] both groups to God in one body” (2:16), and has put to death not only that which divides us from God, but also that which has divided us from each other. All those who are in Christ have received the same Spirit and “have access” (2:18) to the same Father. Thus Gentiles are no longer strangers but fellow “citizens” (2:19) with Israel in the “household of God” (2:19), a household that rests upon the foundational work of God’s prophets and Jesus’ apostles, but most principally upon the person and work of Jesus, by whom this household becomes a “holy temple” (2:21). It is in Christ, then, that all “are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (2:22). In sum, the connection that we have with God is expressed in the connection that we have with one another, a oneness that embodies our message of reconciliation.
Fourth, how do we know that these things are true? Paul gives an account of why the readers of this letter ought to take what he says as “gospel” (3:6), or “good news.” He points out that he was himself commissioned by Jesus to be a mediator of “God’s grace” (3:2) and the “mystery” (3:3) of God’s plan made known in Christ (3:3). This mystery, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is presently available through the wisdom of apostles and prophets (3:6), and not only to Israel, but to all people. Paul identifies himself as “a servant” (3:7) who, thanks to God’s grace and empowerment, has been tasked with bringing this good news to all, especially “the Gentiles” (3:8), so that they might “see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (3:9). In sum, we can trust the one who proclaims the gospel because he has himself experienced the truth of what he preaches.
Fifth, what role does the church play in relation to the mystery of God’s purpose? Paul states that it is “through the church [that] the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known” (3:10), especially to its “rulers and authorities” (3:10). This mediation of the wisdom of God — through Christ, through apostles and prophets, through Paul, and through the church — is “in accordance with [God’s] purpose” (3:11). Paul then prays for the church, that it might be empowered for this great responsibility, be “strengthened in [its] inner being with power through his Spirit” (3:16), and experience the presence of Jesus through faith, thereby being “rooted and grounded in love” (3:17).
He prays that the church will know the vastness of God’s purpose (3:18) — a purpose of which it is a central part — and the love that encapsulates that purpose, a love that is greater that all knowledge and that is found in Christ (3:19). The encounter of this love will, more than anything else, lead to the “fullness of God” (3:19). It is only by the power of God within us that the church will be able to accomplish its purpose (3:20). In sum, the church expresses the breadth and depth of God’s wisdom and purpose, but only as we are grounded in the love of God that comes with the presence and empowerment of the Spirit.
Now What? Ephesians 4
Having built a theological foundation upon which the church can understand itself, Paul turns then to what it means on a practical level to inhabit such an identity that is “worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1). Paul urges the church to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3), which will require “humility,” “gentleness,” “patience,” forbearance, and mutual love (4:2). Just as the purpose of the church is grounded in the purpose of God, Paul explains that the oneness of the church is grounded in the oneness of God; the church is “one body” (4:4) because all those in that body are empowered by the same Spirit, motivated by the same hope, following the same Lord, sharing the same faith, practicing the same ritual of baptism, and worshiping the same God who inhabits the great diversity present in the church.
The unity-in-diversity of the church is seen in the great range of gifts present in its members. Some are “apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (4:11). But all should use those gifts to equip others for the common ministry of the church, “building up the body of Christ” (4:12). The focus of the gift-empowered ministry of the church is to bring its members to “unity of the faith,” “knowledge of the Son of God,” and “maturity” (4:13), all of which are interlinked. We are called to “no longer be children” (4:14) without wisdom and discernment, but rather to grow into our identity as people who know and live both truth and love, an identity given to us by virtue of our inclusion in the body whose head is Christ (4:15). Paul reminds us that it is Christ who unites the body under a common lordship, equips the body for its common work, and “promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (4:16).
