Questioning our Individualism and its Affect on the Church – Ephesians 4:1-16

In my last post, I pointed out how the individualistic assumptions of our Western culture affect how we read the scriptures. Below, I share a sermon outline that intersects with that subject. This sermon examines Ephesians 4:1-16 and how our individualism affects our view of the church and church leaders.

Introduction: The individualism of our culture often bleeds into the church. For instance, American Christians tend to have a “lone ranger” mentality. We often think our spiritual growth and health only involves God and us. Sure, we view the church as a means to serve our spiritual needs, but if the church does not serve us in the way we want, we go shopping for another church or retreat into a purely individual religious experience. In a similar way, Christians often talk about pursuing God’s “calling.” Unsurprisingly, this calling is thought of in individual terms, as if God directs an individual to pursue some ministry or task apart from connection to others.

The influence of these cultural assumptions on Christians and the church makes for unhealthy and unbiblical ideas and practices. The Bible’s assumptions and instructions differ from our culture’s as Ephesians 4:1-16 will demonstrate. This passage calls us to be unified to a local body and dependant on the diverse gifts and roles within that body to grow us into Christ-likeness. Moreover, we are called to serve through the local body and Church leaders equip Christians to carry out that ministry. Pastors and church leaders are just one part of the body, and Christ is the true head whom every member follows.

Context: The book of Ephesians can be divided into two halves. In the first three chapters, the Apostle Paul lays out the gospel and the wonderful blessings that accompany salvation through Christ; a salvation totally based on God’s grace and not on our works. In the last three chapters, Paul explains how this salvation should be lived out. This pivot to application occurs at Ephesians 4:1 with the statement, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” If we wanted to amplify the context, we could place the following phrase before 4:1, “Based on the greatness of Christ’s love and fullness that I just told you about, . . .”

Ephesians 4:1-16 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to one hope when you were called– 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” 9(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (NIV)

Ephesians 4:1-6. “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received . . . There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope when you were called.” This charge to live a life worthy of your calling leads into a section on church unity and function. This “calling,” therefore, should not be thought of in individualistic terms – the Ephesians were called by God to be a part of the community of the redeemed. Their individual calling and the calling of the church were inseparable, as verses 2-4 confirm when describing what living a life worthy of the calling entails: being humble, bearing with one another in love, and making every effort to keep the unity of the one Spirit and one body. In case our American individualism makes us reluctant to receive this truth, verse 4 makes it clear that the one body and one Spirit are part of the hope that these Christians were called to. In fact, the unity of the church body proclaims our faith – that there is only one God, and that faith in his Christ is the only avenue by which God redeems humanity, and our baptism into the body signifies our entrance into Christ’s unified body on earth.

It is instructive that when Paul pivots to application and how our great salvation is to be lived out in Ephesians 4, he starts with the idea of being unified with the body of Christ. Application of the gospel is meant to be done in close fellowship to the church body.

Application point: You cannot live your life in accord with God’s calling apart from the local church body. In other words, if you are not consistently fellowshipping in a local body of Christians you are outside God’s will and calling for you. Christ calls each Christian to be a part of his body; he calls us not to casual contact, but active unity with the church body. If you are not plugged in to a local church body, actively seek out a local body. You cannot fulfill your calling otherwise. (If you’re still checking out Jesus – focus on faith in Him, being a part of his body requires faith in him and his Spirit.)  If you just show up at church services, ask if that behavior is truly exhibiting the unity, dependence, and service reflected in this passage. If not, make a list of ways you can unify and contribute to the unity of the church. Even folks who have heavy responsibilities and little time can pray and seek out an accountability partner. They can send cards or emails to encourage people. They can deepen their understanding of Christ and the gifts he has given them so that when they do have opportunity, they are ready.

Ephesians 4:7-16. In case we think this unity means that we are all exactly alike, verses 7-11 describe different gifts being given and working within the body. The quotation of Psalm 68:18 is used to introduce the process of Jesus ascending into heaven and sending down spiritual gifts to people through his Holy Spirit. These verses contain several interpretive difficulties, but the overall idea is reflected in many other New Testament passages – especially Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12. When Christ ascended to God’s right hand, He poured out his Holy Spirit on the community of believers and that outpouring included spiritual gifts so that the church could be Christ’s “body,” his hands and feet, to continue and extend Christ’s work on the earth. In order to accomplish miraculous and world-altering things, many different gifts are needed, just as a physical body needs many different parts to run, or jump, or have a conversation. Each part is different, but each contributes to the unified goal of achieving whatever the head calls it to do. But a foot alone cannot run, it needs the knees, it needs the heart pumping blood, and the blood needs to be oxygenated by the lungs and given nutrition by the digestive system.

body

Similar to 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 calls the church to function like a body—unified in faith and mission, but diverse in gifting to carry out that unified calling.

