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244

CHAPTER XVIII.

THE GROWTH OF THE CHURCH.

“Till we all attain unto the unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we may be no more children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine in the sport of men, in craftiness, unto the scheme of error; but dealing truly, in love may grow up in all things into Him, which is the head, even Christ; from whom all the body fitly framed and knit together, through that which every juncture supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, maketh the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love.”—Eph. iv. 13–16.

We must spend a few moments in unravelling this knotty paragraph and determining the relation of its involved clauses to each other, before we can expound it. This passage is enough to prove St Paul’s hand in the letter. No writer of equal power was ever so little of a literary craftsman. His epistles read, as M. Renan says, like “a rapid conversation stenographed.” Sometimes, as in several places in Colossians ii., his ideas are shot out in disjointed clauses, hardly more continuous than shorthand notes; often, as in this epistle, they pour in a full stream, sentence hurrying after sentence and phrase heaped upon phrase with an exuberance that bewilders us. In his spoken address the interpretation 245 of tone and gesture, doubtless, supplied the syntactical adjustments so often wanting in Paul’s written composition.

The gifts pertaining to special office in the Church were bestowed to promote its corporate efficiency and to further its general growth (vv. 11, 12). Now, the purpose of these endowments sets a limit to their use. “Christ gave apostles, prophets,” and the rest—“till we all arrive at our perfect manhood and reach the stature of His fulness.” Such is the connexion of verse 13 with the foregoing context. The aim of the Christian ministry is to make itself superfluous, to raise men beyond its need. Knowledge and prophesyings, apostolates and pastorates, the missions of the evangelist and the schools of the teacher will one day cease; their work will be done, their end gained, when all believers are brought “to the unity of faith, to the full knowledge of the Son of God.” The work of Christ’s servants can have no grander aim, no further goal lying beyond this. Verse 14, therefore, does not disclose an ulterior purpose arising out of that affirmed in the previous sentence; it restates the same purpose. To make men of us (ver. 13) and to prevent our being children (ver. 14) is the identical object for which apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers are called to office. The goal marked out for all believers in the knowledge and the moral likeness of Christ (ver. 13), is set up that it may direct the Church’s course through dangers shunned and enemies vanquished (ver. 14) to the attainment of her corporate perfection (vv. 15, 16). The whole thought of this section turns upon the idea of “the perfecting of the saints” in verse 12. Verse 16 looks backward to this; verse 7 looked forward to it.

246 So much for the general construction of the period. As to its particular words and phrases, we must observe:—

(1) The “perfect [full-grown] man” of verse 13 is the individual, not the generic man, not “the one [collective] new man” of chapter ii. 15. The Greek words for man in these two places differ.105105   Εἰς ἕνα καινὸν ἄνθρωπον (homo), ch. ii. 15; similarly in iv. 22, 24; Rom. vi. 6; 1 Cor. xv. 45, 47, etc. Here εἰς ἄνδρα τέλειον (vir); comp. 1 Cor. xiii. 11; James iii. 2. To call the Church ἀνήρ would be highly incongruous, in view of ch. v. 23, etc.; comp. 2 Cor. xi. 2. The apostle proposes to the Christian ministry the end that he was himself pursuing, viz., to “present every man perfect in Christ.”106106   Col. i. 22, 28, 29; 2 Tim. ii. 10.

(2) “Sleight of men” (A.V. and R.V.) does not seem to us to express the precise meaning of the word so translated in verse 14. Kubeia (from kubos, a cube, or die) occurs only here in the New Testament; in classical Greek it appears in its literal sense of dice-play, gambling. The interpreters have drawn from this the idea of trickery, cheating—the common accompaniment of gambling. But the kindred verb (to play dice, to gamble) has another well-established use in Greek, namely, to hazard: this supplies for St Paul’s noun the signification of sport or hazarding, preferred by Beza among the older expositors and by von Soden amongst the newest. In the sport of men, says von Soden: “conduct wanting in every kind of earnestness and clear purpose. These men play with religion, and with the welfare of Christian souls.” This metaphor accords admirably with that of the 247 restless waves and uncertain winds107107   For this association of metaphor, comp. Shakespeare: Julius Cæsar, Act V., Scene 1:— “Blow, wind; swell, billow; and swim, bark! The storm is up; and all is on the hazard!” just preceding it; while it leads fittingly to the further qualification “in craftiness,” which is almost an idle synonym after “sleight.”

