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I’m a very amateur and extremely part-time jazz piano player. I’ve had the opportunity to be in a few bands over my life, and I’ve loved the experience. In a band, each member has different skills and different roles. In fact, each role tends to have a personality type associated with it. There’s jokes to go with each personality type that you can tell each other at practice sessions. Keyboard players are pedantic and dull (these are stereotypes, right? Well mostly…). Guitarists are self-obsessed. How do you know if you’ve met a guitarist at a party? He’ll tell you. How do you know if you’ve met a keyboard player at a party? He’s the one hanging around with the guitarist trying to look cool. Bass players are always in the background. How do you know if you’ve met a bass player at a party? Nobody can remember the answer. Drummers are a bit dim. There’s endless jokes you can tell about drummers. And so on. But when you start to play the music, it’s a different story altogether. The joking falls away, because the music is all that matters. When it all comes together, and the muse hits you, you’re swept along by the song and the groove. And as each of you plays your part, it’s magic. The music you’re creating together is so much greater than anything you could do by yourselves.
That’s just one example of how good diversity can be. When you’re part of a team alongside different people with different personalities and different skills playing different roles but all for the sake of a common goal, it can be a real joy. If everyone on the team were exactly the same, it would be both boring and counterproductive: a band full of keyboard players, for example, would be disastrous. But diversity produces quality. And that’s not just despite our differences, it’s because of our differences. That’s one of the reasons that many businesses and institutions seek deliberately to promote diversity: they want a team with different skills all working together for the common good.
Of course, that’s the ideal, isn’t it? In reality, diversity often doesn’t work that way. On the one hand, our differences can lead to misunderstandings, tensions, jokes that are more than jokes, fights, bullying, and more. On the other hand, diversity itself can become such an overarching goal that it eclipses the purpose that the team was created for in the first place. Sometimes diversity (or a particular vision of a certain kind of diversity) can be promoted as an ideology for its own sake; something that everyone must fall into line with. And when that happens, diversity just becomes the new uniformity.
In Ephesians 4:16, Paul is speaking of his ideal for Christ’s “body”, his people. It’s a vision that involves diversity. It’s a diversity that matters. Yet it’s not just a diversity for its own sake. Rather, it’s a diversity for the sake of something greater: the unity and growth of Christ’s body. Are you one of Christ’s people? Then you are valuable to his body. You have specific gifts (see Ephesians 4:7), and you have a specific role to play. But the fact that you are different from other members in Christ’s body can be a problem, can’t it? It can lead to misunderstanding, to tensions, to pride, to envy, to competition, and worse. That’s why we need to pay attention to what Paul says here about the purpose and goal of our diversity. Paul’s vision for Christ’s body is not a flat uniformity where everyone is exactly the same. But neither is it a vision where our differences end up being the main thing. We need to keep our eyes fixed on the purpose, so that our differences can work together for that common goal.
From Christ the head, the entire body, being connected and held together by every supporting ligament, according to the activity of every single part, brings about the growth of the body, so that it builds itself in love.Ephesians 4:16
Unity: the foundation of diversity
This verse begins by focusing on what unites us as Christ’s body. Not surprisingly, the primary thing that unites us is Christ himself. Christ is the “head” of the body (this word appears in the previous verse but is connected to this verse so I’ve included it in the translation). The concept of the “head” here is about governing and purpose. Christ directs the body, supplies its needs, and provides its purpose. How does Christ govern us and give us our purpose? The answer is, in fact, all of the things that Paul says in the rest of Ephesians. Christ is the one in whom God is working to “sum up” all things in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:10). In fact, he is the head over “all things” (Ephesians 1:22). But he isn’t just a distant cosmic Lord; he is also deeply concerned with us, his people. Christ is the one who died on the cross to bring us forgiveness and save us from death and judgment; he is the one who rose from the dead to bring us life and hope and a future; he is the one who brings us peace, security, reconciliation, and more. Christ has given us a whole new life to live, a life of holiness, living and speaking for him.
And so, because Christ is the head of the body, the gospel message about Christ is central to our unity. Paul speaks here about “the entire body, being connected and held together by every supporting ligament”. This points us back to what Paul has already said about the gospel and the preaching of the gospel. Back in chapter 2, Paul also talked about being “connected together”; there he was describing the various gospel-preaching “building” activities that are happening throughout the world (see Ephesians 2:21). Here, he’s describing these gospel-preaching activities in terms of the body: they are “ligaments” that provide support and connect Christ’s body together. So our unity is founded on believing in the gospel message about Christ, and speaking it in love, and being part of that gospel going out to the world.
Christ and the gospel: these are the things for us to lift our eyes to as we consider our own individual part in Christ’ body. This is what we are united in. And so this unity is the foundation of our diversity.
