Lately as I read through the Bible, I've been trying to read it through a lens of honesty. By that I mean, not bringing my own preconceived ideas to the Scripture. We are all guilty of this, because we are all human. Many things shape our thinking. Our environment, upbringing, and education just to name a few. All of us have been influenced by parents, teachers, friends, and pastors. Not to mention media, society, and popular philosophy. We almost always read the Bible with our preconceived thinking already in place. We apply the Bible to our thinking, instead of our thinking to the Bible. No one is immune from this! We ALL do it. As much as I'd like to think I don't do it, I do. However, I believe being aware of how my thinking can affect my understanding of Scripture is key to getting away from applying Scripture my way, and leading more to applying it God's way.
For instance: As I read through the Bible I've begun asking things like, "Do I believe this passage a particular way because of my Bible college teaching, or because it's what the passage is actually saying." Or, "Do I believe this passage supports a certain doctrine because it fits with Independent Baptist theology, or because it fits with God's theology." I ask a lot of other questions too. What does this passage mean? Who is it addressed to? What is the background of the person speaking? Why would he say these things to this group of people? How does this apply to me? How does it apply to the church today? And so on.
Today I read Ephesians chapter 4 (and a few other chapters too :). The first three chapters of Ephesians deal with doctrine. Specifically salvation. It's amazing how much time Paul takes to address just the issue of salvation! Romans 1-9 comes to mind. Ah... I'm getting side tracked :). Ephesians 4-6 are the practical, rubber-meets-the-road chapters. There's a lot of talk within Christianity today of unity, and Ephesians 4 is a key passage used to defend ecumenical unity between denominations. Now, if you know anything about Independent Baptists you know that they (I include myself as well) are militant separatists. I have no problem with that. If I did, I would quite going to an Independent Baptist church. In fact, I believe Biblical separation is Scriptural and necessary, not to mention, helpful in maintaining a right relationship with the Lord. So, how then do I deal with Ephesians 4:3? Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Is Paul not commanding the Christians to be unified in this passage? Simple answer: Yes. However, I noticed several things as I was reading this chapter. First of all was the emphasis on truth. True unity cannot happen when someone in the group believes doctrinal error. That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth... (Eph. 4:14-15). Truth is also mentioned in verses 21 and 25.
The second thing I noticed was the emphasis on holy, separated living. This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind,That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph 4:17, 22-24).
The third thing I noticed is that there are a lot of commands in this chapter. We are to grow in Christ (vs. 15), walk not as the Gentiles (vs. 17), put off the former conversation (vs. 22), be renewed in spirit and in mind (vs. 23), put away lying (vs. 25), be angry and sin not (vs. 26), don't give place to the devil (vs. 27), don't steal (vs. 28), work (vs. 28), let no corrupt communication proceed out of our mouths (vs. 29), speak good to edify (vs. 29), grieve not the Holy Spirit (vs. 30), put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil speaking, and malice (vs. 31), be kind (vs. 32), forgive (vs. 32).
It seems that along with unity comes a lot of responsibility. It seems that if unity is to be possible then we must endeavour to live with these characteristics. I believe this is the point Paul is trying to make here. He wants everyone on the same page. Ultimately, all these commands lead to one goal. Living for Christ. Many are trying to achieve some sort of "unity in diversity" by ignoring so-called secondary issues in Scripture. Yet Paul hits on some pretty obscure stuff in this passage. He doesn't talk about the inerrancy of Scripture, or the virgin birth, or the blood atonement. He goes beyond the fundamentals of the faith when dealing with unity. His focus is on what many deem "non-essentials." Why? Why does Paul spend so much time dealing with "non-essentials" if they are NON-ESSENTIAL? That's a good question. Maybe an answer can be found in verse 15... grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ. We are to grow in ALL things in Christ, not just the "five fundamentals."
Then I started thinking about the church today compared to when Paul was writing. Are there parallels? Have things changed? Many see a lot of compromise and deception in the 21st century church. Was there deception and compromise in Paul's day? I believe their was. Why else would Paul give such specific instruction to the Ephesians regarding practice? Why would he warn them against men who lie in wait to deceive (vs. 14)? If the church at Ephesus already had this unity thing figured out, why would Paul be giving them so much teaching?
This is where I think we come to the Bible with our preconceived ideas. We have this idea that 1st century Christianity was perfect. All the churches were good. All the Christians were on the same page. There was harmony, fellowship, and unity. No one was left out. No one was separating from anyone else. There was no such thing as denominations. And yet, if we read through the New Testament we find time and time again where the Christians are warned about false teachers, wolves in sheep's clothing, and divers and strange doctrine. That would seem to indicate that there was compromise and error that needed to be separated from!
1. Unity is something God wants us to have
2. Unity is dependent upon acceptance of truth: ie. We all believe the same thing (vs 4-6).
3. Unity is dependent upon rejection of false doctrine (vs. 14).
4. Unity is dependent upon love (vs 15).
5. Unity is dependent upon living a right life before God: ie. Keeping God's commands (vs 22-32).
6. Unity even involves what many deem non-essential. With God there are NO non-essentials.
Yes, Paul was telling the Ephesians to live in unity, but he definitely clarified what kind of unity that was to be. Never once did he advocate joining with false teaching. He even goes so far as to deal with secondary issues of lifestyle and practice! Unity in Christ means we live for Him in ALL things.