A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 4:3-6. 2). Christian unity arises from the unity of our God (continued).
At this point a necessary distinction needs to be drawn. It is not just between the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’ church. That distinction is true, but the concept of the invisible church (whose members are known only to God) has been misused by some as an excuse for opting out of responsible membership in the visible church. So the distinction needs to be somewhat refined. It is between the church’s unity as an invisible reality present to the mind of God (who says to himself ‘I have only one church’) and the church’s disunity as a visible appearance which contradicts the invisible reality (causing us to say to ourselves, ‘There are hundreds of separated and competing churches’). We are one, for God says so, and in interdenominational conventions and congresses we sense our underlying unity in Christ. Yet outwardly and visibly we belong to different churches and different traditions, some of which are not even in communion with one another, while others have strayed far from biblical Christianity.
The apostle himself recognizes this paradoxical combination of unity and disunity. For in this very passage, in which the indestructible unity of the church is so emphatically asserted, the possibility of disunity in also acknowledged. Consider verse 3, which we have so far omitted and in which we are told to be *eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace*. This is a very strange exhortation. Paul first describes the church’s unity as ‘the unity of the Spirit’ (meaning a unity which the Holy Spirit creates) and then argues that this unity is as indestructible as God himself. Yet in the same context he also tells us that we have to maintain it! What can he mean? What is the sense of urging the maintenance of something indestructible, and of urging *us* to maintain it, when it is ‘a unity of the Spirit’, which he created and is therefore presumably himself responsible for preserving?
There seems to be but one possible answer to these questions, namely that to *maintain* the churches unity must mean to maintain it visibly. Here is an apostolic exhortation to us to preserve in actual concrete relationships of love (*in the bond of peace*, that is, by the peace which binds us together) that unity which God has created and which neither man nor demon can destroy. We are to demonstrate to the world that the unity we say exists indestructibly is not the rather sick joke it sounds but a true and glorious reality.
Perhaps the analogy of a human family will help us to grasp our responsibility more clearly. We will imagine a couple called Mr and Mrs John Smith, and their three sons, Tom, Dick and Harry. They are one family; there is no doubt about that. Marriage and parenthood have united them. But in the course of time the Smith family disintegrates. Father and mother quarrel, keep up an uneasy truce for several years, become increasingly estranged and finally get a divorce. The three boys also quarrel, first with their parents and then with each other, and separate. Tom goes to live in Canada, Dick in South Africa and Harry in Australia. They never meet, write or telephone. They lose contact with each other altogether. More than that. So determined are they to repudiate each other that they actually change their names by deed poll. It would be hard to image a family which has experienced a more disastrous disintegration than this. All mutual relationships have been severed.
Now supposing we were cousins of the Smith family, how would we react? Would we shrug our shoulders, smile complacently and mutter ‘Oh well, never mind, they are still one family, you know’? We would be quite correct. In God’s sight I reckon they are still one family, indestructibly. Mr and Mrs Smith are still husband and wife and still parents of their three sons, who are still brothers. For simply nothing can alter the unity of the family which circumstances of marriage and birth have imposed upon it. But would we acquiesce in this situation? Would we try to excuse or minimize the tragedy of their disunity by appealing to the indestructibility of the family ties? No, this would not satisfy either our mind or our heart or our conscience. What, then, would we do? Surely we would seek to be peacemakers. We would urge them to ‘maintain the unity of the family by means of the bond of peace’, that is, to demonstrate their family unity by repenting and getting reconciled to one another.————————