Rampantly pervading the Christian church, biblical illiteracy and poor hermeneutical methodologies actively undermine the sound teachings of Scripture.1 Accordingly, the Christian must become proficient in exegetical techniques, diligently studying the Scriptures and seeking to apply the doctrines faithfully. Serving as a case study, this paper will examine the context, significance, and practical application of Ephesians 4:7-16,2 demonstrating that the passage reinforces the fundamental importance of community within the catholic (i.e., universal) church while concomitantly underscoring the principle of unified diversity.3
Understanding the Context
Proper interpretation requires the exegete to understand the historical, geographical, literary, and cultural context of the passage in question.4 Writing between AD 59-63, the Apostle Paul pens this letter to the Ephesians during his imprisonment in Rome (cf. Ephesians 1:1; 3:1; 4:1; 6:20; Acts 28:16, 30).5 Throughout the first century, Ephesus was a capital city in the region, representing the third largest city in Asia Minor and maintaining the most significant port on the western coast.6 Consequently, Ephesus became a city of predominant pagan worship, housing a plethora of temples each dedicated to one of approximately fifty different deities (including the Greek god Artemis and the Roman emperor).7
Uncharacteristically, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians appears to lack a specific setting (i.e., occasion) and distinct purpose, representing a straightforward message of exhortation with a theological (Ephesians 1-3) and ethical (Ephesians 4-6) framework, containing a central message concerning the reconciliation made possible through the person and work of Jesus—specifically emphasizing the inherent harmony of believers.8
Elucidating this interpretation, New Testament scholar Ian Howard Marshall comments,
Ephesians emphasizes more than any other part of the New Testament. . . the need for unity in the church. This goes beyond the exhortation that people should have the same mind and purpose in the local congregation. . . to the insistence that Christians have one God (Spirit, Lord, and Father—implicitly Trinitarian) and one way of salvation through faith and baptism, and one hope.9
Understanding this context provides the essential basis for further inquiry, and will assist the reader in understanding the significance and contemporary application of Ephesians 4:7-16 during subsequent analysis.
Analyzing the Passage
After detailing the historical, geographical, literary, and cultural context, the exegete focuses his attention on analysis of the passage itself, carefully identifying key terms, overarching themes, and syntactical relationships. Contextual consideration remains imperative throughout the interpretative process, and the reader must actively consider the broader textual context of the passage in question, rather than examining the passage in isolation.10 Accordingly, to interpret Ephesians 4:7-16 correctly, one must understand the preceding verses of chapter four, while simultaneously bearing in mind the literary flow advancing from the opening chapters.
Commencing chapter four (vv. 1-6), Paul writes,
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager 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 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.
Inspecting the introduction reveals a couple of important factors, especially, Paul’s shift from a theological discussion utilizing epideictic or praise rhetoric (in chapters one through three) to the ethical application of Christian doctrine where he employs exhortātiō (exhortation) rhetoric (in chapters four through six).11
Elucidating this transition, theologian John R. W. Stott writes,
For three chapters Paul has been unfolding for his readers the eternal purpose of God being worked out in history. Through Jesus Christ, who died for sinners and was raised from death, God is creating something entirely new, not just a new life for individuals for a new society. . . . Now [beginning in chapter four] the apostle moves on from the new society to the new standards which are expected of it. So, he turns from exposition to exhortation, from what God has done (in the indicative) to what we must be and do (in the imperative), from doctrine to duty, ‘from the credenda. . . to the agenda,’ from mind-stretching theology to its down-to-earth, concrete implications in everyday living.12
Additionally, Paul introduces and begins accentuating the theme of unity (vv. 3-6), which carries over into the subsequent verses. Observing both the transition and underlying premise, New Testament scholar Richard C. H. Lenski comments, “After having set forth the great doctrine of the Una Sancta‚ Paul now tells his readers how their lives should be shaped in order to accord with the facts of this doctrine. This is very fitting after having shown that by faith in Christ they are all one in Christ in the Una Sancta although they were formerly Jews or Gentiles.”13
Profoundly, Paul derives his exhortation from the unified diversity inherent within the tripersonal nature of God, recognizing that “the one Father creates the one family,” (v. 6) while “the one Lord Jesus creates the one faith, hope, and baptism,” (vv. 4-5) and “the one Spirit creates the one body” (v.4).14 Concurrently, Stott recognizes four distinct characteristics of Christian unity (as emphasized in the chapter):15
1) It depends on the charity of the Christian’s character and conduct (v. 2).
2) It arises from the arises from the unity of God (vv. 3-6).
3) It receives enrichment from the diversity of particularized gifts (vv. 7-12).
4) It demands maturity (i.e., individual and collective growth) (vv. 13-16).