(3) Another rare word is found in this verse, not very precisely rendered as “wiles”—a translation suiting it better in chapter vi. 11. Here the noun is singular in number: methodeia. It signifies methodizing, reducing to a plan; and then, in a bad sense, scheming, plotting. “Error” is thus personified: it “schemes,” just as in 2 Thessalonians ii. 7 it “works.” Amid the restless speculations and the unscrupulous perversions of the gospel now disturbing the infant faith of the Asian Churches, the apostle saw the outline of a great system of error shaping itself. There was a method in this madness. Unto the scheme of error—into the meshes of its net—those were being driven who yielded to the prevailing tendencies of speculative thought. With all its cross currents and capricious movements, it was bearing steadily in one direction. Reckless pilots steered ignorant souls this way and that over the wind-swept seas of religious doubt; but they brought them at last to the same rocks and quicksands.

(4) As the contrast between manhood and childhood links verses 13 and 14, so it is by the contrast of error and craftiness with truth that we pass from verse 14 to verse 15. “Speaking truth” insufficiently renders the opening word of the latter verse. The “dealing truly” 248 of the Revised margin is preferable. In Galatians iv. 16 the apostle employs the same verb, signifying not truth of speech alone, but of deed and life (comp. Eph. v. 9). The expression resembles that of 1 John iii. 19: “We are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him,” where truth and love are found in the like union.

(5) The last difficulty of this kind we have to deal with, lies in the connexion of the clauses of verse 16. “Through every joint of supply” is an incongruous adjunct to the previous clause, “fitly framed and knit together,” although the rendering “joint” gives this connexion a superficial aptness. The apostle’s word means juncture rather than joint.108108   Vulgate: per omnem juncturam ministrationis. St Paul’s word here is διὰ πάσης ἁφῆς, through every touching. See Lightfoot’s valuable note on the medical and philosophical use of the word by Greek authors, in his Commentary on Colossians (ii. 19). The points of contact between the members of Christ’s body form the channels of supply through which the entire frame receives nourishment. The clause “through every juncture of the supply”—an expression somewhat obscure at the best—points forwards, not backwards. It describes the means by which the Church of Christ, compacted in its general framework by those larger ligatures which its ministry furnishes (vv. 11, 12), builds up its inward life,—through a communion wherein “each single part” of the body shares, and every tie that binds one Christian soul to another serves to nourish the common life of grace. We may paraphrase the sentence thus: “Drawing its life from Christ, the 249 entire body knit together in a well-compacted frame, makes use of every link that unites its members and of each particular member in his place to contribute to its sustenance, thus building itself up in love evermore.”


These difficult verses unfold to us three main conceptions: The goal of the Church’s life (ver. 13), the malady which arrests its development (ver. 14), and the means and conditions of its growth (vv. 15, 16).

I. The mark at which the Church has to arrive is set forth, in harmony with the tenor of the epistle, in a twofold way,—in its collective and its individual aspects. We must all “unitedly attain the oneness of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God”; and we must attain, each of us, “a perfect manhood, the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”

The “one faith” of the Church’s foundation (ver. 5) is, at the same time, its end and goal. The final unity will be the unfolding of the primal unity; the implicit will become explicit; the germ will be reproduced in the developed organism. “The faith” is still, in St Paul, the fides qua credimus, not quam credimus; it is the living faith of all hearts in the same Christ and gospel.109109   Comp. ch. i. 13: “in whom you also [Gentiles, along with us Jews] found hope”; also Rom. iii. 29, 30; Tit. i. 4, “my true child according to a common faith.” When “we all” believe heartily and understandingly in “the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation,” the goal will be in sight. All our defects are, at the bottom, deficiencies of faith. We fail to apprehend and appropriate the fulness of God in Christ. Faith is the essence of the heart’s life: it forms the common consciousness of the body of Christ.

