Thomas A. Wayment, “Internal Divisions: Ephesians in Historical Context,” Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 153–70.
Internal Divisions: Ephesians in Historical Context
Thomas A. Wayment
Thomas A. Wayment is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.
Apart from a few memorable phrases, the epistle to the Ephesians often passes by our attention without significant notice or comment. The grandeur of the ancient city of Ephesus stands as a stark contrast to this rather small epistle. But without the references to the “whole armour of God” and the foundation of the Church being built upon the “apostles . . . prophets . . . evangelists . . . pastors and teachers,” this epistle might pass by completely unnoticed (Ephesians 6:11; 4:11).
Ephesians, written around the same time as Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, remains an important piece of historical evidence that also preserves some important doctrinal concepts. To analyze this letter fully, it is important to consider it in conjunction with Colossians and in light of the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. Both Acts and Colossians provide important background information that elucidate the problems that Paul and the early branches of the Church faced.
Around AD 49, a council convened in Jerusalem to decide the matter of whether Gentile converts to Christianity needed to undergo circumcision in order to be accepted into full fellowship. The decision was a difficult one to make, and early Church leaders found themselves at the crossroads of Jewish culture and Christian doctrine. When the council issued its decision, it forever changed the landscape of Christianity and created a divide that would later threaten to fracture Christianity. Ephesians, and to a lesser extent Colossians, documents some of the concerns and issues associated with that decision.
Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council
Luke is primarily responsible for preserving an account of the Jerusalem Council, although Paul does mention some of the details in his letter to Galatia. Luke seems to imply that Paul’s first mission to Cyprus and southern Asia Minor was hampered by the issue of circumcision. In fact, Luke does not record a single baptism during the first mission, which is perhaps a silent admission that the first mission was not overly successful. While on that early mission, two important events occurred that helped Paul’s later missions be much more successful.
While Paul was living near Antioch, Peter had a vision that would open the way for Gentiles to enter the Church in full fellowship. The Lord had prepared a man named Cornelius, “A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house” (Acts 10:2). This small detail clarifies why the vision was necessary. The phrase “one that feared God” is a technical term referring to a Gentile who was sympathetic to Judaism but who was unwilling to undergo circumcision. In this instance, Cornelius believed in Jesus Christ and was prepared to follow him, but the question of whether he needed to be circumcised still remained. To remedy this problem, the Lord showed Peter a vision in which he was told to eat of animals that were unclean according to the law of Moses.
It is important to note how Peter initially reacted to the vision. When he saw the unclean animals lying on the sheet, he remarked, “I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). In other words, Peter had been kosher his entire life. But now the Lord wanted him to realize that he had also extended his grace to those outside the covenant, and he chose to teach this lesson to Peter using the physical imagery of clean and unclean animals. Peter absorbed the lesson and said when he visited Cornelius, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28; emphasis added). Cornelius was converted to the Lord, and Peter was taught an important lesson about accepting Gentiles into the kingdom, a lesson that Luke highlights in this story (see Acts 10:34–36). In fact, as Peter learned this lesson, those that were with him were astonished that the Lord would extend his hand to the Gentiles (see Acts 10:45).
This story teaches an important lesson about the way the Lord works and administers the gospel. As Peter was being prepared to bring Gentiles into the kingdom and was learning how that could happen, the Lord was also preparing Paul for a mission to the Gentiles. But the Lord gave Peter the inspiration and revelation to make Paul’s work possible. The revelation did not come through Paul but through the leading Apostle. Elder Marion D. Hanks expressed a similar sentiment: “We know that the Lord needs instruments of his love. He needs a Simon Peter to teach Cornelius, an Ananias to bless Paul, a humble bishop to counsel his people, a home teacher to go into the homes of the Saints, a father and mother to be parents to their children.”
The second major event that helped necessitate the Jerusalem Council was Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. He needed firsthand experience with Gentiles to see that they could and would believe in Jesus Christ. He may have seen how certain physical requirements of the law of Moses, such as circumcision, made conversion very unappealing. There was a general sentiment among Jewish Christians that circumcision would be required of everyone who converted to Christianity (see Acts 15:1; 21:21).
