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The Christadelphian | September 2017

In the magazine this month:

A sample article from this edition:

Unity in Ephesus (1)

The Gospel unifies or divides

Much is recorded about unity in Ephesus. This series will explore the background, actions, teachings and lessons for ecclesial unity today.

The author has rarely if ever participated in a Sunday School, CYC or ecclesia not in need of more unity. Whilst admitting that the one common denominator in each case is (gulp) me, I hardly think my experience is unique. Why is unity so hard and what do the scriptures say of it?

I didn’t study this subject by choice – it is far too big and imposing. It was requested by a well intentioned and ambitious Youth Conference Committee. After looking at the theme for a while, I decided I could do no better than start with the Conference’s theme verses in Ephesians 4:

“There is one body, and one spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all and in you all.” (verses 4-6) [1]

Good Bible study starts with a question, so here’s the question; why is this exhortation relevant to that ecclesia? Why did the Ephesians in particular need an exhortation about unity? The story that answers these questions provides the backbone to this series. However, the articles’ purpose is to uncover the root of disunity within our hearts and to encourage us to humbly draw closer to one another as brethren and sisters.

Together we will trace the history of the ecclesia in Ephesus focusing on its many conflicts. We will start in Acts, going next to 1 Timothy then back to Ephesians, 2 Timothy, 1 John and finishing in Revelation. It’s astonishing how much of the New Testament was written to someone or from someone in Ephesus, or is written about the happenings of this remarkable ecclesia. Let’s begin in Acts 18.

Apollos

Apollos arrives in Ephesus. We know four things about him. He was eloquent, meaning that he was good at public speaking and debating. He was well versed in the scriptures. We also know that he was from Alexandria.

Consider for a moment the importance of public debate. Rhetoric was an essential subject taught by Romans to the privileged and educated. [2] In a world without much printed text it was essential for information, politics and business. And Apollos excelled in it. Being from Alexandria, one of the foremost cities for advanced learning, suggests he was well educated and that learning was put to good use concerning the scriptures. He would have been an intimidating man to disagree with.

There is one more important detail that we know about Apollos – he didn’t have the full truth.

“Being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the Synagogue.” (Acts 18:25,26, RSV)

Here is Apollos in the midst of vigorous debate. Knowing the baptism of John suggests he spoke about repentance and the coming of the Messiah. He spoke boldly, meaning that he was not intimidated by conflict or easily dissuaded with counter arguments. He could think on his feet.

Living in Ephesus at that time were Aquila and Priscilla. As far as we know they were the only members of the Ephesian ecclesia, having travelled there from Corinth with Paul. They were waiting for Paul to return and would have heard Apollos speak at the Ephesian synagogue. He was close to truth but he didn’t understand that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, although he understood many of the prophecies concerning him.

What should Aquila and Priscilla do about it? Apollos did not have the truth, close as he was. Without knowledge of Jesus Christ and baptism into his name, you don’t have the Gospel. But he was intimidating to approach, no doubt, because he was so well learned and so good at debating. How should humble tent-makers, probably not educated like Apollos, instruct one as eloquent and learned as he? They had three options:

  1. They could avoid confrontation and remain disunited;
  2. They could try to unite with Apollos on common ground (e.g., repentance) and ignore differences;
  3. They could try to unite on the truth – expounding it carefully in an attempt to win Apollos to Christ and thus gain a brother.

These are also our three choices.

We can choose to be disunited with those around us, placing ourselves in a small but safe, isolated circle.

We can choose unity without truth and be left with very loose ties to lots of people.

We can choose unity based on truth, and risk alienating ourselves from some for the sake of gaining a true ecclesia.

Isolation, tolerance or true fellowship. There are doctrines that require such a choice. Our understanding of Jesus Christ is one such doctrine.

The irony of studying unity in Ephesus is the lack thereof. Almost as soon as the ecclesia started it had to deal with separation. Paul returns to Ephesus at the start of his third journey, reuniting with Priscilla and Aquila. By now Apollos had gone to Corinth. As usual Paul went to the synagogue to bring the truth to the Jews.

