A Formula for True Unity, part 2 (Philippians 2:2-4)

Last week we began looking at Paul’s encouragement to unity found in the opening verses of Philippians 2.  We found that Paul reminded them of all they had experienced through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in being united to Christ.  These experienced realities will form the basis for Paul’s commands in vv. 2-4…

1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

You’ve heard the old ditty, I’m sure:

To live above, with saints we love, oh that will be glory.

But to live below, with saints we know, now that’s another story!

Unity is a precious commodity and we must pursue it.  Paul had explained all that God has done for them to be unified.

So the second step in maintaining unity in the body of Christ is to identify the end in mind.

Verse 2 describes what unity looks like.

Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says that the #1 habit of an effective leader or person is that they begin with the end in mind.  So Paul, after having given the Philippians four motivations, now presents a picture to their mind—a picture of a preferred and shared future.

So what is our goal?  What are the marks of true unity?

First, we are to have the “same mind.”  Literally, to “think the same.”  This same phrase is used in Romans 12:16; 15:5; 2 Corinthians 13:11 and Philippians 4:2.

I don’t think that Paul is pleading here for uniformity of thinking, as if everyone has to have the same opinion, but rather for an inward disposition of mind that strives to find common ground.

It is not easy to think alike.  We have to put our own agendas aside and be willing to listen to one another and identify common ground, rather than focus on what divides us.

It’s hard to think alike.  Consider how many different denominations there are, many of which have formed because they emphasized a difference rather than common ground.

One researcher found 70 different groups just within the Baptist family!

Nor, is Paul indicating that we must sacrifice the gospel to get along with others.  As we saw in 1:27, we must stand firm for the faith of the gospel.

We are all different.  We have different opinions, different experiences, different backgrounds, different personalities.  Yet, with all that, God wants us to have the “same mind.”

The key is that we are all seeking to have the “mind of Christ.”  We are pursuing a Word-saturated, God-dominated way of thinking that allows us to look at the bigger picture, value the more important truths, seek common ground, and even be willing to yield (as we will see in 4:3).

As believers grow in their understanding of Scripture, they share a common way of approaching problems.  The world offers all sorts of conflict resolution techniques to help people work through differences, but they’re all built on self.  They teach you how to get what you’re after.  But God’s way is to teach us to deny self as we seek to please God and love others.  If two people have this same mind, there is a basis for working through conflicts.

The second picture of unity that Paul asks them to strive for is to pursue “the same love.”

Now what does that mean?

Well, it could be taken in two ways.  First, he could mean that we are to love everyone with the “same measure of love.”  In other words, play no favorites, take no sides.  Certainly this would eliminate factions and a party spirit.

But another way Paul could mean it is that we have the same love that Jesus had when He sacrificed Himself for the good of sinners (1 John 3:16).

Obviously, love is a major factor in keeping unity.  When we begin to devalue people and champion our own causes, we run the danger of breaking unity.

Several years ago I was listening to a series of CD’s by Pastor Dee Duke about prayer.  At one point he discussed the importance of unity, I believe in connection with corporate prayer.  He said that in a dairy community the farmers would milk their cows on Sunday morning and then clean up as best they could and come to church.  Invariably, they would bring some of the stink of the farm with them.  Of course, they were used to it and didn’t smell it anymore.

However, when a new person came into the church, they immediately noticed, “Something doesn’t smell right here.”

He said that disunity is the same.  We might get used to it and sweep it under the rug, but newcomers can sense that “something’s not right here.”  They can sense disunity.

“The same love” is a love that yields its rights for the sake of others.  Christians must have that love in mind in every encounter with one another.

Jesus said that we should be known for our love to one another, not our positions on moral issues, being anti-this or against that.

Third, Paul pictures our goal as “being one in spirit and purpose.”  “Being one” is literally “souls together” souls knit, “soul brothers.”  And our souls are linked together by “spirit” and “purpose.”

