Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 03/21/1999
"I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
We are here today to begin to learn how to walk worthily of our calling--as Saints, set apart for God and different from the world--as Sons, heirs, members with each other of God's household--as living Stones set in the walls of the eternal Temple to the praise and glory of Jesus Christ. The first thing in walking worthily of that calling is to "preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (v. 3); and in order to do that, we must "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, [show] forbearance to one another in love" (v. 2).
God's purpose is that "the manifest wisdom of God might now be made known through the Church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (3:10). Why do I keep hammering this? Because American Evangelicalism has such a profoundly different mentality. We "attend" church--as if the Church is an almost optional club for believers, a support group we can use if we feel the need, something that exists for our convenience. To an extent I can sympathize with this mentality. It is often a reaction to equal and opposite errors, those of denominationalism or of what I sometimes call "churchianity." I can recall being in shallow groups where people were urged to "join the church" without any concern for whether they understood the Gospel of showed any evidence of a real walk with the Lord. The church has often been experienced as a social club that offered itself as a substitute for a relationship with Christ. If out of such an environment you discover that knowing Christ is what really matters, you may naturally develop a profound distrust of "organized religion."
But "abusus non tollit usus." The abuse of a truth does not overturn the truth. The solution to Christless churches is not churchless Christianity! If it were, Scripture would not contain verses like Eph. 2:19-22 or 3:10.
Therefore, Paul's concern for the unity of the Church as the first step in walking worthily leads us inexorably to the following thesis: Nothing complete and whole can be accomplished toward the real goal of salvation--the glory of Christ in the Church--until the Body of Christ is unified around her Lord, his Message, and its Mission.
The divisions of Christendom are one of the biggest stumbling blocks hindering people from faith in Christ today. The most obvious example of this is the many competing denominations. But that is not a problem we can fix here today, so I would like to focus our attention on another manifestation, perhaps even more debilitating: the lack of unity around a proper Christocentric focus in the local congregation--of whatever denomination--itself. They are usually being torn apart by petty personal agendas, the desire of small people to be big fish in small ponds, leading to the dominance of that ugliest of phrases, "church politics," where the ultimate goal is the power, prestige, and pride of the "right" persons or groups rather than the glory of Christ and the advancement of HIS kingdom. And that points out the importance of true Unity: The Church cannot effectively manifest the glory of Christ--the grace of God--the fruits of the Spirit without it. That is why I say that nothing complete and whole can be accomplished toward the real goal of salvation--the glory of Christ in the Church--until the Body of Christ is unified around her Lord, his Message, and its Mission.
What would such unity look like? The key to imagining it is in vs. 3: it is a unity of the Spirit in the bond of Peace. That first tells us some things that it is not. It is not unity for the sake of unity, but for the sake of Truth. It is not necessarily something that can be achieved organizationally. Mergers of churches or denominations have often lessened it, not promoted it. Organizational tinkering is no solution unless it is based on the unity of the Spirit.
To understand the unity that the Spirit brings, we should think of some of the titles the Holy Spirit has in Scripture. He is first of all the Spirit of Truth (Jn. 14:7, 16:13). This does not mean that to have unity we must have mindless conformity to the jots and tittles of an elaborate doctrinal statement or creed. It does mean that we are of one mind about the fundamentals of the faith, and especially about the Gospel, what it is, its central importance. He is above all the Spirit of Christ (Jn. 16:14). What then does unity in the Church look like? When the real thing is produced by the Spirit, it means a Church unified around a common attitude toward Jesus: "He must increase, but I must decrease."
In order to get to vs. 3, we have to go through vs. 2: "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love." Any lack of humility, gentleness, patience, or forbearance will make it impossible to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. What are these things?
I want you finally to see the brilliance of Paul's analysis of the foundations of unity. He understood the psychology of the problem well, as you can see by running his chain of attributes in reverse. There will be no unity unless we are Diligent to maintain it. We will not be Diligent unless we are motivated by Love. But Love is meaningless, cannot be operative in relation to fallen human beings, without Forbearance. And Forbearance is impossible without Patience. But Patience is mere sloth unless it flows from Gentleness as Meekness; and Meekness can only exist if its foundation is in Humility. And true Humility flows ultimately from seeing Christ at the center of everything. Running the series forward then, we see that the true humility that flows from knowing Christ as He is inexorably leads to gentleness, patience, and forbearance of one another in love, which makes possible the maintenance of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, as the Church is unified by her focus on the only thing that belongs at the central, unifying point: the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and the Gospel of his Grace.
Let us therefore end our meditations today where everything begins and ends, especially this chain of virtues that leads to unity. Let us end with the Alpha and the Omega, whose glory in the Church is the goal of all creation. Let Him work in you that you may walk in a manner worthy of your calling. How? "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams