Normal Church Growth (Ephesians 4:1–16)

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Doug Van Meter - 5 Jun 2016

Normal Church Growth (Ephesians 4:7–16)

Ephesians Exposition

In Ephesians 4, the apostle tells us what church growth looks like. He shows us that God has given gifted teachers to the church in order to equip the church for the work of the ministry so that the church, in the end, might grow up into the likeness of Jesus Christ, its head.

From Series: "Ephesians Exposition"

This series comprises the sermons preached at BBC during an exposition of the book of Ephesians.

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Healthy things grow. That is pretty much a law of nature, instituted by God at creation. As they grow, they reproduce after their own kind (see Genesis 1). This is true biologically and physiologically; it is also true spiritually. Healthy Christians grow, and so do healthy churches.

Church growth has rightly—and sometimes wrongly—been the concern of Christians since Matthew 16:18, where Jesus said that He will build His church and that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. The ordained means of church growth is recorded in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20), and you see the early church practicing this as early as Acts 2, where three thousand were saved on the Day of Pentecost. The Jerusalem church is seen growing almost every chapter thereafter in the early parts of Acts.

In discussion on church growth, the emphasis has, understandably, often been on numerical growth. That is not always wrong; after all, the church in Jerusalem under the apostles grew numerically by leaps and bounds (see Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; etc.). Often, the emphasis has been on geographic extension. This is fine. Great. At other times, the emphasis has been upon spectacular revival. Wonderful.

The Bible endorses all of the above. But, fundamentally, the biblical emphasis is upon normal and expectant rather than abnormal and exceptional. The average church size in the United States is around one hundred members, and I suspect that the same is true of the average church in South Africa. While they do exist, I think that the mega church represents but a small percentage of churches in our land—and in our world. And that is fine. The promise of the Lord remains sure: He is building His church. And he seems to be doing so through smaller, ordinary churches. But “ordinary” can often be quite radical!

When we think about church growth, we ought to be focused less on size and more on faithfulness to our Lord and Saviour as expressed in obedience to His Scriptures. When this is so, we will experience normal church growth, which is really an amazing thing. I was recently privileged to once again visit a couple of our missionary families on the field, and was blessed to see healthy churches forming in their place of ministry, which is surely a testimony to a healthy church back home.

In this study, we will consider Ephesians 4:7–16, which gives us three characteristics of normal church growth. According to Paul, normal church growth is evidenced by gracious diversity (vv. 7–12), growing maturity (vv. 13–15a) and glorious conformity (vv. 15b–16).

This particular study had great relevance for me as I preached it from the pulpit of our church. The first sermon I preached at Brackenhurst Baptist Church, in Mark 1994, was from this passage. As I preached this particular message, it was my last Sunday in the pulpit before my first sabbatical while at BBC. In the intervening years, I can honestly say that BBC has experienced normal church growth. My prayer is that God will continue to bless our church, and other local churches, with normal church growth. I am convinced that He will do so if we continue to hear and heed.

Gracious Diversity

The first characteristics of normal church growth, seen in vv. 7–12, is gracious diversity. Paul writes,

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says:

“When He ascended on high,
He led captivity captive,
And gave gifts to men.”

(Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

(Ephesians 4:7–12)

God’s intention of unity in the church (vv. 1–6) does not demand uniformity. Though, of course, there are distinct and vital and prescribed similarities, there are also recognisable dissimilarities in a healthy, growing church. Yes, there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one God and Father over all, but there are diverse expressions and experiences of this unity. This is equally true in local expressions of God’s church.

Unity in diversity is the glory of the church. Peter wrote of this diversity in his first epistle: “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). Peter affirms in that same chapter that there is a common expectation of church members (vv. 1–3) and a common exposition of the gospel to be made (vv. 4–6). Earlier, he argues that believers share a common experience (2:1–5). But he understands and explains that there are various expressions of God’s grace by members within the church (4:7ff). We see the same principle in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, 28–30. Paul argues the same in our present text.