Although we exist separately in body, we are linked together “in spirit.”  We have a common spiritual bond.  United to Christ we are united to one another.

We are also “one…in purpose.”  Our ultimate goal is the same.  Whatever may distinguish us, we are intent upon one goal overall and that is to “glory God and enjoy Him forever.”  That is the goal of all creation, the charter of the church and it should be our personal ambition as well.

Now, as defined here in Philippians, the ultimate goal or purpose is to “advance the gospel,” whatever advances the gospel, that is what Paul was concerned about.

That is why he didn’t get his undies in a bunch when people were preaching the gospel but downing Paul.  He didn’t care if they attacked him, as long as they were preaching the gospel.

If we could start from an “it’s not about me” attitude, that would eliminate a lot of conflict, wouldn’t it?

Paul wants us to achieve that tremendous synergy and productivity that happens when a church is of one mind, the same love, linked together in spirit and intent on one purpose.

By the way, Paul encourages them to manifest this type of unity to “complete my joy.”  I believe that not only Paul’s joy, but Christ’s joy, is full when we live together in unity.

The third way to pursue unity is to employ some very practical strategies.  We find these in verses 3 and 4.

Just in case Paul’s motivations and manifestations of unity in vv. 1-2 were somewhat unclear or ambiguous, Paul gets very practical and very specific here.

3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

What Paul has shared so far has been rich, but if that is all we had we might be left scratching our heads at how to possibly turn those motivations and manifestations of unity into reality.  Thankfully Paul wrote vv. 3-4.

But…verses 3 and 4 are such a challenge!  This is a high standard to reach for!

“Do nothing, absolutely nothing” for the purpose of pursuing selfish goals or ego promoting plans.  “Nothing!”  Not a hint, not a whiff of self.

The primary enemy of unity is self—demanding that others see it my way or pursue my way.

How many conflicts between husbands and wives, between bosses and their employees, between siblings, and yes, between church members…is started because of big egos and self-driven motives?

The word “rivalry” was used back in chapter 1, verse 17 and describes a party spirit that wanted to get its own way, even at the expense of community.

A politician, for example, tries to build a following for himself by building himself up and, if need be, by putting his opponents down.

In Galatians 5:20 it is a deed of the flesh, “disputes.”  Many churches suffer because some of the leaders view their position as a way of promoting self.  Some husbands misuse their authority in marriage in the same way.  But, Christians are not to do ANYTHING from this self-seeking motive.

“Conceit” comes from a very picturesque Greek word meaning an “empty opinion.”  A person who has kenodoxia is a person with strong opinions that are, in fact, erroneous.  And, of course, they are more than willing to fight to prove they are right!

Kent Hughes remarks:

Conventional wisdom has it that you can’t get anywhere without it [conceit, that is]. And there is some truth in that.  But it is an abomination in the church.

You might advance in the world with conceit, but it will ruin relationships.

This conceit is what motivated the disciples to want to be first, to sit at Christ’s right hand in glory, thus to receive glory themselves.

But Christ taught that…

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43b-45)

A third negative practice is found in verse 4, where Paul identifies a selfish preoccupation with one’s own personal (or those in one’s group, hekastoi) interests without regard for others.  This selfish mindset is contrary to the very nature of God (1 Cor. 13:5; 1 John 4:7-8).

Unity cannot co-exist where the primary value is placed on individualism (my rights and ideas) or partisanship (our rights and ideas) in opposition to others.

So Paul gives them a positive alternative, countering “rivalry,” “conceit” and looking out for one’s own interests, with “humbly consider others better than yourselves.

