UNITY: Building The Church’s Unity by R. Kent Hughes

Building The Church’s Unity by R. Kent Hughes

From: Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

The opening sentence of chapter 4, where Paul says, As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received, marks the turning point in the book of Ephesians.  The message moves from theology to practicality.  This is typical of Paul’s writing.  You can observe the same change in Romans 12:1 and Colossians 3:5.

This shift can be expressed in many ways: from doctrine to duty, from creed to conduct; from the Christian’s wealth to his wait; from exposition to exhortation; from the indicative to the imperative; from high society to a high life.  Because of the amazing theological realities of chapters 1 through 3, Paul urges the Ephesians (and us) to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 

The Greek word translated “worthy” is axios, which has the root idea of weight.  This is the word from which we derive our English word axiom, which means, “to be of equal weight.”  In an equation the axiom indicates doing something to each side of the equation so it remains true.  Paul is saying we should try to live lives equal to the great blessings described in chapters 1 through 3.  We are to be like the man who said, Christ has done so much for me, the rest of my life is a P.S. to his great work! 

How are we to walk worthy?  That should be our natural response.  And the remainder of the book answers this.  But the immediate charge in chapter 4 contains two ways of doing this: first by walking in unity, and then by walking in purity.  We will now take up the theme of unity, which we will explore in two studies.  The present meditation divides under three headings: 1) The Character Which Brings Christian Unity, 2) The Divine Origin of Christian Unity, and 3) The Charge to Build Christian Unity. 

This subject has a special poignancy today in a world which has so failed in its attempts at unity and is so alienated.  I was in my teens during the fifties when ecumenism was the big thing with the mainline denominations.  But it all came to naught because it was based on an “eviscerated, spineless” theology instead of a “vertebrate system of Christian belief.”  Today the World Council of Churches is little more than a “mouse that roared.”  I was in my twenties in the sixties, and I remember visiting Haight Ashbury in San Francisco and being handed flowers and underground newspapers proclaiming a new day of peace.  The bright colors were colors of optimism, the communes wishful microcosms of the new order.  But today all that is left are some middle-aged anachronisms – cultural dinosaurs.  We live in a cold, fragmented world.

Recently an UPI story told of a wheelchair-bound man who was ticketed for setting fire to his armchair.  I set the chair on fire because I’m here by myself, said John J. Davies, fifty-eight.  I was afraid, but I didn’t care.  I wanted to get attention.  I set the fire so someone would get me out of here.  Arson investigators said Davies was ticketed for misdemeanor arson to discourage him from doing it again.  Maybe he’ll realize it’s something serious, Fire Captain Joseph Napravnik said.  Actually John Davies already thought it was serious.  Alienation and neglect are like death.

I recently spoke to a young man who is so starved for attention that he has his hair cut once a week just to be touched by another human hand in a nonthreatening manner.  Life for so many in this world is like an elevator ride – everyone facing forward, no eye contact, no conversation or interaction – and then everyone rushes off to their faceless endeavors.  The world is looking for a new humanity, a third race, which is not only walking in unity, but has open, inviting arms and hearts.


The unity which Paul urges upon us begins with character: Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  

The people who bring unity are first of all “humble and gentle.”  Humility was despised in the ancient Greco-Roman world as a slave-like quality.  What was admired was the mega-souled or “great-souled” man who was complete and self-sufficient.  Ernest Hemingway, as he portrayed himself in his prime, would be a good example – brimming with male élan, in control, self-assured, needing nothing.  The proud white hunter in The Snows of Kilimanjaro to whom his adventurer mistress said, You’re the most complete man I’ve ever known – that is the man the Greeks would have applauded.

But here Paul extols humility and couples it with the tandem characteristic of “gentle[ness]” (or meekness, as it is more often translated).  This meekness/gentleness is not weakness.  It is rather strength under control.  There is nothing spineless or timid about it.  Jesus described himself with both words, saying I am gentle [meek] and humble in heart, (Matthew 11:29).  We see his steel-like meekness in two ways.  First, in respect to himself – his power not to practice retaliation, his ability to forgive.  And second, in his fierce defense of others or of the truth.  I like John Wycliffe’s translation – mild. 

Pride and self-promoting arrogance sow disunity, but a humble, gentle man or woman is like a caressing breeze.  Charles Simeon, the great preacher of Kings’ College and Holy Trinity Cambridge, was like this.  Hugh Evan Hopkins, his biographer, tells us:

When in 1808 Simeon’s health broke down and he had to spend some eight months recuperating on the Isle of Wight, it fell to Thomason to step into the gap and preach as many as five times on a Sunday in Trinity Church and Stapleford.  He surprised himself and everyone else by developing a preaching ability almost equal to his vicar’s at which Simeon, totally free from any suggestions of professional jealousy, greatly rejoiced.  He quoted the scripture, “He must increase; but I must decrease,” and told a friend, “Now I see why I have been laid aside.  I bless God for it.”