The Design of this Gracious Diversity

There is a particular design to this gracious diversity, as Paul points out in vv. 7–10.

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says:

“When He ascended on high,
He led captivity captive,
And gave gifts to men.”

(Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

(Ephesians 4:7–10)

The apostle quotes in this section from Psalm 68:18. The picture is that Christ, the victor, gives gifts to those who share in His victory. And those gifts are for the purpose of a greater, final victory: a glorified church—perfect, visible unity. Jesus had prayed for this unity in John 17, and He gave gifts to the church in order that this unity might be visibly achieved.1

We see in these verses that every church member is a gifted member: “But to each one of us grace was given.” Every church member is graced with a gift. Every church member is therefore to be a minister in the local church. This is normal church life. It takes all kinds for us to be all that we can be (cf. 1 Corinthians 12).

I must ask at this point: Have you opened your gift, or is it still sitting in its box somewhere? You have received divine enablement from the Lord; do not neglect that divine enablement. At the same time, don’t take undue credit for the divine enablement that you have been given. Don’t be envious of others’ gifts. Don’t be arrogant in the use of your own. Don’t be inactive when you ought to be using your gift to serve in the church.

As we work together in the church for normal church growth, we should learn to appreciate the gifts of every member—and help others to appreciate their own gifts. Don’t be slow to express your appreciation to others when you see them using their gifts for the glory of God.

In vv. 8–10, Paul draws our attention to the Christ who gave “each one of us” the gifts that He gave. This passage, which, as we have seen, quotes from Psalm 68, celebrates the conquest of the Lord Jesus Christ. The picture of Christ ascending on high and leading captivity captive is a picture of a military victor. As we focus on the person and work of Christ, we are motivated to “walk worthy” of our conqueror (v. 1).

Paul highlights the victory of Christ by arguing that “He ascended” only makes sense if “He also first descended to the lower parts of the earth.” This does not mean, as some suggest, that Christ descended into hell. It is simply a way of speaking of His incarnation. He came to earth as a man. As a man, He died on the cross, was buried, and rose again from the dead He then ascended back to heave. “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He will fill all things.” He came to earth as a man, but He did not stay here in that condition. He proved his conquest over sin and death by rising from the dead and ultimately ascending to heaven. What a glorious Saviour!

As we focus on Christ’s glory, we will be better stewards of His gifts and more zealous for His goal. This is the pattern that we see in the Great Commission. The commitment to go with the gospel (Matthew 28:19–20) is based on who Christ is (v. 18). Because all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him, we go into all the world to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in all nations.

At a layover in Dubai on my way back from visiting some missionaries recently, I heard several Islamic calls to prayer being issued. As I listened to the calls to pray to a false god, my heart was stirred within me. I actually felt angry, and I began singing to myself the glorious words of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear;
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer.
O, what peace we often forfeit,
O, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.

It is precisely because of who Jesus Christ is, proven by what He has done, that we can have confidence as a local church to accomplish vv. 1–3. Because of who Christ is, and what He has done, we can walk worthy of the calling to which we were called. We can exhibit lowliness and gentleness with longsuffering. We can bear with one another in love. We can keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

We have received everything that we need to accomplish the goal toward which Paul urges us. We have received all the parts for the project.

I was recently visiting my grandchildren. My son-in-law and daughter had ordered new bunk beds for their children and, as providence would have it, they arrived while I was visiting. I thought I had constructed my last bunk bed many years ago, but I offered to help erect them, and my son-in-law and I set about the task of doing so. We opened the box to find at least fifty different parts. There was a picture of what the final product should look like, but no step-by-step instructions on how to achieve the final product. Nevertheless, we set about the task of construction.

We made our way steadily, but as we reached the end of the project—or, at least, as we started running out of parts—it became evident that we had made a mistake somewhere. We disassembled the entire thing and started over, only to find that, once again, something was amiss. We eventually figured out that one of the parts had been wrongly constructed, and that single part threw off the entire project.

