I have been engaged in a study of the second half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and, not surprisingly, the themes from that letter have been resonating in my mind over the past few weeks. I have been struck by Paul’s emphasis on the importance of love and unity in the local church. On the one hand it’s kind of obvious–we need to love the Christians around us–but on the other hand, the personal implications are profound. I’ve always known that God calls me to love the people I covenant with in my local church, but until now I haven’t been quite so aware of the danger of falling out of love.
Paul did not seem to have any particular concern with the unity of this church in Ephesus. As far as we can tell he wasn’t writing because the church was splintering apart or because he had heard rumors of their disunity. But perhaps this was even more reason for him to address the issue. Paul knew that Satan is the great enemy of God and his people, and one of his enduring tactics to disrupt the church and to hinder our witness to the world is to bring about disunity. How does he do this? He does it by first eroding the love between brothers and sisters in Christ.
Wherever there is disunity there will first be the absence of love and the presence of pride. Satan’s great desire for your church and for mine is to fracture the people in those churches into camps, into groups built along lines that have no business dividing us. We may know this in the abstract, but we need to make it personal. Here is what we need to see: God wants me and commands me to love the other people in my church; Satan wants me to hate them. God wants me to feel a great deal of unity with those people; Satan wants there to be an issue between us–something, anything, to drive us apart.
Have you ever paused to think about this? Do you know that Satan is actively working in your local church right now to drive a wedge between you and the other people there? He wants you to hate that other person–or at least to stop loving that other person–and he is constantly giving you opportunity to do just that. A quick survey of church history, whether on a global or local scale, will show just how successful he has been. He will split churches into factions by first making those Christians find reasons not to love one another, not to bear with one another in love.
Do you feel alienated from someone in your church? Then Satan is already sowing the seeds of disunity, the seeds of what it may take to split your church right up the middle. Do you outright hate someone in your church? Then Satan has already scored a victory and your church is already breaking apart. God then calls you to immediately work to restore the love that needs to exist between you.
There is good news, though. We need to be aware of Satan’s tactics, but we don’t need to be afraid. When Paul writes to the Ephesian church he does not tell them that they have to build unity from nothing. Instead, he says that the unity they are to have, and the unity we are to have, already exists and we just need to maintain it. Paul uses a metaphor to illustrate this. Twice in the letter he has said that he is a prisoner of the Lord—that he is in prison, in chains, chained to his guard. He returns to that language to say that believers are chained together. You and the other people in your local church, you are bound together. It’s like there is a chain that runs from you to the person down the row from you, and to the person beside him, and on throughout the building. You are all chained together in unity through Christ, through what he has done in each one of you.
What he says is that if your local church is to be unified, you need to grab ahold of that existing unity and hang on to it for dear life. No matter what your differences are, you cannot allow yourself to be divided from the Christians around you. How can you do that? How can you maintain that oneness? Well, it turns out that God has already thought about that and that he has already equipped you to do that. You just need to use the tools he has provided. I guess that may be a topic for another day (Hint: Paul goes on to discuss spiritual gifting and speaking truth in love).
For now, though, you may do well to read just the first few verses of Ephesians 4 and to consider the love God calls you to have and to express toward the people in your local church. These are the people God has called you to love, to serve, to minister to. Do you love them? Are you growing in love for them? Wherever that love is diminishing, wherever that love is growing cold, Satan is pushing his way into your church; he may just be using you as his agent for disunity.