They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee! Does this mean that groups make poor decisions because they incorporate too many conflicting opinions?
Christian churches and ministries are often led by leadership teams. But how should such teams make decisions, particularly when not all members agree? In this blogpost, we will use the example of a group of elders leading a church, but the principles also apply to other groups of Christians. We will see that the best approach to collective decision-making is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority.
The Bible teaches that a Christian church should be governed by a group of elders. This is plural leadership by a team that makes decisions for the congregation. In this article we look at some of the biblical principles for making decisions at elders’ meetings. These are collective, corporate decisions; not those made by an individual. It is when the elders seek the best collective decision as to what is Christ’s will for the congregation.
It is important to make every effort to maintain peace and unity among Christians (Rom. 14:19; Eph. 4:3). After all, Jesus died to bring together all of God’s scattered people and make them one (Jn. 11:51-52). Unity among believers was so important to Jesus that it was the subject of His prayer for them during the final hours of His life on earth: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn. 17:20-23NIV).
The Greek word for “one” (hen, Strongs #1520) appears four times in these verses, the last occasion being translated as “complete unity.” Here “one” is a metaphor for union, concord, and unity and the example to follow is the unity that exists between God the Father and God the Son. The same word was used when Christ said “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30).
The reason for this unity is repeated in the above verses: so the people of this world will know that Christ was sent by God. Another reason is so they may know something of God’s great love for humanity. This means that Christ tied His reputation and the credibility of His message to how well His followers display unity and oneness.
Paul also gave reasons for harmony and unity amongst Christians, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:1-4).
Evidently there was a lack of unity amongst the elders at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). There were factions within this church. Paul said that there shouldn’t be such divisions or quarrels within a leadership team.
But unity doesn’t mean uniformity; that every elder will have the same opinion. If this was the case, there would be no need for the plurality of elders. Also, plural leadership harnesses the collective experience and wisdom of a group, which is not present in a single person.
Furthermore, unity doesn’t mean that one person makes the decisions and the others all agree. This is more like a dictatorship where one person insists on getting their own way (3 Jn. 9-10). Being unified on an issue means that after debate, discussion and prayer, all the elders can support a certain choice as the best collective decision for the church.
Unity in a leadership team mainly depends on the character of the team members. For example, the Bible gives the godly qualifications required for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-6; Tit. 1:6-9). In decision-making it’s important that elders be sensible, just, trustworthy, and self-controlled and not quarrelsome or quick tempered or overbearing.
Did you know that not making a decision is a decision? In this case, the situation remains the same as it is at present. So, we are choosing to remain the same instead of changing in some way. Such a bias in favour of the status quo can be harmful for a church which is facing ever-changing challenges.
According to the dictionary, consensus means general or widespread agreement. The two main components of decision-making are the process used to form a proposal and the method used to decide whether to implement it or not. The word “consensus” has been used in both of these contexts.
A consensus-oriented process is one in which people work together to reach as much agreement as possible. It is a collaborative and inclusive process in which all the elders should have the opportunity to contribute to drafting the proposal. As extra time can lead to a better proposal, be willing to defer finalizing the proposal to the next elders’ meeting.
A person can give their consent to a proposal that isn’t their first choice. Possible decision-making options include:
– Unanimous agreement (this is the most difficult to achieve)
– Unanimous consent (where the proposal isn’t necessarily their first choice)
– Unanimous agreement minus one or two votes
– Unanimous consent minus one or two votes
– Super majority such as 90%, 80%, 75%, or two-thirds.
– Simple majority. At least 51%.
Three decision-making methods
Some examples of decision-making in the early church are given in the Appendix. The three main methods for making decisions in elders’ meetings are unanimity, majority, and consensus.
In this case, decisions are based on unanimous agreement by all persons. This is the ideal that elders should be working towards. However, this method allows one person to shut down the decision-making process. Not taking an action is a decision. In this case, the decision would be made by one person, and not a plural group. This gives one person too much power. The choice to require unanimous agreement on all decisions allows any individual elder to stop the decision-making process in the elders’ group. So this approach can lead to government by the minority.
In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by a majority of elders. It is government by the majority, not the minority. Although there is biblical precedence for this approach (2 Cor. 5:6), it can also lack unity. For example, if a decision is based on a slim majority, then there is a lack of unity amongst the elders. How can the elders expect the congregation to follow such a decision? A proposal that cannot gain the agreement of all or nearly all the elders is not worthy of the elders’ support. So a super majority is better than a slim majority.
In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all (unanimity) or most of the elders. Consequently, it avoids the short-comings of the other two methods for making decisions. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support (say at least two-thirds). So it is similar to a super majority where each person agrees to support the decision, even though it may not be their first choice. Note that disagreement by a minority does not have to mean disunity.
Today the complete Word of God gives us a general outline of God’s will. When we need specific guidance in matters not covered in the Word, we can pray and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The elements of decision making at an elders’ meeting include:
– Pray for corporate wisdom. If there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, then there is a need for more prayer.
– Gather and assess information. Good leaders listen to the concerns of all the people involved. Don’t make a decision before you have all the facts (Prov. 18:13, 17). After an allegation was made the Israelites were advised; “you must investigate it thoroughly” (Dt. 13:14). As there are usually at least two sides to every story, it is important to talk to all the parties involved (Josh. 22:13-14; 31-34; Mt. 18:15-17).
– Apply appropriate Biblical principles.
– Discuss options. “After much discussion”, the early church at Jerusalem made a decision on the law of Moses (Acts 15:7, 25).
– Agree on a time frame for the decision. If we put it off indefinitely, then we accept the status quo. But if there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, if possible, the decision could be delayed to the next elders meeting. Similarly for the case where a decision is a greater risk of going against Christ’s will for the congregation than the risk of delay. So patience is required for good decision-making.
– Seek consensus where team members either fully agree or have no serious objections. But if this is not achieved, to do nothing may be making a decision anyhow (status quo). And it seems better to favor the majority and not the minority, provided this doesn’t threaten unity amongst the elders.
