Imagine if you will that your life is going to end in six months. You’re not sick or suffering, but for whatever reason, you are convinced the end will come on January 1. What sort of decisions would you make? What perspective do you imagine you might have, believing that existence will change in a flash? It might be death, it might be a transformation, it might be many things you don’t know, but you have zero doubt that it will end. And then imagine that you are wrong. Would the world you saw during those six months be the same as that you see on the other side of the error?
And then imagine that you are spectacularly wrong. Would the world you saw during those six months be the same as that you see on the other side of the error?
That’s what we have with Paul.
The Apostle Paul was confident that Jesus was going to come back within a generation. The problems with such eschatology have been covered myriad times on the blog, so I shan’t rehearse it here. But Paul wrote to communities he was seeking to usher through the interim period from Jesus’ death to his return. The fact that Paul was wrong is not insignificant, but does it mean that we must dismiss everything he wrote?
I don’t ask this rhetorically. I struggle with Paul, but I keep coming back. My faith in Jesus is much different than Paul’s faith in Christ. I follow Jesus because I believe he displayed definitively how to live; if others agree, great. If not, that’s cool, too. Paul puts so many dollars into the “Christ-is-gonna-return-really-I-swear” jar that I wrestle with how to understand Paul’s writings without turning them into something they are not, but also readily admitting that they are riddled with error. At least, if we insist that every word in the Bible must be literally true.
Ephesians 4:1-16 is an important passage because it illustrates the challenges that come with reading Paul. Some scholars* argue that the epistle was not written by the Apostle or to the Ephesians. Even within the Bible itself, there are details difficult to reconcile. Acts 16-20 relate exciting details about Paul’s time in Ephesus, culminating in a demonstration against him by Demetrius and his fellow silversmiths who have seen a decrease in orders of icons for the Temple of Artemis. Christians were bad for the bottom line. When Paul tried to speak to the angry assembly at the theater in Ephesus, he was shouted down and escaped before being killed. His final address to the Ephesians is basically, “I taught y’all everything you need to know and if you don’t get it right, that ain’t my fault. P.S., I’m out.” However, none of this “history” is reflected in the epistle. There’s more in common between Ephesians and Colossians than there is between Acts and the letter under consideration. That’s not surprising, as Acts essentially presents the trials and tribulations of the early Church to be near facsimiles of Jesus life and death.
To the Epistle, We Go
Verses 1-6 are an exhortation: we are to strive for unity in all things, just as God is singular in unity. For Paul, this is all related to the eschaton, the end time. He is pushing for unity because he believes that those involved in rancor and division won’t make the cut when Jesus comes back. Verses 7-16 are sort of like an instruction manual. Paul is telling believers the way that the Body of Christ should be formed.
For me, this is where we can set aside the eschatological overtones of the chapter and glean wisdom that is timeless. In v. 8, Paul applies lines about Moses ascending and descending Mt. Sinai to receive the Law to Jesus’ resurrection, intimating that Christ went to the bowels of the earth and to the reaches of the heavens. It is interesting to note that ancient cosmogony had earth as the lowest rung of the celestial ladder, so perhaps the message is that God’s presence encompasses the reaches of creation? Perhaps metaphorically Jesus went into the bowels of the earth when he visited those living in caves? Or perhaps we just recognize that Psalm 68 is not literally about Jesus?
Or perhaps we should just acknowledge that Psalm 68 is not literally about Jesus?
Verses 11-13 are often misread, in my estimation, due to the overlay of eschatology. This extends far beyond believing that Jesus will come back in the end times. Eschatological readings of these verses turn’s Paul’s interim ethics into an instruction manual for how to run the Church 2,000 years later.
“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 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.”
Too often the hermeneutic applied to these verses is: “There are different amounts of the Spirit available to others depending on their role.” This belies Paul’s central assertion.
What Christ represents is reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, between God and humans. Jesus, through his life and death, shatters that which separates. God’s grace, when met with our corresponding faith, forges a new body in the fires of Love: the Body of Christ. This metaphysical entity is made incarnate through prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and saints. We are united through faith, yes, but not everyone is called to the same ministry. Not everyone has the same gifts. However, I reject outright the notion that there is a necessary hierarchy within the Body because Paul does not say that one role is more important than another.
And This is Relevant How?
Lots of Christian communities are facing daunting realities. Aging congregations, shrinking money supplies, ever-increasing building maintenance demands, shrinking staff, and jackasses who call themselves Christians causing many people to run in the other direction, all conspire to make us think about what it means to exist in unity. Is the Body of Christ on life-support and should we pull the plug?
Not yet. If we can have a Body of Christ that actually follows Jesus, that appreciates and affirms the gifts of all, that does not try to replace Christ with a human being on earth. Yes, structure is important. Pastors should have extensive training and be held accountable, but pastors are no more important than teachers or evangelists. Further, seeking unity does not mean that everyone needs to get in line with what the priest says. Or what the governing body of the church declares. Unity requires that we all have a place at the table and we listen to one another. We pray, we turn to Scripture for guidance, and we follow our hearts that are in submission to God.
We 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. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit 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.
Paul thought it was all going to end. Fast. That doesn’t mean, though, that he wasn’t right about some things. The Body of Christ requires toes and heart valves. You don’t want the roast beef piggy doing the work of the left ventricle. I’m a big fan of opposable thumbs and big toes, though. So instead of being concerned about who is more important or has more power, let us focus on the wonderful ways in which God has made human diversity. Otherwise, this little piggy will have none.
*I recommend highly reading Stephen E. Fowl’s excellent commentary on Ephesians.