“Unity and Growth, through Unified Doctrine and Practice” (Ephesians 4:1-16)
Today in our series on Ephesians we move into the second half of the epistle. In the first half of this letter, St. Paul has laid down the foundation of our life in Christ, that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing, according to the riches of his grace. Now in the second half of the letter, Paul moves into the practical implications of this for our life together as church and our life as individual Christians. Our text today emphasizes the churchly dimension of our life together, that we walk together in unity and growth, in truth and love.
Unity and growth–these are great goals for the church, aren’t they? Everybody wants the church to be united. Everybody wants the church to grow. This is true for our own congregation. This is true for our synod, also. But what kind of unity? What kind of growth? We’ll want to explore that a little deeper today. And we’ll explore how unity and growth come about and can be strengthened. And so our theme today concerns the life of the church, its “Unity and Growth, through Unified Doctrine and Practice.”
To begin with, let me say that we do not create the church’s unity or growth. Both of these are gifts of God. He unites us. He causes his church to grow. Let’s be clear about that from the outset. In fact, it is when we try to unite the church, it is when we try to grow the church, apart from God, on our own strength–that is when we end up doing just the opposite. More on that later. But to start with, let’s say it loud and clear: God gives the unity. God gives the growth.
The unity of the church has already been established, by God. That’s why St. Paul urges us to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We don’t create the unity. We are called to maintain it. God has established the unity of the church, as St. Paul says: “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Yes, the one true God establishes the one true church. The triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The church is God’s creation, and she finds her life in the life of the Holy Trinity.
The Holy Trinity is the source of the church’s unity. Notice how Trinitarian this marvelous three-part statement of St. Paul is. It begins: “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call. . . .” Here Paul refers to the work of the Holy Spirit, who has called us by the gospel, brought us into the body of Christ, and given us the hope of everlasting life. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism. . . .” This refers to our Lord Jesus Christ, the focus of our faith, and in whose name we Christians are baptized. “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The heavenly Father, the maker of heaven and earth, the Father of whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Spirit proceeds.
And so the church’s essential unity has already been established by God. It is his gift, and we do not add anything to it. There is but “one holy Christian and apostolic Church,” the assembly of all believers in Christ, in all times and in all places. Now we want to maintain and manifest that unity as much as possible.
And Christ has given his church the gifts to do just that. Paul goes on to say, of Christ, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” Jesus Christ is the one who has ascended into heaven, having won the victory for us on the cross. By his death on the cross, Christ atoned for all our sins, our sins against God, which condemned us to death and made us the slaves of the devil. But Jesus Christ, God’s Son, by his blood paid the price for all of your sins and the sins of all humanity. Thus he defeated death and the devil. He descended into hell to proclaim his victory even there. Then he ascended into heaven, sitting down at the right hand of his Father and pouring out the Spirit on his church, for the church’s life and ministry, for the church’s unity and growth.
Christ gave gifts to his church for this purpose. And those gifts are people: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. . . .” Christ’s called and ordained servants of the Word are his gifts to the church. Through the foundational teaching of Christ’s holy apostles in the New Testament, through the preaching and teaching of pastors even now to this day, Christ is building his church. Now, to be sure, the church’s ministry involves the whole church, not just pastors. But the pastors are called to “equip the saints,” specifically, through the preaching and teaching office that pastors exercise publicly.
And the purpose, the goal, is the unity and growth of the church: “for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. . . .” Now we see what kind of unity is being spoken of. It is “the unity of the faith.” Now we see what kind of growth is in view. It is growth in “the stature of the fullness of Christ.” This gives us guidance when we consider how unity and growth are to be achieved in the church today.
We’re talking about true unity and true growth here. There is an apparent unity and an apparent growth that may deceive us and entice us, but which are not the unity and growth that are God-pleasing. We hear many pleas for unity in our day. We hear many plans for growth. In our own church body, the Missouri Synod, we hear these pleas and these plans. But we need to evaluate them in the light of God’s Word.
We hear pleas for unity. Naturally, everyone is troubled when we see a church body wracked by division and discord. But what has caused this lack of unity? I contend that the major factor in our synod’s lack of unity is our lack of attention to doctrine and practice. Oh, everybody in the Missouri Synod pays lip-service to our doctrine, but not so much is done as should be done to see that everyone actually is “on board” with the doctrine of our church and lets it permeate our life and conduct. This goes for both pastors and laypeople alike. Too many pastors have neglected their duty to teach sound biblical doctrine in any depth, and too many laypeople likewise have been negligent in their responsibility to learn and to grow in the knowledge of Christian truth. Pastors and people alike have been far too apathetic, assuming that just a minimalist, eighth-grade knowledge of doctrine is enough.
Then there’s what I call the “doctrine-practice disconnect.” Pastors and congregations say that because we have the right doctrine on paper, therefore we can do whatever we want in practice. They think that “anything goes” when it comes to worship practice or catechesis, for example. They think that it really doesn’t matter if they throw out the hymnal, junking the church’s historic liturgy and hymnody, and substituting in its place their own made-up concoctions of light and fluffy ditties that are short on doctrine and shallow in substance. They think they can dispense with thorough catechesis of children and new members, getting rid of the catechism and putting its place a short little course that doesn’t go too deep. That is what is happening in our church body, my friends, in far too many congregations. And that is what is weakening our church terribly.
Failure to attend to doctrine. Failure to see the connection between doctrine and practice. That is when the church gets into trouble. It sets the church up to lose its moorings. Like a ship tossed on a stormy sea, the church doesn’t know where it ought to be headed. We lose our direction. Division and discord result, because the people who have lost their way get mad at the people who still do care about doctrine and practice, and vice versa. Hard feelings and resentment result, on both sides.
What to do? Repent. Cry out to God for forgiveness for the part that each one of us has played in the church losing her way. God will forgive you. That’s why Christ died, after all, to win that forgiveness for you. He gives it to you freely, showering his grace upon you. God will pick you up and get you going again in the right direction. He wants you to grow in your knowledge of the Christian faith, and he will help you to do so. That’s why we have services here every week, and Bible classes, and classes during the week in Christian doctrine. That’s why you have Bibles and catechisms and hymnals in your home, these resources for daily devotions. God wants his church to grow in the unity of the faith, and that happens through unified doctrine and practice.
What happens when the church does care about doctrine and seeks to have its practice reflect and reinforce that doctrine? Good things! Paul puts it like this: “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” You see, when we attend to doctrine and practice, then our ship has direction; we’re not blown about and blown off course.
Paul adds: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” There, that is true growth! There’s a lot of talk these days about “church growth,” but unfortunately, it’s often just about a surface growth in numbers, at the expense of real growth in the building up of the body. Indeed, that is often how the growth in numbers is accomplished, by sacrificing any depth or substance in doctrine and practice. Things are watered down to appeal to a worldly audience, skirting around things like Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins, which ought to be at the heart of everything the church does. But they say that gets in the way of growth, numerical growth, according to the experts. Well, so be it. Better to be faithful in what God has given his church to do, and then leave the numbers up to him.
Dear friends, God wants his church to experience unity and growth. He has provided everything necessary for that to happen. The unity he wants is the unity of the faith. The growth he seeks is growth in the stature of the fullness of Christ, the building up of the body of Christ. These things will happen, true unity and growth, through unified doctrine and practice. May God grant the church a renewed and intense zeal for pure doctrine, such that the church’s practice reflects and reinforces the doctrine we profess. God grant it for Jesus’ sake and the salvation of many souls.