Monthly Archives: July 2012

Unity of the Spirit

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 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 all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6, ESV).

While meditating on Ephesians 4:1-16 recently, I realized that the entire passage focuses on Christian unity, which St. Paul here refers to as “unity of the Spirit.” Paul often addressed threats to Christian unity. To this day, the unity is threatened.

Before I proceed, I would like to clear up a major misunderstanding about Christian unity. The unity of the Spirit is not developed by an absolute adherence to common dogma. Some who profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ will reject those who disagree with them on secondary (or even less important) doctrines. Whether it be eternal security, methods of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, eschatology, etc., these are not issues that allow one Christian to condemn others to hell. None of us has a right to claim that others are not saved, or are somehow second-rate Christians, if they disagree with us. I am not saying that doctrine is completely unimportant; we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8), and doctrine is important insofar as it keeps our eyes on the true Jesus of Scripture (as opposed to a “Jesus” that we make up to suit our own needs). However, doctrine is only useful as a means of fostering our relationship with Christ. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ comes first; doctrine and church practices are tools to foster that relationship.

What is truly important in the “unity of the Spirit” is the personal relationship with Christ. Through that relationship, we are bound to other Christians in the church. Scripture often very appropriately uses the language of family to describe the church: God is our Father, and we are brothers and sisters through our relationship with Him.

In Ephesians and elsewhere (First Corinthians 12, for example), St. Paul refers to the church as “the body of Christ,” which is also a fitting image. We are tempted to view some members of the church (including the pastor, worship leaders, Sunday school teachers, or others with visible roles on Sunday morning) as “more important.” Yet, as 1 Corinthians 12:15-26 shows, the less glamorous or visible members of the body are important too. Some organs seem more important than others, but each one fulfills an important role.

Since we are a body, it is not our job to create spiritual unity. Ephesians 4:3 calls us to maintain the unity of the Spirit. It is already there. Just as my right hand has maintained a connection to the rest of my body since before I was born, so every Christian has a vital spiritual link to other believers. I do not have to buy a right hand and glue it on; I just need to preserve it and care for it, so that it can continue to fulfill its role in my body.

This unity of Christians is multi-faceted. It is a unity of existence: There is one body and one Spirit. We share a unity of purpose: One hope that belongs to our call. We share a unity of Lordship and fellowship: One Lord (Jesus), one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.

Unity is preserved through the ministry of the church. God has appointed certain people within the church to a role in the fourfold ministry (some sincere believers think it is “fivefold”; the original Greek implies four ministries, but this is a subject for another study): apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers (the Greek suggests these are the same; the same word can be translated either “shepherd” or “pastor”). Though different ministries, they share a common mission:

… to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:12-14).

Unity of the Spirit is something we gain through our spiritual birthright, by being believers in Christ. Unity of the faith and of knowledge is something we grow towards. Perhaps this is something that will not be completed until we get to heaven. As long as we see in a mirror dimly or through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), we have room to grow. Nevertheless, those who are called to teach and preach the Word of God to the church are not called to promote division or denominational distinctives, designed to set themselves apart from other Christians. They are called to preach the truth about Jesus Christ: to bring people to knowledge of the Son of God. They are called to bring people to spiritual maturity.

Their mission includes promoting unity through their diversity. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers have different skills, perspectives, and talents. They approach their ministries from different angles. Yet, they work together to carry out a common goal: to bring people to maturity in Christ.

The true measure of success for these ministers is when those within their flock develop their own ministries (Ephesians 4:12). Each of us has a different place of service within the Body of Christ. The church needs those who serve in the fourfold ministry. It also needs the secretary, the prayer warrior, the musician, and the janitor. It needs the person who holds no official title in the church, but is always ready to encourage the downtrodden. The church needs the guy who is willing to drive people to and from church. Whether it is a “spiritual” ministry that demands in-depth Bible training, or serving others with talents one could use in the most secular of businesses, your skills and talents are needed.

Christians are called to work together to glorify Jesus Christ. We are called to grow up into Him: to become more like Christ as we mature. We are called to unity, not uniformity: We build the church and preserve its unity not by forcing everybody into the same mold, but by allowing people to grow in their own gifts, talents, and passions, so that together we can strengthen the church, glorify our Savior, and draw people into relationship with Him.

Categories: Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Freedom in Christ

(Note: I published this article last year, around July 4, on michaelelynch.wordpress.com. I believe it is always worthwhile to reflect on the true meaning of freedom on this day of the year. May God pour out His grace and mercy upon our nation.)

July begins with one of America’s favorite holidays. On July 4, most Americans will enjoy a day off from work, feasting at barbecues, watching fireworks displays, or hanging out at the beach (to name just a few fun activities). We do these things in the name of celebrating our freedom as a nation. Freedom is a foundation of our national heritage: it is central to our identity as a country, and few principles are mentioned more often in our political and social discourse. Freedom is important to us not only as Americans, but more so as Christians. God speaks about freedom throughout His Word, but it is not the sort of freedom the world promotes. To understand the biblical concept of freedom or liberty, we can study the letters of St. Paul; Galatians 5 is a great place to begin. In Galatians 5:1, 13, he mentions freedom four times:

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…. For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

It is important to consider the meaning of the word “freedom.” Most people think of it as the right to do whatever you want. Among the definitions in Webster’s Dictionary are the following:

  • “exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.”
  • “the power to determine action without restraint.”