Don’t let fear cripple your decision making. Fear of conflict, fear of what others may think and fear of failure must be overcome if we are to make good decisions.
Consensus is preferred because majority rule is better than minority rule and super majority rule is better than simple majority rule. Whereas a requirement for a unanimous agreement gives every member a veto, which is individual decision-making and not collective decision-making.
Let’s use the principles discussed above to make good decisions in our Christian leadership teams. The best approach is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority. For example, in elders’ meetings it is best to seek consensus when making decisions. In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all or most of the elders. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support. This avoids the shortcomings of using the unanimous or majority approaches to decision making.
Appendix – Decision-making in the early church
Some examples of decisions made in the early church are given below.
Matthias chosen to replace Judas
After the resurrection of Jesus and the death of Judas Iscariot, it was necessary to appoint another apostle to be a witness Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:15-26). The job description for this person would require that they knew what Christ taught so they could teach others. And they must be able to work together with the other apostles to lead the church in Jerusalem. Apparently several men met this requirement, so a decision had to be made as to which one would become the 12th apostle. Then the Bible says; “So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:23-26NIV).
They followed a three step process:
– The apostles nominated two men
– The apostles prayed for the Lord’s will to be revealed
– They cast lots
As this is the Bible’s last mention of casting lots, it’s not prescriptive for the church. It was a method used under the Mosaic covenant, but not under the new covenant.
The casting of lots for decision-making was a custom widely practiced in the ancient Near East. For example, lots were used in Persia in the 5th century BC (Est. 3:7). It seems as though marked pebbles or sticks were drawn from a receptacle into which they had been cast. This use of stones or sticks of wood to make decisions occurred often in Old Testament times (Ex. 28:30; Num. 26:55-56; 27:21; 33:54; 1 Sam. 10:20-21; 1 Chron. 26:13-16; Neh. 11:1; Ps. 22:18; Prov. 16:33; 18:18; Ezek. 21:21; Jon. 1:7). For example, the Urim and the Thummim were used to determine the will of God. Lots were used to reveal God’s selection of someone or something out of several possibilities in cases where a clear choice was not otherwise evident (Prov. 16:33). They provided a just and peaceful settlement of matters between people who might otherwise resort to force.
Deacons chosen at Jerusalem
When a practical need arose in the church at Jerusalem, the apostles said, “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4). So the congregation choose seven men who were endorsed by the apostles. But no details are given on the method used for this decision.
Barnabas and Saul chosen for missionary work
Paul’s first missionary journey began from Antioch in Syria (Acts 13:1-3). This decision was made when the elders of the church (and maybe the congregation) were engaged in a time of prayer and fasting. They may have been praying about the evangelization of the world. As they prayed the Holy Spirit told them set apart Barnabas and Saul for this missionary work. We are not told how this message came, but it may have been revealed to one of the men who were prophets (Simeon, Lucius, or Manaen). The elders (and congregation) must have agreed as “they placed their hands on them and sent them off”. Likewise, no details are given on the decision-making process used.
Do Gentile believers need to be circumcised?
At the church in Jerusalem, the leadership team (apostles and elders) met in about AD 48 to consider whether to impose circumcision on Gentile believers (Acts 15:1-35). There was “much discussion” on this topic. Peter, Barnabas and Paul spoke. James then made a recommendation that was accepted by the apostles, elders and the whole church. They “all agreed” to send Judas and Silas to Antioch with a letter about their decision (Acts 15:22, 25). The ESV, HCSB and NET call it “unanimous” (the Greek means, having come to one mind”). It seemed to be a consensus agreement (a general agreement) which everyone was willing to accept. This doesn’t mean that everyone fully agreed (unanimity) as evidenced by the ongoing Judaizers objections. This is a good outcome of decision making, but it isn’t always possible. For example:
– When Paul and Barnabas disagreed with regard to John Mark, they went separate ways (Acts 16:36-41). This shows that agreement will not always be reached. But in this case a peaceful outcome was achieved.
– Paul said that it was wrong for a church to be divided over leaders like in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). Instead there should be unity.
Dealing with an offender at Corinth
Paul wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians to address problems at the church in Corinth. One of the problems was that the church continued to accept a member who was in an incestuous relationship (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Paul rebuked them for not doing anything about it, and urged them to take action. He told them to expel the man from the church so that he would repent of this ongoing behaviour.
When Paul wrote a follow-up letter, it was evident that the church had obeyed Paul’s instruction to expel the offender (2 Cor. 2:5-8; 7:12). (Note that this passage may refer to someone else who had caused trouble in the church; we can’t be certain. Another possibility is that the offence in 2 Corinthians was a personal attack by the unrepentant incestuous man against Paul and his authority to exercise discipline in the church. And after Paul rebuked them again, the church finally disciplined the offender). Now as the offender had shown genuine sorrow and repentance for his sin, the punishment should be discontinued and he should be restored to fellowship in the local church. In this context, Paul writes,
“The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient” (v. 6NIV).
“For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough” (ESV)
“The punishment inflicted by the majority is sufficient for that person” (HCSB)
“This punishment on such an individual by the majority is enough for him” (NET).
The Greek word pleionon (Strongs #4119) means greater in quantity or quality (Thayer Greek Lexion). The short definition is “more” or “greater”. In 2 Cor. 2:6 it is translated as “majority”, because it means greater in quantity. Paul also uses this Greek word in the same sense in 4:15 (where it means “more and more”) and 9:2 (where is means “most”). This Greek word also occurs in 1 Cor. 9:19 (many); 10:5 (most); 15:6 (most).
The decision by the church to punish the offender had not been unanimous, as it was carried out by the “majority” of the church, not “all” the church. Some may have declined to take part in it because they refused to acknowledge Paul’s authority. But Paul felt that the agreement of the majority had been sufficient to attain the desired objective. Those who had shown disrespect for the apostle must have been the minority.