When a single part is missing, or has been wrongly designed, the entire construction is in potential jeopardy. Thankfully, that is not the case in the local church. The goal is unity in Christlikeness, and Christ has given to the church every part that is necessary for the task at hand.

Our confidence in this regard lies in vv. 8–10. Essentially, these verses show us that Jesus Christ is Lord. Having descended to earth, He ascended back to heaven, in order “that He might fill all things.” This phrase takes us back to the opening chapter, where Paul wrote of

the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

(Ephesians 1:19–23)

The gifts are given to church members for the purpose of filling up and filling out the church with Christ Himself. The ultimate purpose of that is the transformation of the world. The church has a cosmic purpose, and Christ has equipped her to actually fulfil that purpose.

Christian, you have an important, eternally purpose function. You must be committed to actively and faithfully fulfilling that function. God has gifted you to help the church reach its goal. There are a wide variety of gifts, and the only way to ascertain what your gift is is by active service. Find your gift by trying it. Find it by functioning. Serve in the church until you find where you fit, until you find where you function best to the glory of God. Since Jesus ultimately plans to “fill the universe” with the church, prioritise it now!

The Design of this Gracious Diversity

What is God’s design for the gracious diversity He has given to the church? Paul spells it out in vv. 11–12: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” God’s design is for the church to experience the fullness of Christ.

In these verses, Paul mentions particular speaking or teaching gifts. Not all the spiritual gifts are, by nature, teaching gifts, but the ones he mentions here are. If you wonder why he singles out the teaching gifts here, John Stott explains: “Nothing is more necessary for the building up of God’s church in every age than an ample supply of gifted teachers. It is teaching which builds up the church. It is teachers who are needed most.”2

Whatever else he is saying, Paul is clearly telling us that the proclamation of God’s Word is central to the fulfilment of this design. Leaders faithful to God’s Word is nonnegotiable if the church will experience the fullness of Christ. The church has always flourished best under the faithful teaching of God’s Word. The head of the church ascended to heaven, but He left His “voice” behind. In his biography of John Knox, Stephen Lawson notes, “When Knox preached the Bible, he was persuaded God was speaking through him.”3 Knox was right: God speaks today as His gifted speakers expound His Word.

Whatever these gifted men are, the design of their gifts is the good of the church, not the exaltation of the gifted. The gifted are a gift for the growth of the church—and Christ is still distributing these gifts today as the church needs them. The church must listen to those whom God has gifted to lead it in teaching.

Briefly, we must consider the list of gifts given in these verses.4 There are four or five particular teaching gifts laid out by Paul here.

First, Paul speaks of “apostles.” While the term “apostle,” which simply means “sent one,” is occasionally used in a nonspecific sense of particular individuals in the New Testament, here (and usually in the New Testament) it is used with particular reference to the Twelve and Paul himself. The Twelve and Paul were apostles in a very specific sense. They were all witnesses of the resurrected Christ and were all commissioned by Him directly for missionary service. The apostolic office, in this strict sense, was limited to those thirteen men. There has never been another apostle.

Second, Paul speaks of “prophets.” Again, it can be argued that the gift of prophecy, in a general sense, is exercised whenever God’s prophetic Word (i.e. the Bible) is expounded. But that is not the way in which the word is commonly used in Scripture. Prophets were direct mouthpieces of God. They proclaimed direct revelation received from God. In this strict sense, there are no longer prophets around today. We have God’s complete revelation in the Bible, and there is no longer any need for a human being to act as God’s direct mouthpiece.

That the gifts of apostleship and prophecy have ceased is clear from the overriding testimony of the New Testament. It is hinted at even in this epistle, for Paul tells us earlier in this letter that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (2:20). A foundation need only be laid once. Since the foundation of the church was once laid by the apostles and prophets, there is no more need of apostles and prophets today.