While faith is the central organ of the Church’s life, the Son of God is its central object. The dangers assailing the Church and the divisions threatening its 250 unity, touched His Person; and whatever touches the Head, vitally affects the health of the body and the well-being of every member in it. Many had believed in Jesus as the Christ and received blessing from Him, whose knowledge of Him as the Son of God was defective. This ignorance exposed their faith to perversion by the plausible errors circulating in the Churches of Asia Minor.110110   See the connexion of thought in Col. ii. 8–10, 18, 19. The haze of speculation dimmed His glory and distorted His image. Dazzled by the “philosophy and empty deceit” of specious talkers, these half-instructed believers formed erroneous or uncertain views of Christ. And a divided Christ makes a divided Church. We may hold divergent opinions upon many points of doctrine—in regard to Church order and the Sacraments, in regard to the nature of the future judgement, in regard to the mode and limits of inspiration, in regard to the dialect and expression of our spiritual life—and yet retain, notwithstanding, a large measure of cordial unity and find ourselves able to co-operate with each other for many Christian purposes. But when our difference concerns the Person of Christ, it is felt at once to be fundamental. There is a gulf between those who worship and those who do not worship the Son of God.

“Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him and he in God” (1 John iv. 15). This is the touchstone of catholic truth that the apostles have laid down; and by this we must hold fast. The kingship of the Lord Jesus is the rallying-point of Christendom. In His name we set up our banners. There are a thousand differences we can afford to sink and quarrels we may well forget, if our hearts are one 251 towards Him. Let me meet a man of any sect or country, who loves and worships my Lord Christ with all his mind and strength, he is my brother; and who shall forbid us “with one mind and one mouth to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”? It is nothing but our ignorance of Him, and of each other, that prevents us doing this already. Let us set ourselves again to the study of Christ. Let us strive “all of us” to “attain to the full knowledge of the Son of God”; it is the way to reunion. As we approach the central revelation, and the glory of Christ who is the image of God shines in its original brightness upon our hearts, prejudices will melt away; the opinions and interests and sentiments that divide us will be lost in the transcendent and absorbing vision of the one Lord Jesus Christ.

“Names and sects and parties fall:

Thou, O Christ, art all in all!”

The second and third unto of verse 13 are parallel with the first, and with each other. A truer faith and better knowledge of Christ uniting believers to each other, at the same time develope in each of them a riper character. Jesus Christ was the “perfect man.” In Him our nature attained, without the least flaw or failure, its true end,—which is to glorify God. In His fulness the plenitude of God is embodied; it is made human, and attainable to faith. In Jesus Christ humanity rose to its ideal stature; and we see what is the proper level of our nature, the dignity and worth to which we have to rise. We are “predestinated to be conformed to the image of God’s Son.” All the many brethren of Jesus measure themselves against the stature of the Firstborn; 252 and they will have to say to the end with St Paul: “Not as though I had attained, either were already perfect. I follow after; I press towards the mark.” A true heart that has seen perfection, will never rest short of it.

“Till we arrive—till we all arrive” at this, the work of the Christian ministry is incomplete. Teachers must still school us, pastors shepherd us, evangelists mission us. There is work enough and to spare for them all—and will be, to all appearance, for many a generation to come. The goal of the regenerate life is never absolutely won; it is hid with Christ in God. But there is to be a constant approximation to it, both in the individual believer and in the body of Christ’s people. And a time is coming when that goal will be practically attained, so far as earthly conditions allow. The Church after long strife will be reunited, after long trial will be perfected; and Christ will “present her to Himself” a bride worthy of her Lord, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.” Then this world will have had its use, and will give place to the new heavens and earth.