When Paul and Barnabas returned from their mission, they “rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). After the members of the Church in Antioch heard their report, some became concerned about the conversion of the Gentiles. According to Luke, some men from Judea, who likely heard of the conversion of the Gentiles from contacts in Antioch, came to reprimand Paul and his missionary companions. They complained, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Those who complained that Gentiles must be circumcised seem to have feared that the Gentiles’ belief would lead to conversion, which in turn would lead to uncircumcised Gentiles becoming members. Surprisingly, Acts does not record that this trend occurred but only that Paul and Barnabas’ mission pointed in that direction. The rebuke also concerned Paul and Barnabas, and a disputation arose among the members of the Church. Finally, they decided to take the matter to Jerusalem, where the brethren could resolve the issue (see Acts 15:2).
After a report was made to the Church leaders in Jerusalem, Peter convened a council to decide the matter; the issue then became very complex. As we would expect, Peter declared what the Lord had revealed to him, no doubt in part a declaration of what the Lord had already revealed to him in Acts 10. Luke records that Peter’s council was very clear and straightforward on that day: “And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:9–10). The conference, however, did not conclude after Peter’s inspired counsel.
Although there has been a great deal of discussion of James, Jesus’s brother, and his role in the early Church, we are not entirely certain of his role in the Jerusalem Council. After Peter had spoken, James added, “Men and brethren, hearken unto me. . . . Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:13, 19–20; emphasis added). There are many ways to read James’s words, but no matter how we interpret them, they direct the Gentile and the Jewish members. Effectively, Gentiles were being reminded to live some of the kosher food requirements (abstaining from blood and things strangled) and also to avoid fornication, which should have been implied in their conversion to Christianity. From this decision, the Church faced the difficulty of having two separate sets of counsel and directions for its members. Although the Gentiles and Jews were asked to do many of the same things, the Gentiles were not asked to keep all of the kosher requirements, nor were they required to be circumcised.
Once these directions were passed on to all members of the Church, a developing dynamic of lower law versus higher law in Christianity ensued. This decision may not have been intended to create a divide, but the division of the membership of the Church was almost inevitable. When one group within the same institution has a separate set of rules and regulations, there will always be some friction as one group begins to dominate the other because of its “superior” rules. It does not always need to be commandments; it can be special privileges, higher pay, greater access to resources, or greater recognition. The epistle to the Saints of Ephesus deals with some of the later fallout from this decision and other issues arising out of an ethnically divided church.
To begin with, the epistle to the Ephesians may be improperly titled, which creates a difficulty in its opening verses. Luke records in Acts that Paul spent two years in Ephesus (see Acts 19:10), but Paul says in the opening lines, “Wherefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus” (Ephesians 1:15), which implies that he did not know the Saints of that city well. Throughout the epistle, Paul seems to hint that he did not know them well, but rather encouraged them to look upon him favorably (see Ephesians 3:2; 6:20–21).
There are several ways to resolve this issue to make it possible that Paul spent two years with the Ephesian Saints and also wrote an epistle where he implies that they did not know him. It is possible but improbable that he wrote the letter prior to traveling there and living with them because Paul was in prison when he wrote the epistle, and most of his known imprisonments occurred later in his life (see Ephesians 6:20). It is also possible that we have misunderstood some of his words and have overemphasized those passages where he did not seem to know them. There is, however, another situation that helps solve the problem and clarify how we should understand its contents.
The first verse reads, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:1; emphasis added). The phrase “at Ephesus” is not found in our earliest manuscripts of this epistle and was likely added at a later date to harmonize it with the other Pauline epistles, or because of the role Ephesus played in preserving the epistle. Originally, this letter was likely a circular writing to all of the branches of the Church near Ephesus, many of which probably did not know Paul, and later the most famous city of the region—Ephesus—lent its name to the epistle.
This expanded context for the letter also helps us see what the early branches in western Asia Minor were struggling with and what issues they faced. A single branch may have dealt with a greater number of issues that were unique to them, but here Paul is trying to clarify matters that were of importance for a wide range of branches. One of those issues was how to maintain harmony among the branches when there were those who had inherited the promises of salvation through birth (Jewish Christians) and through conversion (Gentile Christians).