Those who walk in unity are not only humble and gentle but, as the second couplet says, patient bearing with one another in love.  J. Dwight Pentecost tells of a church split that was so serious each side filed a lawsuit to dispossess the others from the church, completely disregarding the Biblical injunction not to go to court against fellow believers.  The civil courts threw it out, but eventually it came to a church court, where it belonged.  The higher judiciary of the church made its decision and awarded the church property to one of the two factions.  The losers withdrew and formed another church in the area.  In the course of the proceedings the church courts found that the conflict had begun at a church dinner when an elder received a smaller slice of ham than a child seated next to him.  The root of the impasse was an absence of patience and forbearing love – not to mention humility and gentleness!

We are to “be patient,” not short-tempered, literally long-tempered.  The twin quality of “bearing with one another in love” means far more than tolerating each other – love is to oil our relationships.  The Apostle Peter, who began as a proud, rough, impatient man, says in his first letter: Have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.  Show proper respect to everyone: love the brotherhood of believers.  Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another, be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.  Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 

The truth which radiates from verse 2 is that Christian unity doesn’t begin with an external structure, but rather in the attitudes of the heart – humility and mildness and patience and loving tolerance of one another.  “The unity of the Spirit” takes people who are so different and makes them live in soul-satisfying unity.  What diversity there is in the average church!  Think of all the body types (somatypes): tall, short, round, thin, muscular, unathletic.  Then imagine all the mental types (psychetypes): nervous, calm, mathematical, unmathematical, artistic, musical, other-than-musical, etc., etc.  There are huge differences among us!  But when the spiritual fruits of humility and patience reign, there is unity.  Christian unity in profound diversity brings great glory to God!


In verses 4–6 Paul celebrates the origin of our unity: 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.  Many New Testament scholars believe this was an early Christian confessional hymn, and it may well have been.  The important thing to see is that it teaches us that our unity is rooted in the Holy Trinity (“Spirit,” v.4; “Lord,” v.5; “God,” v.6).  Each of the seven great unities in verses 4–6 is connected with one of the Persons of the Trinity.

First, we see the Person of the Holy Spirit and his work in bringing unity – “There is one body and one Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit created the Body of Christ, of which we are members.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  (1 Corinthians 12:13).  The Holy Spirit creates, fills, coordinates, orchestrates, and empowers the Body of Christ.  This accounts for the delightful serendipities we all experience when meeting other believers so different from us – a brief soul-fellowship with a taxi driver on the way to the airport in Washington, D.C. – the same experience in a jeepney in Manila – an exchange of heart in a village in Switzerland – another on the streets of Cambridge.

Second, there is the Person of Christ and his work in ministering unity – “just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  There is no doubt that the “one Lord” here is Jesus.  First Corinthians 8:6 says, There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.  As our “one Lord” he creates “one faith” because he is the object and focus of our belief.  Because of our “one faith” we all have participated in “one baptism” – “into the name of the Lord Jesus.”  The question of water or Spirit baptism is not in view here.

Rather, the passage is presenting one shared baptism.  Sharing “one Lord” and “one faith” and “one baptism” brings “one hope,” which is, first, the return of Christ – “…while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).  Second, this is the hope of sharing glory with him.

Lastly, there is the Person of the Father and his work in unity – “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  Again we have the great Ephesian emphasis on our shared paternity.  My younger brother Steve and I could hardly be more different.  He is a sky diver, motorcycle racer, mechanic, home builder, custom car builder, cabinetmaker, carpet layer, barber, and professional salmon fishing guide.  I have spent my life in the ministry and with books.  But despite our great differences we have the same father, we are brothers, and we have a deep, undying love for each other.  We are, after all is said and done, family. 

And so it is with those of us who are brothers and sisters in Christ.  After all is said and done, we have the same Father – we are family.  Our unity comes from seven grand unities all rooted in the Holy Trinity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. 

What are the implications of our unity being rooted in the Holy Trinity?  Simply this: our unity is eternal and unbreakable.  The unity of the church is as indestructible as the unity of God himself.  It is no more possible to split the church than it is possible to split the Godhead.  You and I will never be separated!  Our unity is more solid than the Himalayas and more enduring than Venus or Mars.

The obvious question is, If this is so, why are there outward divisions in the church?  Some Christian fellowships will not even speak to each other.  How can this be?


