By James Earl Massey
[Be] eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. —Ephesians 4:3 RSV
Human contacts can at times be burdensome. Strained relations can happen in many ways: there is strain when our opinions clash, when our cultures differ, when our individual expectations are diverse, and when our personal interests are separate—and strong. Unless the spirit of community prevails in these times of strain, any oneness is thwarted. Unity is a divine gift, but we believers can experience that oneness only as we let it happen through open sharing with one another.
Unity has to be desired before it can be developed. Personal effort promotes togetherness and maintains that togetherness in unbroken fashion. Unity is more than a spiritual matter; it is a social result. It is a “happening” in the heart that makes each believer sense and seek togetherness with all other believers.
Division is not rooted in structures but in ourselves, in our attitudes and outlooks. As we think first and foremost about the church and forsake the limited concerns of personal whim and individual feelings, we overcome the distance that selfishness makes us feel.
There is in the Christian faith a community principle. The church involves us in a life that must go beyond our privacy and preferences. Unity does affirm us as individuals, yes, but it does so only within the wider fellowship.
The church is not just a spiritual entity within which each person goes her or his own way; it is a social bond to help us go God’s way—together. Only thus does the church become visible to the world as a distinct people.
It is time to open our eyes and hearts to all the others in this procession of faith. It is time for all of us to become more concerned about the whole church and to accept one another in full. This is the concern of the writer’s call upon us to show “lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Please notice that the writer stresses a vision of the whole church. He knew that we transcend selfish considerations and smaller groupings only when we are challenged by the larger vision. That is why the writer repeatedly underscored the oneness of the Christian message. He wrote,
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all (4:4–6 RSV, italics added).
Given this concentrated attention upon oneness, and on such a grand and glorious scale, we believers are being told to lift our sights to the wider range of faith and relationships. We are being told to see as God sees, and to work in agreement with God, who has willed our unity in him.
God has shown faith in us. We must be faithful to what he has planned and willed for us. A part of that plan appears in Ephesians 4:13 where the writer speaks about unity in still another dimension. He speaks of “attain[ing] to the unity of the faith.”
The Greek wording here pictures a procession of citizens moving toward an agreed place of meeting, where something special is to happen at an appointed time. The writer uses that picture to remind Christians that we are moving to a predetermined place where something of great importance will happen, and in which all will be involved as full sharers. That is our hope, the “one hope” to which he refers. We are being told that the church, the whole church, will one day share fully what Jesus now experiences in the presence of God. All believers are part of that procession of faith; all are called to reach that place of gathering, and all who reach it will know the fulfillment God has planned for us. God’s love toward us should inspire us to keep faith in his plan—and it should stir us to help one another as fellow believers on the way. We ought to affirm one another: we are on pilgrimage together. Thus the plea to “[Be] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Our unity is God’s will. Here are some considerations to help us fulfill his will.
We can maintain unity if we keep a right balance between private preferences and group demands.
The majority of problems in church life grow out of our preferences—what we like and what we dislike. A “preference” is something that is first a choice, something that holds highest priority among our interests, something that stands ahead of all other things. It is that something to which we give our energies.
Preferences are so much a part of our living that we seldom stop to think about them until our preferences clash with those of others—and a battle begins to guarantee that our preferences will win. This is why we must work to maintain unity: personal willingness is necessary to bring private concerns into balance with group relations.
Preferences must be understood and valued for what they enable us to do, but they must also be disciplined, lest we find ourselves living by prejudices and moving in selfish directions that impede unity.
Buried within us all is a deposit of influences from the way we were conditioned as we grew up. We were each molded in some setting, and we tend to obey the conditioning we received there. We obey it all without thinking—until we are made to think about it because we meet something that clashes with it.
We Christians need to examine how we were conditioned. We all need to recheck what we believe, what we value, what attracts us, what repels us, what we tend to prefer and why it is so. If we watch ourselves long enough we will see some influences that must remain because they are worthy. We will also see some things about ourselves that need to be changed, because we now know and understand more than before. And if we deal still further with ourselves we will see some things that need to be disciplined so that we can relate more readily with others. That is what the text is all about: “[Be] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.”
Unity can be maintained but it demands that we all learn how to transcend human groupings.
There is something in the gospel that calls us all beyond the group divisions and diversities that we have been conditioned to prefer: youth versus age, one nation versus another, one denomination versus another. Yes, I agree that there is much to be said for our differing human groupings. Yes, there are strengths in our different group traditions, and there are great meanings in the distinctives we cherish as persons marked by some particular culture, color, and customs. But it must also be said that the gospel calls us beyond the limitation of what we prefer.
You and I are marked by some culture, color, or set of customs, but we must see ourselves and one another as part of a transcendent community called the church. Our human groupings are important but they must not be central. Christ alone is central, and he has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) between us, intent to bring us into oneness. We must honor what he has done and promote the new fellowship he has created. It is a fellowship that links youth and age, men and women, all nationalities, and the saved in all groups and denominations.
It is time for all Christians to move visibly beyond previous preferences and boundary lines and make common cause with one another. We can and must move beyond attitudes of suspicion about others and pride about ourselves. We Christians must cease being competitive. We must go on beyond all prejudices and boundaries and relate with one another. The visible unity of the church is a must to ensure that the task of the church will be fulfilled in proper time and order.
Our world needs the effects of our combined witness. Through a realized unity, through the strength of togetherness made visible in ready fellowship, the universal church can serve with power as an evangelistic and missionary movement. Jesus had that in mind and heart as he prayed that “they may all be one…so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21 RSV). His love for the church will not let us rest in separateness. Nor will God’s will ever stop prodding us to seek one another and relate with concern for peace and productive mission.
Jesus views his church as a fellowship of promise and family of witnesses. He expects us to maintain the family attitude toward one another and to fulfill that promise to which our calling points. The church is a worldwide reality; we must not rest until we make it a visible fellowship. We can do so by strict endeavors to practice and promote unity. Worship occasions, cooperative work experiences, retreats, Bible-study sessions, ministry opportunities, prayer gatherings—all these are ways of openness and agreement that aid togetherness.
Ask God to strengthen in you the will for fellowship. Ask him to give you the spirit to say “we,” and the willingness to live as one—whatever it might cost to do so.
Longtime beloved pastor, CBH speaker, and dean emeritus of Anderson University School of Theology, James Earl Massey is also an accomplished musician and the author of numerous books. This article was originally published in the June 6, 1982, issue of Vital Christianity. Republished by permission.
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