This suggests that in instances where unanimity isn’t achieved, then it should be majority rule and not minority rule. You may say that in the case of the Israelite spies of Canaan, the majority (10 out of 12) made a bad decision. However, this was because only two of the 12 spies were faithful to the Lord (See the importance of the godly character of team members mentioned above under “Unity”).
Reference Swartley RH (2005) “Eldership in action. Through biblical governance of the church”. Emmaus College Press.
Written, April 2017
Also see: New Testament shepherds
I have collection of vinyl musical records, but no record player because they are obsolete today. Likewise, audio cassette tapes are obsolete. And CDs are heading that way as well! Smart phones have replaced alarms, diaries, low quality cameras, calculators, MP3 players, and GPS devices. These are also obsolete! New technology replaces the old.
Let’s look at the roles of priests in public worship in Old Testament times and whether there are any implications for the New Testament church. We will see that because Christ’s sacrifice atoned for our sin, we no longer need priests. They are obsolete because there is no need for a human mediator between us and God. But all Christians have a joint responsibility to worship and serve the Lord and to bring the good news about Jesus to all the nations of the world.
The Hebrew noun translated “priest” (kohen, Strongs #3548) occurs 750 times in the Old Testament. It is used frequently for men who represented the people before God by offering sacrifices, carrying out rituals and speaking prayers.
Before the Israelite priesthood was instituted, the heads of families functioned as priests by offering sacrifices to God. For example, Noah, Abram, Isaac, Jacob and Job did this (Gen. 8:20; 15:9-10; 26:25; 31:54; Job 1:5).
God’s covenant with Israel provided for two types of priests, individual and national.
The high priest was the head of priestly affairs and the spiritual head of Israel. He had special duties, like entering the Most Holy Place of the temple annually on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). The high priest wore special clothing that symbolized the nature and importance of his office. There was only one high priest at any given time. He was chosen by God (Heb. 5:1, 4). And he represented all the Israelites as he made “atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17NIV).
Priests were male descendants of Aaron, the first high priest (Ex. 28:1 – 29:46). The priests served in the tabernacle and then the temple. Their main function was to offer continual sacrifices to God in order to atone for sin. They were also teachers and judges and wore special clothing. However, this priesthood was never intended to be permanent (Heb. 7:11). In the New Testament we see that Christ completed and superseded the Aaronic priesthood.
Levites were male members of the tribe of Levi. They assisted the priests, sang psalms, kept the temple courts clean, and assisted with sacrifices and teaching. As the priests and Levites worked full-time in the tabernacle and temple, they were supported by the people’s tithes (10% of their income) and by eating some of the sacrifices. So by profession they were priests and Levites; that was their occupation.
Jewish public worship was carried out by priests, who were all male. There were no female priests. Does this have any implications for public worship in church today?
Also, there was a clear separation between the priests and the people in Jewish public worship. Does this have any implications for public worship in church today?
According to the Mosaic covenant, animal sacrifices to God can only be offered to God on altars at the tabernacle or the temple in Jerusalem. As the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 and it hasn’t been rebuilt since then, no Jewish priests have offered sacrifices for the past 1,945 years. This is why there are no individual Jewish priests today.
When Moses was on Mount Sinai God gave him this message for the Israelites, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). Here the nation of Israel is referred to as “priests”, those who serve in the presence of God. This conditional covenant means they could all be priests and all be holy (set apart from other nations).
The Israelites were to constitute God’s kingdom (the people who acknowledged Him as their king) and, like priests, were to be devoted to His service. They were to be “holy” (set apart) to do God’s will (Dt. 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19). In their priestly role, the Israelites were to be channels of God’s grace to the nations, leading to their salvation (Gen. 12:2-3; Is. 49:6; 61:6). In a coming day, the Gentile nations will follow the God of the Jews and there will be peace and security (Zech. 2:11; 3:1-10; 8:20-23). This didn’t happen in Old Testament times because the Jews disobeyed the covenant. However, they will fulfil this role in a coming day when they recognize Christ as the Messiah under the new covenant.
New Testament priests
The Greek noun translated “priest” (hiereus, Strongs #2409) has a similar meaning to kohen in the Old Testament. It’s used in the book of Hebrews for Melchizedek, Jewish priests, and Jesus Christ. But it’s never used in Scripture to describe a sub-group of people within the church. One of the reasons for this is that because of Christ’s sacrificial death there was no longer a need to offer sacrifices for the sins of the congregation. Because “sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary” (Heb. 10:18), the priests that made these sacrifices are also no longer necessary. This is why there were no priests in the New Testament church.
In the book of Hebrews, Jesus is described as a priest who offered a perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. He is also a high priest in God’s presence on our behalf. He is a superior high priest to those under the old covenant. The priesthood of Christ completed and superseded the Aaronic priesthood (Co. 2:17; Heb. 5-10).
The fact that the curtain of the temple was torn in two when Christ died symbolized that His death opened new access to God (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). No longer did their access to God depend on a human priest and animal sacrifices. Today all Christians can approach God through Christ (Jn. 14:6; Rom. 5:1-2; Eph. 2:18; Heb. 6:19-20). They can confess their sins directly to God (Mt. 6:12; Lk. 18:13; Acts 2:37-38; 17:30). So, they don’t need a priest as a mediator.
There are no individual priests mentioned in the New Testament church to carry out priestly functions for other Christians. Instead Peter writes, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pt. 2:5)”; and “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Pt.2:9).
This letter was written to Christians who were scattered throughout Asia Minor (modern Turkey) (1 Pt. 1:1). And these verses are in a section that describes a Christian’s privileges and duties (1 Pt. 1:1 – 2:10).
In these verses, Christians are said to be priests that are both holy and royal. They are “holy” because they serve a holy God (1 Pt. 2:5). The “spiritual sacrifices” they offer are Christian worship and service to God and His purposes. They can offer their bodies (Rom. 12:1), offer money or material goods (Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16), offer good works (Heb. 13:16), offer praise (Heb. 13:15), and serve the Lord (Rom. 15:6). For example, Paul called his proclamation of the gospel a “priestly duty” (Rom. 15:15-16).
