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In the classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the King of Swamp Castle issues an appeal for unity. The King is in the middle of holding a wedding for his son. Sir Lancelot has just turned up, stormed the castle in a mistaken rescue mission, and—being a little overzealous with his heroic gusto—ended up thrusting his sword through everyone he could find, including countless random wedding guests. The surviving guests, weeping about the massacre, have spotted Lancelot, rounded on him, and started to riot. At this point, the King (who’s found he rather enjoys Lancelot’s company) stops them and issues his appeal: “This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who!” It’s become a classic line used to poke fun at people who are trying to bring peace and unity without showing any understanding of the reality of the situation or the depth of hurt that’s been caused.
While we might never end up being quite as absurd as Monty Python, Christians can sometimes talk about unity a little like this. That is, we can treat unity as some ideal state where everybody just gets on, no matter how deep our differences are and no matter what hurt has been caused. When unity becomes idealised like this, it’s not only unrealistic, it can actually become oppressive. After all, not all unity is good, is it? To take an extreme example: Hitler tried to unify Europe. That kind of unity definitely wasn’t good. To take less extreme examples: often when somebody issues a call to “unity”, what they really mean is that everyone else should abandon what they think is important and fall into line with what the person who’s issuing the call thinks is important. Often in these cases, an overarching vision of structural unity or even friendly collegiality overrides individual concerns for truth. “The church is supposed to be a happy place. Let’s not bicker and argue about who’s right and who’s wrong and who walked away from whom…”
And yet—unity really matters. We can’t just set unity to one side as if it’s simply an enemy of the truth or a blockage to individual freedom. God’s people should be pursuing peace and unity. Unity is a particularly important issue in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians 4:2–3 is a good example: these verses are an appeal for unity. But we need to ask, what kind of unity is Paul talking about here? That’s the key question. If we don’t ask that question, we’ll just end up imposing our own ideas about unity or falling into line with someone else’s ideas about unity. But when we see the kind of unity that Paul is talking about—this unity—we will see why it matters, and how powerful it can be.
Walk with all humility and littleness, with patience, putting up with one another in love, making sure you maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.Ephesians 4:2–3
The unity of the Spirit
Let’s start by looking at exactly what we’re united in. Paul urges his readers here to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. These words—Spirit, bond, and peace—are all things that Paul has already spoken about in Ephesians 1–3. They are words that are all very much connected to the gospel of Jesus Christ: the message of the gospel, the effects of the gospel, and the preaching of the gospel.
The Spirit is a person of the Trinity. Paul doesn’t use the word “Trinity” in Ephesians, but the term and the concept was used by later Christians to bring together biblical truths about God such as those we find in Ephesians. The Spirit, who is God, is one with the Father and the Son, and he brings about the Father’s purposes through the Son. The Holy Spirit seals those who hear and believe in “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit is the first instalment of our inheritance, guaranteeing that God will redeem his possession (Ephesians 1:14). The Spirit enables us to understand God’s glorious purposes in the gospel (Ephesians 1:17). The Spirit is the one who unites all believers, from Israel and also the nations: in him we both have access through Christ to the Father (Ephesians 2:18). As the gospel is preached and believed, the Spirit builds believers, in different places, into a dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:22). The Spirit has revealed the secret of God’s purposes through the gospel to God’s holy apostles and prophets, and empowers that gospel to go to the world (Ephesians 3:5). The Spirit strengthens us by bringing Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith in the gospel message (Ephesians 3:16). The unity of the Spirit, then, is a unity that is firmly bound up with the message and mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The words “bond” and “peace” are also meant to remind us of what Paul has said about the gospel in Ephesians 1–3. “Peace” is what comes to believers through Jesus’ death on the cross and through the preaching of this gospel (Ephesians 2:14, 15, 17). And Paul himself, as he preaches this gospel to the nations, describes himself as a “bound prisoner” (Ephesians 3:1, 4:1). So what binds Paul’s readers together with one another—and what binds them together with believers throughout the world, particularly Israelite believers—is what binds Paul himself: the gospel of Jesus Christ, which brings peace.
So it is this unity that Paul is talking about here: unity in the truth and the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is a gospel empowered by the Spirit and which brings peace. It is this unity we are to maintain. There are other kinds of unity that believers aren’t told to maintain. For example, an attempt at unity that opposed the centrality of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen would be wrong. Or an attempt at unity that rejected the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for people would be wrong. Those kinds of unity aren’t seeking to maintain the unity of the Spirit; they’re seeking to maintain a human kind of unity at the expense of the unity of the Spirit. Those kinds of unity are things we should reject, not maintain.
Maintaining the unity
But this unity—the unity of the Spirit, which is unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ which brings peace and binds us together—is something that really does matter. So Paul tells his readers to make sure they “maintain” this unity. Notice that it’s not a unity that we have to “achieve”; it’s a unity that Christ has already achieved for us and which we are simply to keep up.
But it’s not easy to maintain unity. We’re all different from each other, in all sorts of ways. We’re different in the food we prefer and the sports we like. Some are men, some are women. Some are young, some are old. We have different jobs, different backgrounds, different drives, different loves, abilities, personalities, and more. On the one hand, these differences between us create a variety that makes our life and relationships fascinating and worth living for. On the other hand, because we’re different, these differences can also lead to all sorts of problems. There can be misunderstandings, as we just don’t “get” each other. We can be annoyed with each other. We can envy each other, wishing we had what they have. We can be proud. We can be angry with each other and start to form grudges or exclude people over our differences. We can hurt each other deeply. How can we maintain unity in the face of these differences and hurts?