Third, Paul speaks of “evangelists.” These are men and women who have the particular gift of productive gospel declaration. It may refer to church planters and missionaries, or it may simply refer to Christians in local churches who have a passion for and are productive in evangelistic ministry.

Fourth, Paul speaks of “pastors.” Pastors are shepherds, to whom is given the responsibility of leading, feeding and giving heed to the flock of God (see Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23; etc.). In the New Testament, the terms “pastor,” “elder” and “overseer” (or “bishop”) are used interchangeably to describe the same office. Since the church is gifted with “pastors,” it should be noted that “pastor” is a responsibility, not a title.

Fifth, Paul speaks of “teachers.” This term may be used to describe those gifted to teach in general, and may suggest that not all gifted teachers are necessarily gifted shepherds. An argument can be made, however, that “pastors” and “teachers” are a single category, and that perhaps “pastor-teachers” is how this should be rendered. If that is the case, then we have only four categories of teaching gifts listed here, and the fourth has the responsibility to both shepherd and teach the church—two distinct responsibilities of the same office.

Regardless of your interpretation of “pastors and teachers,” the point is clear: The proclamation of the gospel, the teaching of God’s Word, is a primary emphasis of the spiritual gifts. This leads us to a few observations.

For one thing, the church needs to discern and discover and develop those gifted to handle the Word of God. This requires patience and kindness, and is demands that opportunity be given to those who appear to have the gift of teaching. This is one reason that it is important for a church to have numerous teaching ministries: so that men who have been identified as gifted teachers can grow in the use of their gift by taking advantage of these opportunities.

Second, the church needs to prioritise the preaching and teaching of the gospel-centred Word. There is a tendency in certain parts of the church today to emphasise drama, music, ceremony, entertainment or philosophy. But God’s design is that the church prioritise teaching.

Third, the Christian needs to prioritise the preaching and teaching of God’s Word—in community. One way to do that is to prioritise actual gathering with the church on the Lord’s Day. Listening to a sermon every now and again via podcast is not what it means to prioritise the preached Word. God has given these gifts to the church, and it is in the context of a church that they are to be expressed and experienced.

If v. 11 exhorts us to listen up to the teachers that God has given to the church, v. 12 tells us the goal of listening up: that the church might be built up. God has given these teachers to the church “for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” There are two elements highlighted here with reference to the church being built up.

First, we need to be built up in order to be fixed up. The gifts are given “for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry.” The word translated “equipping” means to prepare (see NIV). It implies that something is damaged and broken and in need of repair. The same word is used in Matthew 4:21 of the disciples mending their broken nets. It is used in 1 Corinthians 1:10 to speak of those who are united in mind and in Galatians 6:1 of restoring one who has fallen. In the Greek world, it was the term that was used by medical doctors of setting a broken bone.

The Word of God, effectively communicated, repairs the broken. When I was a student, I worked for a time at an art studio that specialised in restoring damaged pieces of art. My job was to sweep under the desks when the repairers had left. I was under strict orders to not throw away anything that I swept. Instead, I was to collect it all and leave it on the desk of the restoration artist. The reason for this is that the artist would sift through the “rubbish” the next day to check if there was actually something there—a small piece of clay, for example—that was needed to restore the piece of art in question. I can still vividly recall some of the amazing restoration work that was performed there.

This, in some way, is the purpose of God’s gifted teachers. The church is the place where the broken are “fixed,” and the church’s teachers are the means by which that is accomplished. Teachers are God’s restoration artists, who work painstakingly at restoring what is “damaged.” This, of course, can only happen where God’s Word is both heard and obeyed.

I have seen this happen at BBC over the years that I have been privileged to serve here. As I said in the introduction, this was the last sermon that I preached at BBC before commencing a three-month sabbatical. As you read these words, it is quite likely that I am currently on sabbatical. I have every intention of returning to BBC at the end of three months, but even if I never do, I would be content to know that many have been “fixed” over the years, and that many more are involved in the work of “fixing” others in the church.

