Queer Ephesians 4.1-16: Unity in a Humble and Diverse Church

In the first half of chapter 4, Ephesians asks us to consider the unity of the Church in Christ, how we must approach this unity which finds its reality not in homogeneity, but in a diversity of members and a diversity of gifts and vocations. The Church must respond to diversity in loving humility.


Oneness in Christ

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Throughout chapters 1-3 Ephesians has been reminding us that we are called to unity and to love in Christ. And Ephesians invokes Paul’s imprisonment, during which he wrote most of his letters, to emphasise the stark reality of the wonder of this calling. “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (v.1). Life worthy of God’s calling is characterised by living “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (vv.2-3).

Many of us who are queer are probably quick to spot the deficiency of these traits in those with whom we have had our most difficult experiences: those who have excluded, demeaned and abused us. But this is also a challenge to us. Taking a line that is militantly progressive is as lacking humility and gentleness as is the rabid conservative. And those of us who are progressive are often just as willing to dismiss the theological perspective and experience of other, failing to bear with one another in love, as are our conservative brethren.

This is a challenge as well as encouragement for queer people. For we are called to live “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v.3). We have just as much responsibility to heal the rifts in the church, and to calm its infighting, as do conservatives. Ephesians reminds us at we are in this together.

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Our oneness emerges from the fact that, in Christ, “There is one body and one Spirit” (v.4), and this oneness goes as deep as “the one hope of [our] calling” (v.4). Our very hope stems from the one vocation which we share in Christ, from beginning to end: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (v.5). We are in this together as a Church, and also as creatures of “one God and Father of all” (v.6). And is this God and Father great enough to be able to bring us together in all our many differences? Yes, for he “is above all and through all and in all” (v.6). God pervades our very hearts, all of us, even those who seem farthest from us, and calls us in his grace to unity “of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v.3).


God’s Inclusive Work in Christ

7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.’
9(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

For Ephesians, it is Christ’s presence which unites us most of all, for “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (v.7). Every one of us is included in God’s overwhelming plan for goodness and wholeness, and the extent of this inclusion is measured by the gift of Christ. Ephesians then makes the case that “Christ’s gift” is not simply something that happens up there, far away from us, or to other people. It takes a verse from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people” (v.8), and acknowledges that it seems to suggest that Christ’s work is something that happens fundamentally in another place and on another plane: Christ’s work seems far from us.

But then, Ephesians interprets this verse rather acrobatically to say that “When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” (v.9). God’s work in Christ is fundamentally not something that happens up there, far away from us, or to other people, but rather is something that happens everywhere, for and to everyone. God does not operate differently in heaven and on earth for “he who descended is the same one who ascended” (v.10), and God’s work is not limited to heaven, but even goes “far above all the heavens” (v.10). God’s work in Christ is fundamentally inclusive in the best sense of the word, because it is something that God wants to happen for and to everyone and everything, “so that he might fill all things” (v.10).

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Diversity of Gifts and Diversity of Vocations

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Verse 11 is another verse that many of us have experienced being used badly. It is a verse that is used to remind us not to rock the boat, to know our place, and to accept that because we are queer God must not have given us particular gifts with which to grace the Church. But I do think this is a gross distortion of the message of Ephesians. For the purpose of this listing of the different ministries in v.11 is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (v.12), that is, to equip all of the people of God for active ministry. The universality of God’s ministerial gifts is what is being affirmed here, not their exclusivity. So while it is true that we are not all called to be apostles, not all called to be prophets, or evangelists, or pastors or teachers, we are all called to active ministry within the church. And if the Church neglects this fact then it is guilty of the worst sort of sacerdotalism, the worst sort of clericalism.

For God gives these ministries, not for the furtherance of individual communities, or denominations, or cell groups in isolation, but gives the gifts needed “for building up the body of Christ” (v.12). The gifts God gives us are not in isolation from the strong theology of unity which Ephesians has been pressing from the beginning of the letter. In Christ we are one body, and in Christ we are called to one ministry, that is the building up of the body of Christ, everywhere and in all ways, the accredited and the informal, the public and the private, the loud and the quiet.

The point that Ephesians is making is that if we think that the ministry of the people of God is limited to this list of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, we are severely underestimating both the needs of the body of Christ, the Church, and also the overwhelming abundance of the grace of God. For the challenge all Christians face in responding to God’s call is great. The challenge is nothing less than a ministry of building up “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (v.13). How great a goal is this, and one which Ephesians is fully aware will require all Christians to utilise all of their gifts, whatever people say, to realise in “the unity of the faith” (v.13).

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This mature approach to vocation, in which the gifts of all are honoured and utilised, is contrasted with the alternative: “We must no longer be children” (v.14). This way of being church is characterised not by unity in the bond of Christ, but by being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” (v.14), so rigidly understanding theology that new ideas threaten to break the church or require wholesale departure from what has gone before. Likewise an inability to discern the truth in what people are saying, or to evaluate their motives, so that the church is thrown off balance “by people’s trickery” (v.14), either hunkering down and refusing to listen to any new voice or failing to be wisely critical of new voices, failing to discern the honest reshaping of the truth from “craftiness and deceitful scheming” (v.14). These weaknesses have paralysed many a church already and in our own time.

Rather, the church is called to “speaking the truth in love” (v.15), faithfully and humbly, rather than rigidly and dogmatically, for this is what allows the church to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v.15). And how does Ephesians characterise this speaking the truth in love? With unity. For Christ is the one source and the end point, the united ontology and telos, of the Church, “from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (v.16).

As a church we need to get far better at discerning how to help our brothers and sisters work properly within themselves, as God has called them, so that they may work, as God has called them and with the gifts he has given them, for the building up of the whole.

This is how unity in Christ works. Not in homogeneity, but in healthy and mutually supportive diversity of gifts and vocations. Only when we begin from the assumption that it is God calling flourishing human lives to work in Christ’s body, and not us calling people to fulfill human categories of ministry, will we be able to allow God to work for the unity which he has already effected inwardly in Christ.

Only in this humble approach to humility can the church “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [it] has been called” (v.1).

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