Overview – Christian Unity
Focus Text: Ephesians 4:1-16
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Scripture Commentary by Rev. Rollin Russell, former Conference Minister, Southern Conference, United Church of Christ
“To speak the truth, directly and in genuine love is frighteningly difficult, but utterly required for the Christian community to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to be fruitful in fulfilling His mission and our calling.”
Pastoral Reflection by Rev. Rollin Russell
“God’s holy purpose is the unity of the whole creation and the unity of the church as a witness to that purpose. Nothing is more important or takes priority over the divine embrace of unity in Christ. We read it and weep at the continuing and growing scandal of our multiple divisions.”
Personal Vignette by Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, Robert Earl Cushman Professor of Christian Theology, Duke Divinity School
“My engagement with institutional ecumenism began in 1964, when my mentor Raymond George, the Methodist theologian, invited me to accompany him as a youth delegate to the meeting of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches at Aarhus in Denmark. When I had gained a bit of seniority, I myself became a member of Faith and Order, and I played an active part in the writing of the document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” that was unanimously adopted by the Commission at Lima in 1982.”
The twentieth century conciliar movement produced councils of churches at the international, national, state, and local levels. The North Carolina Council of Churches shares the broad goals of Christian unity and justice with the World and National Councils and with the many state councils, and our members come from many of the same denominational streams. But there are no structural or financial connections between us. Each is its own autonomous organization, and the NC Council, founded in 1935, actually predates both the National and World Councils by more than ten years.
Focus Text – Ephesians 4:1-16
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 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. 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.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.
Other Lectionary Texts
- Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
- II Samuel 11:26-12:13a
- Psalm 51:1-12
- Psalm 78:23-29
- Ephesians 4:1-16
- John 6:24-35
Commentary on Ephesians 4:1-16
This passage from Ephesians is one of the better known among scriptures which deal with the unity and peace of the church. It is a centerpiece of the central theme and plea in this letter. That theme is established in chapter 1: “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of the divine will, according to God’s good pleasure which was set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:8b-10).
This quote is taken from the NRSV, and one of the changes that this version made from the earlier RSV was in verse 10. I had cherished for decades the wording of the RSV: “. . . a plan for the fullness of time to unite all things in him . . .” I recently expressed my disappointment with the NRSV rendering to friends in a study group and was helped by the insight of a group member: “unite” is abstract, while “gather up” is active and graphic and invites us to imagine God extending a holy embrace to all persons and all creation, gathering us up together. I like it either way, and whichever way it is read it states the central proposition of this letter: God’s holy purpose, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, is unity, the loving embrace of all things in Christ.
If this is God’s ultimate purpose, it must also be ours. That is what the rest of the letter is about. In chapter 2 the author deals with the pain and strife that result from the many divisions in the human family, with the animosity between Jews and Gentiles as Exhibit A. The contention is that in Christ God has broken down that particular dividing wall of hostility and brought unity in the love of Christ and in the church where all are included and embraced. Those who have experienced that miracle of God’s grace now live a new life together in and as the household of God. In chapter 3, then, we see that it is our calling “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God . . . so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities . . .” (3:9-10) . The chapter ends with a soaring and poetic prayer of praise to God and intercession for the Ephesians, that they may “know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God…” (3:19). They need that depth of spiritual strength and wisdom to enable them in the fulfilling of their calling.
In chapter 4, the text for this Sunday, having already stated the theological basis of the mission and life of Christian community, the author now deals with the painful reality. The Ephesian Christians, like so many other Christian churches then and now, do not always reflect the mutual love and the witness to unity that is central to their life and faith. Far from it. The author therefore begs them to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1) and describes the personal and inter-personal qualities which are necessary to “maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). Next, they are reminded of the fundamentals of Christian faith and teaching: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . .” (4:4-5). It’s all about unity! They need to be gathered up into Christ.
Then the author makes a typically Pauline argument. Your differences are the result of differing gifts and abilities and different perceptions of ministry. They have all been given to you by God so that together you can fulfill all the roles necessary “for building up the body of Christ, until we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity . . .” (4:11b-13). Mature Christians are not prone to fighting over doctrine: they know that the unity of the church is more important. Mature Christians are not misled by enthusiasm for some new prophet or program: they know that the unity of the church is paramount.
Finally, the discipline by which mature Christians are able to negotiate their way through their different gifts, various perspectives, conflicting theologies and competing leaders is simple and yet profound. “Speaking the truth in love, we grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (4:15). To speak the truth, directly and in genuine love is frighteningly difficult, but utterly required for the Christian community to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to be fruitful in fulfilling His mission and our calling.