The lowliness that was utterly despised by the Greeks and makes such little sense today has become the highest virtue for the child of God. Markus Bockmuehl writes:

“Instead of pursuing their own prestige, that strangely addictive and debasing cocktail of vanity and public opinion, the Philippians are called to humility (tapeinophrosune), the ‘lowliness of heart’ which agrees to treat and think of others preferentially. . . . The biblical view of humility is precisely not feigned or groveling, nor a sanctimonious or pathetic lack of self-esteem, but rather a mark of moral strength and integrity. It involves an unadorned acknowledgement of one’s own creaturely inadequacies, and entrusting one’s fortunes to God rather than to one’s own abilities or resources” (Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians, Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: A & C Black Limited, 1998), p. 110-111)

If we wonder how a person of superior abilities can regard others as more significant than himself or herself, the answer is to use those abilities for self-assessment by the light of the Scriptures and, in particular, to compare ourselves with Christ (who humbled himself as great as He is).

Then take to heart the words of the surpassing genius and Christian Blaise Pascal, who concluded after much thought, “what amazes me most is to see that everyone is not amazed at his weakness” (quoted in Marvin R. O’Connell, Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997] p. xii).

In the words of St. Chrysostom, “There is nothing so foreign to a Christian as arrogance” (quoted in Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians, p. 114).  When we actually see ourselves for what we are, our conceit and vainglory will recede, and we will begin to count others more significant than ourselves.

We will honor others above ourselves, putting them and their interests ahead of our own.

I remember coming across this idea while we were trying to start a multi-cultural church in Little Rock.  At one time we had a young African-American man named Carl coming to our church.  Carl seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about race issues because he had been treated with prejudice while growing up in Little Rock.  Although he had become a Christian, he still struggled with insecurities and inadequacies.  He argued with me that he wanted to be treated as an equal.

I didn’t think of it at that moment, but later it came to me that in reality, genuine reconciliation between the races will not occur, and neither will real unity, until we began treating one another—not as equals, but as “more important” than us, as “better than” ourselves.  In other words, like Paul says in Romans 12, we need to “outdo one another in honor.”

One practical way we can do this is by being willing to shut our mouths and listen, really listen, to someone else stating their opinion, rather than being argumentative.

Humility is the quality that allows us to do this.  Humility is the ability to see ourselves as we really are (cf. Romans 12:3).  We are not to think too highly of ourselves, neither are we to think too lowly of ourselves, rather we are to think rightly about ourselves.

That takes a Bible-saturated mind, one that looks at life and ourselves from God’s perspective.

In comparison with God, we are exceedingly wicked and also exceedingly small and weak and totally dependent.

In comparison to others, we have a combination of strengths and weaknesses.  Humility is both admitting my weaknesses and offering my strengths to help you (not to dominate you).

If I am humble I will recognize first that I need you (because I have limitations) and second that you have real strengths that I need.  I can value you.  Then I can humbly offer you my strengths to help you.

According to C. S. Lewis, humility is nothing thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.  In other words, we rarely think about ourselves and instead focus upon others and how we can love them and meet their needs.

Someone asked the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones this very question. His answer:

A friend was asking me the other day, “How can I be humble?” He felt there was pride in him, and he wanted to know how to get rid of it. He seemed to think that I had some patent remedy and could tell him, “Do this, that, and the other and you will be humble.” I said, “I have no method or technique. I can’t tell you to get down on your knees and believe in prayer because I know you will soon be proud of that. There’s only one way to be humble, and that is to look into the face of Jesus Christ; you cannot be anything else when you see him.” That is the only way. Humility is not something you can create within yourself; rather, you look at him, you realize who he is and what he has done, and you are humbled (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Living Waters, [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009], p. 710).

That is exactly what Paul does next.  He says, “Look at Jesus, look at His willingness to lay aside His glory and die for us; realize who he is and what he has done, and you will be humbled.”

Or, as Robert Murray McCheyne reminds us…

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jer. 17:9.  Learn much of the Lord Jesus.  For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.  He is altogether lovely.  Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief!  Live much in the smiles of God.  Bask in his beams.  Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in his almighty arms. . . . (Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne, Edinburgh 1894, p. 293).

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Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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