However, to embrace this unity, knowledge, and maturity, transformation is needed. If those in the church are to embrace a new identity, they must let go of parts of an old one. We “must no longer live as” those who think wrongly (4:17), who are “alienated from the life of God” (4:18) because of “ignorance and hardness of heart” (4:18). Paul says this lack of “sensitivity” (4:19) of mind and will has led to licentiousness and impurity. To know Christ rightly we must do away with the “old self” (4:22), corrupted and deluded by misguided will, and “be renewed in the spirit of [our] minds” (4:23) as the “new self” (4:24). Our new understanding of Christ begets a new understanding of our identity with him, recreated as righteous and holy.
Therefore, we are called to actually live out this identity of righteousness and holiness. To do otherwise would be to embrace “falsehood” (4:25). Righteousness and holiness are reflected in how we treat one another, says Paul. We should speak truthfully. Our anger should not lead to sin, nor should it be allowed to fester and lead to further evil. We should not take what is not ours, but rather should make our living through honest work and share freely the fruit of our labor with those in need. Our words should not be “evil” (4:29), but rather should be used to build others up and to “give grace to those who hear” (4:29). We should “put away” (4:22) bitterness, wrath, fighting, lying, and ill-will, and instead “clothe [our]selves” (4:24) with kindness, tenderness, and forgiveness, as we have seen demonstrated by Christ. To do otherwise is to be alienated from the presence and work of the Holy Spirit (to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” in 4:30), who has marked us as new and is working toward the redemption of all through us.
What is the Church?
The letter of Ephesians shows us that, like today, the nature and function of the church was historically a topic of much thought and debate. The earliest Christians considered the church to be central to the following of Jesus. But, despite the proclamations of Paul, there continued to be some question about how exactly to define what the church was and what it was for. These discussions seemed to come to a place of resolution in their first official confession of faith. The Nicene Creed, formalized in 381 A.D., outlines what Christians consider to be the basics of orthodoxy, or right belief. Included amongst declarations concerning faith, creation, Trinity, Jesus, salvation, and the Holy Spirit is a statement about the nature and function of the church. In the Nicene Creed, Christians affirm that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” These adjectives are called the “Four Marks of the Church.” But what do they mean? What does it mean that we believe that Christian community is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” and how does that relate to the nature and function of the church? Let’s try to answer that with reference to Ephesians.
What does it mean that the church is “one”? Before the schisms that broke apart the church, this adjective was easy to understand. There was only one Christian institution, and every local congregation of Christians was a part of it. But today, with tens of thousands of denominations, not to mention all those churches that do not align with any denomination, how do we define the oneness of the church?
Paul was big on the oneness of the church. In Ephesians 4:4–6 alone he mentions it seven times. But he did not define the Church’s oneness institutionally. Rather, for him, the oneness of the Church is in Christ. [Author’s Note 2] We are one because we all worship and follow the same Lord, and we are all empowered by the same Spirit for the same mission. This makes us one with each other in both our nature and our function. We are a people joined together in following Christ by the power of the Spirit, tasked with fulfilling God’s purpose in the world together. Perhaps another adjective we could use to mean the same thing would be “united.” The church is united.
What does it mean that the church is “holy”? This adjective is often misunderstood, with some thinking that “holy” refers to people who live in monasteries or who pray all day. Though monks or mystics may certainly be holy, holiness is a quality to which the whole church is called. Holy simply means “set apart,” so the fact that the church is holy means that it is set apart from the world — not necessarily physically, but vocationally. We are called to be people of God and nothing else, and that will mean making some choices that look different than the choices others make.
Paul speaks of the holiness of the church both in what it is and what it does. We are grounded in Christ and not in the world, and we are here to live out our identity within Christ’s body as empowered by the Spirit, not to live out the identity of the “old self.” Paul says that the church is different than the world in that the church is to embody a love that imitates God’s love for us, a love that draws us together. In this way the church is set apart from the world to be a channel of God’s purpose, and that purpose is found in the love that it embodies and extolls. [Author’s Note 3] We are called to follow Jesus and nothing else, and that will set us apart in nature and function. Perhaps another adjective we could use to mean the same thing would be “faithful.” The church is faithful.
