Ephesians and the unity of mankind

Many Baha’is believe that Christianity is a message of individual salvation while the Baha’i Faith is about the salvation of the human race. This is a false contrast, based on a misunderstanding of Christianity. The post will be the first in a series intended to refute this notion.

In a comment to the post Shoghi Effendi and Christian Authority, Mr. Poirier quoted a passage from Shoghi Effendi’s The Promised Day Is Come, p. 119:

The Revelation associated with the Faith of Jesus Christ focused attention primarily on the redemption of the individual and the molding of his conduct, and stressed, as its central theme, the necessity of inculcating a high standard of morality and discipline into man, as the fundamental unit in human society. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find any reference to the unity of nations or the unification of mankind as a whole. When Jesus spoke to those around Him, He addressed them primarily as individuals rather than as component parts of one universal, indivisible entity.

Only by reading the New Testament as a whole (along with some notable sections of the Old Testament) can you see the magnitude of how way off Shoghi Effendi is. Since I can’t quote all of that on this blog, what I will do in this and subsequent posts in this series, God willing, is to point out a few passages here and there.

This passage is from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Therefore, remember that at one time you, Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by those called the circumcision, which is done in the flesh by human hands, were at that time without Christ, alienated from the community of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it.

He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

Observe:

As Paul describes it, there were two parts to the human race, the Hebrews and the Gentiles. But that separation is done away in Christ. The cross (i.e. the event of the crucifixion) erases the disunity in the human race and forges a single humanity.

(This is echoed in some other places in Paul’s writings, such as in Galatians, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus, and in Colossians, here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.)

Far from depicting salvation as an individual matter, he portrays the community of believers as a single unit. Notice the metaphors Paul uses in the third paragraph quoted above (i.e. verses 17-22). The Church is a household, both in the sense of a family and in the sense of a building. Other words he uses are structure, temple and dwelling. And in the second paragraph the Church is a single person, with Christ the head.

That is the vision of Christianity: a single body of believers, welded together (or to use Paul’s metaphors here, grafted together and mortared together) into a single community that, as a unit, is saved by Christ and reconciled to God. And this is the Christian vision of mankind’s unity: that we are united through the blood of the cross – united with each other at the same time we are united with God.

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5 Responses

  1. I can see where you are coming from, but I’d like to observe that Paul ≠ the Gospels. Shoghi Effendi is talking about how Jesus addressed those who listened, not how Paul later addressed early Christians.

    I think the view that Jesus emphasized individual salvation is not too far off. For example, in Luke 12:

    51
    Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.
    52
    From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three;

    This is not to say that there was not a “universal salvation” aspect to Jesus, just that it was not emphasized.

  2. Hi Dan, thanks for your comment.

    As I said in the post, this will be a series looking at passages from throughout the Bible. My beginning at Ephesians was more or less random.

    The fact that Jesus talked about individuals being saved is not the point. (After all, so did Baha’u’llah.) I’m taking issue with the claim that Jesus only talked about individual salvation, that he addressed people only as individuals and not as a larger body.

    That the saved (or chosen, or elect) constitute a collective body is a theme that runs through the entire Bible. That this collective body is meant to include all of humanity (even though many people choose against it) is another general theme.

    It would be artificial of me to restrict my comments to the four Gospels, because they don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of the larger scriptural canon, the different parts of which constantly allude to each other. The Gospels and the Pauline letters were written by the same early Christian community at around the same time, and I believe they were inspired by the same Holy Spirit. When Shoghi Effendi and modern-day Baha’is wrench the Gospels out of that context, they are imposing a perspective alien to the Christian tradition.

    This is not a perfect analogy, but imagine if someone argued that because Baha’u’llah never said anything about NSAs, he had never meant for there to be any. Or because he never said anything about Krishna, that Krishna was not really a Manifestation.

    In future posts I will bring in passages from the Gospels, as well as passages from the Old Testament and other parts of the New Testament. If Baha’is think that these other passages are less relevant to understanding Christ’s revelation, then the burden of proof is with them to explain why we Christians are wrong.

  3. I am an ex-Baha’i who is now Eastern Orthodox. I agree with you that Baha’is have the idea that salvation in Christian terms is about the individual. Perhaps this is because Baha’is, at least in the US, tend to equate Christianity with Protestantism. Evangelicals are an important constituency worldwide, but they are not the only constituency. The Catholic-Orthodox understanding of salvation has a profound cosmic dimension. Christ is much more than just ‘my personal Saviour’.

    I have only just discovered your blog and am enjoying it very much. It’s great to see someone discussing Baha’i from a perspective other than sola scriptura. Although, with Francis Beckwith having swum the Tiber, we might yet have the best of both worlds!

  4. I agree with you that Baha’is have the idea that salvation in Christian terms is about the individual. Perhaps this is because Baha’is, at least in the US, tend to equate Christianity with Protestantism.

    That’s true. I suspect there’s another dimension. Much of the Central Figures’ and Shoghi Effendi’s exposure to Christianity probably came in the form of Protestant missionaries, both in terms of personal contacts and literature. Furthermore, if I recall correctly, Shoghi Effendi went to a Presbyterian college in Beirut (which later became AUB) and then went to Oxford, which was Protestant at the time, though since then it has become predominantly atheist.

    I haven’t studied this (although it would make an interesting academic paper), but I suspect Baha’is get a lot of these notions like “Christians believe in personal salvation but we believe in salvation of the human race” not from talking with their Christian neighbors in North America, but from reading Baha’i literature, especially stuff written by the Guardian and some of his contemporaries, like Townsend.

    Just speaking from personal experience, I can count on two hands the number of serious religious conversations with Christians I had during my eight years in the Faith. But I read Baha’i literature by the bucketful. Naturally every Baha’i is different, but I do recall a distinct prejudice regarding Christians among many of my fellow Baha’is, as well as an assumption that Christian = evangelical.

    I have only just discovered your blog and am enjoying it very much. It’s great to see someone discussing Baha’i from a perspective other than sola scriptura.

    Thanks. I don’t really read ex-Baha’i sites or sites attempting to refute the Faith (ironically enough). Most of them have a negative tone that I don’t like. That’s partly why I started this blog – to provide a place on the web that is centered on ideas and theology, rather than whining about things like, “Nevermind what Abdul-Baha actually said, obviously if he were here today he’d agree with my pet cause,” or “I can’t believe I lost my voting rights just because I broke a bunch of Baha’i laws! This is an outrage!” These nutballs and cornflakes give us normal former Baha’is a bad name.

    Then again, I sometimes take a negative tone on this blog, particularly when I feel a Baha’i is being hypocritical (such as my post directed at Barney Leith, which probably could have been toned down – I was pretty mad when I wrote it). But I hope in general I’m able to avoid snidery and sarcasm, something all too common among ex-Baha’is.

    Incidentally, I derive some inspiration for this blog from an old, defunct blog written by an Episcopal priest who converted to Catholicism – although he wrote his during the process of conversion, and I’m writing after the fact.

  5. I know this thread is long done, but I wanted to add a post in case anyone has reason to review it. Many Baha’is are not familiar in depth with Christian doctrine re: salvation, it is true. The word itself does not appear often in our own scriptures, though the concept is throughout, so I can’t say it is often discussed in comparison to other religions’ teachings. In my own interactions with Christians, I have to say they have always stressed the salvation of the individual; but I have understood that the salvation of mankind is implicit in the Gospel. We do have reference both to individual salvation and the salvation of humanity in the writings of Baha’u’llah:

    He wrote to an individual:

    “Such is the teaching which God bestoweth on you, a teaching that will deliver you from all manner of doubt and perplexity, and enable you to attain unto salvation in both this world and in the next.”

    And he wrote about humankind:

    “Considering this most mighty enterprise, it beseemeth them that love Him to gird up the loins of their endeavor, and to fix their thoughts on whatever will ensure the victory of the cause of God, rather than commit vile and contemptible deeds. Wert thou to consider, for but a little while, the outward works and doings of Him Who is the Eternal Truth, thou wouldst fall down upon the ground, and exclaim: O Thou Who art the Lord of Lords! I testify that Thou art the Lord of all creation, and the Educator of all beings, visible and invisible. I bear witness that Thy power hath encompassed the entire universe, and that the hosts of the earth can never dismay Thee, nor can the dominion of all peoples and nations deter Thee from executing Thy purpose. I confess that Thou hast no desire except the regeneration of the whole world, and the establishment of the unity of its peoples, and the salvation of all them that dwell therein.”

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