One of the key teachings of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians is that of unity. The apostle emphasizes, among other things, that there is “one faith,” and “one baptism” (Ephesians 4: 5). Ironically, however, this particular section of Paul’s writings is sometimes misunderstood in a way that limits Christian unity and interaction. The apostle’s words are misconstrued as a call to doctrinal purity and to mean there is only one faith (“ours” and not “theirs”) and one baptism (the way we do it, not how others perform the rite).
Doctrinal purity is important, of course; but it is hard to find a scripture to show that minor matters of doctrine trump the unity that God desires within his church. Many attempt to find such scriptures, however, and often settle on Romans 16:17: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.” This verse is often used to attempt to show that even minor matters of doctrine are more important than unity, but that is really the exact opposite of its meaning. Paul is actually urging us to see that the divisions and offenses caused by some are contrary to doctrine – it is people who divide the church who are to be avoided, not those who may differ in understanding of minor points.
Some feel that every detail of doctrine as they understand it is important and cannot be negotiated, but Paul makes a clear distinction between the essentials of the gospel that cannot and must not be compromised (Galatians 1:8) and minor issues of understanding (Philippians 3:15) that do not necessarily separate individuals from the body of Christ.
But to return to Ephesians. To understand why Paul speaks of “one faith” and “one baptism,” it is vital that we keep in mind the context of what Paul is saying. Throughout Chapter 4, and throughout the whole epistle, Paul stresses the need for unity in the church and, not surprisingly, Ephesians has frequently been called the “epistle of unity.”
Paul begins Ephesians by pointing to the great goal of unity (Ephesians 1:10) and continues throughout chapters 2 and 3 by stressing the unity God has made possible between Jews and Gentiles (note especially Ephesians 2:14-18) and concluding “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6, emphasis added here and below). In Ephesians 4, Paul then broadens the concept of unity to the whole church, instructing us:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it (Ephesians 4: 3–7).
Seen properly in this context, it becomes clear that far from meaning that there is only one faith (ours and not theirs) and one baptism (the way we do it, not how others perform the rite ), Paul seeks to unify the body by emphasizing its unity in all things. Just as there is “one Lord,” so there is “one faith” and “one baptism,” etc. These are all examples of things that unify us rather than divide us. In other words, we all worship the same Lord, we are all part of the same faith, and all share the same way of life - our essential beliefs and actions show the unity we have, or should have, in Christ.
The whole of Ephesians is written from the perspective of the unity we share, the unity which is the basis of our relationships in Christ, despite our differences. And Paul is not blind to those differences but sees them as part of a unified body of Christ: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16) “for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25). That is perhaps why Paul ends his epistle by saying “Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (Ephesians 6:24).
Doctrinal accuracy is important, of course, but we must always be careful that we do not overuse the concept so that minor matters become a hindrance to unity in the body of Christ. The Sermon on the Mount indicates the kingdom of God is not so much about the pure in doctrine as the pure in heart. Ultimately, it is the presence of the Spirit of God within us and our way of life, not the minor details of our beliefs, that define our identity as members of the body of Christ.