Christians are also said to be “royal” because they are privileged (1 Pt. 2:9). This term is associated with being “a chosen people”, “a holy nation” and “God’s special possession”, which reminds us of the Jews and Exodus 19:5-6. Through Christ, they had direct access to God. This also implies that Christians should be priests to all nations. Of course this must involve bringing them to Jesus Christ as the high priest. So as Jews were God’s special people in Old Testament times, Christians are God’s special people today. Peter says that our response should be to praise God (1 Pt.2:9).
John also says that Christians have been made a kingdom and priests to serve God the Father (Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). As priests they have free access to God, and offer up the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and of grateful service.
So what happened to the Jewish priests? There are no individual Jewish priests today because there is no Jewish temple.
It’s significant that there were no Christian priests in New Testament times to mediate between God and people, as we find in the Old Testament. Because of Christ’s sacrificial death, there is no longer a need to offer sacrifices for sin. As the role of priests in the Old Testament wasn’t carried over into the church, the fact that they were male has no implications for the gender roles in Christian public worship. Likewise in Christian worship, there is no need for a clear separation between a sub-group (like the priests) and the rest of the people.
What about other roles that were carried out by Jewish priests and Levites?
• They were spiritual leaders. The model for the overall leadership in the New Testament church is a group of male elders (1 Ti. 3:1-7; Ti. 5-9).
• They inherited their role. This was not the case for elders in the New Testament church.
• Their needed to behave appropriately. Likewise for elders in the New Testament church.
• They spoke public prayers. There are no models indicating who did this in the New Testament church.
• They carried out rituals. There are no models indicating who led the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament church. Some baptisms were done by missionaries, such as Philip and Paul.
• They were prominent in public worship and rest of the people were spectators. There are no models for this in the New Testament church.
• They taught. Those with the gift of teaching taught in the New Testament church.
• They judged. Paul says that Christians should resolve civil disputes rather than taking them to court (1 Cor. 6:1-6). Also, a spiritual Christian can help one who has fallen into sin (Gal. 6:1-2). Jesus also gave a process for dealing with a sin (Mt. 18:15-20).
• They wore special clothing. There is no instance of this mentioned in the New Testament church.
• They sang psalms. There is no mention of song leading in the New Testament church.
• They kept the temple courts clean. The New Testament church usually met in people’s homes.
• They were professional. In the New Testament church there was provision for financial support as required for apostles (1 Cor. 9:4-14), elders (1 Ti. 5:17-18), teachers (Gal. 6:6) and missionaries (Phil. 4:4-19). But each of these could also be tent-makers like Paul.
So the only types of Christian “priesthood” in the New Testament are the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:17; 3:1), and the priesthood of all believers (1 Pt. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6).
We have seen that the roles of priests in public worship in Old Testament times have no implications for gender roles in church meetings today. Because Christ’s sacrifice atoned for our sin, we no longer need priests. They are obsolete because there is no need for a human mediator between us and God. However, because they are God’s special people, all Christians have a joint responsibility to worship and serve the Lord and to bring the good news about Jesus to all the nations of the world.
Written, December 2015
Someone has commented on keeping the Sabbath day. The comment is given below in italics and my reply in normal type. Here is a link to the post commented on: “I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?”
The temple and the Mosaic covenant
The tabernacle/temple together with the offerings and priesthood were an essential part of God’s Mosaic covenant with the Israelites (see Exodus – Deuteronomy). At that time God lived on earth in a building and people could only approach Him via an offering made by a priest. God left the first temple because of their gross sinfulness (Ezek. 8-10). This temple was subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians when the Israelites were driven from their homeland. But a new one was built after the Jewish exile in Babylon (Ezra 3-6). And after this fell into disrepair, a new one was built by King Herod.
Why was the inner curtain of Herod’s temple torn in two when Jesus died (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45)? This would have shocked the Jews – their most holy place was no longer hidden by the curtain. They would have repaired or replaced the curtain as soon as possible. The writer of Hebrews says that the curtain was a symbol of Christ’s body (Heb. 10:19-20). Because of Christ’s death and because of His High Priestly role, we can “enter the most Holy Place”. We can approach God without the need of a human priest. Soon after this on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came to live in God’s people. So God left the temple and His presence on earth was taken by the Holy Spirit. This temple was subsequently destroyed in AD 70 when the Romans invaded Jerusalem. The torn curtain, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the fact that the temple has not been rebuilt for a period of over 1,900 years indicates a significant change in God’s relationship with mankind.
Consequently, I have divided the comments according to whether they related to Scriptures dealing with events before or after the day of Pentecost.
The commentator advocates keeping the Sabbath today as it was kept when Jesus was on earth about 2,000 years ago.
But the Sabbath day is a sign of the Mosaic covenant given to the Israelites about 3,450 years ago (Ex. 31:13-17). They were to keep it until it was fulfilled when Jesus died. Jesus was a Jew who kept the Mosaic law (which included animal sacrifices, male circumcision and keeping the Sabbath) and taught Jews who were living under the Mosaic law. This period under the law of Moses covers Exodus to John (inclusive) in the Bible.
After the day of Pentecost, there was a new way to approach God. This doesn’t involve Jewish laws like male circumcision (or animal sacrifices and keeping the Sabbath) because Paul wrote against this in Galatians. However, 9 of the ten commandments are repeated in this section of the Bible. But the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath is not repeated. This significant fact is ignored by those that want to impose Sabbath keeping today.
Unfortunately the commentator doesn’t seem to recognise that the Greek word for “law” (nomos) has several meanings, including God’s teaching for the church in the New Testament. Instead he seems to assume it always means the Torah or God’s teaching in the Pentateuch. Also, he fails to use the context when interpreting a passage from the Bible. This context should be deduced from the surrounding Scriptures and not imposed by the reader by selecting verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”).