Consider for a moment the two distinct groups that appear in the letter. To one group in the letter, he says:
As he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love. . . .
Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will . . .
In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace. . . .
In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise. (Ephesians 1:4–5, 7, 13)
Each of these verses helps paint a very positive portrait of the Saints in the region around Ephesus, so much so that one Latter-day Saint commentator wrote, “The particular seal placed upon these Ephesian Saints was that their callings and elections had been made sure.” To have their calling and election made sure would certainly make some of the Saints near Ephesus unique in relationship to the other Pauline branches.
And yet in the same epistle, Paul also speaks to a group who seems not to have been sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise and who may have quite recently been converted to Jesus Christ. Paul addressed some of the Saints with the following words:
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands;
That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us. . . .
But fornication, and all uncleaness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;
Be not ye therefore partakers with them.
For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light. (Ephesians 2:11–12; 5:2–3, 7–8)
These differences have made the epistle to the Ephesians difficult to understand, and one interpreter has called the epistle “the Waterloo of commentators.” But there is a fairly simple solution to the problem. First, Paul did not write to a single branch of the church, but rather to a wider audience of saints living in Asia Minor; therefore, he likely wrote the letter on several different levels to help all of its recipients come more fully unto Christ. It could be described as a letter with several different possible levels of interpretation. Second, the decision to create two separate sets of requirements for Jewish and Gentile Christians had begun to cause some divisions within the Church, which manifested themselves in Paul’s late letter. And one of those groups had claimed that they lived a higher law in contrast to those who lived the other law.
In a later epistle, Paul lamented that “all they which are in Asia be turned away from me” (2 Timothy 1:15). Paul also warned the Saints near Ephesus at the end of his third missionary journey, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30; emphasis added). Both of these statements were written either to or about the Saints living near Ephesus; both also indicate that internal apostasy, not necessarily external apostasy, was a serious concern in that region. President Brigham Young said it eloquently: “It is said the Priesthood was taken from the Church, but it is not so, the Church went from the Priesthood.”
The letter to the Ephesians helps us see how the division developed and Paul’s recognition of its early influences. Another epistle written near the same time—Colossians—is also helpful in describing the situation.
To the first group—or, perhaps more appropriately, faction—of Saints, Paul encouraged their heritage and trust in the Spirit. But at the end of that encouragement, he subtly admonishes the Saints: “May [God] give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation. . . . And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe” (Ephesians 1:17, 19). He goes on to testify that Christ is superior to any other celestial or terrestrial forces: “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come” (v. 21). Some commentators have suggested that the phraseology here is reminiscent of the later Gnostic heresy, when marginalized Christians began thinking more on the structure of the heavenly realm than on the necessity to live righteously in the present age. Paul’s wording may indicate that some of the Saints near Ephesus had begun to dabble in topics that would later become part of the Gnostic heresy. Paul testified that Christ was superior, which suggests that some might have shifted their focus from present concerns to understanding whether or not Christ was superior to all beings in the heavenly realm.
One of the reasons these peripheral beliefs developed among the Saints is their belief that they were “predestinated” or a “purchased possession” (Ephesians 1:5, 14). Even if these ideas arose from positive circumstances, it is difficult to maintain humility when one believes that he or she is predestined for salvation. That is not to say that it is impossible to remain humble, but in this instance a group of “predestined” Saints began to involve themselves in God’s mysteries and to speculate about things to which the prophets had not given specific revelations. Elder Oaks carefully describes this process, which is equally dangerous in our day:
I have seen some persons attempt to understand or undertake to criticize the gospel or the Church by the method of reason alone, unaccompanied by the use or recognition of revelation. When reason is adopted as the only—or even the principal—method of judging the gospel, the outcome is predetermined. One cannot find God or understand his doctrines and ordinances by closing the door on the means He has prescribed for receiving the truths of his gospel. That is why gospel truths have been corrupted and gospel ordinances have been lost when left to the interpretation and sponsorship of scholars who lack the authority and reject the revelations of God.
