LEARNING FROM THE APOSTOLIC CHURCHES: THE CHURCH IN THE EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS (Part 1)
S. ’Jide Komolafe
(Continued from “The Church in Corinth”)
I have deliberately adopted a working pattern that looks at the church from three areas: (1) the context of the church, (2) the ministry of the church, and (3) the theology of the church. The reason for this is deliberate which is to examine the historical, socio-cultural and ecclesiastical factors that shaped the Early Church with the purpose of developing a vision of the church that is biblical, contextual, and missional for Nigeria today. Also, while the Scriptures and the apostolic churches examined so far were considered for their responses to contextual and specific historical matters, the letter to the Ephesians, on the contrary, is less situational. There are no references to any local situation and neither does it have the same sense of urgency and response to specific discernible crises as do the other letters. The result of this is that the letter has been subjected to widely divergent conceptions over authenticity and purpose.
These different ideas, notwithstanding, there is a general consensus among NT scholars that Ephesians is markedly distinguished by its theological consistency of the church. In fact among the letters collected under the Apostle Paul’s name, it has received some of the highest praises as, for example, “the crown of Paulinism” (C. H. Dodd, 1929:1224), “a thoroughly ‘ecclesiastical’ document—in the best sense of the word ‘ecclesiastical’” (Ernest Best, 1955:136), an “advanced ecclesiology” (Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid , 1993: 240), a “high ecclesiology not in a localized sense, but in a distinguishingly universal way” (Peter O’Brien, 1999:25) and as “an ecclesiology which is so extensively structured” (Rudolf Schnackenburg, 1991:293).
Evangelical conviction about ecclesiology is that “discussions concerning the church should always be rooted in normative guidelines based on a study of the New Testament descriptions and teachings” (John Newport, 1991:19; Robert Webber, 1978:41). This perspective does not derive from a mindless logic of argumentation on ecclesiality, but on the conviction that one can only know what the Church should be now if one also knows what the Church was originally or was intended to be. The epistle to the Ephesians offers such perspective, especially with its emphasis on cosmic reconciliation and unity in Christ. In other words, “the epistle is essentially about Christ, and only about the Church as it fulfills the purposes of Christ” (Leslie Mitton, 1976:32).
If the epistle is “essentially about Christ,” especially as “one in whom God chooses to sum up the cosmos, the one in whom he restores harmony to the universe,” then Christ’s sovereignty over the cosmos raises some implications for the Church, his “Body” (O’Brien, 1999:58). It begs the question of the Church’s relation to Christ’s cosmic role, to the principalities and powers, and to God’s eternal purpose.
Consequently, it is an agreeable persuasion that the distinctive theology of Ephesians is no academic abstraction. The present revival of curious reflections on the ecclesiastical distinctiveness of the letter should, therefore, not be seen as a mere attempt at re-constructing ecclesiological concepts or theological assumptions. Rather, I am concerned with an “ecclesiology of responsibility” That is, an ecclesiology that does not pay tribute to the letter as belonging only to ancient times, but that recognizes it imposes an obligation relevant for being the Church of Christ in the world today. Based upon these facts, my approach in this series will focus primarily on Christ, and about the Church as it fulfills the purposes of Christ. Ephesians offers us no option other than to interpret it as presenting a “cosmic Christology.” This is based not only on the exaltation of Christ over all his enemies (Eph. 1:21-22), or on his role in bringing all of history to completion (Eph. 1:10), but also on his relationship to his church as the “head” (Eph. 1:23; 4:15-16) and “bridegroom” (Eph. 5:29).
Composition of the Church
The basis for the composition of the Church according to Ephesians centers on a cosmic secret that was part of God’s eschatological plan laid “before the foundation of the world” (1:4). This cosmic secret is the “mystery” (mystērion, Eph. 1:9; 3:3, 4, 9; 5:32; 6:19) that accorded divine recognition to Gentiles as fellow heirs and co-partakers of God’s promise with Israelites who have followed Jesus Christ (3:6).
The Church exists truly as it is composed as the one Body of Christ in which Gentiles have been united with the Jews as a public display of the grand redemptive purpose of God (Eph. 3:1-13). In this context, therefore, the Church is one single “Household of God” built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets and borne by Christ, the chief corner-stone (Eph. 2:19-20).
The key paradigm of this “mystery” of unification as a spiritual blessing is especially complemented for the Gentile believers by “transfer terminology” (Nils Dahl, 1986:33). That is, those who were dead have been made alive in Christ (2:1-10), once “far off” but now have been “brought near” (2:13), excluded as aliens, now have received reconciliation and peace, (2:11-22). Given this context, “Christian Gentiles are considered representatives of the entire non-Jewish part of humanity” whose “incorporation accords with the mystery of God’s will to ‘recapitulate’ all things in Christ” (1:10; ibid.).