Overall, the comment seems to be an example of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) rather than exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).
Physical and spiritual blessings
The Bible begins and ends with blessings from God; Adam and Eve were blessed by God, as are those who live in view of Christ’s return (Gen. 1:28; Rev. 22:7). In this context, “blessing” means a favour, gift or benefit that brings great joy. I’ve heard it said that God blesses Christians with prosperity. Let’s see what the Bible says on this topic.
We begin by looking at God’s blessings in the Old Testament times, about 3,500 years ago. Before Abram travelled to Canaan, God told him: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1-3NIV; Acts 7:2).
When Abraham was 99 years of age, God changed his name and told him: “I will bless her (Sarah) and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her” (Gen. 17:1,5,16).
After Abraham showed he was willing to sacrifice his son, God spoke to him again: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Gen. 22:17-18).
God’s blessings involved Abraham being well known; wealthy; having a son under miraculous circumstances; having many descendants who would have victory over their enemies; and through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed. These were mainly physical benefits and we know that Abraham was a prosperous man. After finding a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s servant said: “The LORD has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, menservants and maidservants, and camels and donkeys” (Gen. 24:35). Abraham’s descendants also had victory over their enemies when they occupied the land of Canaan, which was a fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham (Gen. 15:18-21; Josh. 21:43-45).
The Jew’s Blessings
In his final message to the children of Israel, Moses said that they would be blessed if they obeyed God’s laws and cursed if they disobeyed them (Dt. 27-28). “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven. The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The LORD your God will bless you in the land he is giving you” (Dt. 28:1-8).
The Jew’s blessings that would follow obeying the Old Testament laws involved them having large families; abundant crops, herds and flocks; and victory in battle. Like Abraham, they would be physically prosperous and wealthy (2 Sam. 7:28-29).
The Blessing Of Salvation
Now we will look at God’s blessings for Christians in the early church, which also apply to believers today. This is where we see the fulfilment of one of the promises made to Abraham.
After God used Peter to heal a crippled man, Peter told the Jews living almost 2,000 years ago that the coming of Jesus as the Messiah was predicted in the Old Testament. He said: “(God) said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed’.When God raised up His servant, He sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:25-26).
Here the blessing to all peoples on the earth is shown to have occurred through God’s servant, Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of Abraham (Mt. 1:1-2; Lk. 3:34). Jesus was sent to the Jewish nation and if they had received Him as their Messiah then they would have been blessed by God turning them away from their wicked ways. This blessing of a changed life and a changed future was available if they accepted that Jesus was who he said He was, the Son of God and their promised Messiah.
When Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, he explained that this blessing extended to non-Jewish people as well: “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’. Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:6-9). Also, “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:14).
Paul quotes from Gen. 15:6 that Abraham was saved because he believed God, not because he was circumcised (v.6). All believers are Abraham’s spiritual children because they believed God (“have faith”), not because they get circumcised (v.7). The fact that Gentiles would be saved from God’s judgement of their sinful ways was alluded to in the Old Testament (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). In fact, Abraham was promised “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18; Acts 3:25). The blessing in this case was salvation that is now available to all nations because of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Abraham was saved by faith in God, today anyone can be saved by faith in Jesus, who is God’s provision for us all.
We see that one of God’s blessings for believers today is the gift of salvation. Christians share this blessing with Abraham as he also had faith in God.
Other blessings that believers receive from God are given in Ephesians 1, where Paul begins with a majestic summary statement: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). The core statement is that God has blessed us. So not only were Adam and Eve and the Old Testament Jews blessed, but each believer is blessed today. We are blessed with God’s favors, gifts and benefits; which have two main characteristics. Firstly they are “spiritual” and “in the heavenly realms” because they involve the invisible spiritual world (2 Cor. 4:18). Did you know that the most important things in our lives are invisible? Secondly they are “in Christ” because everything comes to us through the Lord’s finished work at Calvary. He is not only the source of our salvation, but the source of every spiritual blessing.
Then Paul gives some examples of the spiritual blessings that God has already given believers.
Chosen us: “For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight” (v.4). How? By God and in Christ. When? Before the creation of the world. Why? To be holy and blameless in His sight. What a privilege! Note, the Bible doesn’t say that God chooses some to be damned. Instead, the gospel goes to all and each person is responsible for their response. Once a person becomes a true believer then they can know that they have been especially chosen by God to live for Him.
Adopted us into His family: “In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will—to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves” (v.5-6). In those days the son obtained the family inheritance. This means that all true believers will share in the inheritance that God has prepared for us. This is a privilege and a responsibility, which deserves a response of praise. How? By God and through Jesus Christ.
Forgave our sins and removed our guilt: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us” (v.7). Just like a slave who has been set free, a believer has been liberated from the penalty of sin.
Revealed His grand plan to us: God “made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (v.8-10). Christ will reign and rule over all during the Millennium. We look forward to the kingdom of God; when Jesus’ prayer will be fulfilled, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).
Chosen us to bring praise and glory to God: “In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ (Jews), might be for the praise of His glory” (v.11-12). Believers have been chosen so that the Lord will receive praise because of their changed lives and new destiny.
Given us the word of truth: “And you (Gentiles) also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (v.13a). Belief in the good news in the Bible of forgiveness of sins through Jesus is the means of salvation.
Given us the Holy Spirit: When you believed, “you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of His glory” (v.13b-14). As a seal is a mark of ownership, the Holy Spirit is a sign that we belong to God and that we will be kept safe until the rapture when our bodies are redeemed (Eph. 4:30).
Lessons For Us
God’s blessings to Abraham and the Jews in Old Testament times mainly involved physical prosperity. Abraham was also promised that through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed. The blessing in this case was salvation that has been available to all nations since Christ’s death and resurrection. Christians share this blessing with Abraham as he also had faith in God.
Those who have accepted God’s gift of salvation are not promised material wealth and prosperity, but they receive many spiritual blessings. These favors, gifts and benefits can be a great source of joy and security that overflows with praise and glory to God. They are eternal and not just restricted to our lifetime on earth.
Unfortunately some churches and preachers teach that Christians with enough faith and who donate generously will be blessed with material wealth and prosperity, which is not consistent with what the New Testament teaches on this topic. Do you think that God wants us to be prosperous? No, He wants us to be saved from the penalty of our sins and motivated by our spiritual blessings. Do you think that if we give money to God, God will bless us with more money? Beware of those that seek donations by promising that God will reward you materially. The reward for faithful tithing in the Old Testament was material wealth, whereas the reward for faithful service today is spiritual blessings (Dt. 8:17-20; Mal. 3:10-12). After all, Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Mt. 6:24).
Also, beware of those that use the Old Testament or Old Testament characters like Abraham to promote this belief. Instead look at the books of the Bible written to the church and characters like Paul, the godly apostle that God used to establish the church around the Mediterranean Sea, who was not wealthy or prosperous. Paul said that all believers who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted and can expect to suffer (Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pt. 4:12-19). Let’s have discernment and not be deceived by false teachers “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Tim. 6:5-10). Instead let’s read Bible verses in their context.
Those who preach a prosperity gospel have the timing wrong. God’s blessings for us will all be fulfilled materially when Jesus Christ returns. That’s when we will prosper. That’s why it’s called a “blessed hope” (Ti. 2:13).
Written, September 2009
“Roll out of bed. Feed the baby. Change her nappy. Load the washing machine. Eat breakfast. Tidy up. Dress two children. Brush their teeth. Brush their hair. Have a shower. Get dressed. Wash the dishes. Hang out the laundry. Feed the baby. Walk to the shops with three kids in tow. Shop. Walk home and unpack the bags. Prepare lunch. Wash children’s faces. Wipe down the table. Read kids some stories. Put them in bed. Feed baby. Change her nappy. Settle baby.”
That’s one mother’s description of her morning – much of her time devoted to her children. With this as an introduction, let’s look at some principles for caring not only for our children, but also for each other, both within the family and within the local church.
Parental Family Care
God’s plan is that all children grow to maturity under the care of their parents. This truth was established in the Garden of Eden when God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and increase in number (Gen. 1:27-28). Genesis 2:23-25 tells us that these parents of the first family were married. As a husband is told to leave his parents and “be united” to his wife, God’s plan is that marriage is a lifetime commitment with a unity (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:6). Healthy marriages are important for the development of children to maturity.
A baby is totally dependent on its mother; she is its life-support system. When Paul mentions a mother “caring for her little children,” he is referring to all a mother does for her baby (1 Th. 2:7). Then he says that this is because she loves and cares for her child to the point of being selfsacrificing by putting the interests of her child ahead of her own. She expends energy day and night for her child and is gentle and protective. Their relationship is very close. They spend lots of time together responding to each other.
Paul also says that a father should be “encouraging, comforting and urging” his children along the journey to maturity (1 Th. 2:11-12). A father is like a personal coach helping them face the challenges and disappointments of life, training them in the way they should go and bringing out the best in them. This is done according to the needs of each child. A father needs to know his children well, in order to know when and how to help each one develop.
Clearly, parents have the most influence on the physical, emotional and spiritual development of their children. On the other hand, the children’s responsibility is to obey their parents in the Lord and respect them: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:1-4 NIV).
Church Family Care
The Bible views the local church as an extended family. It says we are a family of believers and members of God’s household (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 4:17). Our close relationship is indicated by referring to each other as brother and sister (1 Tim. 5:1-2). After all, God is our common Father and we are His spiritual children (Eph. 3:14-15; 1 Jn. 3:1-2). Let’s look at how we can be a healthy church family by caring for each other.
• Gentle Love
As mentioned before, Paul cared for fellow believers in Thessalonica like a mother cared for her children: “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Th. 2:7-8). This kind of care was gentle, protective, loving, personal and self-sacrificing. It was based on an ongoing relationship as he shared his life with other Christian brothers and sisters. We need to spend a considerable amount of time with those in our church family in order to know them well and be able to respond appropriately according to their personalities and needs.
Paul also coached the believers in Thessalonica like a father coaches his children: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory” (1 Th. 2:11- 12). As discussed above, this kind of care in the local church is needed if we are to encourage and urge each other to grow towards maturity. Personal coaches spend considerable amounts of time with their trainees in order to know them well and be able to motivate them.
God’s plan is for Christians to mature under the care of a local church. Our relationships in the church should be similar to those of a healthy family. When Paul wrote to Timothy, who was probably in his 30s, he said, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). These verses emphasize the importance of our attitude towards each other and the need to treat each other with respect. We should not speak forcefully to those who are older, but instead appeal to them as we would to our father. We should treat our brothers and sisters in the church as if we were in the same family.
Church Family Skills
We have seen that just as families raise children to maturity, churches are to raise believers to maturity. But there are differences between living in a family and living in a church.
Good connections with each other lead to caring relationships. This means making time and finding opportunities in our daily life and in our church life for spurring one another on to develop loving relationships, practice good deeds and encourage each other: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). Two ways in which this can be done are by joining small groups and by practicing hospitality.
Small groups enable us to connect with others and develop closer relationships with them. It is not enough to just attend a service for a few hours on Sunday; we need to develop personal relationships. Hospitality is sharing a meal with others and getting to know them better. It involves opening our lives to others so they can open their lives to us. This enables others to learn more about us and in turn they will become more confident to share what life is like for them.
Connecting with others involves spending time together and conversing. James wrote that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (Jas. 1:19). Who speaks the most during our conversations? If we do, then we are probably not listening enough. Let’s listen so we can reflect the person’s feelings and summarize what they are telling us. Then listen again to their response and see if we were right. Don’t assume we know what life is like for them. If we haven’t understood properly, they can correct us. Such active listening is a vital skill in caring for each other.