What does it mean that the church is “catholic”? Because of this adjective, many Christians who read the Nicene Creed do not think that it applies to them. “I’m not Catholic,” they might say, “so this description must be for a different sort of church.” However, when the Nicene Creed was written, there was no entity called “The Roman Catholic Church.” There was just one church, and it was considered to be, among other things, “catholic,” which simply means universal. The church was considered to be catholic because it was meant for all different sorts of places, times, and people.
Paul speaks of the manifold vastness of God’s purpose that the church is called to bear. This multivalent mission is possible only by virtue of the differences found within the church. Paul speaks of the many gifts necessary for the building up of the community in God’s will, a community that, incredibly, includes those previously thought to be outside God’s promises: the Gentiles. If the church is to be the body of Christ, it must include many different sorts of members to live out the many different facets of the gospel among the many different sorts of people it will encounter. [Author’s Note 4] Perhaps another adjective we could use to mean the same thing would be “diverse.” The church is diverse.
What does it mean that the church is “apostolic”? The gospel has always been mediated through people. From the beginning of the church, Christians learned about Jesus from their community. It was the church that embodied the grace that Jesus had lavished on the world. For that reason, in the seminal stages of the church’s existence, it was critical that those who led the church be part of an apostolic succession — a line of authority stretching back to Jesus’ apostles who personally experienced the grace of the Lord. Within this succession, someone could claim to have authentic truth and empowerment passed down to him or her through a line of reliable witnesses and practice. It is for this reason, for instance, that Paul emphasizes to the Ephesians his own experience of Christ in order to verify his apostolicity. Thus the church is “apostolic” in that it is part of a spiritual heritage stretching back to the apostles.
However, the apostolicity of the church functions not only to guarantee the reliability of its message. The church does not merely communicate data. The apostolicity of the church connects us not only to the words of Jesus but also to his mission. Christ embodied God’s work of reconciliation, and that work was passed on to his apostles after his resurrection. The mission of reconciliation was then passed on to the next generation of disciples, and so on, down to us. In that way, we are all part of the apostolic succession. The church itself is apostolic. In fact, “apostolic” means “sent out.” As the mediator of God’s purpose, the church is sent out into all the nooks and crannies of the world to embody, practice, and communicate the gospel of reconciliation that it has received. [Author’s Note 5] Perhaps another adjective we could use to mean the same thing would be “commissioned.” The church is commissioned.
United, Faithful, Diverse, Commissioned
The church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The church is united, faithful, diverse, and commissioned. The Four Marks of the Church thus defined might bring a new perspective on how we understand Christian community. According to Ephesians, the church is not merely a resource for our own spiritual needs. Rather, you and I are resources for the church’s Spirit-led mission of reconciliation. [Author’s Note 6] First, if the church is “one,” then we must not understand ourselves principally as individuals but rather as those who are joined together indelibly with many different people all over the world, in Christ. It’s not all about you. Second, if the church is “holy,” then we must not understand Christian community as a place for comfort or entertainment, but rather as a reality that is distinct from the world’s lures of selfish easiness in its embodiment of difficult — but abundantly good — community, characterized by love and mission. We’re following Jesus and not our own preferences. Third, if the church is “catholic,” then we must not understand Christian community as a place filled with people like us, with similar ages or backgrounds or tastes, but rather as a body whose diversity mirrors the diversity of its scope and mission. If your Christian community is filled only with people like you, then you should ask yourself the extent to which it is Christian community, according to Paul. Fourth, if the church is “apostolic,” then we must not see Christian community as a destination, but rather as a springboard into the world — as a body in which we are equipped to be a people of reconciliation in a world that so badly needs it. But for the boundaries to be broken down out in the world, they need to be broken down in our own communities of faith, and between us and God, that we might together be people equipped to embody his mysterious purpose.
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