“There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4)
Imagine for a second that you lived in the first century, and you recently got a job promotion that was going to move your family away from your hometown and into a foreign city called Ephesus. You’d probably visit Ephesus: check out school districts, find the best neighborhoods, pick a house, and settle in. After you’re there you’d start looking for a church community nearby. Which church would you go to?
It’s sort of a trick question.
If you moved into Ephesus, and you were a Christian, you would have gone to the church in Ephesus. That singular church may have met in multiple homes with different congregations in each one, but they would have shared a common leadership amongst them. The only question for your family was which gathering met closest to your home.
When Paul writes to the Ephesians and tells them that they need to strive to be one body, that’s the context he’s writing in. He knew that even though the Ephesian Christians were all technically part of the same church, the “oneness” that the Gospel creates was going to take active commitment. The Christians needed to be reminded that they are all “one body”.
21st century America doesn’t look like first century Ephesus. Most people in America live within reasonable driving distance of several churches from different denominations with slightly different theologies offering a variety of different ministries. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it even more difficult to remember that, at the end of the day, every single orthodox Christian, regardless of church background or affiliation, is part of the exact same “one body” of Christ–and all the other “ones” that Paul mentions.
That’s not to suggest (as some have) that every church should just get rid of their distinctions and become one big church again. Some researchers have even argued that it’s in “agreeing to disagree” on certain issues that allows us to maintain unity in the church on our essential beliefs. Convictions on certain issues, or the culture of a group of people, mean that sometimes ultimate unity will be easier to maintain as friends rather than partners.
On the other hand, a proper understanding of “oneness” reminds us that every Christian church shares something significant in common. This understanding of “oneness” in Christ is why we can dialogue with a neighbor church like Covenant about whether we can accomplish more together than separately. For both of us merging is not a requirement; it is an opportunity.
At the end of the day (literally), we’re going to spend an eternity with those brothers and sisters; maybe it makes sense to start getting to know each other now!