We should not miss the fact that it is “the saints” (cf. 1:1) who need to be equipped. Even “saints” need to be helped! We dare not be arrogant and believe that we are beyond repair. I once had a man say to me that there was not much that anyone could teach him. Paul would urge such a one that there is yet much “equipping” to be done in his life.

It is important to note that the goal of the teachers is to equip “the saints for the work of the ministry.” The Authorised Version unhelpfully inserts a comma after “saints,” leaving the text to read as follows: “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry.” This gives the impression that the teachers are to carry out the work of the ministry. The NKJV is more helpful in this regard. By dropping the AV’s comma, the NKJV shows that the teachers are to equip the saints to carry out the work of the ministry. It is the saints, not the teachers, who are responsible for the work of the ministry.5

When I first came to BBC, my phone was constantly ringing. Over the years, it slowly stopped ringing as much as it used to. Today, it is fairly silent much of the time. At first, I found this a little disconcerting, but I soon came to realise that it is actually a good thing. Over time, as the sheep began ministering to one another, they became less dependent on the ministry of the undershepherds. The task of teaching still falls heavily upon me and my fellow elders, but I can honestly say that, at BBC, the saints have been equipped for the work of the ministry, and they are faithfully carrying out that ministry. I think that, in many ways, the affection of the church for its shepherds has grown (as has the affection of the shepherds for their church), but the attention required has diminished as the sheep have involved themselves actively in the ministry of the church.

This is the way it ought to be. The longer the teachers are faithfully involved in their ministry, the more the saints are able to meet needs themselves within the congregation. During my recent visit to my grandchildren, my son-in-law and daughter asked me to evaluate their parenting. They wanted to honestly know if I could see any gaps in how they were raising their children. I was happy and honest to report that I could not identify anything. I think, in all honesty, that they are outdoing their parents in parenting their children. That is a good thing. Within the church, too, succeeding generations should outdo preceding generations in the work of the ministry.

Every member of the church is to be a minister. Bryan Chapell helpfully illustrates this by using the imagery of a bus and an orchestra. He writes,

Our problem is that we tend to view church as a bus rather than an orchestra. There is a driver who does all the work and a series of passengers who enjoy the ride. They often are very proud of their bus; they like good driving and can spot bad driving a mile off. They enjoy their reputation of being a well driven bus perhaps even with a well known driver; he may even have spoken on conferences about how to drive well. They think being on the bus is about having a great time a buzz every time they meet together.

Many on the bus have been travelling for years but they don’t always know those who have got on to the bus at a later stop. In previous years some have helped clean the bus and service the engine, but now they just talk about what they used to do with pride. They still think that it is a good idea to stop and pick new up new passengers, but they feel that it isn’t their gift. One or two of them refuse to talk to anyone else on the bus; some are very particular about where they sit and a few just come for the company.

That is often the experience we have of church, but it is not the Biblical picture of what church should be.

Church should be more like an orchestra in which everybody has a part to play if the music is to sound as the composer intended. It is essential for everyone to play from the same score and do what it says, and for a conductor to guide the orchestra through the piece in order to bring out what the composer has written. Only then will the music come alive, only then will the sound made match the intention of its creator. Without a conductor the music may sound haphazard and imprecise; without each instrument playing it is incomplete So with the church. We must all play from the same score (the Bible); we must all respond together, serving one another faithfully with the gifts we have received and we all need a conductor who will rightly teach the Word interpreting what is set before him in order that we may make the sound the composer intended. There is no place in church for the Christian who listens but does not obey, or the individual who professes faith but does not minister to his fellow believers. And just as it is impossible to be an authentic member of an orchestra without playing an instrument, so it is impossible to be an authentic Christian without serving one another in the local church. But as we obey the Word by works of ministry we become unified mature and loving, and the principalities and powers in the heavenly realms look down and see “the wisdom of God” manifest among us (3:10). We need to be Bible-obeying churches if we are to show now what God has made us in Christ, if we are to be a picture of the future a united mature people bringing glory to God and causing Satan to quake in his boots.6

So let us pray for those who are entrusted to equip the saints. Let us encourage them in their task by our words, by our attendance and by our obedience.

Second, the goal of the teaching, as we have seen, is “the edifying of the body of Christ.” This is real church growth: people are evangelised and the equipped, and the result is the edification of the body.

The word translated “edifying” means to build up. It was used of the building of a house. Each stone is carefully selected and sculpted by God (cf. 1 Peter 2:19–22), and yet each stone at the same time becomes one of the master builder’s masons. We are all fellow workers, doing our God-assigned part. Edification, like evangelism, is every member’s ministry.

Normal church growth is every member’s responsibility. Specifically, then, how are you contributing to the normal church growth of your local church? In some way, every member is to be equipped to teach God’s Word—not necessarily publicly, but in some capacity. It is a great shame when a member merely sits and soaks without contributing to the task of the church.

Normal church growth requires that we look up and that we be fed up so that we will get up and build up. The result is that we will all grow up together into Christ. It is to this corporate growth that Paul turns his attention next.

Growing Maturity

In vv. 13–15, Paul highlights that normal church growth is characterised by growing maturity. He says that the saints are to be involved in the work of the ministry

till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love.

(Ephesians 4:13–15)

The character of the Lord Jesus Christ is the measure of maturity. Normal church growth is a church that increasingly looks like Jesus. This was so evident in the church at Antioch that the surrounding culture came to disdainfully refer to the disciples there as “Christians” (Acts 11:26–30). And this worked to spread unity in that church.

It is normal for Christians and local churches to be abnormal. Specifically, what does this look like? Our text draws our attention to at least three things.

Visible Unity

First, this unity will be visible. The goal is that “we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Unity will be expressed among all believers in all places. And according to this text, this visible unity is both doctrinal and devotional.

The unity is doctrinal because it is “unity of the faith.” Notice that: “the faith.” The goal is doctrinal unity, both locally and globally. This is accomplished through deliberate discipleship. At BBC, we have a very slow membership process. We do not want to drag the process out deliberately, but we take every step we can to ensure that new members are on the same page as we are doctrinally.

As we are faithful to doctrinal unity locally, it will spread globally. One day, this reformation will be complete. It is an aspiration, not an immediate goal that can be accomplished through a wrongheaded ecumenism.

I think that we have seen some of this at BBC over the years. One of our missionaries was recently in the United States, having been invited to preach at several churches and conferences. I have never met some of the pastors at whose churches he preached, though I have benefited in some cases from their written ministry. I was blessed, thinking about this, that our church has benefited from the ministry of churches who have now benefited from the ministry of our churches via one of our missionaries. There is a unity that exists between our churches.

But the unity is not only doctrinal, it is also devotional. The goal is that “we all come to … the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Doctrine feeds devotion, and devotion in turns grounds doctrine. The goal of our unity is a unified passion for Christ.

Devotion is always our ultimate goal. I recently read of a church somewhere in India that was unable to get bread and juice for a Communion service, and so they celebrated Communion with chapatti and Coke. We could shake our heads at their use of incorrect elements, or we could appreciate their devotion to the Lord in doing what He commanded even though they could not acquire the correct elements.

At BBC, there is a good deal of emphasis on gathering for true fellowship: fellowship around the person and work of Jesus Christ. We want our fellowship to be Christ-centred because we want to grow in our devotion to him. There is nothing necessarily wrong with discussing sports or politics, but Christ must be our driving passion in fellowship.

Vigilant Stability

Second, our unity will be displayed in vigilant stability. The result of normal church growth is “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.” Christlike maturity is characterised by discernment (cf. Hebrews 5:12–14).

