Tag Archives: Ephesians

Is the Church weak or strong?

Pretty-ChurchIs the Church weak or strong?

Whatever adjective you put before the word “church” makes all the difference in this question. Is the global church weak or strong? Is the American church weak or strong? Is my local church weak or strong?

But the question I’m asking is if the Church (big C) is weak or strong? Are believers weak or strong?

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I rarely answer a question like this by picking one of the options. Is the Church weak or strong? It depends on what you mean. We are weak in three senses, and strong in at least one.

We are weak in the measure of our humanity. In our humanity we are a breath, we come from the dust and will return to the dust. We are finite and limited. We make errors. We get things wrong. Our strategies are sometimes ill conceived, our execution haphazard. Even on human terms of strength and weakness we are often seen as weak or foolish before a world that idolizes money and success. I have no faith in the human strength of the church.

We are weak in the measure of our sinfulness. Yes, the church is God’s holy people. We have been forgiven and redeemed. We are being sanctified. But our sin is still always before us. We wage war with it and we have the ultimate victory, but in the meantime, it wins some battles. Sin hampers our efforts. It weakens us beyond our humanity. This weakness is to our shame.

We are weak in the measure of our following after the crucified Christ. Jesus came in weakness. He emptied himself of the glory due him and came in humility. He humbled himself to death on a cross. He gained victory not through human strength, but through self-sacrifice. When he calls disciples, he calls them to take up their crosses and follow him. We take that same posture of weakness before the world, a posture of humility, death to self, and sacrificial love. To the extend we embrace this weakness, this weakness is to our glory.

But we are also strong. Or, at least, strength is available to us.

We are strong in the measure of our being filled with the fullness of Christ.

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. – Ephesians 1:18-23

Paul prays that the Ephesians will know, that is, experience, God’s “incomparably great power.” That power is the power of the resurrection, of Christ’s position at the right hand of the Father, and of Christ’s reign over every power and authority, spiritual and physical, present and future. Notice the path of exaltation. Christ is lifted higher and higher throughout the passage. But the passage ends in descent, with Christ’s unique relationship with the Church – those who have put their trust in him. He exercises is headship over all things for the church. To the extent that the church is filled up with Christ, it knows the power of God. In this, then, we are strong.

How can we be filled up with Christ? By trusting and depending on him. Paul himself was no stranger to the weakness of the flesh, or of his battle with sin. But he learned that he could depend on God’s grace so that when he was weak, then he was strong, not a strength from himself, but Christ’s work in him. God gives grace to the humble. He strengthens the feeble. When we participate with him in his suffering, we can be assured that we will participate with him in his resurrection.

What does this power look like? Is it what the world will recognize as power? Perhaps. But more often it will only be manifested in weakness. It will show up as courage in the face of danger, hope in the face of suffering, perseverance in the face of temptation, and steadfastness under pressure.

So, is the American church strong or weak? Is the local church strong or weak? Is the global church strong or weak? To the degree we depend upon God and are filled up with Christ, we will remain strong.

Foundations for a life that pleases God

Yesterday I started a series on the book of Ephesians. I used the opportunity to lay out some of the major themes of the book as foundations for living a life pleasing to God.

The reality and character of God. In our secular age, it has become rather popular to jettison the idea of God all together as a mere illusion or crutch and to find some other foundation of life. Even among people who believe in God, He is far from foundational, instead, He is a peripheral part of life which we bring in or throw out as seems useful to our own goals. But for Paul, the reality and character of God forms the very foundation for every other argument he makes.

Reality: What Paul assumes in Ephesians, the writer of Hebrews makes explicit: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Character: Paul is less interested in defending the reality of God than he is in describing his character. Indeed, the purpose of much of Ephesians is simply to draw his readers to love and worship God. God is the creator of all things (3:89). He is “over all and through all and in all” (4:6). He is the “glorious Father” (1:17). And, He is characterized by great love and as being “rich in mercy” (2:4). In this vision of God, He is the creator and sustainer of all things – and thus serves as a good foundation not only for our personal lives but for the entire cosmos. Further, He is not a distant and removed creator, but one who loves and shows mercy to his creation.

God’s work in Christ. Many monotheistic religions would affirm this vision of God as the foundation for life, but what makes Christianity unique is this second foundational principle: God’s work in Christ. God’s work in Christ naturally flows out of his love and mercy. How does He show us love and mercy? By sending His one and only Son into the world to save the world (John 3:16). And what did Jesus do? He gave us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:7). He “brought us near [to God] by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:19b-20).

The Christian faith rests on the foundation of the historical reality of Jesus, on His historical death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Through this reality we can be forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and made alive.

God’s gifts, given through Christ. Through the work of Christ, and out of the boundless riches of God’s mercy and grace, God gives gifts to those who believe in him. These gifts are expanded throughout the letter but nowhere more than in Ephesians 3:3-10 (explanatory video in the link), but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on just three which are mentioned in 1:1-2: Paul’s apostleship, Grace, and Peace.

Paul’s apostleship: In some circles, it has become popular to accept the teachings of Jesus but reject Paul, but to do so would be a mistake. Indeed, God has given us apostolic teaching as one of the key foundations for the church (2:20). Specifically, God gave Paul special insight (revelation) into the mystery of the gospel; that Gentiles could be saved and incorporated into the people of God in the same way that Jews could, through faith alone, apart from the law. It was in large part due to Paul’s special mission to the Gentiles that the church expanded the way that it did.