Paul did not seem to be overly concerned with their interest in peripheral doctrines, and reminded them simply that “by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). This exhortation appears carefully placed in the letter following the rebuke of seeking the mysteries of God. On other occasions, however, Paul vehemently rebuked those whom he felt had gone astray because of personal pride or vanity (see 2 Corinthians 11:4–5, 21–33; Philippians 3:2–6). His limited denunciation may reveal a softened character, but it may also indicate that he believed that the issue was not as substantial as previous encounters with apostate beliefs and practices.
After addressing those who prided themselves on their heritage, Paul turned his attention to those who had more recently hearkened to the Christian message. He seems to remind his Jewish Christian audience that the Gentile converts could be accepted into full fellowship when he said, “That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). Whether this statement was given as encouragement to the Gentiles or as a reminder to the Jewish Christians is not entirely certain today, but it does plainly endorse the idea that Gentiles can be fully accepted into the kingdom of God—an idea that may not seem revolutionary today but one that contradicted popular Jewish thought and tradition. Whether Paul’s intended audience in this passage was Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians, or perhaps an integrated mixture of both, is difficult to discern because Paul clearly begins the chapter by addressing the Gentiles in the second person (see Ephesians 3:1) and then shifts to speaking of Gentiles in the third person (see Ephesians 3:6). The solution to the problem may be the fact that Paul is speaking to an audience that contains both Jews and Gentiles; therefore, his message is directed at times to one and at times to the other.
Paul adds a further reminder, saying, “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:10–11; emphasis added). To those who were concerned about “principalities and powers in heavenly places,” Paul testifies that God’s wisdom and plan also included the conversion of the Gentiles. Paul encourages the Saints to turn their thoughts away from the heavenly structure towards the conversion of the Gentiles, of which Paul says, “Whereof I was made a minister” (Ephesians 3:7).
Understanding this divided background in the epistle helps makes sense of some of its more important teachings. First, when Paul says, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4–6), he may be speaking to members of the Church who struggled with seeing Gentiles and Jews as one. Typically we take this teaching to indicate that there is one universal church, baptism, and so forth, which is a true doctrine, but Paul may be using this important teaching to settle an internal dispute. For us the message is that we are all of the same Church and belief and that we should not exclude one another because of ethnic background.
The context of this teaching also gives away its origin as an attempt to settle inner Church disputes. In Ephesians 4:1–3 Paul reminds the Saints, “That ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forebearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (emphasis added). Paul’s reconciliatory tone is unmistakable in these passages and may reveal his careful attempt to mend the rift between the Saints struggling to accept converts of various ethnic backgrounds.
Second, Paul taught that “he gave some, apostles, and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors, and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). Again, it is typical to understand this teaching as a revelation of Church structure. And even though it is incomplete, it does provide some evidence for the priesthood structure of early Christianity. However, there may be much more to the passage than that. Whether speaking to the Jewish Saints or Gentile Saints, Paul may be telling each of them that God has called some (Jewish) apostles and some (Gentile) prophets or vice versa. In other words, God has called priesthood leaders from both of their backgrounds, and they should not disparage those called of God. In fact, Paul believes that this understanding will help them: “Henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14).
The remainder of the epistle to the Ephesians focuses on other issues that create internal divisions within the Church. In the first four chapters Paul addressed the belief that some had a more prestigious heritage and greater knowledge. Having settled those concerns, he then addressed the issues of husbands and wives living together in harmony and children following the inspired counsel of their parents. Interestingly, both of these issues also lead to internal divisions within the Church. They are perhaps not as immediately threatening as a division between higher- and lower-law Christianity, but they would eventually tear the Church apart if left unchecked. President Howard W. Hunter expressed a similar sentiment in the modern era: “The priesthood cannot work out its destiny, nor can God’s purposes be fulfilled, without our helpmates.”
Paul’s concluding remarks provide an insightful summary of his concerns for the Saints living near Ephesus. Certainly he was worried about the issue of internal disharmony, particularly the idea that one faction within the Church believed itself to be more powerful than another faction because the latter faction lived a lower portion of the law. Paul’s conclusion, “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:11–12; emphasis added), encourages the Saints to guard themselves on several fronts in order to keep the tide of apostasy at bay. Moreover, Paul again directed their attention away from concerns about principalities and powers. Instead, he sharply rebuked some Saints telling them that the greatest concern was “spiritual wickedness in high places.” Internal apostasy is a much greater threat to the church than external persecution.
Sadly, these issues appear again in the epistle to the Colossians, which was probably written near the same time as Ephesians. That is not to say that the Ephesian Saints did not repent, but it does further testify to the dividing effect of the decision to permit one group of members to live one set of commandments and another set of members to live another. In Colossians, Paul dealt with concerns over the Father’s image and the Son’s relationship to the Father in creation (see Colossians 1:15–18). He further warned them against “philosophy” and the pressure to observe special diets (see Colossians 2:8, 16). Perhaps the most telling sign comes when Paul says, “Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind” (Colossians 2:18). Again, the issue is internal dissension and corruption of doctrine. Some members had strayed into areas that Paul associated with philosophy and worshipping other personages in heaven besides the Father and the Son. Certainly, if these attitudes were permitted to coexist alongside healthier attitudes towards the gospel, the Church would eventually face an internal crisis. In the end, the apostasy may be a witness to the fact that Paul’s exhortations went unheard.
Whether intentionally or not, the Jerusalem Council introduced a practice into the Church that would have far-reaching ramifications for early Christian converts. No church can successfully endorse two different sets of commandments for its members. In the case of the Jerusalem conference, one opinion was clearly expressed while the other was most likely assumed. Members naturally begin to view one set of commandments as higher than the other. This is exactly what happened in early Christianity when Jewish Christians were encouraged to obey certain kosher commandments, while Gentile Christians were not required to keep them. As a result of this decision, some of the late New Testament epistles began to address serious internal conflict and disharmony.
Nearly all of the later New Testament epistles deal with doctrinal corruption. These issues are not unique to Ephesians and Colossians, but in these two epistles internal apostasy is beginning to develop. By the time the Apostle John wrote 1–3 John, internal apostasy was already in full force, although the issues of conflict had changed dramatically in many situations. Certainly the early Church was led by inspired priesthood leaders, men who knew the Lord and represented His will on earth. But culture often meets doctrinal inspiration at an awkward crossroad, where some use tradition to demand changes in doctrine. Ephesians shows an Apostle at the end of his life trying to maintain the purity of the gospel that he had worked so hard to promote and preach.
 Paul’s epistle to Ephesus may have been written during his imprisonment at Caesarea Maritima as described at the end of Acts. For a discussion of that possibility, see Thomas A. Wayment, From Persecutor to Apostle: A Biography of Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 165–72. Anderson dates the epistle to the same time (circa AD 61) but places Paul in Rome when he wrote (see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983], 259).
 Marion D. Hanks, “Trust in the Lord,” Ensign, May 1975, 12.
 See Robert J. Matthews, “The Jerusalem Council,” in The Apostle Paul: His Life and His Testimony: The Twenty-Third Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 96–109. Acts clearly teaches that Peter delivered a clear decision on the issue of Gentile circumcision (Acts 15:6–11), but James then offered his opinion afterward. This may reflect James’s local authority in Jerusalem, where the problem was being discussed.
 The commandment to abstain from eating blood is found numerous times in the Old Testament. See Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17; and Deuteronomy 12:23. The direction to not eat things that have been strangled follows the prohibition against eating blood. Animals that have been strangled do not comply with kosher food requirements.
 The phrase is missing from P46 (circa AD 200), Sinaiticus (fourth century), and Vaticanus (fourth century). The phrase is inserted by a later corrector in Sinaiticus and Vaticanus and is also the original reading of Codex Bezae (sixth century).
 Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973), 2:494. McConkie attributes the statement to the Prophet Joseph Smith in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 149. Although the Prophet does not directly state the Saints at Ephesus had their calling and election made sure, he clearly implies that such was the case.
 E. J. Goodspeed, The Meaning of Ephesians (Chicago, 1933), 15, cited in Ernest Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), xi.
 Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 12:69.
 For a summary of scholarship on this issue, see Best, Ephesians, 174–80.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Alternate Voices,” Ensign, May 1989, 29.
 Howard W. Hunter, “Being a Righteous Husband and Father,” Ensign, November 1994, 49.