To begin with, we should note that Paul recognizes this problem in verse 3 by commanding us to Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  “Make every effort” comes from a root word which means to make haste, and thus gives the idea of zealous effort and diligence.  Do your utmost to keep the unity of the Spirit – this is urgent! 

This has tremendous significance for the local church.  There is no room for rivalries or hatreds or factions.  This is a call to focus on our Triune God, the root of our unity.  The Apostle John makes a monumental statement in this respect: We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.  And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3)  This verse informs us that the closer we draw to God, the closer we will be to each other.  If we would truly live this principle, not just give a superficial nod to it, there would indeed be unity.

Suppose for a moment that by a miracle we could bring some of the great Christians of the centuries together under one roof.  From the fourth century there would come the great intellect Augustine of Hippo; from the tenth century, Bernard of Clairvaux; from the sixteenth, the peerless reformer, John Calvin.  From the eighteenth century would come John Wesley, the great Methodist advocate of free will, and along with him George Whitefield, the great evangelist.  From the nineteenth century comes the Baptists C. H. Spurgeon and D. L. Moody.  And finally from the twentieth century, Billy Graham.  If we gathered all these men under one steeple we would be unable to get a unanimous vote on many matters.  But underneath it all would be unity.  And the more these men lifted up Christ and focused on him, the greater their unity would be.

The other thing suggested by the command in verse 3 (Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace) is to be peacemakers.  To being with, a peacemaker is characterized by honesty.  The prophet Ezekiel warned against those who act as if everything is all right when it is not, who say “Peace,” when there is no peace.  Such individuals, according to Ezekiel, are merely plastering over cracked walls, and when the rain comes, the walls fall.  Jeremiah, using some of the same phrasing, put it memorably: They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.  The peacemaker is painfully honest about the absence of peace in the world, in the society in which he moves, and in his own personal relationships.  He admits when he is at odds with others.  He does not pretend that things are OK when they are not.

How this speaks to our condition.  All of us tend to putty over the cracks.  (I think this is particularly a male tendency.)  Even in our most intimate relationships, we tend to act as if everything is fine when it is not.  But our avoidance heals the wound only slightly and prepares the way for greater trouble.  May God help us to be honest, for the stakes are high.

Next, a peacemaker is willing to risk pain.  Anytime one attempts to bring peace societally or personally, he risks misunderstanding and failure.  If we have been wrong, there is the pain of apologizing.  Or we may have to endure the equally difficult pain of rebuking another.  It is so much easier to let things slide, but that is not the way of the peacemaker.

These two qualities of the peacemaker (honesty about the true status of peace and willingness to risk pain in pursuing it) beautifully anticipate the next quality, which is a paradox: the peacemaker is a fighter.  The peacemaker makes trouble to make peace.  The scriptures enjoin the aggressive pursuit of peace, telling us to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” (Romans 14:19)  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)

Though the peacemaker is a fighter, he is not to be thoughtless or pugnacious.  Rather, his character and personality are to be permeated with the shalom of God.  He is gentle.  James wrote, But the wisdom that comes from Heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.  The peacemaker is tolerant in the best sense of the word.  He realizes we are all of fallen stock and so does not demand perfection of others.  He is humble.  And most of all, he is loving.

How beautiful true peacemakers are.  Filled with peace themselves, they are honest about the state of the relationships around them.  They are honest about what is in their own hearts and sensitive to where others are.  They refuse to say, “peace, peace,” when there is none.  They are willing to risk pain and misunderstanding to make things right.  Peacemakers will even fight for peace.  Are we like this?

There are lonely, alienated people all around us who long for a new humanity where there is peace and love and acceptance.  And if they see the church living out its indestructible unity with humility and gentleness and patience and forbearing love, they will be drawn to it.  Jesus prayed, May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:21-23) If the church reaches out to the people of the world, those people will come and find the unity they need.  We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.  And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3)

Are we walking in unity?  If not, or if we wish to enhance it, we must do four things:

First, we must reflect on our unity, deeply rooted in the Holy Trinity, and its sevenfold basis.  Our unity with fellow believers is indestructible.

Second, as an extension of this, we ought to focus on Christ.  We should often read 1 John 1:3, 4 – or even better, memorize it.  We must honestly confess our lack of focus and then spend several minutes each day focusing on him.  In prayer, we can ask him to help us maintain his unity.

Third, we need to consciously ask the Holy Spirit to help us cultivate a character which builds unity – a character of humility, gentleness, patience, and loving forbearance.

Fourth, we must be peacemakers: Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit though the bond of peace.  We must admit the absence of peace when there is none.  We need to confess our culpability if there is any.  We must take the steps which make for peace.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: