In the context of Ephesians 4:1-6, and with the following exhortation, Paul continued his encouragement that the Ephesians to be “… eager to keep the unity of the Spirit …” (Ep 4:3). Depending on one’s translation, “eager” is a word that would well convey the meaning of Paul’s injunction. We must strive for unity. It is not something that just happens. The organic body functions when all its members are working “with” one another in their common effort to think with the same mind and judgment in carrying out the mission of Jesus.
A. Fellow workers function under the authority of their King.
When discussing the unity of the body, we often use the word “with” in reference to our fellowship of working together. But we must be careful with the use of this preposition, lest we be inferring something that is contrary to the word of God, a meaning that is actually worldly and divisive.
When some people use the word “with,” they mean that we must be working “with” one another in a corporate sense of the business world. In other words, in order to work with one another, everyone must fall under some network of association that is governed by the authority of management. In order to work with one another in this corporate sense, it is assumed that everyone must be directed by the management within the organization, and that the “employees” are in the physical presence of one another. But we know that this is a corporate concept of networking in function because of what Jesus said in Mark 10:
You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them. And their great ones exercise authority over them. But it will not be so among you (Mk 10:42,43).
It is not difficult to understand this statement. Jesus has all authority (Mt 28:18). And to our knowledge, He did not distribute any of His authority to any person on earth in order to control a corporate network of those who are to supposedly work “with” one another under the umbrella of a corporate authority. In fact, listen to what Paul said to the Corinthians: “Not that we rule over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy” (2 Co 1:24). In other words, if Paul, or any other person exercised authority over the Corinthian disciples, then they would not be fellow workers. The network of fellow workers in the faith is correctly understood when no one has authority over another, but everyone is working with one another under the authority of Christ.
The fellowship of the saints is defined as individuals working with one another without anyone having authority over anyone. This is what Paul was explaining to the Corinthians. He wanted them to know that they were fellow workers with him, not because he exercised some apostolic authority over them, but that they voluntarily surrendered to Christ, as did he, and thus all of them were working together in the Lord.
Christians are responsible for one another. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gl 6:2). “We then who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of the weak and not to please ourselves” (Rm 15:1). Responsibility means that we can look out for one another without any one person being in authority over others. This is our relationship with one another as fellow workers, both in spiritual responsibilities, as well as in our working relationship to fulfill our personal ministries.
At one time during his ministry, Paul had strongly urged Apollos to go to Corinth. But notice carefully the text where we are informed of this situation. “But it was not his [Apollos’] desire to come at this time, but he will come when he has an opportune time” (1 Co 16:12). Now if Paul had some apostolic authority over Apollos in their relationship with one another in order that Apollos be working “with” Paul, then Apollos would not have been submissive in this request of Paul. He would have been rebellious.
The relationship between Paul and Apollos illustrates that both were fellow workers in the kingdom, and thus, responsible for one another. Paul had no apostolic authority over Apollos, and neither did Apollos have authority over others. There was no network of apostolic authority by which the two would be in a unity that was based on a chain of command. Without a chain of command, they worked with one another in kingdom business. And if Paul exercised no authority over Apollos as an apostle, then we should be very careful about setting ourselves over one another in order that we can say we are working “with” one another.
The fact that Jesus exercises all authority in the lives of every member of His body totally defeats the teaching that there is some “apostolic authority” on earth with a few individuals among whom a network of authority exists within the church. It is believed by some that there was apostolic authority in the early church that constituted a supposed apostolic succession of authority that has been passed down throughout history. There are those today who assume such in order to validate a hierarchal establishment of control over those of their church organization. But such a teaching and behavior was never believed or practiced by the early leaders of the church. And it if was not practiced by the early church, then there is no historical record of such in the New Testament.
B. Fellow workers function outside one another’s presence.
Some suppose that working “with” one another means that we must always be in one another’s presence in our work. In other words, to be fellow workers in the kingdom we must be united and physically “with” one another while we work in the same ministry. But if this definition of working with one another is true, then no disciple would go anywhere in order to completed is own gifted ministry.
It may have been that this was the original dysfunction of the body in its early beginnings in Jerusalem. The members wanted to stay in Jerusalem with one another in the comfort of their Jewish culture. But God had other plans, and thus, through persecution He flushed the members of the body out of Jerusalem and out of their presence with one another. Subsequently, “those who were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word” (At 8:4). There are times when we can be personally with one another in our labors for the Lord. However, we must be careful about hindering the work of God by holding up in one place, enjoying one another’s presence while the world goes unevangelized.
It is not necessary to be in one another’s presence in order to be working with one another We know this by what Paul wrote in Philippians 4:3:
And I ask you also, loyal companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers whose names are in the book of life.
Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this statement. The “rest of my fellow workers” of the worldwide body of Christ were not there with him in prison. They were scattered everywhere. But they were still his fellow workers, and thus working with him in the furtherance of the gospel. In other words, the fellow workers did not have to be in one another’s faces in order to be fellow workers with one another.
It is true that Paul had fellow workers with him in prison (Cl 4:10-12). However, these fellow workers did not become such when they visited with him in prison. They were fellow workers before they showed up with Paul at his prison door.
When we use the word “with,” therefore, we must be cautious about what we mean, lest we teach a form of disunity in the body of Christ. Before Paul and Barnabas left on their second mission journey, they had a disagreement about taking Mark (At 15:36-41). They could not come to an agreement concerning Mark, and thus, they parted from one another’s presence. Barnabas took Mark and Paul took Silas. The two teams then went to different areas, but all went to the areas they had evangelized on the first mission journey (At 15:39,40).
Paul and Barnabas were still working “with” one another, though in different areas of the world. They had not divided the church because they went in different directions. Because they were working in different areas of the kingdom did not mean that they were church dividers. Only those who are concerned about control and authority would think such. Because they were not personally “with” one another, or had come together in the same assembly on a regular basis in order to be working “with” one another, did not mean that they had divided the church. They were together, however, as the one body in their common mission to evangelize the world.
Working together, therefore, does not mean that we have to be in one another’s presence, or even agree with one another’s methods of evangelism. Working together means that we are working to accomplish the common goal that Jesus commanded us (Mt 28:19,20; Mk 16:15,16).
The beautiful thing about working with one another as the body of Christ is that we are all on the same page, working our gifted ministries wherever we are in the world. The oneness of the body of Christ is in the fact that we are all fellow workers in the kingdom, regardless of where we are doing our ministry in the world in obedience to Jesus. It is this fact that keeps the body united and functional. Wherever one may be in the world, he or she must understand that he or she is working with a global body of believers who have individually given their lives to Christ. Each member of the worldwide body of Christ is an important functioning member in his or her own small part in the world. Every member of the body must remember that when he or she simply walks across the street to approach their neighbor concerning Jesus, there is a worldwide body of disciples right there in spirit.
[The e-book on these lectures will be forthcoming.]