Paul’s letters share a common format. Most often, he begins with theology. Sometimes his theology is complex and profound, other times direct and simple. In either case, Paul is concerned that we begin with truth.
Only after laying a foundation of truth does Paul begin to tell us what to do with truth.
The letter to the Ephesians is a marquee example of this kind of Pauline writing. There are six chapters in Ephesians. In the first three, Paul doesn’t tell us to do anything. There is no practical instruction there. Instead, Paul teaches us about God’s plan for the ages. In particular, he explains God’s majestic saving work, bringing us Gentiles into fellowship with him through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Consider chapter 2. There, Paul speaks of salvation in two ways. The first, in verses 1-10, is that we were dead apart from Christ, but we have now been made alive. This is all by grace, for dead folks aren’t able to do anything to save themselves.
The second way Paul speaks of salvation, however, is very interesting. He says that we were once cut off from the people of God, but now, in Christ, we have been made members of God’s household. In other words, an important way to think about being saved is that saved people have been brought in to the people of God.
So then, as Paul begins to apply his teaching in chapter 4, he tells us to walk worthy of our calling. What does it mean to walk worthy of this calling? Interestingly, it isn’t simply a matter of our individual growth. Rather, we walk worthy of our calling in how we treat others in the body of Christ. Paul writes that we should live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
To be sure, Paul teaches us that there is ultimate one body of Christ, sometimes called the universal church. All those redeemed by Jesus belong to the universal church.
But notice this: our being called by Jesus is supposed to show up in how we treat others in the body of Christ. This means that, while we are members of the universal church, Paul expects that all Christians will belong to real local churches, where they interact with real other Christians, to whom they must show real patience and gentleness.
There are those who claim salvation who refuse to be part of a local church. Often, their reason for neglecting church is the people, whom they find objectionable for one reason or another. For Paul, this is no reason to abandon church: learning to graciously live with each other, even with our differences, is one of the reasons that church exists.
If you are a Christian, you have been welcomed into the people of God. Let me encourage you, then, even as this new year begins, to demonstrate that by being part of a local body of believers in a church.