Christians to engage in this edification “until we all attain to the unity (ἑνότης) of the faith” (v. 13). Attain makes it sound like unity is something that we have to achieve. And while that is a popular idea, it is wrong. Christian unity is God-given, not humanly attained, though it manifests cumulatively over time. Unity grows because populations increase. Unity is the state of wholeness, and wholeness is not the responsibility of the parts to attain, but is the reality in which parts cohere. The meaning of the parts is found only in the whole. What is part cannot become whole in and of itself. Even though all of the parts are necessary for wholeness, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It exists in a different order, by a different measure.
While the Greek word καταντάω is translated as attain (English Standard Version) and come (Authorized Version), it is composed of two words: κατά, which suggests various kinds of joining together, and a derivative of ἀντί (anti), which means opposite. The idea is that opposites (or different faces) come together (or face one another). Their unity is the fact of their togetherness, their facing one another, their conversation—not their agreement. Though unity and wholeness are different words, they share the common idea of oneness, accord, and harmony—and that’s the general idea conveyed here. Harmony and accord don’t mean that everyone plays the same note at the same time. The unity of the church is a unity of what sometimes seems like opposing ways of understanding. It is the unity of opposites or opposition. Actually, the unity is refined and established through the process of opposition, discussion, and resolution. Thus, real unity is not possible without the inclusion of opposition (1 Corinthians 11:19).
Faithful Christians need opposition in order to shape and strengthen their faith. Without opposition there is no personal, felt need to dig deeper into the Scriptures to discover what Scripture actually says. Oppositionless faith produces weak Christianity, which quickly becomes something other than or less than true Christianity. Anyone who has grown in their faith knows what it is like to grow out of one kind of belief structure and into another. Paul pressed this argument to the Corinthians.
“For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19).
All Christians tend to grow out of and into various sorts of factions. Factions are necessarily based on partial truth, by definition. Factions always dissent from the majority opinion. Factions work to produce clarity and maturity as the dominant opinion is shaped in its response to the particular issues brought into conflict by the factions. Time brings fluidity and dynamism into the mix. Thus, the kind of unity that Paul wrote about is not simple descriptive unanimity. It is not cookie-cutter Christianity where everyone parrots the same ideas and explanations. Rather, Paul’s understanding of unity is dynamic and multifaceted. It is Proverbs 27:17 unity where “iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” It is possible to describe the same truth in different ways, from different perspectives.
In the midst of this kind of unity there is doctrinal sword wielding combat. Sparks fly in the process, which produce smoke and heat as well as light. This kind of unity is not simple doctrinal agreement. Rather, it is characterized by deep commitment to principles and bold defense of God’s truth. Yet, the commitment to God’s truth must be so strong and faithful that it is able to recognize both the importance and inclusion of weaker brothers who believer differently and better expressions of God’s truth. All believers must make necessary adjustments to their biblical principles in order to be better aligned with the weaker brother and the greater truth. Faithfulness to God’s truth accommodates superior arguments from improved lighting. Faithfulness to God adjusts the principles of God’s truth when better light is made available. And God’s people come to understand that such adjustments are necessary to stay on course, to stay on the path (Acts 24:14) in the dynamic world of time.
Truth existing in time is dynamic, not static. Truth doesn’t change, but people who exist in time grow and mature. The whole truth itself doesn’t change. Rather, our understanding of truth in time follows a path of maturity that is true to God’s original decree, true to God’s initial hope and plan for the world. Truth in time is like a cannon ball in motion, following a trajectory to its intended target. Truth in time can also be like a rocket to Mars that uses the gravity of another body, like the moon or the sun, to slingshot to its destination. The trajectory is always true to its aim, its intended end, target, or goal, though dynamic in its course. The reality of truth in time is far more complex than previously imagined, and beyond what is imaginable today. Truth in time is the path that actually gets you to God’s intended destination. And variation from that path is always an error.
Our understanding of truth is refined in time by wrestling with those who oppose our best personal understandings of truth. Whatever you or I think can be no more than a faction (or fraction) of the whole truth. Similarly, no individual Christian can fully comprehend the magnificence of the whole of God’s truth. Our understanding is enhanced and expanded through the challenge of wrestling with opposing ideas, descriptions, and explanations. But our wrestling must be engaged in love with honesty, integrity, and industry in order to maintain the connections that are required by the whole. This is part of the practice of holiness or whole-iness.
(from Ephesians–Recovering the Vision of a Sustainable Church In Christ, forthcoming, 2014)