This outline demonstrates the importance of contextual analysis, as Ephesians 4:7-16 continues the unity motif while building upon the content of the first six verses.
Continuing his exhortation (vv. 7-16) Paul writes,
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore, it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, 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, 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. 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.
Highlighting the diversity within the Christian community, Paul acknowledges the individual gifts bestowed upon believers (vv. 7; 11; 16), while simultaneously accentuating the imperative interconnectedness of each person (vv. 12-13; 16).
Moreover, it appears such diversity is necessary for producing a comprehensive community which promotes the spiritual growth of its members (vv. 11-14). Analogously, Paul describes the Christian community as the body of Christ (vv.12; 15-16)—a common metaphor in Paul’s writings—to communicate the church’s dependency on Jesus and its “essential unity within its obvious diversity.”16 Examining this allegory, theologian Millard J. Erickson comments,
Perhaps the most extended image of the church is its representation as the body of Christ. . . . This image emphasizes that the church is the locus of Christ’s activity now just as was his physical body during his earthly ministry. . . . [It] emphasizes the connection of the church, as a group of believers, with Christ. . . . [And also] speaks of the interconnectedness between all the persons who make up the church. . . . Each member needs the others, and each is needed by the others. . . . There is mutuality in this understanding of the body; each believer encourages and builds up the others. . . . The body is to be characterized by genuine fellowship. . . . [And] is to be a unified body. . . . [Where] all ethnic and social berries have been removed.17
Consequently, it is apparent that Christian unity (which celebrates diversity) remains the central theme of Ephesians 4:7-16, and provides the basis for deriving practical application principles from the passage.
Practically applying the principles of a given passage is less straightforward than using exegetical methodologies to identify the proper interpretation, as a passage may pertain to various circumstances differently. Nevertheless, the context and central theme of Ephesians 4:7-16 identify the envisioned application, providing valuable insight into what the church is, and how the church is to operate. Encouraging harmony amongst the Christian community, Paul’s message parallels Jesus’ prayer in His Farwell Discourse (cf. John 17:20-23), underscoring a distinctive principle of the catholic church. Beautifully accentuating Paul’s picture of the church, Stott writes,
We must assert that there can be only one Christian family, only one Christian faith, hope and baptism, and only one Christian body, because there is only one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You can no more multiply churches than you can multiply Gods. Is there only one God? Then he has only one church. Is the unity of God inviolable? Then so is the unity of the church. The unity of the church is as indestructible as the unity of God himself. It is no more possible to split the church than it is possible to split the Godhead.18
Though Paul accentuates the spiritual unity of the catholic church, he includes similar descriptions (both implicitly and explicitly) of the local assemblies, certainly intending to correlate the two facets, while simultaneously persuading his audience to manifest these spiritual realities in their corporate interactions (cf. Ephesians 4:1-3). Acknowledging individual responsibility to strive for such accord, Anglican scholar Eric Graham comments,
The unity, though given by the Spirit, has to be guarded by human effort, and very diligent effort; hence the exhortation in [verse] 2. . . . The unity of the Church, though perfect when viewed as a divine gift (like the ‘new man,’ [v. 24]), has yet to be striven for by redeemed mankind. True unity depends on corporate faith in and knowledge of the Son of God.19
Lamentably, the church often resembles the secular culture—marked by controversy, scandal, and socioeconomic divide—rather than cohesive family embodying love as their superlative value (cf. John 13:35). As reports of ethnically motivated pugnaciousness saturate media headlines, the American church idly watches, with numerous local churches intentionally catering to a specific demographic instead of cultivating a multicultural and multigenerational congregation.20 Complicating the issue further, the twentieth century gave rise to numerous disagreements concerning the nature of the church, producing considerable discord within the American church that persists today.21
Additionally, certain cultural trends (including, but not limited to, privatization of the gospel, societal desire for—and progression toward—personal autonomy, and the introduction of cyber churches) actively undermine the concept of an amalgamated Christian community. Consequently, many self-proclaiming Christians (especially Millennials) are electing not to attend a formal worship service or participate in the discipleship activities of a local assembly.22 Such trends are blatantly contrary to the biblical definition of the church, and hinder the spiritual maturity of believers (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16), explaining why the Scriptures urge Christians to remain in corporate worship, prayer, and fellowship (cf. Hebrews 10:23-25; Acts 1:14; 2:42; Matthew 18:19-20; 2 Corinthians 1:11; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 4; 5:18–19). Contemplating these factors, it becomes evident that Christians—especially institutional church leaders—must reexamine the biblical definition of the church, seeking to consummate the model espoused by Paul in Ephesians 4, producing a tightknit community exemplifying unified diversity and accomplishing intentional discipleship.