Grace: Grace is God’s unmerited favor and this unmerited favor is what leads to our salvation. It equips us to serve the body of Christ, making it mature in the faith. And, will be revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns.

Peace: In our harried 21st century lives we’re particularly interested in how to achieve inner peace, but the peace which Paul refers to in Ephesians is, first, peace with God and second, peace with one another within the body of Christ. But, it makes sense that if we were to achieve peace in these first two senses, an inner peace would likely follow.

Without these gifts – knowledge of the gospel revealed through Paul’s apostleship, grace, and peace – the Christian life would be impossible. We would simply lack the power to accomplish what God has commanded us to do.

Our identity in Christ: Paul spends a large portion of his letter exhorting Christians to obey God. But prior to these commands he identifies his audience as “God’s holy people… faithful in Christ Jesus.” This identity comes first and foremost from what God has done for us. Out of God’s great mercy he sent Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is through this work that God grants us the gifts of grace and peace. And, it is these gifts which make us truly holy in the eyes of God. We’re objectively holy, with a righteousness that comes from God and is received through faith, even before we are subjectively and imperfectly holy. Indeed, our faithfulness flows out of this new identity in Christ, and apart from that identity, living a faithful life would be impossible.

There are many things in life competing for our core identity. But our identity in Christ is the only one which will never, can never, be shaken.

Actions: Only after laying this firm foundation does Paul lay out the moral exhortations later in the letter: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). It may be useful to think of Christianity as an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. This forms the foundation of the iceberg and makes that which is above the water stable.

In Christianity, this foundation is the rich theological principles of the character of God, God’s work in Christ, God’s revelation, grace, and peace poured out on us, and the reality that when received by faith these form in us a new and lasting identity. The “above the surface” part of the Christian faith is what we actually do. These too are essential, but are not foundational. We make a mistake when we flip the proportions of the iceberg, when we make Christianity essentially about what we do, de-emphasizing theology and the incredible work of God. Such a faith is fundamentally unstable. If we get the foundations right, the actions, while still requiring the hard work of obedience, will follow naturally.

Dependence, Independence, and Interdependence in church life

According to Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), the process of maturity is a movement from dependence, to independence, to interdependence. When we are babies, we are completely dependent upon others. It is easy to see that dependence is a place of immaturity whether it is in the physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual realms (see Hebrews 5:12).

The next stage we move to in the maturity process is independence. Here we are able to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally. We make decisions on our own and take responsibility for our own actions. We are able to provide for our own basic needs. A lot of people believe that complete independence is the pinnacle of maturity but that’s not true. The problem is that a mental map of independence doesn’t match the reality of the interdependent world we live in. People who believe they are entirely independent are really dependent in many more ways than they would care to admit. For example, teenagers strive for independence but are much more fundamentally dependent than they realize.

The highest level of maturity, says Covey, is interdependence. When we are interdependent we take responsibility for our own spheres of influence and our own decisions. We live based on principles (what is right and wrong) not on political expediency (what will other people think of me). But we also acknowledge that we live in an interdependent world and that the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts. We work together, working off of each other’s strengths to accomplish more than each of us could accomplish on our own.

This vision of maturity as interdependence wonderfully matches Paul’s description of the church as a body (see 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians). A body is a beautiful illustration of interdependence. Each part functions within its role, acknowledging its interdependence with the other parts. Each part takes responsibility for its own function – an eye sees, and ear hears, a foot moves – but doesn’t try to act as a complete body on its own. A church which practices interdependence grows up in maturity, love, and unity (see Ephesians 4).

In a “dependent” church, the individual members don’t do much of anything. They are consumers. They desire to be “fed” but won’t do any feeding. They live on the spiritual milk handed out by the preacher each Sunday. They are dependent on the human leader of the church and if that leader fails, their faith is lost. I don’t mean to blame the members. Leaders often foster this kind of thinking. Abusive leaders, or leaders with a Messiah complex, foster this kind of dependence, intentionally or unintentionally keeping their congregation in a state of dependence.

In an “independent” church, individuals take responsibility for their own spiritual growth but don’t work together as a team. Churches of this ilk may be marked by in-fighting or jealousy. Perhaps the church in Corinth was overly marked by a spirit of independence where everyone was clamoring for their own voice to be heard. It was a church marked by pride instead of humility and factions instead of unity. Christians with a completely independent mindset may check-out of church altogether. After all, if they have everything they need within the themselves, why go to church in the first place?

In an “interdependent” church members see themselves as parts of a whole. Members with an interdependent mindset often look for churches where they can work as part of a team and utilize their gifts as part of a greater mission. Here everyone is moving toward the same goal – love, maturity, discipleship, service, evangelism, etc – but each person plays a different part. An interdependent church is like an orchestra playing in harmony. It embraces both unity and diversity. Each person takes responsibility for playing their own instrument well and rejoices when others play their instruments well. Leaders in interdependent churches encourage spiritual growth and cooperation between the parts. They try to create systems where growth occurs naturally and where the Spirit is given room to build up the body.

Of course, in one sense, all churches are fundamentally dependent. We are dependent upon the Head, the Source, the Authority, and the Builder, our Lord Jesus Christ.