Application point: Your individual calling and gifting as a Christian are bound up in the diverse gifts of the larger church body. Without the support and interworking of other parts of the body and their differences – you will not be able to fulfill all that God intends for you. The body imagery emphasizes this truth in that a foot is essential to running, but a severed foot cannot run without the diverse gifts of the rest of the body. For many of us, this truth not only requires us to repent of our individualism but our pride as well. We need the body to accomplish all God has for us. If you haven’t acknowledged your need for the body, and the people within the body who may be very different from you, acknowledge that truth to God. Then, seek out different people in the body and discover how your differences can be used to fulfill Christ’s calling together.

For some, this application will be difficult because of trust issues. In your experience perhaps other members of the body have been infected or wounded, and they passed on that hurt to you.

If you depend on others, will you get hurt again? Probably. True interconnectedness and unity means that when one part of the body is sick or hurt the whole body suffers (1 Corinthians 12:26). A healthy body, however, can fight off infection and heal. In fact, there are certain parts of the body that specialize in healing—just as in churches there are those peacemakers and healers who bring restoration to hurting members. But will you risk the hurt? If you don’t, then you are risking, actually you are guaranteeing, coming short of all that God has called you to be and do.

Focusing down on Ephesians 4:11-16, we see that God placed some gifts and people in the body to build it up and help it grow to maturity. As verse 11 says these are “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” For clarity’s sake we will set aside the thorny question of how apostles and prophets function in today’s church and agree that at the very least the prophets and apostles have provided us with the scriptures to serve as our authority and guide in following God. Evangelists grow and build up the body in bringing in new people into the church so that the body grows.

What about pastors and teachers; how do they build up the body? Some churches act as if “the pastor” is the person who performs the ministry of the church. The congregation shows up on Sunday, the pastor ministers the word through a sermon. If someone gets sick or has a question, the pastor may visit during the week. The church is not thought of as a body, but a spiritual restaurant for spiritual food. The pastor is the restaurant manager who feeds his customers for pay. If the customer is unsatisfied, they will bring their business elsewhere. This thinking departs from the biblical concept of a church and a pastor.

What is a pastor’s job? As Ephesians 4:12-13 states, pastors are leaders who are “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”  I prefer other translations that use the term “equip.” Pastors equip God’s people to carry out the ministries in the church so that the body can be built up and reflect Christ in its unity and mission.

An essential part of that equipping is leading the body into a unity of faith and knowledge of Christ. The method for attaining that unity of faith and knowledge is teaching the scriptures and leading people to be more like Christ. The measure of a mature Christian (and a mature church) is not how long you have been there, how high you score in Bible trivia, or how many tasks you perform. The measure of a mature Christian is Christ-likeness. Ephesians 4:13-15 proclaims Christ-likeness as the goal of Christian and church growth and the measure of spiritual maturity.

Application: Pastors are important, but the “ministers” of the church are the members. Ministry within the church must come from a unified body fulfilling the calling of Christ, the head of the body.  A good pastor gives church members the tools and teaching needed to fulfill their calling within the body. Ultimately, however, the church goals and functioning are the same no matter who is the pastor. The church is the laboratory where members are equipped, grow, and exercise their calling. Every member is called to BE the church–called to be unified as a body with Christ as the head.

Those infected with individualistic or consumer Christianity will resist this truth. Like a consumer, they will withdraw their business when things aren’t to their liking. For example, a pastor institutes changes to encourage the church to be on mission or to use more people’s gifting. A consumer Christian likes things as they are (that is why they are there), so they stop coming in response to the changes. The pastor can be fulfilling his role, but consumer Christians will undermine the unity of the church because they have an unbiblical picture of the church. If the church is a family or a body, then we serve the head of the church (Jesus) and seek out the health and unity of the whole body.

Unbiblical assumptions about the church lead to unreasonable assumptions about church members and church pastors. For instance, it is unreasonable to think that a pastor will grow the church without changing things. If the church is made up of a unified body of people (as Ephesians 4:1-16 describes), then new people mean a “new,” or at least a changed, church.

In a similar way, it is unreasonable to think that a pastor can bring health and unity to an unhealthy or split church without major changes within the body’s members and systems. From my observations an unhealthy pastor can sicken and bring down a church, but a healthy pastor cannot restore an unhealthy church without major changes within the rest of the body. If you think your church just needs a “good pastor” to fix its problems, then you are probably holding on to an unrealistic and unbiblical concept of the church and a pastor’s role. Instead, a church should focus on growing in Christ-likeness and humbly seek to be equipped to live out Christ’s calling as a unified body.  Ultimately our calling is to be like Christ – who gave his life for his church in the ultimate display of self-sacrificial service. If we pursue that calling and unity in the body, our church will be used mightily in our town and throughout the world.

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One thought on “Questioning our Individualism and its Affect on the Church – Ephesians 4:1-16

  1. Pingback: As a small church needing encouragement | Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

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