Three paradoxes of Christian faith: reflections on Ephesians

Jul 24, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

A view of the Church that is widespread at the moment could be summarized like this: unity is about avoidance of conflict; mission is about affirming and including people, and Christian living is expressing the authentic self. A brief study of the Letter to the Ephesians shows us something different.

  1. Christian unity is a gift and a task.

The unity of the church is a given – “there is one body” says Paul in Ephesians 4:4; specifically, Christ’s body (1:23), also pictured as a new temple built by God himself, made up of believers worldwide (2:20-22). But at the same time, Christians have a responsibility to “keep the unity” (4:3). The threats to Christian unity, the things that divide the body, and cause the temple to become unstable, are wrong behaviour and wrong beliefs.

“Bear with one another in love”, urges Paul (4:2); “live a life of love” (5:2). There is a special emphasis on the core relationships which should consist of mutual respect and service: employer/employee, parent/child, and husband/wife (5:22-6:9). Build each other up; be kind and forgiving (5:29; 32) – these are practical guidelines on right attitudes and behaviour which contribute to unity among God’s people.

Sometimes in the history of the church, people have emphasized truth, but in a hard way, with lack of love. And it’s also true that in both doctrinally sound and environmentally and socially ethical churches, people can fall out with each other. Does this mean that unity is the same as avoidance of conflict – “all you need is love”? Ephesians 4 and 5 show how lack of clarity on what is true leads to a church more like a ship out of control on the sea rather than a stable building (4:14).

If unity is based on “one faith”, then deviation from that faith breaks unity. Those who “deceive with empty words” are not to be included in the body: “do not be partners with them” (5:6-7). This is not unloving or narrow-minded. Paradoxically, conflict is sometimes necessary in order to maintain unity. Part of the task of preserving unity, then, is “speaking the truth in love” (4:15), making plain the boundaries of the faith, while continuing to emphasise inclusion for all who repent and believe in Christ, in response to God’s grace. This is what Gafcon seeks to do in the Anglican Communion, restoring one-ness through reiterating the gospel, demonstrating it in cross-cultural worship, prayer and fellowship, and warning about deviations from historic Christian truth.


  1. Christian mission is for and against the world

In John’s Gospel we see this paradox. Jesus portrays the world in darkness, and under the control of the evil one. He said to his disciples “If the world hates you, remember it hated me first”. And yet at the same time, God so loved the world that he sent his Son, and Jesus prayed for his disciples to be one so that the world might believe.

Similarly, Ephesians 2:15 shows that God is positive towards the world – he has intervened to create a new humanity by reconciling different factions, Jew and Gentile. But as we go on in chapter 4:17-19, Paul draws attention to the futility, darkness and impurity of the world’s way of thinking. In chapter 6 Paul also identifies external forces – demonic spiritual power – behind opposition to Christian faith and life.

So according to the Bible, people are lost in sin, ignorance and not knowing God; he is ‘for’ them, loves them and wants to save them. But he is against the corrupt systems, wrong ideologies, enslaving habits and evil powers that keep people in darkness and make the world hostile to God. Christian mission must have the same attitude. The church is a new society, loving the world’s people and calling them to new life in Christ, but against the world’s thinking and principles.

So often today, Christians are afraid to make this distinction. We think we have to affirm people’s thinking to show we love them, because to challenge unbiblical views might be seen as hateful towards those who hold them. Some are even arguing that new ideas, for example about sex and gender, are from God, and that because God is for the world, the mission task of the church is to change itself by the renewing of its mind in alignment with the world’s thinking. Instead, a defining mark of Christian mission is to graciously oppose dead-end and destructive ideas that have taken hold in society and even some parts of the church, through prayer, speaking and action, and we do it because God loves the world and the individual people in it.


  1. Christian living is war and peace, resistance and embrace

For some Christians today, influenced by popular new teaching, human beings are essentially good; we just need to ‘find our true selves’, where struggle is negative, and permanent serenity a sign of maturity. But according to the consistent teaching of Scripture, affirmed in our Anglican liturgies, our ‘true selves’ are corrupted; we are still living with human nature in ourselves that has a tendency to rebel against God.  And yet God has done something amazing in Christ, and calls us to a life of love. So we resist “the world, the flesh and the devil”, and at the same time we need to embrace Christ, others in the church, and our fellow human beings.

Resistance to sin and evil begins with what God has done in us – the seal of the Holy Spirit (1:13) and our spiritual resurrection with Christ (2:6). But we have a responsibility too, to “put off the old self” (4:22). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we resist temptation and sin. In the list which follows (4:25f) there is no vagueness about the characteristics and actions which need to be confronted – anger, theft, rudeness, bitterness, sexual immorality, greed, idolatry. But at the same time we embrace what is good: “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us” (5:2).


We find paradox difficult. How can following Christ be about love and peace, and also struggle and conflict? If something feels right and part of my identity, why is it good to say no to it? How can hatred of evil and determination to resist it be compatible with compassion and unity? If we can’t hold together both sides of the paradox, we develop an understanding of the church, mission and the Christian life that seems ‘nice’ but whose attractiveness is an illusion: it is ultimately based on indifference to truth, and concern for personal comfort.

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