Diversity: for the sake of unity
Since unity is the foundation of our diversity, our diversity exists for the sake of this unity. Paul speaks of the way the whole body of Christ “according to the activity of every single part, brings about the growth of the body”. The body is a great illustration of diversity acting for the sake of unity, isn’t it? Human bodies are wonderfully intricate. Just the simple act of walking across a room is an incredible act of coordination between body parts: the eyes looking out for obstacles, the inner ear keeping balance, the different muscles of the legs pulling and relaxing in just the right way, and the head coordinating it all. In the same way, in Christ’s body, each one of us has a valuable role to play.
In the previous verse, Paul has described how all of us in the body should be “speaking the truth in love” (see Ephesians 4:15). But here, we see that each of us will do this in different ways. Each of us has different and often unique opportunities to speak the truth of the gospel depending on our circumstances and relationships and abilities: to friends, family, strangers, insiders, and outsiders. Each of us has different opportunities to respond to God’s love by loving others, depending on our circumstances and relationships and abilities. While some of these opportunities are clearly noticeable by others, most of them aren’t. Normally we don’t get public recognition for our acts of encouragement and love. In my own church, as I speak to my brothers and sisters in Christ, I hear stories about various ways people are encouraging one another through the gospel: caring for one another and working together to see the gospel go out to the world. Most of it is behind the scenes. It’s things like providing meals for those in need, praying, offering encouraging words, crunching spreadsheets to organise finances, visiting those who need help, sharing the gospel in workplaces, and much more. I’m sure that for every story we hear about, there are hundreds of stories we don’t hear about. We can give thanks to God that the body of Christ is at work in these ways.
But bodies don’t always work that way, do they? That’s why cancer is so devastating. Cancer happens when certain cells start to multiply and grow by themselves, in a way that isn’t for the good of the rest of the body. Cancer is when some individual cells of the body become very, very good at one particular activity: replicating themselves. Cancer is a form of growth, but it’s a runaway growth that undermines and destroys. And this kind of cancer can happen with the body of Christ too, can’t it? If I start to think it’s all about me and my own gifts, if I start to try to gear everything in church around me and my preferences instead of around Jesus and the gospel, if I try to make little ‘mes’ who like me, and are like me, and always agree with me, then I’ve become a cancerous cell, eating away at the body, undermining the unity of the gospel. But the body of Christ is not just about my own personal “giftedness”, is it? Sometimes the most brilliant and gifted people are the most devastating for the body of Christ—that is, if they’re in it to simply promote and replicate themselves. Are you like this? It’s an uncomfortable question. But it’s a question we all need to ask ourselves, isn’t it? It’s a question that Christian ministers and leaders especially need to ask. What is your goal? Are you focused on Jesus Christ and on building others up in Jesus Christ? Or are you seeking to make everything about you?
The self-building body
Yet when the many diverse parts of the body of Christ work well together, it’s a wonderful thing. As the body grows, it “builds itself in love”. Paul here switches back from the “body” idea to the “building” idea. Paul uses the “building” idea in Ephesians to talk about speaking the gospel to grow God’s people. “Building” is about gospel ministry and gospel mission. Here, Paul is still talking about building by gospel-speaking—but there’s a new component he wants to focus on: the building is something that the body does for itself. “Building”—i.e. gospel ministry and mission—is something the entire body of Christ does, with each part taking part in a different way, for a common goal. This is not a static vision, is it? It’s a vision of growth and building. It’s a vision of growth and building “in love”—together, responding to God’s love for us in Jesus by loving one another.
And this body-building is central to what God is doing in the world now. As Paul has already said in chapter 1, this church, the body, is the “fulfilment” of Christ (Ephesians 1:23), who himself is the one in whom God is planning to “sum up all things” in the universe (Ephesians 1:10). That’s why gospel ministry matters in our churches, and why gospel ministry needs to keep happening in all the world. That’s why it’s important for each of us to seek ways deliberately to “speak the truth in love” in our unique and individual situations. And it’s also why we need to keep training and equipping people to be vocational gospel ministers, sent out to the world.
So how can you play your part? I’m not just asking that because it’s my current job to train vocational gospel ministers: after all, if I didn’t think it was important I’d get another job. I’m asking it because this is God’s great plan for his world. God is rescuing people from death and bringing them to life as they hear the gospel of Christ. God is working through the preaching of the gospel to sum up all things in Christ. He’s doing it through Christ’s body, building itself in love. You and me. All of us. Individually, in different ways. But working together, in our diversity, for that common goal, to the praise of his glory.
How can you play your part?
How does understanding the purpose of Christ’s body help you to play your own individual part in it?
Are there any life decisions you could make that would enable you to play your part in building Christ’s body more effectively?
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.