By Rev. Rollin Russell, former Conference Minister, Southern Conference, United Church of Christ
Pastoral Reflection on Ephesians 4:1-16
God’s purpose which was revealed in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is to gather up all people and all things into a loving unity. It is clearly stated in Ephesians, and Ephesians even tells us how to go about it. It is in everyone’s Bible. Whether we take it literally as Paul’s faithful testimony to God’s self revelation in Christ, or as the inspired counsel of some unnamed later follower of the Pauline theology and perspective, it is there and it is unambiguous. God’s holy purpose is the unity of the whole creation and the unity of the church as a witness to that purpose. Nothing is more important or takes priority over the divine embrace of unity in Christ. We read it and weep at the continuing and growing scandal of our multiple divisions.
Likewise, the words of Jesus in his “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17 leave no doubt as to the divine purpose:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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” (17:20-21).
Again, whether we take it literally as the actual words of Jesus faithfully inscribed by John, or as the beautiful vision of a later apostle faithfully representing the full meaning of the love of Christ, it is there, and it is unambiguous. God in Christ is seeking to reconcile and unite the world in and through Jesus and the testimony of his followers. We cannot dodge it, and we dare not put other priorities before it.
Much as we cherish the lives and testimony of the 16th and 17th century Reformers, and deeply as we honor the traditions that have grown as a result of their faithfulness, we still know that separated as we are, we are not and cannot be whole. Throughout the generations since then, revered leaders in all our various traditions have seen the painful reality of our division, distrust, competition, mutual disdain and downright indifference. That reality is evident, in spite of the clear purpose of God and of Jesus. They have bequeathed to us a variety of ecumenical initiatives, locally, nationally and internationally. They have led, but too few have followed. It is hard work talking through centuries old prejudices and misperceptions, and it takes us out of our comfort zones to entertain the notion that our ecumenical counterparts may be just as faithful, just as authentically Christian as we.
The Ephesian formula for engaging in that task, “speaking the truth in love,” is difficult, to say the least. We do not want to reveal our prejudices, not to mention our woeful lack of knowledge of the other. We think of others as kindred in Christ, but have made little effort to get to know or appreciate them and their stories of faith and faithfulness. And besides, we have so many other pressing obligations and responsibilities. On this day, and in relation to this text, we should remind ourselves that there is no more important task than God’s purpose to unite and gather up all things in Christ, and that the first order of business in that task is the unity of the Church.
I am not naive. I know what you know. I have been a local church pastor and have served in a judicatory ministry. In both those roles I spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with institutional necessities and conflict resolution. To participate in the God given ministry of Christian unity we all must make the time and see it as a priority. Besides, every pastor knows just how hard it is to speak the truth in love. Even if you have the best of motives and intentions, you know that the truth can hurt, can be taken wrongly, and can be resented. So you speak cautiously, guardedly, so the whole truth, or some version of it, comes out over the phone or in the parking lot, and not usually in love. It is true in ecumenical gatherings if we get beyond the ecclesiastical niceties, and it is doubly true in congregations: Christian unity is a demanding vocation. Speaking the truth in love is a demanding vocation. But it is the vocation of all Christians, and it is a precious gift. “Speaking the truth in love we grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ.” Christian unity is the vocation that draws us into Unity with Him, into the new life He offers.
By Rev. Rollin Russell, former Conference Minister, Southern Conference, United Church of Christ
Worship Aids for Ephesians 4:1-16
Call to Worship
We gather together as God’s anointed children;
Together, though we are divided.
We praise the works of the Creator God, who created us to worship unceasingly;
Together, though we are divided.
We recognize the unity of the Trinity, the mysterious three-in-one;
Together, though we are divided.
We implore you, Jesus Christ, to gather us together as a “hen gathers her brood.” Your Church remains divided, though you call us to unity. We recognize our divisions and denounce them as unfaithful; we acknowledge that we sing your praises, though with a divided tongue. We profess along with your apostle Paul that there is indeed “one body and one Spirit,” and we ask that your Spirit descend upon us—your Body— today.
We pray this in the name of the One “who is above all and through all and in all,” Amen.
(by Jason R. Jenkins)
Prayer of Confession
Let us seek the forgiveness of God and of each other for the divisions that have hindered Christian witness: Lord we have sinned against you and against each other.
Lord, have mercy.
O Christ, our divisions are contrary to your will and have impeded our common witness to you.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, we have not loved you enough in our brothers and sisters, created in your image, but different from us.
Lord, have mercy.
Creator God, let us no longer live beside each other as strangers. Satisfy the longings of our hearts, grant our rightful requests, and unite us soon in one Holy Church through Jesus Christ, who with you in the communion of the Holy Spirit lives and reigns eternally. Amen.
