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If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve probably realised how important it is to be connected to other Christians. Most importantly, you need to be connected to brothers and sisters at a local church. You need to meet with them regularly and in person, to be encouraged to trust in Jesus and grow in him and to encourage others to do the same (see e.g., Hebrews 10:24–25). But what about Christians beyond your local church? Is there any meaningful way that we are connected with believers with whom we don’t meet regularly: Christians in our surrounding region, our nation, and our world?
The answers we give to this question will affect the way we approach large-scale Christian structures like denominations, fellowships of independent churches, multi-site churches, interdenominational organisations, fellowships within denominations, para-church organisations, missionary societies, theological colleges, global confessional movements like GAFCON, etc. What are we supposed to do with these kinds of institutions? Of course, there are various pragmatic issues, such as how they should be organised, how we can get the best people in the best positions, how we can lead them most effectively, etc. But is there anything beyond the merely pragmatic? What about theological questions? That is, do these structures and institutions matter to God? And does the Bible have anything relevant to say about it?
I think it does. This issue of inter-congregational unity is, in fact, at the heart of what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 2:20–22. These verses don’t answer all of our pragmatic questions. But they do give us some fundamental theological insights—insights that give us a starting point and a standard for all the other pragmatic questions. They address the fundamental issues when it comes to Christian unity. The key to it all is the concept of building. Not building a physical building. Building people.
You were built on the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets—Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. In him, every act of building, being connected together, causes growth into a holy temple in the Lord. In him, you too are being built into a dwelling-place for God by the Spirit.Ephesians 2:20–22
The foundation: the preaching of the gospel of Christ
Just before verse 20, Paul has told his readers, who are gentile believers, that they have been given the same status as Jewish believers: they are “members of God’s family” (verse 19). Now in verse 20, Paul introduces the idea of building. He tells these gentile believers: “You were built on the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets.” The apostles, along with the prophets, were the key figures in the earliest Jewish community of believers (see the book of Acts). Their main job was to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. As this gospel message was preached and taught, new communities of believers were formed and grew. Here in Ephesians, Paul describes this process using the concept of building. The “foundation” is the preaching of the gospel. Believers are “built” on this foundation, as they hear the gospel, believe it, and come together in fellowship with one another. Paul is telling his readers that even though they’re not from Israel and weren’t members of the original apostolic community, they still share a fundamental connection with them. They have been built on the very same foundation—the preaching of the gospel.
Paul then introduces another building concept—the idea of the “cornerstone”. In ancient architecture, the cornerstone was the first stone laid in the foundation. It provided the standard reference point that determined the lines for the rest of the building. Here, “Christ Jesus himself” is the cornerstone; that means Christ Jesus sets the standard and direction for the whole gospel-preaching building operation. The phrase “Christ Jesus himself” is meant to remind us of all the things Paul has already said about Christ in his letter so far. For example, Christ died on the cross to bring forgiveness for our offences (Ephesians 1:7). Christ is the one who has been raised from the dead and is now in heaven, ruling over all the powers of the world (Ephesians 1:19–21). Yet he is not just sitting around in heaven doing nothing: Christ is the one who has been given to “the church, which is his body” (Ephesians 1:22–23). Christ’s death on the cross reconciles us to God together, which creates a new humanity (Ephesians 2:14–16). Christ is also the one who “came and preached the gospel”: he is present with his people through mission and evangelism, which brings us peace with one another and a common access to God (Ephesians 2:17–18). This all helps us to see how Christ Jesus acts as a “cornerstone” in this gospel-preaching building process. Christ is the subject of the preached gospel, and he is also the person making sure that the gospel is preached. It’s not a gospel that people can make up themselves. Jesus Christ, and the truth about him, provides the standard and gives shape to the process of mission and evangelism.
So believers are people who were built on a foundation (the preaching of the gospel) with a standard reference point (the truths about Christ). This is all relevant to our local church situation, as we encourage one another in the gospel and share that gospel with others. But it’s also something that matters beyond any individual local church. This is Paul’s point in the next verse.
Every act of building
In verse 21, Paul says that in Christ, “every act of building, being connected together, causes growth into a holy temple in the Lord.” Paul wants his readers to lift their eyes from their local situation, to see that there are lots of building processes going on. It’s as if Christ is the CEO of a construction company, or perhaps a confederation of construction companies. The building work—that is, the preaching of the gospel and the building up of believers in the gospel—is happening all over the place. And each act of building is connected. How?
We’ve already seen in verse 20 that each construction has the same foundation: the preaching of the gospel. And we’ve already seen that each construction has the same standard cornerstone: Christ Jesus. And in verse 21, we see that each construction has the same purpose: “growth into a holy temple in the Lord.” Paul isn’t talking about a physical building; he’s not saying that Christ is building literal temples with altars all over the place. He’s saying that as the gospel is preached and believed, and as we are forgiven and brought into relationship with God, and as we are raised with Christ and made holy and given hope, we come together as holy people and so are a “holy temple”. It means that God is with us, and we are precious to God (Paul talks more about this in 1 Corinthians 3:10–17).
