Do you remember Wordle? It was a fun little app we played with for awhile that made word clouds. About a decade ago Thom Rainer asked the question of many people what they thought of when they thought of Southern Baptists. This is what he got:
Looking at this Wordle it is pretty clear that those that responded view Southern Baptist’s as legalistic, traditional, and old; concerned with missions and fried chicken. It does not take a religious scholar to figure out that something is wrong with a Christian denomination when people associate fried chicken with you more than they do Jesus. It certainly is not good that legalism is mentioned way more than Jesus.
This might seem a bit harsh, but I think about that Wordle when I read Ephesians 4:11-16. I think about it as it relates to the SBC and how it relates to so many local churches. We’re tossed to and fro. What would a Wordle of your local church look like? Would it be centered on the gospel or would people within the congregation remember various fads the church hopped on. Maybe your church would be like the SBC. We’ve had an eat a ton of fried chicken phase (we might still be there), a boycott Disney phase, a Conservative Resurgence phase, and apparently quite a few different iterations of legalism. Tossed to and fro.
In Ephesians 4:11-16 Paul outlines for us how such a thing happens and more importantly how such a thing is fixed. If you follow the logic of this passage the way a church has stability is through embracing a biblical structure and faithfully living out of that structure. That structure is healthy God-given leaders who are faithfully equipping the saints for the work of ministry. This is absolutely vital for not being tossed to and fro.
Growing up my family celebrated Christmas by listening to an old tape filled with Christmas songs and skits. One particular radio skit involved the Three Stooges. (How old am I? Radio skit?). In my little mind I pictured the Stooges decorating this Christmas tree filled with ornaments. The payoff of the whole skit is when one of the Stooges, it sounded like Larry, said, “What harm can one little piece do?” Then you hear the sounds of glass breaking and chaos ensuing as the entire Christmas tree plummets to the ground.
I think of that skit when I read Ephesians 4:12, but I tweak the words a bit. “What harm can one little comma do?” If you read Ephesians 4:12 in your KJV you’ll see what I would call an unfortunate comma. The translators supplied a comma in that verse making it sound like a list. In other words the job of the preacher is to “perfect the saints” and to “do the work of ministry” and “edifying the body of Christ”.
Without that comma the text reads that the pastors are called to equip the people to do the work of ministry. That is a world of difference. I appreciate how Chris Vogel explains this difference:
“The effect of this simple grammatical mistake was to view [ministry as being] left up to professionals while everyone else came as spectators who listened and left. The pastor was to teach, encourage, maintain the focus on Christ as well as making sure everyone’s needs, both physical and spiritual, were being meet. Christianity became a spectator sport, like football – eleven men down on the field, desperately in need of rest, and 50,000 people up in the stands desperately in need of exercise.”
So pastors equip saints for the work of ministry which has a purpose growing into maturity. The picture in verse 13 is wonderful. It has in mind a stated goal and it looks at a group of people working together toward that goal. The picture is not like a group of people separated on a starting line racing to get to a finish line. The picture is more like a large group of people attached by a string shuffling their feet trying to get to the starting line. If anybody falls or gets disconnect the group doesn’t just move on and live them behind it stops picks them up and starts shuffling again.
So what is the goal?
In verse 13 it says, “…until we all to the unity of faith and to the knowledge of the son of God.” The first aspect of the goal is unity of faith. Earlier in Ephesians we see that unity is one of the things Christ has already purchased for us. Here it speaks of attaining it? How does that fit together? It’s kind of like a savings bond that your parents bought for you when you were born. You cannot touch it until you are 18. It’s already been purchased. But you also have to attain it—meaning it’s not fully yours yet, you have to stay alive until you are 18. That is the picture of redemption. God has already done it and we are moving towards the goal of making it fully ours. That is the way with this unity of faith.
The second aspect of the goal is “to attain full knowledge of the son of God”. This “already, not yet” tension is felt in this text as well. Earlier in Ephesians Paul talks as if we already know the son of God, Jesus. But we also know that we will someday know him more fully. What Paul probably has in mind here is a full understanding of the gospel. This is much of what he has prayed earlier in Ephesians 3:16-19. The goal then is that we might be fully united and fully knowing Jesus. Doesn’t this sound familiar? God redeeming broken people and a broken world and part of that redemption is redeeming our relationships with one another. That’s the theme through the whole letter to the Ephesians. It’s the same thing in this text.
Paul now uses a second picture of what that goal is, “mature man”. This is not to be seen individualistically but that the total community of blood-bought believers would be mature. This is similar to what Paul said in 2:15 about the “one new man”. This is in contrast to the immature child that we will see in verse 14. And this picture of the mature man is more fully defined by the phrase, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. In other words what it means to be mature is to be like Jesus. That is where God is taking us; Unity with one another, fully knowing Jesus, and being like Jesus.
So how are we more known for being like Jesus than fried-chicken and legalism?
Leaders being dedicated to the gospel and it’s sufficiency who are equipping saints with a confidence in the gospel as well. This leads to maturity and Christ-likeness. Thankfully, the beauty of the gospel is that no matter how broken the church is—and no matter how broken her individual members are—Jesus loves her. Jesus radically loves His bride and He will one day make her holy. The beauty of the gospel is that someday we will be mature and we will “grow” and be “built up in love”. Christ’s love. The love of Jesus will rescue His bride.
Someday our fried-chicken and legalism phase will fully pass and we’ll simply be known as the bride of Christ without wrinkle or blemish. My, how I long for that day.