II. The goal that the apostle marked out, did not appear to him to be in immediate prospect. The childishness of so many Christian believers stood in the way of its attainment. In this condition they were exposed to the seductions of error, and ready to be driven this way and that by the evil influences active in the world of thought around them. So long as the Church contains a number of unstable souls, so long she will remain subject to strife and corruption. When he says in verse 14, “that we may be no longer children tossed to and fro,” etc., this implies that many Christian believers at that time were of this childish 253 sort, and were being so distracted and misled. The apostle writes on purpose to instruct these “babes” and to raise them to a more manly style of Christian thought and life.111111   Compare 1 Cor. ii. 6, iii. 1–3, xiv. 20, xvi. 13; Gal. iv. 19; Heb. v. 11–14.

It is a grievous thing to a minister of Christ to see those who for the time ought to be teachers, fit for the Church’s strong meat and the harder tasks of her service, remaining still infantile in their condition, needing to be nursed and humoured, narrow in their views of truth, petty and personal in their aims, wanting in all generous feeling and exalted thought. Some men, like St Paul himself, advance from the beginning to a settled faith, to a large intelligence and a full and manly consecration to God. Others remain “babes in Christ” to the end. Their souls live, but never thrive. They suffer from every change in the moral atmosphere, from every new wind of doctrine. These invalids are objects full of interest to the moral pathologist; they are marked not unfrequently by fine and delicate qualities. But they are a constant anxiety to the Church. Till they grow into something more robust they must remain to crowd the Church’s nursery, instead of taking part in her battle like brave and strenuous men.

The appearance of false doctrine in the Asian Churches made their undeveloped condition a matter for peculiar apprehension to the apostle. The Colossian heresy, for example, with which he is dealing at this present moment, would have no attraction for ripe and settled Christians. But such a “scheme of error” was exactly suited to catch men with a certain tincture of philosophy and in general sympathy with current 254 thought, who had embraced Christianity under some vague sense of its satisfaction for their spiritual needs, but without an intelligent grasp of its principles or a thorough experience of its power.

St Paul speaks of “every wind of the doctrine,” having in his mind a more or less definite form of erroneous teaching, a certain “plan of error.” Reading this verse in the light of the companion letter to Colossæ and the letters addressed to Timothy when at Ephesus a few years later, we can understand its significance. We can watch the storm that was rising in the Græco-Asiatic Churches. The characteristics of early Gnosticism are well defined in the miniature picture of verse 14. We note, in the first place, its protean and capricious form, half Judaistic, half philosophical—ascetic in one direction, libertine in another: “tossed by the waves, and carried about with every wind.” In the next place, its intellectual spirit,—that of a loose and reckless speculation: “in the hazarding of men,”—not in the abiding truth of God. Morally, it was vitiated by “craftiness.” And in its issue and result, this new teaching was leading “to the scheme of error” which the apostle four years ago had sorrowfully predicted, in bidding farewell to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts xx.). This scheme was no other than the gigantic Gnostic system, which devastated the Eastern Churches and inflicted deep and lasting wounds upon them.

The struggle with legalism was now over and past, at least in its critical phase. The apostle of the Gentiles had won the battle with Judaism and saved the Church in its first great conflict. But another strife is impending (comp. vi. 10); a most pernicious error has made its appearance within the Church 255 itself. St Paul was not to see more than the commencement of the new movement, which took two generations to gather its full force; but he had a true prophetic insight, and he saw that the strength of the Church in the coming day of trial lay in the depth and reality of her knowledge of the Son of God.

At every crisis in human thought there emerges some prevailing method of truth, or of error, the resultant of current tendencies, which unites the suffrages of a large body of thinkers and claims to embody the spirit of the age. Such a method of error our own age has produced as the outcome of the anti-Christian speculation of modern times, in the doctrines current under the names of Positivism, Secularism, or Agnosticism. While the Gnosticism of the early ages asserted the infinite distance of God from the world and the intrinsic evil of matter, modern Agnosticism removes God still further from us, beyond the reach of thought, and leaves us with material nature as the one positive and accessible reality, as the basis of life and law. Faith and knowledge of the Son of God it banishes as dreams of our childhood. The supernatural, it tells us, is an illusion; and we must resign ourselves to be once more without God in the world and without hope beyond death.

This materialistic philosophy gathers to a head the unbelief of the century. It is the living antagonist of Divine revelation. It supplies the appointed trial of faith for educated men of our generation, and the test of the intellectual vigour and manhood of the Church.