“And he went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God. But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus.” (Acts 19:8,9)

Paul “separated the disciples”. Whilst Paul is clearly advocating unity in Ephesians 4, one of the first things he does is to separate believers from the synagogue.

Here are some fascinating truths about this ecclesia:

  • Exhortations for separation (Ephesians 5:7; 1 Timothy 6:5);
  • Exhortations for unity (Ephesians 4:3);
  • Huge doctrinal controversies (2 Timothy 2:18);
  • Ecclesial members dis-fellowshipped (1 Timothy 1:20);
  • Ecclesial leaders lusting for power, tearing the ecclesia apart (Acts 20:29,30);
  • Jesus saying that he hates the doctrine of some so-called Christians in Ephesus (Revelation 2:6);
  • An exhortation to love the brethren unlike we find with any other ecclesia in the New Testament (1 John 4).

Many times I have wondered how to make sense of this, and still do. The story requires we begin our study of unity talking about separation. Paul was in the synagogue “disputing” and “persuading”. The Greek word for “disputing” is Luke’s verb for Paul, found eight times between Acts 17 and Acts 20 (“reasoned” – 17:2, 18:4, 18:19; “disputed / disputing” – 17:17, 19:8,9; “preached / preaching” – 20:7,9). One other use is where Paul is called to Governor Felix:

“And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.” (Acts 24:25)

This is Paul persistently reasoning the doctrines of righteousness, self-control and judgment to come. Back in Ephesus, the direct outcome of this kind of preaching, perhaps inevitably, is tension in the synagogue.

“And (Paul) went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God. But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus.” (19:8,9)

Some of the Jews began to speak evil of the way. Literally this word means to curse, a strong word used twice by Jesus when referring to the command that children should not curse their father or mother. In order to protect the ecclesia from this abuse Paul, very wisely, “separated the disciples”.

What has brought about the separation? Firstly Paul’s persistence in reasoning, disputing, persuading and teaching. Secondly, a hardening to that message and the resulting hostility this aroused in the Jews.

A test of separateness

We like to think that we are separate from the world today and so we should be. But what really makes us separate? Here’s a test. Are we willing to reason, dispute, persuade and teach regarding the kingdom of God? If we don’t act in this way based on our beliefs then my guess is that most likely we are not very separate. Do we have a faith upon which we are willing to reason and persuade? If not, is it because there are some that may speak evil of the way or speak evil of us? I’ll confess, I am speaking directly to myself in this regard. I’m weighty in letters but weak in bodily presence. I must remind myself, a man mostly terrified by the idea of disappointing others, that some speaking evil of me is not a sign I’ve done something wrong, it is perhaps evidence that I’ve done something right. God knows.

At the heart of the conflict with the Jews was Paul’s preaching regarding the kingdom of God. As a simple observation, two issues present themselves end of Acts 18 and the early part of chapter 19.

  1. The question of who Jesus is;
  2. About the kingdom of God.

Scriptural reasoning achieved unity on the question of Jesus, resulting in Apollos and the disciples of John coming into the ecclesia. Scriptural reasoning with the Jews failed over the second and the believers separated themselves.

What is the Gospel? We’ve known since Sunday School that it is the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name (or heritage) of the Jesus Christ. So what exactly does Acts 18 and 19 teach us? That the Gospel matters. We either reconcile or we separate over the Gospel, it either unifies or it divides, but it does not change. To study Ephesus is to study unity and separation based on the Gospel.

This introduction brings out two simple points:

  1. There was an issue concerning unity in Ephesus;
  2. That from the very foundation of the ecclesia it was the Gospel that both created unity and instigated separation.

These will be considered further in our next article. An observation is that we struggle with the implications of separation in an increasingly ecumenical age. Can we accept the message of separation today? We’ll consider that before rejoining the unfolding controversy in the Ephesian ecclesia.

Ben Brinkerhoff

[1] All quotations are from the KJV, unless otherwise noted.

[2] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_speaking#History.

 

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