Newsletter Article for the February edition of The Hillside Messenger
“The Unity of the Faith” (based on Ephesians 4:1-16)
Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed for the Church’s unity before he suffered death on a cross to redeem the world. In the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul, imprisoned for his testimony to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, appealed to the Christians of Ephesus to live worthy of their vocation (Eph. 4:1) and to try to preserve the unity given by God’s Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). In this appeal he calls them to show to the utmost extent the virtues of lowliness, meekness and longsuffering, forbearing one another in love. Before emphasizing for Christians there is one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, and one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6), St. Paul is here concerned to address Christian behavior as a means of keeping, or guarding, the unity God has given through the Holy Spirit to his Church in the Lord Jesus Christ. In doing so, St. Paul is not setting aside Christian doctrines as a means or source of unity in favor of practicing the Christian virtues; nor is he exalting doctrine over behavior as a guarantee of Christian unity. But he begins this fourth chapter by insisting that Christian behavior should show Christians to be living according to the high moral standards of their vocation to follow Christ. The practice of Christian virtues assists believers in their diligence in keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). These intentions are combined in the part of A Prayer for all Conditions of Men that concerns the Church:
More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.
(From “A Prayer for all Conditions of Men”, p. 32, The Book of Common Prayer, 1928)
In reflecting Eph. 4:3, this excerpt of the prayer opts to interpret the unity of the Spirit as “unity of spirit”, which is permissible since it is unclear whether In the original language of Eph. 4:3, “pneumatos” is the good influence governing Christian behavior, or the Holy Spirit. In the seventeenth century, when this prayer was composed – most probably by the Rev. Dr. Peter Gunning, Master of St. John’s College, Cambridge (pp. 18-19, Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr.: The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950) – the Church of England was losing the unity it had kept since the Reformation, and in the rest of the world, the visible Church’s disunity was obvious. This radical problem calls for ongoing prayer that the Holy Spirit may so guide and govern the universal Church (rather than the unruly ambitions and ideologies of men leading it into disunity) that all Christians be led into the way of truth and hold the faith in unity of purpose, living righteously and at peace with one another.
There is unity that God has given to the Church Catholic or universal, but Christians will only fully experience it when they conduct their lives in ways that express their noble vocation, such as humility, meekness, patience and love. When by God’s grace we consistently and continually show the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) in our lives, and are eager to maintain the unity given by the Spirit, we as the Church will experience the unity the Lord Jesus Christ prayed that we might have.
Yet the Church’s unity is not simply achieved by the right behavior. Each of us must also see that unity is God’s gift to the Church, and we must not be so blinded by our sinful nature, that we forget the manifold grace of unity God has already given to the Church. St. Paul puts at the top of the list one Body. Elsewhere in this same Epistle, St. Paul clearly refers to Christ’s love for the Church as his Body (Eph. 5:29-30). All Christians are members of this spiritual Body of Christ, and He is its Head (Eph. 5:24), being the Savior of the Body (Eph. 5:23); to Him all members of the Church are subject (Eph. 5:24).
Just as Christians are united because they are all members of the spiritual Body of Christ, having been washed in the waters of Baptism, professing faith in the one Lord who redeemed them by his death on the cross, so one Holy Spirit was poured out for all to drink, given to all who believe in Christ. One Holy Spirit indwells all Christians, leading them in all the truth (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit does not guide Christians in the truth that He has given only to one Christian leader, but He guides us in all the truth that He has given to the whole Church in the written word of God, in the Ecumenical Councils of the Church, in the writings of the Church Fathers, and in the wisdom and knowledge that He gives to the Bishops and leaders of the Church today. Therefore we should not jump to conclusions about the truth of any doctrine, but through prayer, meditation and careful reflection listen first to the written word of God, then to the traditions, Councils and writings of the Church where they do not conflict with Holy Scripture, and then to the spiritual leaders who are set in authority over us, as well as to the Holy Spirit speaking within us.
One hope of our calling (Eph. 4:4) is yet another God-given grace of unity. All Christians have the hope of resurrection, the hope of eternal life in communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. In Romans 5, St. Paul speaks of rejoicing in the “hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2) and shows that tribulations are cause for rejoicing, since tribulation produces endurance, endurance produces character and character, hope, and this hope does not make us ashamed, since the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:3-5). The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews urges us to hold fast to the profession of our hope without wavering, for the One who promised is faithful (Heb. 10:23).
Adding to these graces of unity, St. Paul sets out what might have been a very early creed:
One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
(Eph. 4:5-6, KJV)
The Church has one Lord, one Master, one King, not myriads. Many may hold high office, but there is only one Lord Jesus Christ who has ultimate authority over the Church. All believers must obey Him first, before all others, and where there is a conflict of authority even in the Church, between what Christ commands and what a given leader commands, Christ must be obeyed.
Besides this, God has ordained one faith and one Baptism, not a different faith and a new Baptism every time a person moves from one denomination of Christendom to another. Some will ask what is meant here by faith, the act of faith, or the deposit of faith. There can be no meaningful unity of acts of faith if there is no central deposit of faith, and the Church is the guardian of the deposit of faith. That is why none of us is free to change the doctrines of the Christian faith, for they are not ours to change, but only to safeguard and pass on to the next generation. In keeping with this, St. Jude in his Epistle, calls on Christians “to build themselves up in their most holy faith” (Jude 20). If faith were merely an act or a feeling, it would make no sense for Christians to build themselves up in it. Their faith is most holy because it is the deposit of faith given by Christ to the Apostles, who entrusted it to the rest of the Church, and it remains most holy because it is safeguarded by being recorded in writing by the authors of the New Testament, whom the Holy Spirit inspired to write what they did.
Finally, there is one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all (Eph. 4:6). The unity of the Church derives ultimately from God the Father through the Blessed Trinity. What is the Lord saying to us through these verses? Is it not that in order to experience the unity God wants the Church to enjoy, we must first live the life that Christ calls us to live on earth, being eager to keep that unity, as given by the Spirit of God and expressing itself in the peace that God calls us to have in relationship with Him and with one another. Then we shall become more aware of the profound graces of unity God has already given us, graces which flow ultimately from the unity of God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But how is the Church to move towards the full awareness and experience of unity in Christ? God will build up the Body of Christ through equipping the people of God for ministry (Eph. 4:12), and the purpose of this edification is that all Christians to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, and to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:13), so that Christians are no longer like waves tossed by the wind, deceived by false doctrines arising from the minds of sinful men who use their cunning to exploit the faithful (Eph. 4:14). This edification is administered to the Church through Christ’s gifts given in the ministries of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). Let us pay attention to how our spiritual leaders are being used of the Lord to bring us to the unity of the faith. The preaching and teaching ministry of the Church’s ordained leaders is very important in bringing all people to the unity of the faith, as is the ministry of every person who shares the Gospel with people (functioning as an evangelist), and every person who serves effectively as a pastor even to a small group, or who teaches the faith in some capacity, or brings prophetic encouragement to others.
The goal towards which we should be working is to reach maturity in Christ and the unity of the faith, when speaking the truth in love we are growing up into Christ in all things (Eph. 4:15), and this is also happening when each member of the Body of Christ functions properly and effectively so as to contribute to the proper growth of the whole Body (Eph. 4:16).