The answer, again, is the gospel. That’s why Paul begins these verses the way he does. He talks about walking in line with the gospel.
Being little and waiting
Maintaining the unity of the Spirit is intimately connected with the way we live our daily lives with one another. That’s why Paul says at the start of these verses: “Walk with all humility and littleness, with patience, putting up with one another in love”. These are all attitudes that will help us to maintain our unity. They are also all attitudes that only make sense in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Humility” isn’t simply a personality trait that some people have and others don’t. It doesn’t mean being shy and quiet, for example. Rather, it means deliberately taking a low position. This is precisely what Jesus did for us as he came into our world to die on the cross for us. Humility is closely connected to “littleness”. Littleness means deliberately seeking not to be overly impressed by yourself. Some versions of the Bible translate it as “meekness”. If you haven’t grasped the gospel, these attitudes will probably sound crazy and maybe even dangerous. After all, if you go around taking a low position and not being impressed by yourself, aren’t you going to get trodden all over? Surely, you need to promote yourself! Nobody else is going to do it, are they?
But when we grasp the gospel, we see how right and true these attitudes are. On the one hand, the gospel shows us that we really are little when it comes to God. In fact, left to ourselves, we would be facing a future of death, judgment and exclusion from God’s purposes. On the other hand, the gospel shows us that through Jesus Christ, God has lifted us up to a position of strength and safety and security which gives us the power to be humble and little. God has raised us with Christ, and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. We have been saved, so we are safe. Our eternal life has been secured, so we ourselves can be secure. This gives us great freedom! We don’t need to care about bigging ourselves up, because we are already in the greatest position we could have. We don’t need to promote ourselves, because God has promoted us further than we can possibly imagine. We can be little because Christ has given us glory and greatness and hope for the future.
If you walk in humility and littleness, you will go a long way towards maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. That’s because you’ll realise it’s not about you—it’s about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it’s about others. In our world where people are desperate to make themselves big, living in humility and littleness makes a big impact. For example, genuine humility and littleness rules out bullying, since bullying is fundamentally about getting your own way. Humility and littleness also impacts our conversations in a huge way. There is a very basic conversation skill that arises from humility: seeking mainly to ask questions about the person you’re talking to, rather than always looking for ways to talk about yourself. This isn’t just a trick to make a conversation work; it’s what happens when you approach a conversation from an attitude of humility. But most of the time it really does make a conversation work, because normally, after a while, the other person starts to ask questions about you, too. In this way, the conversation becomes an exercise of mutual sharing rather than a competition. It can give you opportunities to genuinely share something significant about Jesus in a way that might be heard rather than dismissed. And of course, you’ll always learn something too.
Paul also speaks about walking with “patience”. Patience means waiting for others, and not being quick to act with anger or vengeance when we feel wronged. This is in fact what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Patience is closely related to the idea of “putting up with one another”. This is about making allowance for others: both for their failings, and also for the things that aren’t actually failings but which we find annoying anyway because of our differences. Again, this makes sense in light of the gospel that Paul has already outlined in Ephesians 1–3. God has saved us, but none of us has reached the perfection of glory yet. As God renews us, he doesn’t do it all in an instant. Since that’s true for us, it will be true for others. God is patient with us, and we can and should be patient with others.
Of course, none of these attitudes—humility, littleness, patience, putting up with one another—means we must accept something that’s clearly against the gospel. That would not be maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It’s also important to realise that Paul is talking here about our regular, daily relationships as we seek to maintain the unity of the Spirit. He is not talking here about letting someone abuse you. If that is happening to you, it’s right to seek help so that the abuse stops.
Finally, these things are to be done “in love”. In our world, the word “love” is often used to mean something like “affirming everything I am and everything I do”. But this is not what Paul means by “love”. The love Paul is talking about is grounded in God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God has shown us mercy rather than giving us what we deserve. He has loved us sacrificially, by sending his Son to die for our sins, and to rescue us and bring us from death to life. He continues to love us by giving us his Spirit to renew us and transform us. This is the love in which we have been “rooted and founded” (3:17). Now, Paul says, on the basis of God’s love for us, we are to walk with these attitudes towards one another. We are to walk along this path of love that God has shown to us—being humble and little, being patient, and putting up with people. This means accepting where a person is at. But it doesn’t mean affirming that they should stay there. In love, we will want people to change and grow too.
This, then, is unity that matters. It’s not a unity that stands against truth. It’s not a unity for the sake of it. It’s not a unity of denial or a unity of institutionalism or a unity of collegial friendliness. It’s a unity that is based in truth, a unity firmly anchored in the Spirit’s work to bring the truth of the gospel to the world and to our lives. It’s not a unity we have to achieve, because God has already achieved it in Jesus Christ. But it is a unity we are to make every effort to maintain. And as we do so, that will involve taking on attitudes that can only come from the gospel of peace: humility and littleness, patience, and putting up with one another. All this comes directly from the love that God has shown us in Jesus Christ.
How does this understanding of unity help you to relate to your Christian brothers and sisters?
What do you find hardest: humility, littleness, patience, or putting up with others? How does the gospel help you to grow in these attitudes?
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This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, 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.