It has been said that showing submission in marriage (Ephesians 5:22) is unnecessary when a wife agrees with her husband; only when there is disagreement must the difficult work of submission be pursued.
Just so, when a congregation is humming along smoothly, striving for unity is unnecessary; only when personality conflicts arise, when arguments erupt over decisions and doctrines, when Christians from different backgrounds attempt to come to terms with disparate worship practices, must the difficult work of striving for unity be pursued.
Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3).
Unity doesn’t happen automatically. Every English translation communicates the effort involved: NASB says, “being diligent to preserve” unity; ESV “eager to maintain”; NIV “make every effort to keep”; NKJV “endeavoring to keep.” The church is called into unity with God and with one another through Jesus, who is Himself united with the Father. The church must now work hard to keep it, in the bond of peace. How?
First, by demonstrating Christian attitudes. The world deals with its problems through pride, anger, volume, stubbornness, pouting, grumbling, gossip, name calling, choosing sides. Think of your workplace, your school, your ball team. Think of politics. That’s not the way followers of Jesus act! The virtues Paul mentions as worthy of the Christian calling are humility, gentleness, tolerance, patience, love. Let’s examine them.
“Humility” is a long Greek word tapeinophrosune, sometimes translated “lowliness.” Thayer defines it as: “having a humble opinion of one’s self; a deep sense of one’s moral littleness.”
Here’s the interesting thing: R. C. Trench points out that Greeks highly valued bold self-assertive behavior. Almost every time this word is found outside the Bible it has an intensely negative and distasteful connotation, indicating smallness and groveling. Many Greek scholars follow Trench’s thinking, that the Bible writers co-opted this word and put a new spin on it, in view of Christ’s self-emptying nature (Philippians 2:5-11). Ralph Earle says, “Christianity took the pagan idea of humility as suggesting a cringing, servile attitude and made it the finest, noblest virtue of all!”
Humility is not needing to get one’s way. Humility is thinking more highly of others than one’s self. Humility is a willingness to admit wrongs and receive correction. Along with it comes “gentleness.” In fact, Paul is probably echoing Matthew 11:29, where Jesus uses the same concepts—“I am gentle and humble in heart”—to describe Himself. The world reviles a Christ who allows Himself to be crucified, and scoffs at His followers who turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), and who “accept joyfully the seizure of [their] property” (Hebrews 10:34). But in the example of Jesus is found true strength, as well as the selfless, cheerful, easy-going nature that fosters unity with fellow brethren.
“Patience” is longsuffering, absorbing insults and retaliating against wrongs slowly, or never, just as God is patient with each of us (1 Timothy 1:16, 2 Peter 3:15). “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
The world often thinks of “tolerance” as acceptance of sin. Not the Bible! The New Testament defines tolerance as acceptance of sinners while they are still struggling to overcome sin in their lives. “Tolerance” is defined by Foulkes as “not ceasing to love one’s neighbors or friends because of those faults in them which offend or displease us.” During this time, true brothers and sisters faithfully admonish one another (Romans 15:14, Colossians 3:16), recognizing that Christians are at different levels of maturity. The Lord’s servants thus must be:
Kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the Devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
When a brother in Christ is struggling with sin, the real enemy is Satan, and the brother is a victim. The goal is not to drive away brethren, but to rescue brethren. It requires strong leadership to confront such problems before they threaten a whole congregation.
Brethren can be a burden. The NASB sometimes translates “tolerate” as “put up with.” Gallio refused to “put up with” the crowds (Acts 18:14). Jesus said, “You unbelieving and perverted generation … how long shall I put up with you?” (Matthew 17:17). Jesus was exasperated, but ultimately gave His life to provide salvation for those who would believe. The “tolerance of God” leads to repentance (Romans 2:4).
And if a perfect God can demonstrate forbearance with humanity, He expects imperfect people, who have caused grief to others due to their own sins, to bear with sins in other people. That’s why Paul emphasizes the “for one another” aspect of showing tolerance.
Finally, “love” is the chief virtue (1 Corinthians 13:1-8) which allows us to always have others’ best interests in mind.
If Christians bring these qualities to the table at every disagreement, they will avoid unnecessary division, and help one another attain a measure of the stature of Christ. —John Guzzetta