Don’t ask too many questions; a conversation should not be an interrogation. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no, as they limit the conversation. Instead, use open-ended questions like, “What did you do next?” and “How did you feel when that happened?”
Of course, if a Christian brother or sister asks us about our personal life, we should be ready to tell the truth. If we want to care for each other, we should be ready to share with each other. For example, if there are no new prayer needs at a small group meeting, that does not necessarily mean that there are none. It may mean that no one is sharing.
If we connect with others and if we listen attentively when we are with them, then we will come to know what life is like for them. What do we do next? If they are not in a life-threatening situation, avoid the temptation to step in to solve their problems. It’s their life, not ours. It’s better if they learn the life skills needed to solve their own problems. Otherwise, they will always be dependent on others. This is where empathy comes in. Empathy has been likened to walking in someone else’s shoes and seeing life from their perspective: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (Rom. 12:15-16).
Empathy is seen in the lives of both Jesus and the apostle Paul. Both openly shared their lives with those to whom they were ministering. They didn’t want people to have to always rely on their assistance. In the church we need to help people to help themselves. We should act like a coach, not like a repair man. A coach trains and encourages others for the task before them, he doesn’t solve the problem for them. Listen to them, and help them see the steps needed to solve their problem.
And if others help us in this way, we need to be willing to accept their empathy and encouragement. Otherwise, they are denied the opportunity of caring for another believer.
Lessons For Us
Let’s thank God for mothers and their devoted care for their families. Let’s encourage fathers to take up their role of loving their wives and coaching their children towards maturity, and let’s teach the next generation of parents through our good example to develop strong lasting marriages. Do we have a lifetime commitment to our spouse, or is our marital relationship threatened when we have difficulties?
We have two families; our physical one and our spiritual one. Parental family care breaks down when the parents are selfcentered, as this leads to fractured families. Likewise, church family care breaks down when its members are self-centered as this leads to fractured churches. Let’s protect against this by following Paul’s advice and developing gentle love for each other like a mother, encouraging each other like a father and respecting each other as members of an extended family. We can do this by developing strategies and skills for connecting, listening and showing empathy to each other.
Published, June 2011
A praising, unified and serving church
The word “church” is the collective name for all true Christians and for those that meet together regularly. It is the theme of the letter of Ephesians. In this article we look at what Ephesians says about God’s plans for the church.
Plans For The Future Era
In Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul describes the spiritual blessings we have through God the Father, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The phrase “In Christ Jesus” (or a similar one) occurs at least ten times in this passage. Clearly, Christ is the centre of all God’s plans for the church. “In Christ” refers to the spiritual union of Christ with believers, which is symbolised by the metaphor “body of Christ” (Eph. 1:23; 2:26; 4:4,12,16; 5:23, 30). It also describes the believer’s position, but not necessarily their practice.
As God plans to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, the goal toward which all history is moving is to unite all things in the physical world and the spiritual world under Christ (Eph. 1:10). The Greek word used here means “to sum up”. In a world were things don’t always make sense we can look forward to a time when everything will be brought into a meaningful relationship under the leadership of Christ.
This will happen during the Millennium (“when the times will have reached their fulfilment”), which will be when God’s kingdom will come to earth and when His will “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). It will be a time of universal dominion: Christ will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. The one who is now despised by many will be the Lord of all, the object of universal worship; “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11NIV).
In this coming era, the church will reign with Christ over the whole universe (Eph. 1:18-23; 2:6-7). Although He is far above the rest of creation, because the church is closely related to Him, like the body is joined to the head, and it is seated with Him, it will share His rule over the universe. What a great prospect to look forward to! It’s part of our hope and inheritance.
Three times in this passage Paul praises God for His grand plan for the future (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). likewise, praise should also be our response to God’s great plan for the Lord and for His church
Plans For The Present Era
God’s plan is that people will hear the gospel and believe it to be sealed by the Holy Spirit as a deposit of the inheritance that awaits them (Eph. 1:11-14). Such people are part of His global church and should be a part of a local church. The church is God’s people of all nations (Rev. 5:9) who lived between the day of Pentecost in about 30 AD and the rapture, when all believers are resurrected and transformed to enter heaven. Unless we have accepted God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, we will not share in these plans for the church.
The church is God’s plan for the present era. It was a new category of people, a new humanity, that was made known to Paul by direct revelation from God (Eph. 2:15). God used the Holy Spirit to reveal this new truth about Christ and the church to the New Testament apostles and prophets, such as Paul (Col. 1:26).
The animosity between the Gentiles and the Jews was replaced with loving relationships when they became fellow members of the church with equal access to God (Eph. 2:11-22). This was because, “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). So, in the church, all believers share three things in common. First, they are heirs together (“joint-heirs” in Greek), sharing the same inheritance, being “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Second, they are members together (“joint-body”), being fellow members of the same body, having equal positions before God in the church. Third, they are sharers together (“joint-sharers”), having the same promises that are the result of Christ’s work of salvation. For example, they share the Holy Spirit and all that is promised in the gospel message.
This is a radical idea. There is no basis for discrimination in the church. What a change from the Old Testament era when the Gentiles were pagans outside the promises that were made to the Jews. Now, all believers of all races and cultures and standings in life share equally in the privileges.
One of God’s purposes is to use the church to teach the angels about His manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10-11). Although Adam and Eve sinned, God had a plan of salvation. He sent His Son to die, rise from the dead and ascend back to heaven so that sinners from all nations can confess their sin and trust in the saving work of Christ and become members of the church who will be honoured as the bride of Christ throughout eternity. Those who had been rebels were now part of God’s people. Those who were enemies were now partners. What an amazing drama!
Unity In The Church
Paul now shows how God made provisions for those in the church to live and work together in unity (Eph. 4:1-6). Christians are urged to live in accordance with their calling, which is as members of the body of Christ. In the rest of the letter Paul teaches that this means working for unity in the church, purity in our personal lives, harmony in our homes and vigilance against the powers of evil.