If Gentile believers represent the non-Jewish part of humanity, “it is reasonable to think of Christian Jews as representatives of all Israel” (ibid.). Both Jews and Gentiles constitute the “one new humanity” in Christ with equal access to the Father. The important thing, then, is to preserve this “unity” by means of mutual love, tolerance, and forgiveness (2:14-22; 4:1-6).
The Context of the Church
The train of thought in the letter to the Ephesians begins by espousing the cosmic plan of God “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:10). The letter then moves to Christ’s position as “Head” over the Church, identified in her relationship to the exalted Christ as the “Body,” the fullness (pleroma) of him who fills all things (1:22-23). The implication of this is that the letter strikes a balance whereby the cosmic Lord and reconciler of all things is also Lord over the church.
It is important to state, therefore, that we cannot fully appreciate the connection between the Church and its cosmic context without first acknowledging the connection between Christ and the cosmos since in Ephesians, “cosmology and ecclesiology intertwine” (Stig Hanson, 1946:125).
The Exalted Christ and the Cosmos
Ephesians presents us with a cosmic Christology in which the author stresses the cosmic range of Christ’s function over “all things,” including principalities and powers (1:22-23). Through human “trespasses and sins” (2:1), humanity is alienated from God, enslaved by the forces of evil, and thrown into a chaotic hostility towards one another (2:1-2). The point of reference for Ephesians, therefore, is God’s plan to reverse this state of “cosmic-historical hostility” as a warrant for cosmic reunification between Himself and humans and for the possibility of establishing unity among humans themselves
God’s plan, to “head up all things” (anakephalaiōsasthai) in Christ (1:10) then takes up a universal soteriological significance by which God is pacified. Christ’s paradoxical death heals the rupture between God and humanity, eradicates the cosmic forces that have enslaved humans to captivity, and reveals the possibility of a new way of being human, one that is not divided by hostility but united in peace (1:7; 2:14-22). Christ’s immanence and transcendence are thus expounded through the redemption and reconciliation secured for the cosmos by his atoning blood on the cross (1:7; 2:16). Consequently, there is salvation for the cosmos both in the present dispensation, “realized” eschatology, and as a future reality (1:10, 14; 4:30; 5:6, 27).
The Church and the Cosmos
It can be argued, then, that the cosmic context of the Church must be understood as being fundamentally dualistic. In other words, the cosmos must be understood as possessing both anthropocentric and theological dimensions. It is anthropocentric because in it is the visible Church with the responsibility of playing an active role in the redemptive drama. On the other hand, the cosmos has a theological abstraction because it exists in the spiritual realms where the malignant pockets of principalities and powers exercise revolt against the authority of God (3:10). As Schnackenburg has noted, “the world is not regarded simply as God’s creation, as the universe of the created things and the abode of humankind . . . but as a realm already darkened and occupied by the powers of evil” (Rudolf Schnackenburg, 1965:177).
Although I have drawn a boundary of the cosmos as constituting the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal, the relationship of the Church to the cosmos cannot be given the same manner of expression. As an earthly institution, it functions singularly and simultaneously, yet in a state of tension between the “two worlds.”
Through its physical existence, the Church witnesses to the universal Lordship of Jesus Christ over the cosmos. Its place in the cosmic context is one that is categorically dependent on the one who has authority over the cosmos itself. It will, therefore, be disillusioning for the Church to identify itself as being autonomously related to the cosmos. Rather, the Church exists in the world because of its origin in Jesus Christ, who is also the content of its message in and to the world.
Interestingly, nothing has been more divisive and problematic for the Church than the inability to balance this cosmic dimension and task with the particularity of its existence in each local context. The problem of the relation of the church to the churches or the problem of some churches as being “more Church” than others has substantially pit one segment of the Church against the other. Consequently, the Church exists in antithetical position to the divine mission, thus becoming a paradox of its own witness. In an age of globalization and unceasing universality, perhaps it is time the Church realized that “the principle of ‘separateness’ can get in the way both of mission and of relationships with other churches” and ultimately with Christ himself (G.R. Evans, 1994:23).
The Ministry of the Church
In her subordinate position as the “Body” to the “Head,” the Church is not a passive bystander in the cosmic drama. Instead, the Church is enjoined to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1, 4). The phraseology “worthy of the calling” is not so much a newer conception in defining the mystery of the Church’s existence but a development of what was implied earlier in 1:10-14, 18. Together they depict a Church that was included from the outset in the great divine economy of salvation for a specific ministry in the world.
