Paul’s theology comes across differently in Ephesians and Colossians than it does in his earlier letters. The reason for this is that he was addressing different problems. Actually, he was addressing the same problem manifesting in two different ways.
Charles Gore made this argument in 1897, in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians A Practical Exposition.
Gore compared two pairs of letters: Galatians and Romans on one hand, and Ephesians and Colossians on the other. In all four letters, said Gore, Paul was contending for the unity of the church.
In the ealier pair of letters (Galatians and Romans), Paul was arguing that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church was God’s plan all along. In the case of Galatians, false teachers had insisted that Gentile believers needed to become Jews. In doing so, they were making Christ too small. He is more than the Christ of the Jews. He is the Christ of the whole world:
This is the great principle vindicated in the compressed and fiery arguments of the Epistle to the Galatians, and then subsequently developed in the calmer and orderly procedure of the Epistle to the Romans.
According to Gore, that “great principle” is seen again in Ephesians and Colossians, but from a different angle:
I have spoken of St. Paul’s great arguments for the catholicity of the Gospel as two. The first appears mainly as a polemic against the idea of justification by works of the law. The second as a positive argument about the person of Christ and the results which flow from the right appreciation of it. But in fact there is a necessary connexion between the two.
Here is the connection Gore saw: The Galatians were in danger of making Christ too small by excluding the Gentiles from the faith. The Ephesians were in danger of making Christ too small by neglecting the Hebrew roots of the faith.
The letter of Ephesians was written to churches with a lot of Gentile believers. These Gentiles had been converted according to the gospel as Paul preached it, so they didn’t have to be circumcised.
Yet, in their own way, they were also in danger of making Christ too small. They had the same problem, but seen from the other side.
For these Gentile believers, Christ came out of nowhere and changed their lives. One day they were idolators, the next day they were in Christ.
The danger for them was that they would go on to believe in a Christ who came into the world from out of nowhere. He didn’t. The coming of Christ was an event in the history of Israel. It was an event centuries in the making, and it needed to be understood in context.
The letter Ephesians is about the greatness of Christ. He is above all things. All things will be summed up in him. Christ was greater than the Ephesians believers could really comprehend. If they tried to imagine him out of context, they would end up making him too small.
Christ out of context is Christ divorced from history and morality, a Christ who has no necessary relationship to the history of Israel or to the Old Testament.
Here is how Gore put it:
The relation of these two groups of epistles may be expressed also in another way. The argument of the earlier epistles is directed towards the Judaizers. Its purpose is to vindicate the right of the Gentiles to an equal place and position with the Jews in the kingdom of God.
But at the time of the later group this right had been secured. On the basis of their acknowledged title the ingress of Gentiles into the churches of Asia had been even alarmingly rapid.
Now it is time for St. Paul to address himself to these emancipated Gentiles and to exhort them in their turn not to relapse into unworthy and narrow conceptions of their redeemer, or into conduct unworthy of their new position: they must ‘walk worthily of the vocation wherewith they are called.’