This is an amazing privilege, isn’t it? But it’s not just for ourselves! Paul’s point here is that this happens wherever the true gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and believed. This verse helps us to lift our eyes beyond ourselves and our own individual church community “building” projects to see how Christ is doing this building everywhere. And when we lift our eyes, we can see how connected we are to Christians throughout the world.
In verse 22, Paul returns to his readers and says that in Christ “you too are being built into a dwelling-place for God by the Spirit.” The preaching of Christ that is happening throughout the world, with the goal of growth into a holy temple, is also happening among us. As the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and taught, the Holy Spirit is at work, bringing us to God and making us holy people in whom God dwells. We are his. God knows us and loves us. Not only does he know us and love us as individuals; he knows and loves us as a fellowship of believers. And not only does he know and love our own local fellowship of believers; he knows and loves fellowships of believers in Christ throughout the world.
Where is our unity?
So Paul’s point here is that we share a deep connection with other believers throughout the world. While each local church and mission has its own integrity, we are also connected with other Christians in very important ways. How are we connected? We share a common foundation: the preaching of the gospel. We share a common cornerstone: Christ and the truth about him. And we share a common goal: growing in holiness, with God dwelling among us.
How does this help us as we approach things like denominations, fellowships of independent churches, multi-site churches, interdenominational organisations, fellowships within denominations, para-church organisations, missionary societies, theological colleges, global confessional movements, etc.? These structures are all designed to express and foster Christian unity. We’ve seen that these verses in Ephesians show us what Christian unity really means. This then helps us to be discerning when other ideas about what unity is threaten to take over. For example, if we thought that Christian unity was primarily a matter of institutional structures, then what we’d care about most of all would be getting our structures right. We would focus on making sure everyone is at the same table, or under the same umbrella, or submitting to the same leadership. On the other hand, if we thought that Christian unity was primarily a matter of pragmatic convenience, then what we’d care about most of all would be our own local patch, and we wouldn’t devote much time at all to these larger things unless it suited our local agenda.
But what does Christian unity consist in according to Ephesians 2:20–22? Our unity is an evangelical unity: that is, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that unites us with other believers. This gospel that unites us is both a true gospel, and a preached gospel. It’s a true gospel because it gives us definite truths about Jesus Christ—his death and resurrection, and what that means for our salvation. Christ Jesus is the cornerstone: so the truth about Christ is the standard for all true building, and so the standard for our unity. The most important issue when it comes to unity is not whether we’re all sitting at the same table or under the same umbrella. The most important issue is whether we’re all preaching the truth about Christ. If we’re not preaching the truth about Jesus Christ, then there is no real unity. Furthermore, our unity isn’t just a matter of everyone agreeing to the truth about Christ; it’s a matter of preaching that truth together. Our unity doesn’t consist in a structure; it consists in a construction: Christ’s activity of preaching the gospel to and through his people, among us and throughout the world.
So these verses help us to make decisions about our larger structures and institutions. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that gives these institutions shape and purpose. That means the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a standard to evaluate and critique these institutions. They do not exist for the sake of themselves. Institutions so easily foster “institutionalism”: the idea that the institution itself matters and is the primary goal. But our institutions do not exist for themselves. They exist for the sake of Christ’s construction. They exist to foster unity in the gospel: unity in gospel truth, and unity in gospel preaching. If they constantly remember and are constantly called back to that goal for their existence, they can do great good. But if they consistently and seriously move away from fostering unity in gospel truth and gospel preaching, they are no longer expressing biblical unity. And when that happens, we need to ask serious questions about whether they’re worth supporting, don’t we?
On the other hand, these verses help us to think rightly about our local churches. Yes, our local churches matter. But there’s a danger that we spend so much of our energy on our own local patch that we forget to lift our eyes to God’s greater purposes. The truth of the gospel and the mission of the gospel means we are joined and united to others beyond our local churches. So it’s core business for any local congregation to foster and express gospel fellowship with others beyond that local congregation. We do this, for example, through prayer and through devoting time and resources to larger structures and institutions that are fostering that gospel growth in the world.
Are you prone to thinking only about your own local congregation? How can you foster a greater sense of gospel-based fellowship with others outside your congregation?
How does gospel truth and gospel preaching help you to think and act rightly towards any wider Christian organisations you might be involved with?
 You might notice that I’ve translated Ephesians 2:20–22 a little differently to the way it’s translated in many modern Bible versions. Many commentators and translators assume that Paul is talking here about a big cosmic temple, and that assumption affects their translation decisions. But I don’t think that assumption is right, and I think that it obscures what Paul is actually saying in these verses. If you’re interested in my detailed arguments for each of the translation decisions I’ve made, see my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations, pp. 152–157.
 In the original language there’s a connection between the word for “family members” (verse 19) and the word for “building” (verse 20) which is hard to bring out in an English translation. In its most basic and literal sense, “family members” are people who live together in a building (i.e. their home). But the word normally has a wider sense, referring to people who are related or share a common cause, even if they don’t live in the same building.
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.