It must be noted, therefore, that the emphasis on calling “is the link between the theology and the ethics of the epistle” (Hugo H. Culpepper, 1979:553). If my interpretation of Culpepper is correct, then it means that we cannot reduce the conception (calling) to a logical or an abstract term but understand that in no precise way can the Church separate the meaning of her calling from the action that defines that calling. It follows from here, therefore, that the Church must understand that the basis for her ministry (calling) and presence in the world is explicitly and characteristically missionary in nature.
This idea is well articulated by David E. Garland when he declares, “[t]he church is not to be a curator of the theological wisdom of the ages, nor simply a cheerleader praising God for His splendid salvation scheme; it is to be an essential agent in the accomplishment of God’s design” (1979:517).
It suffices to say that the Church’s essential agency has a missionary purpose and it is only in re-covering this that the Church recovers her raison d’être. This is the theological and missional speculation of Ephesians which must find potency and integration in the life of the Church. That is, appropriating in no uncertain term that the church remains the mysterious creation of God (creatio Dei) and exists for the mission of God (missio Dei) on behalf of the world (Charles Van Engen, 1996:107).
He would be a bold person who should suppose to have fully mastered all the aspects of the Church’s missionary dimension. However, my concern here is to attempt to interpret the ministry of the Church in Ephesians from a missional perspective. For this purpose, I have identified three important missional dimensions: (1) the revelatory dimension, (2) the salvific dimension, and (3) the unity dimension.
The Revelatory Dimension of Ministry/Mission
As an agent of revelation, the Church exists in the conflict between the sovereignty of God and the celestial adversaries of His divine purpose. It follows from the persuasion that the confusion and disorder in the original world ordered and led by God had been orchestrated by invisible evil powers. But through His saving work in Christ’s death and resurrection, God had re-established the cosmic order. The letter does not disavow the reality of “principalities and powers,” but portrays an ecclesiology of power encounter and of the supremacy of God’s power which is also accessible to the Church (1:19-23; 4:8-10).
Although God had already defeated His celestial enemies, this still requires “progressive realization in the historical world” (Schnackenburg, 1991:308). Therefore, the Church’s existence is for this very purpose. That is, through her proclamation and life, God’s wise plan will be revealed to the powers and authorities that futilely contend with Him for the allegiance of His own creatures (2:2; 3:10).
The existence of the Church, especially in the reconciliation of formerly irreconcilable Jews and Gentiles into the one body of Christ, “is a reminder that the authority of the powers has been decisively broken, and that their final defeat is imminent” (O’Brien, 1999:63). The concept of the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles is not merely that the two groups coalesce but that it reveals further God’s new order.
Not only does the existence of the Church reveal God’s mystery and His plan of reconciliation in the present, there is also an eschatological dimension to the Church’s revelatory function. The “not-yet” aspect of the grand plan awaits “the fullness of the times” when “the things in heaven and on earth” will be brought together under one head, Christ. (1:9-10). In the present dispensation, the Church appears as God’s pilot scheme for the reconciled universe of the future. The uniting of “Jews and Gentiles in Christ was . . . God’s masterpiece of reconciliation, and gave promise of a time when not Jews and Gentiles only, but all the mutually hostile elements in creation, would be united in that same Christ” (F.F. Bruce, 1984:262).
To make this witnessing by existence possible, the Spirit prompts the Church and equips her with powerful armory to demonstrate the superiority of the power of God by first overcoming in herself those corrupting forces of the unseen world who exert a bad influence on humanity (1:19-23; 3:16; 4:8-10; 6:10-20). Among these corrupting forces is disunity, which can only be overcome if the Church grows in love and gains strength in unity. Johnson echoes this conviction that “it is only through a life in unity that the church stands as a witness to the world—in sharp contrast to the cosmic powers” (Luke T. Johnson, 1999:417).
The quality of the Church as a revelatory agent, then, is that quality within her which has an influence on a world that is still separate from Christ and dominated by the influence of evil, the quality without which she is not recognizable as a revelatory agent of God’s new order. Consequently, the church is not only the pattern but also the means God is using to show that His purposes are moving triumphantly to their climax.
The Salvific Dimension of Ministry/Mission
The Church exists in a privileged position as a mystical outflowing of Christ in the world. As the “Body of Christ,” the Church is not only included in the great “divine economy of salvation,” but she is also the channel through which salvation penetrates the world with the healing, liberating power of God. The Church is the entity where God’s presence in the world is acknowledged and realized, and through which God is glorified (3:20-21). As Dale Moody noted, “God has called the Church out from the world to send her back into the world with a message and a mission” (1981:427).