He lists four important attitudes and behaviors for the church (Eph. 4:2): be humble, not conceited or arrogant or dictatorial; be gentle, not judgemental or critical; be patient; don’t retaliate when provoked; and bear with one another in love, by accepting those with different convictions. These are Christlike and believers are to follow His example (1 Cor. 11:1).
Then he writes: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). When God created the church He destroyed the rift between the Jews and the Gentiles. All such distinctions were abolished in the church. All Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Nothing can destroy this fact. Nothing can destroy this unity that has been made by God. We can’t create this unity of the shared spiritual life, but we can disturb it. So, we are told to work to keep it by living at peace with one another. We all have different convictions over debatable matters, but these should be overlooked so we can work together in peace for our common good. Of course we should have unity on the essentials of our faith. For the non-essentials there is liberty and we should be able to agree to disagree in a humble, gentle, patient and loving way.
We are to concentrate on the basis of our Christian unity instead of being occupied by our differences (Eph. 4:4-6). Seven reasons are given for this: there is one body, which is comprised of all true believers from Pentecost to the rapture and as a physical body grows from a single cell and every cell shares that original life, every believer shares the spiritual life associated with the Holy Spirit and they share an eternal destiny; there is one Spirit, who indwells all true believers; there is one hope, which is to be with the Lord for eternity and to be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2); there is one Lord, who is the ultimate authority (Phil. 2:9-11); there is one faith to be believed, which is the body of truth in the New Testament (Jude 3); there is one baptism, which could be the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) or the water baptism by which believers express their allegiance to Christ; and there is one God, who is the supreme ruler of the universe.
The Lord’s prayer was that believers may be unified in showing the character of God and of Christ (Jn. 17:20-23). This unity is important for the salvation of sinners. Can they see Christ in believers as the Father was seen in Christ? When they see this unity, they have a reason to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and not just a gifted man. The unity of believers can convince unbelievers of the mission of Christ.
Maturity In The Church
Although there is a unity in the church as the body of Christ, there is also diversity. We are all different in some ways and have different gifts and roles to play, like the different parts in a body. The purpose of these gifts is (Eph. 4:12-13): to equip believers for works of service, which means that everyone in the congregation should be trained in some aspects of Christian service; then by serving one another, the church will be built up (spiritual gifts are for the “the common good” and are not to be exercised individualistically, 1 Cor. 12:7); to help maintain our unity; and to produce maturity as God wants us to be grown up, responsible and well-adjusted people. Our standard for maturity is, “How much am I like Jesus Christ?” (Eph. 4:13, 15).
This growth process is to continue until the rapture when (Eph. 4:13): we will reach unity in the faith and in our knowledge of the Lord (our unity is not based on attitudes or feelings but on the truths of scripture which involves the doctrines about Christ and a common understand about God’s Son); and we grow to maturity in our spiritual development (as the perfectly balanced character of Christ).
When these spiritual gifts are operating and the congregation are actively serving the Lord, three dangers are avoided (Eph. 4:14):
- Immaturity – as children need exercise to grow into maturity, believers need to be involved in active service to become mature. Otherwise, they will be as the writer to the Hebrews says, “by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb. 5:12). Such people don’t know what they believe and are reliant on others.
- Instability – immature believers tend to be spiritually fickle, they keep moving around to follow the latest novelties.
- Gullibility – immature believers can be deceived by false teachers who use religious words and appear zealous and sincere. Unfortunately they have not studied the Bible well enough to discern good from evil. As Hebrews says, “solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).
If these characteristics are present, then we are still childish and immature.
Then Paul describes the proper process of growth in the congregation (Eph. 4:15-16). As right doctrine is essential (“speaking the truth”), we need to learn the fundamentals of the Christian faith. As the right attitude is also essential (“speaking the truth in love”), our conversation must always be accompanied with love. This is consistent with the requirement to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2). In fact love is another important theme of Ephesians where it is mentioned 15 times; more than in any other of Paul’s letters.
As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service they “will in all things grow up into Him who is the head, that is, Christ”. In every area of their life they will become more like Christ. They will more accurately represent Him before the watching world.
Next we are told that the body grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work (Eph. 4:16). The Lord is the source of this growth; it is “from Him”. After all He said to Peter, “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18) and Paul wrote that it’s only God who brings spiritual growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Then the body is said to be “joined and held together by every supporting ligament”. In our human bodies the bones are held together by joints and ligaments and the organs are also attached by ligaments. Each part of our bodies needs to play its particular role, otherwise we are sick or injured. Likewise for the spiritual body of the church. Each member has a particular function to carry out and the church body grows as they carry their role. Otherwise the church is not healthy. God puts believers together in the church so that their different spiritual gifts work together in harmony (1 Cor. 12:18-24). He creates unity from our diversity.
The church grows as the congregation feed on the Bible, pray, worship, serve and witness for Christ. This is accompanied by a growth in love. As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service and they serve and carry out their role in the church, they grow closer to one another in love and unity. In fact, maturity and unity in the church are impossible without love, which brackets these passages (Eph. 4:2, 16).
Lessons For Us
God has definite plans for His church, which we need to take into account when developing the vision and goals for our local church. Christ is the centre of these plans. With respect to the grand plan for the future to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, we should be a praising church. With respect to His plan for the present, we should be a unified church. Are we working hard to maintain the unity of the Spirit by living in peace with each other, praying for one another, forgiving one another and not holding grudges?
Are we equipping believers for works of service? Are we in active service for the Lord? Are we becoming more like Christ? Are we doing our work in the local church? Are we helping the congregation grow and be built up towards maturity? Are we God’s co-workers; His agents, His subcontractors (1 Cor. 3:9)? Are we honest and loving? Let’s not hinder God’s plans, but work together with Him.
Remember God has put us in the body of Christ where He wants us to be, among the Christians He wants us to be with, because we need them and they need us. As each part of the body accepts this and serves one another, each part is doing what it was designed to do. We need to accept one another and let each carry out their function to ensure a healthy church.
Written, September 2008