“Children” are characterised by fickleness. At the end of my recent visit to my grandchildren, my wife and I were at the airport ready to depart. My son-in-law said to me that he could sense his middle child going back into his shell, already missing his grandparents. I had two rolls of Mentos in my backpack, my grandchildren’s favourite treat. Even as they were beginning to weep for sadness, I pulled out the Mentos and handed the sweets to them. Immediately, it was as if I was forgotten and all was forgiven. They were distracted by the “men toes.”

God’s design for His church is that we grow beyond such fickleness. This has, in fact, been His design since the fall: a whole new race of people who simply and fully take Him at His Word. His design is, and has always been, “one new man” in Christ (2:15).

The mature church is the obedient church, but it requires a lot of work to get there. This is why vv. 11–12 are so important. This requires doctrine, devotion and diligence. Are you helping your local church in this goal of stability?

Virtuous Charity

Third, normal church growth is characterised by virtuous charity. A church that is growing is characterised by “speaking the truth in love.” Literally, this reads “truthing in love.” The growing church is characterised in every area by love. Boice’s words are worth noting at this point:

Take love from sanctification. The result is self-righteousness, the kind of thing that distinguished the scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s day but allowed them to be filled with hatred, so that they crucified the Lord Jesus Christ when he came. Sanctification is destroyed.

Take love from truth. The result is bitter orthodoxy. Truth remains, but it is proclaimed in such an unpleasant, harsh manner that it fails to win anybody.

Take love from mission and you have colonialism. In colonialism we work to win people for our denomination or organization, but not for Christ.

Take love from unity and you have ecclesiastical tyranny, in which a church imposes human standards on those within it.7

The “truth” spoken of here is intended to be contrasted with the lies mentioned in v. 14. The growing church is a speaking church. It loves enough to speak the truth.

The love spoken of here is not a false charity, but rather an honourable, honest and helpful love. This is the difference between true and false ecumenism. Normal church growth requires fidelity to the truth with a felicitous spirit.

Glorious Conformity

Finally, we see in vv. 15b–16 that normal church growth is characterised by glorious conformity. The end goal is that we “may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”

Everything that we have already said will result, one day, in perfect conformity to Jesus Christ.

The Goal

The goal, which will certainly be accomplished, is that we will be like “the head.”

I was struck for the first time recently, watching my youngest grandson, who is eight months old at the time of writing, that a baby’s head is disproportionate to its body. I have five children of my own, and two grandchildren older than my youngest, but I have never noticed that before. My grandson’s head is large for his body, but as he grows his body will grow into his head.

That is really the picture here. The church’s head is far larger than its body, but the goal is for the body to grow into the head. And we have God’s promise that that will happen.

The Growth

The growth all comes from Christ. It is Christ “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does it share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” Normal church growth is what Jesus Christ normally does by His normal and ordinary means: gifted, graced and growing members. The end result is gloriously abnormal and extraordinary.

Normal church growth involves the following: First, it is the result of the grace of Christ; second, it requires the gifts from Christ; and third, it reveals the glory of Christ.

So, will you simply be a normal church member? Will you look up and listen up, and then get up and build up, for the glory of Christ, who alone is worthy?

Show 7 footnotes

  1. It is a sad reality that so much of the modern Charismatic movement has little concern for the visible unity of the local church. In too many Charismatic circles, the emphasis is upon personal experience and expression of the spiritual gifts, with little thought given to how those gifts are to be exercised together for the visible unity of the local church.
  2. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 164.
  3. Stephen J. Lawson, John Knox: Fearless Faith (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2014), Kindle edition.
  4. As I have said, this list is by no means exhaustive. There are a number of lists in the New Testament of spiritual gifts, and none of them agrees completely with another. This is indicative of the fact that, not only is none of the individual lists exhaustive, but it may well be that the lists taken together are not exhaustive.
  5. Of course, the teachers are themselves saints, and so they must necessarily be involved in the work of the ministry. It is not, however, the exclusive duty of the gifted teachers to carry out all the ministry in the local church.
  6. Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 145–46.
  7. James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 150.