Parallel to this emphasis on the Church as an agent of salvation is an emphasis on the “indicatives of redemption” (F.W. Danker, 1982:114). By this is meant that the Church is called specifically to eschew the works of darkness and thus reflect her understanding of God’s redemptive purpose (5:1-18). Similarly, she is to live a life of good works through which the praise of God is actualized. This existential orientation is to reflect the Church’s understanding of her new status as members of Christ’s body and also as a demonstration of God’s extraordinary kindness in giving Jesus Christ (2:7).
Suffice it to say, therefore, that ecclesiology becomes a function of Christology, and the Church’s mission to the world is rooted in her understanding of the lordship of Christ. It is not overstressing the ideal to echo Schnackenburg’s estimate of the Church’s salvific agency that “if a church or Christian community no longer recognizes that it is bound to the all-embracing task of bringing salvation which is depicted in Ephesians, then it fails to understand what ‘Church’ is by nature and mission” (1991:309).
To speak of the Church as “salvific agent,” then, predicates its essence in the world so that soteriology, Christology, and ecclesiology are interconnected. Again Schnackenburg summarizes it well:
The ‘Church’ does not mean an earthly institution, an entity marked out or identifiable in individual congregations or churches but an instrument of salvation created by God in Christ, which to be sure includes and combines the empirical congregations, is realized in them and through them encounters the world (1991:308).
The Unity Dimension of Ministry/Mission
It is never seriously in doubt that the theme of unity as a New Testament teaching comes to its clearest expression in Ephesians. The first three chapters of the epistle open with the broadest possible vista of the great divine wisdom. It begins with the cosmic scope of God’s plan to unite all things in Christ (1:10), to ally Jews and Gentiles into the same body as one (2:11-19; 3:16), and to reconcile all of alienated humanity to Himself (2:16, 18). This cosmic unity finds its corollary in chapter four with its emphasis on unity in matters of faith (4:3-6).
The task emerges for the Church, therefore, “to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (4:3). The exhortation “to maintain” (tērēo) unity suggests that the unity of the Church is “bestowed” or “conferred” and arises from the fundamental oneness of all believers in the same body, the body of Christ (4:1-6). This understanding must take its cue from the meaning the word ekklesia conveys as it is used in the epistle.
The notion of the word ekklesia in Ephesians is singular and refers to the Church in her entirety, the one Body of Christ. The Church is called to an understanding of this unity in Christ and the need to grow up into him and reach maturity (4:15-16). We can affirm then that the Church is a body which is on her way to becoming what she is already by faith and affirmation. This call to unity absolutizes the nature and mission of the Church and stands as corrective to the Church’s agenda of self-maintenance.
In cases where talks of the universal expression of the Christian faith have been confused with the particular expression of the same faith in each local context, we do well to learn from the apostle Paul. For him, the local “being the Church” was inseparable from the catholicity and unity with one another at the deepest level. For the apostle Paul, there is no such thing as a solitary Christian; the faith that unites a man to Christ unites him also to other Christians; the Church is more than an aggregate of Christians; it is a fellowship (Best, 1955:193).
It is to ensure the common consciousness of the Christian concord that the Church has been endowed with ministry gifts (4:1-16). The purpose of the gifts is both “for the work of ministry” (eis ergon diakonias) and “for the building of the body of Christ (eis oikodomēn tou sōmatos tou Christou). The heart of unity consists, therefore, in a dynamic interplay of charismatic ministry. As all the members play their parts, the Church will develop and express in the world a single personality that is reflective of her internal relationship with Christ. The Church is called to seek unity that is dependent on the one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (4:4-5).
It must be emphasized, however, that the unity of the Church does not emerge out of a regimented conformity. It exists together with a diversity of gifts held together through the “bond of peace” (4:3). It is precise to say, therefore, that the “bond of peace” becomes the ecclesiological formulae for maintaining the unity of the Church (4:2-7).
Given this understanding, it is appropriate to say that “peace is here pictured as a rope which binds separate elements which are not naturally cohesive” (2:14-15, 17; 6:15; Leslie Mitton, 1976:138-139). The Church has a gospel of peace (6:15), peace is prominent in the mystery of the unification of Jews and Gentiles (2:11-22), Christ came to preach peace (2:17), he is the peace through whom humanity is united (2:14-15), and through Christ humankind has peace with the Father (2:18).
(to be continued)