Both of these definitions are incomplete and therefore inaccurate. They assume that we can be completely free of external control, interference, or restraint. However, this is not possible for several reasons. For one, there are many times when freedom for one person’s course of action places restrictions on another person. For example, before the Civil War millions of Americans were free to buy, sell, and own slaves. Needless to say, their liberty in this regard placed others in bondage. When the slaves were set free, after the war, they obtained a level of freedom they had not known previously, but the people who owned them lost what they considered to be a valid legal right. In each case, one group’s liberty placed a restriction on another group. The same remains true today: A woman’s right to end her pregnancy interferes with the preborn child’s right to live. As New York State recently gave homosexuals the right to marry, it has essentially robbed Christians who serve in public office (like justices of the peace) of their right to live by their moral convictions.

As a result, total freedom (as defined by secular society) is a myth. It is ridiculous to place freedom and liberty on the throne as the ultimate reality, the greatest value in the universe. We need something greater to help us decide which rights to preserve. The Bible gives us the answer. Jesus told us that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–40). This standard, of love to God and neighbor (in that order, and defined by His Word) is an essential first guideline for determining which “rights” should be preserved.

Secondly, even when we are free to choose a course of action, we are not free to decide its consequences. For example, there is no law saying how many donuts I may eat. Legally, I can choose to eat a dozen donuts for each meal every day. However, that diet will enslave me with obesity and a host of other health concerns. That is perhaps a rather extreme and silly example, yet millions of people claim their freedom to drink as much alcohol as they wish, only to be bound by the disease of alcoholism. People may think they are exercising their freedom, only to find themselves bound by chains of addiction.

Unfortunately, because of such false notions about freedom, many Christians do not realize their liberty in Christ. Countless followers of Jesus are bound by rules when they should instead by liberated by the Spirit of God. Jesus did not come into the world merely to reinforce the rules, but to offer direct access to His Heavenly Father to all who believe in Him. We are invited to enter into an intimate relationship with God. This relationship brings us the freedom to be everything that God created us to be. Although that freedom has guidelines and limits, it also brings great privileges. We should learn to look at God’s commandments not with resentment (“God said I cannot commit adultery; He just wants to spoil my fun!”), but with gratitude (“Thank you, God! You have shown me how to find true fulfillment in my relationships, and You have protected me from disease and other harmful effects!”).

In Galatians 5, we can discern four principles about such freedom. First, true freedom comes as we yield to the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:24 tells us that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” If you belong to Jesus Christ, He is free to lead you. He wants to lead you into liberty. He wants to set you free from sinful habits that cause slavery. Because I am free in Christ, I can choose to avoid sins that would enslave me. He also offers the liberty to serve others, which provides a sense of purpose in life. I choose to obey Christ and His Word in order to be free to serve Him.

Second, freedom produces liberty in personal relationships. When we yield to the leading of the Holy Spirit and obey Christ, we commit ourselves to a life of love. Galatians 5:14 reminds us that every commandment in Scripture is summed up by “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This love does not come naturally for people. It is not natural for a person to put the needs of others on an equal level with their own, except perhaps for very close friends or immediate family members. The Holy Spirit must orchestrate that love in our hearts. When we love one another in this way, it delivers freedom. People are sucked into bondage when they backbite and devour one another (Galatians 5:15). Numerous marriages have been destroyed, friendships shattered, and churches torn apart, because people place their own desires over the needs of those around them. God wants us to build each other up, not destroy one another.

Third, this freedom liberates us from the bondage of sin. There is no crueller taskmaster than sin. In Galatians 5:19–21, Paul lists some of the “deeds of the flesh.” While Scripture refers to them as manifestations of sin, many of them are almost deified in our culture. American society promotes sexual freedom, but millions of lives have been destroyed because people ignore the biblical warnings against sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality. Millions of marriages have ended because of adultery. Countless young people have been emotionally scarred because they jumped into physical relationships they were not emotionally ready for. In addition, millions have enslaved themselves through hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and a host of other sins. Sin produces personal shame. It creates consequences which we must live with. Sometimes, it damages our physical health. Too often, we think some sins are “victimless,” but ironically, the person committing the sin is the greatest victim!

Fourth, freedom in the Spirit liberates us as we develop a Christlike nature. Christianity is not a matter of living by the rules. Some churches teach us that a good Christian does not smoke, drink, dance, or go to the movies; that he prays at least one hour every day, goes to church three times per week, and listens only to Christian music. Such rules are not totally bad: Most of these guidelines will do us more good than harm. However, they do not make somebody a “good Christian.” In fact, some of the grouchiest religious fanatics follow all of these rules, yet they do not show any of the love of God. One becomes a good Christian not by following rules, but by having Christ living within them. As we allow the Holy Spirit to produce His fruit within us (see Galatians 5:22–23), we will become more like Christ. We will become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We will obtain victory over sin. We will do this without rules that create bondage to guilt and shame, mingled with feelings of inadequacy because we always realize that there is more we could do.

Christlike character traits are called the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22. Fruit grows; it does not just appear overnight. As we yield to Christ and the Holy Spirit, the fruit will grow. Even though you may be weak in some areas now, you should encourage yourself as you realize that the Holy Spirit is producing growth. No matter how weak you are now, you will grow stronger as you yield to the Holy Spirit.

Let us be encouraged by these thoughts. We are free from the legalism of dead religion. We are free from the guilt and anxiety that religious rules create. As we yield to Christ, we are free from sin and enjoy newness of life as we look forward to eternity in heaven.

Categories: Bible meditations, Current events, Politics | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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