III. In the midst of the changing perils and long delays of her history, the Church is called evermore to press towards the mark of her calling. The conditions 256 on which her progress depends are summed up in verses 15 and 16.

To the craft of false teachers St Paul would have his Churches oppose the weapons only of truth and love. “Holding the truth in love,” they will “grow up in all things into Christ.” Sincere believers, heartily devoted to Christ, will not fall into fatal error. A healthy life instinctively repels disease. They “have an anointing from the Holy One” which is their protection (1 John ii. 20–29). In all that belongs to godliness and a noble manhood, such natures will expand; temptation and the assaults of error stimulate rather than arrest their growth. And with the growth and ripening in her fellowship of such men of God, the whole Church grows.

Next to the moral condition lies the spiritual condition of advancement,—viz., the full recognition of the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. Christ assumes here two opposite relations to the members of His body. He is the Head into (or unto) which we grow in all things; but at the same time, from whom all the body derives its increase (ver. 16). He is the perfect ideal for us each; He is the common source of life and progress for us all. In our individual efforts after holiness and knowledge, in our personal aspirations and struggles, Jesus Christ is our model, our constant aim: we “grow into Him” (ver. 15). But as we learn to live for others, as we merge our own aims in the life of the Church and of humanity we feel, even more deeply than our personal needs had made us do, our dependence upon Him. We see that the forces which are at work to raise mankind, to stay the strifes and heal the wounds of humanity, emanate from the living Christ (ver. 16). He is the head of the Church and the heart of the world.

257 The third, practical condition of Church growth is brought out by the closing words of the paragraph. It is organization: “all the body fitly framed [comp. ii. 21] and knit together.” Each local ecclesia, or assembly of saints, will have its stated officers, its regulated and seemly order in worship and in work. And within this fit frame, there must be the warm union of hearts, the frank exchange of thought and feeling, the brotherly counsel in all things touching the kingdom of God, by which Christian men in each place of their assembling are “knit together.” From these local and congregational centres, the Christian fellowship spreads out its arms to embrace all that love our Lord Jesus Christ.

A building or a machine is fitted together by the adjustment of its parts. A body needs, besides this mechanical construction, a pervasive life, a sympathetic force knitting it together: “knit together in love,” the apostle says in Colossians ii. 2; and so it is “in love” that this “body builds up itself.” The tense of the participles in the first part of verse 16 is present (continuous); we see a body in process of incorporation, whose several organs, imperfectly developed and imperfectly co-operant, are increasingly drawn to each other and bound more firmly in one as each becomes more complete in itself. The perfect Christian and the perfect Church are taking shape at once. Each of them requires the other for its due realization.

The rest of the sentence, following the comma that we place at “knit together,” has its parallel in Colossians ii. 19: “All the body, through its junctures and bands being supplied and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.” According to St Paul’s physiology, the “bands” knit the body together, but the “junctures” are its means of supply. Each point of 258 contact is a means of nourishment to the frame. In touch with each other, Christians communicate the life flowing from the common Head. The apostle would make Christian intercourse a universal means of grace. No two Christian men should meet anywhere, upon any business, without themselves and the whole Church being the better for it.

“Wherever two or three are met together in my name,” said Jesus, “there am I in the midst.” In the multitude of these obscure and humble meetings of brethren who love each other for Christ’s sake, is the grace supplied, the love diffused abroad, by which the Church lives and thrives. The vitality of the Church of Christ does not depend so much upon the large and visible features of its construction—upon Synods and Conferences, upon Bishops and Presbyteries and the like, influential and venerable as these authorities may be; but upon the spiritual intercourse that goes on amongst the body of its people. “Each several part” of Christ’s great body, “according to the measure” of its capacity, is required to receive and to transmit the common grace.

However defective in other points of organization, the society in which this takes place fulfils the office of an ecclesiastical body. It will grow into the fulness of Christ; it “builds up itself in love.” The primary condition of Church health and progress is that there shall be an unobstructed flow of the life of grace from point to point through the tissues and substance of the entire frame.


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