A Prayer for Unity
Holy One, whose love has been poured into our hearts through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, and who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine, infuse us with a longing for reconciliation.
Help us maintain the unity of your Spirit in the bond of peace. In these days when people and places are affected by strife and its threat, make us light to the world.
When we get tired and confused, take us by the hand and show us the way forward.
Help us transform barriers into bridges. Amen.
(by Rev. Dr Diane C. Kessler, Executive Director, Massachusetts Council of Churches)
A Call for the Unity of Christ’s Disciples
For every congregation of the Church—that we may end the sin of our division which makes a mockery of the Cross of Jesus before the world.
Lord hear us.
For every congregation of the Church—that the Spirit of the Lord may remove from between us the walls of separation which do not reach to heaven.
Lord hear us.
For every congregation of the Church—that we may reach out to meet one another and rejoice to find that we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Lord hear us.
For every congregation of the Church—that we may all be one, worshipping God as beloved sons and daughters, in spirit and in truth.
Lord hear us.
For every congregation of the Church—that we may commit ourselves to the non-violent way of Jesus and transform society through offering forgiveness and receiving peace.
Lord hear us.
O God, unite all the congregations of the Church in Jesus, our Lord and Savior. May your will be done among us and your kingdom come soon, through Christ who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.
(adapted, from Clonard Monastery, Northern Ireland)
Suggested Hymns for Christian Unity
In Christ There is No East or West
African Methodist Episcopal Hymnal 557
Christian Methodist Episcopal Hymnal 360
Baptist Hymnal 385
New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ) 394
United Methodist Hymnal 548
The Hymnal (1982) 529
Presbyterian Hymnal 439
Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ) 687
Moravian Book of Worship 697
Gather Hymnal (Catholic) 738
Many Gifts, One Spirit
United Methodist Hymnal 114
New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ) 177
O God of Vision
Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ) 288
The Church’s One Foundation
Christian Methodist Episcopal Hymnal 377
United Methodist Hymnal 545
Presbyterian Hymnal 442
The Hymnal (1982) 525
Lutheran Worship 289
Baptist Hymnal 350
New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ) 386
Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ) 272
New Century Hymnal 564
Moravian Worship 511
Gather Hymnal (Catholic) 661
We Love Your Realm, O God
New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ) 312
Quotes about Christian Unity
It is true in ecumenical gatherings if we get beyond the ecclesiastical niceties, and it is doubly true in congregations: Christian unity is a demanding vocation. Speaking the truth in love is a demanding vocation. But it is the vocation of all Christians, and it is a precious gift. “Speaking the truth in love we grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ.” Christian unity is the vocation that draws us into unity with Him, into the new life He offers.
Vignette about Christian Unity
That They May All Be One
Raised in a village in Yorkshire, England, my earliest encounter with the problems and promises of ecumenism had to do with the sometimes tense relations between Methodists (of whom I was one) and Anglicans (the “parish church” belonged to the Established Church of the land). Things had eased somewhat by the time I went as an undergraduate to Cambridge University in 1957, and there people from the Church of England and the “Free Churches” got on rather well together. My experience broadened when I attended graduate school at the Ecumenical Institute of the University of Geneva, where I met not only continental European Protestants but also students from the Eastern Orthodox Churches and even a few Roman Catholics. My best contacts with Catholics were, in fact, with some young English Benedictine monks who were studying at the University of Fribourg, also in Switzerland; and I have retained a fondness for that monastic order.
My engagement with institutional ecumenism began in 1964, when my mentor Raymond George, the Methodist theologian, invited me to accompany him as a youth delegate to the meeting of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches at Aarhus in Denmark. When I had gained a bit of seniority, I myself became a member of Faith and Order, and I played an active part in the writing of the document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” that was unanimously adopted by the Commission at Lima in 1982.
For six years (1967-73) I served as a missionary in Cameroon, West Africa, teaching theology at the Protestant Faculty of Theology in Yaoundé which brought together Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Baptists from the French-speaking churches along that coast. At that time I also served as a pastor in the interdenominational English-language congregation in Yaoundé.
Around that time I also became involved with the work of the World Methodist Council. For two periods I chaired its committee on worship and liturgy. Then I was placed on its Commission for Dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, and I have co-chaired that commission since 1986 along with a succession of Catholic bishops.
My ecumenism has always been exercised from within the Methodist tradition, which I love in its more Wesleyan manifestations. As I wrote in my book “Methodists in Dialogue” (1996), my hope has been to keep “as many Methodists as possible walking with historic Christianity.” The restoration of full visible unity in Christ’s sadly divided Church will help all Christians to be more faithful to their Lord, who prayed “that they all may be one” (John 17:21).
By Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, Robert Earl Cushman Professor of Christian Theology, Duke Divinity School
Contacts and Resources for Christian Unity
North Carolina Council of Churches, a list of the Council’s twenty-four member judicatories and seven individual member congregations which are not part of a member judicatory.
Christian Unity Committee, North Carolina Council of Churches: While Christian unity is modeled and promoted through all of the Council’s work, the Christian Unity Committee is the one entity whose primary responsibility is to further Christian unity or wholeness. This includes bringing people together across lines of denomination to realize that we are more alike than different and that we can be enriched by many of our differences. Website contains a few of the Council’s resources on ecumenism and Christian unity, including the work “A Reflection on the Churches’ Doctrine of Humanity.”
North Carolina Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Prayer Calendar, which identifies member judicatories and congregations to be the focus of your prayers each month.
The World Council of Churches is the broadest and most inclusive among the many organized expressions of the modern ecumenical movement, a movement whose goal is Christian unity.
National Council of Churches isthe leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. The NCC’s 36 Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, historic African American and Living Peace member faith groups include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.
The Centro Pro Unione is the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement’s Web Site for Christian Unity. Located in Rome, Italy (and in New York), the Pro Unione Center is among the leaders of promoting and encouraging ecumenical dialogue. Website contains “Interconfessional Dialogues,” e.g. between the Roman Catholic Church and Baptists, Episcopalians, Orthodox, etc.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity takes place every year on January 18-25. This website has resources prepared by Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. Graymoor Institute promotes ecumenism and interreligious understanding through its support of theological dialogue, research, and publication. The Institute publishes Ecumenical Trends, a journal of ecumenical and interreligious articles, news, and dialogue. The Institute produces resources in print and on its website for the annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Churches Uniting in Christ: After forty years of study and prayer through the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), the nine member churches agreed to stop “consulting” and start living their unity in Christ more fully. On January 20, 2002, these churches inaugurated a new relationship to be known as Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC).
Key Facts about Christian Unity
1. The twentieth century conciliar movement produced councils of churches at the international, national, state, and local levels. The North Carolina Council of Churches shares the broad goals of Christian unity and justice with the World and National Councils and with the many state councils, and our members come from many of the same denominational streams. But there are no structural or financial connections between us. Each is its own autonomous organization, and the NC Council, founded in 1935, actually
predates both the National and World Councils by more than ten years.
2. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, edited by David Barrett, et al, almost 34,000 separate Christian groups have been identified in the world; over half of them are independent churches.
3. Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC) grew out of the work of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU). The formation of the COCU was sparked by a December 1960 sermon preached by Presbyterian pastor Rev. Eugene Carson Blake at Grace Episcopal Church in which he envisioned a “truly catholic and truly reformed” church. At COCU’s first plenary meeting in
1962, the phrase “truly evangelical” was also embraced in the vision. The COCU partner church bodies decided to dissolve the COCU in January 2002 in order to organize the CUIC. The primary difference between COCU and CUIC is that what COCU talked about doing and made steps toward implementing, the CUIC has implemented. Some of the activities that
CUIC partner churches participate in are: pulpit exchange, serving on boards, educating members about the partner denominations, worship together during the various holy days, celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and promote youth to participate in events sponsored by the partner churches.
CUIC consists of ten partner church bodies:
African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME)
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ)
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME)
Episcopal Church, USA
International Council of Community Churches
Presbyterian Church, USA
United Church of Christ (UCC)
United Methodist Church (UM)
Moravian Church(Northern Province)
The Partners in Mission and Dialogue is:
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA)
CUIC consists of three task forces:
The Local & Regional Task Force is responsible for developing strategies that will encourage and facilitate the formation of CUIC partnerships among local congregations and between regional governing bodies. The Task Force provides support and encouragement to groups that are formed by their own initiative.
The Racial Justice Task Force is responsible for promoting an open dialogue about racial justice within the life of the member churches and of society in general. It will also develop strategies that will enable the churches to confront and eradicate the sin of racism.
The Ministry Task Force is responsible for providing a foundation for the mutual recognition and reconciliation of the ordained ministry of the member churches of Churches Uniting in Christ.
4. The Episcopal Church, USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into full communion in 2000. Full communion means a mutual recognition of Word, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and ordination of the partner churches for the purpose of a greater and more unified mission to the world as well as a greater and more efficient use of services, resources, and personnel.
The Episcopal Church, USA and the United Methodist Church have been celebrating the Interim Sharing of the Eucharist since 2006 as a means to recognize their unity in the faith.
5. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Moravian Church established full communion in 1999.