In conclusion, to properly conduct Christian discipleship, and obtain spiritual maturity, we must possess an accurate understanding of what the church is and how it is supposed to operate. Employing sound hermeneutical methodologies, the theologian obtains a biblical definition of the Christian community, recognizing the church as a unique organism denoted by its exceptional harmony and embodiment of love as its superlative value. Fittingly, Ephesians 4:7-16 reinforces the fundamental importance of community within the catholic church while simultaneously underscoring the principle of unified diversity—emphasizing the crucial importance of multicultural and multigenerational fellowship, devoid of any socioeconomic (or other frivolous) division.
- Research studies underscore the theological confusion among Americans; see “When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean?” The Pew Research Center, April 25, 2018, http://www.pewforum.org/2018/04/25/when-americans-say-they-believe-in-god-what-do-they-mean/; “Competing Worldviews Influence Today’s Christians,” Barna Group, May 09, 2017, https://www.barna.com/research/competing-worldviews-influence-todays-christians/; “Barna Survey Examines Changes in Worldview Among Christians over the Past 13 Years,” The Barna Group, March 09, 2009, https://www.barna.com/research/barna-survey-examines-changes-in-worldview-among-christians-over-the-past-13-years/.
- All Scriptural references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise.
- It is necessary to differentiate between the local church and the catholic (i.e., universal) church, the visible and the invisible church. Upon conversion, the believer receives adoption into the family of God (cf. John 1:12-13; Galatians 4:4-5; Romans 8:14-17; 1 Corinthians 12; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Ephesians 1:5), thereby becoming a member of the invisible/catholic church. However, he remains responsible for identifying a healthy congregation (i.e., a local/visible church) with which to become an actively involved member. The local/visible church serves as a corporate display of God’s glory and wisdom (cf. John 13:34-35; Ephesians 3:10-11), intending to glorify God by producing disciples of Jesus (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). The local assembly accomplishes these goals by proclaiming biblical truths (cf. 2 Timothy 1:13; 3:16-17; 4:2), refuting false doctrines (cf. Titus 1:7-9), and actively displaying the gospel message through godly congregational conduct (cf. John 13:35; Ephesians 3:10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). See “A Practical Guide to Choosing a Church.”
- Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fourth Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 27-32; Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Moisés Silva, eds., Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 20-25.
- Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Ephesians, Letter to The,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 705; Ray Summers, “Ephesians, Letter to The,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 491; Jason C. Kuo, “Ephesians, Letter to the,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), Logos.
- Scholars believe Ephesus was the fourth largest city in the world, with an estimated population of 250,000 inhabitants. See Mitchell G. Reddish, “Ephesus,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand et al., (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 499; Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1993), 1-2.
- Kuo, “Ephesians, Letter to the.”
- John Muddiman, The Epistle to the Ephesians, Black’s New Testament Commentary (London, England: Continuum, 2001), 12; Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Volume Ten, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 19-22; Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 66.
- I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 392-393.
- It is important to remember that chapter and verse designations do not appear in Paul’s original letter to the Ephesians, and the inclusion of such reference aids did not occur until the sixteenth century. Consequently, one must examine the letter in its entirety, rather than dissociating a verse or passage from its proper context.
- Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Eph 4:1–16.
- John R. W. Stott, God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 146.
- R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, to the Ephesians and to the Philippians (Columbus, O.: Lutheran Book Concern, 1937), 504.
- Stott, God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians, 151.
- Ibid., 147-148.
- Robert W. Lyon, “Body,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 370.
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 959-960.
- Stott, God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians, 151.
- Eric Graham, “The Epistle to the Ephesians,” in A New Commentary on Holy Scripture: Including the Apocrypha, ed. Charles Gore, Henry Leighton Goudge, and Alfred Guillaume, volume three (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942), 546-547.
- For additional information concerning the cultural divide within the church, and the racial tension in America, see “Racial Divides in Spiritual Practice,” Barna Group, January 12, 2017, https://www.barna.com/research/racial-divides-spiritual-practice/; “Black Lives Matter and Racial Tension in America,” Barna Group, May 05, 2016, https://www.barna.com/research/black-lives-matter-and-racial-tension-in-america/.
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 1008.
- “What Millennials Want When They Visit Church,” Barna Group, March 04, 2015, https://www.barna.com/research/what-millennials-want-when-they-visit-church/; “Millions of Unchurched Adults Are Christians Hurt by Churches but Can Be Healed of the Pain,” Barna Group, April 12, 2010, https://www.barna.com/research/millions-of-unchurched-adults-are-christians-hurt-by-churches-but-can-be-healed-of-the-pain/; Michael Lipka, “What surveys say about worship attendance – and why some stay home,” Pew Research Center, September 13, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/13/what-surveys-say-about-worship-attendance-and-why-some-stay-home/.