A call for ecclesiastical unity.
The church is invited in the gospel to humble themselves at the feet of the same Christ.
Paul’s sincerest prayer for the assembly of believers at Philippi was that they live “as it becometh the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). Their lives were to be a reflection of the good news that they had come to believe. And chief among the ingredients of this decidedly “Christian conversation” which the apostle put before them was a charge to remain united — specifically, that they “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). This note of “unity” is thematic for Paul, as it appears in nearly every epistle he ever wrote. And it’s easy to see why, too.
As it was Paul’s assignment to establish Christ’s church according to the good news of Christ crucified, he was, by necessity, called to do business, if you will, with sinners. His target audience were precisely those who needed to hear the good news preached over and over — which made for good job security. But, as such, Paul’s entire operation revolved around preaching to sinners, who would then form assemblies of sinners where the forgiveness of sins would be expounded, week-in and week-out.
Paul’s ministry, therefore, was never not concerned with sinners. Indeed, sinners are all that the church is made up of — redeemed sinners, sure, but sinners nonetheless. And what do sinners do? No surprise here: they sin. Such is why the church exists. Namely, to hold forth the message and means by which sins are forgiven. That’s its primary industry. “The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business,” notes Robert Capon.1 If you happen upon a church that has no sin, you’ve come across a church that doesn’t preach the gospel.
All of which to say, a necessary feature of Paul’s ministry of proclamation was reminding sinners where their salvation was found (1 Cor. 3:4–9). One of the fundamental fruits of sin is, of course, looking to an assortment of different resources, mainly yourself, for that which only can be given. The human heart is so prone to take all the credit and champion its own ends. As a churchman, then, Paul’s fight for ecclesiastical unity comes with the territory, so to speak. Which, I think, is what makes Philippians 2 so exceptional.
Paul’s ears might’ve been ringing with the rumblings of disunity among the ranks of this beloved church (Phil. 4:2–4). No doubt, such is what inspired him to put pen-to-paper (you know, along with the Holy Spirit). Paul, then, takes this opportunity to remind the Philippians of the wonderfully important relationship of unity and humility, both of which find their footing in the person of Christ Jesus. Throughout the chapter, Paul demonstrates exquisitely a singular point: that humility is the operative force of unity. Any church that aims to be a united church must be a humble church first. An assembly of (saved) sinners that is unified is an assembly that has been humbled.
How, then, as sinners do we live as the church? As a unified, humbled assembly? What even is the essence of humility? There are, I think, four components neatly found in the words of the apostle.
Humility is, first of all, rooted in truth — specifically, the truth of the gospel. Such is what Paul is getting at in verse 1: “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies.” Our English translations of Scripture do us a disservice, here, seeing as nearly all of them use the wording “if there be” in verse 1. Though it’s slight, it still lends itself to a sliver of disbelief. Paul was by no means reticent or hesitant regarding this gospel of the Christ. He knew it to be true. “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day,” he later declares to Timothy (2 Tim. 1:12). Therefore, I might suggest a better way to understand Paul’s words by reading them this way:
Since there is consolation in Christ, since there is comfort of love, since there is fellowship of the Spirit, since there is bowels and mercies . . . (Phil. 2:1)
Paul doesn’t leave room for questioning. Rather, he’s affirming all that he’s already expounded by following it up with, “Since all these things are true, live like it.” It is his assertion that for any church body to function as the Body of Christ, their prevailing confession must be that the gospel is true. And in the resounding worship of the truth of the gospel, everyone is humbled.
The tenets of our Christian faith are not merely meant to be our abiding dogma, they’re also meant to humble us to the dust. No one who comes face-to-face with God’s law can withstand it. That’s the nature of the law. It’s cutting. It’s leveling. It’s revealing. And such is when God’s gospel comes in, announcing that a Law-Keeper has come to take the place of the law-breakers in order to give them life. That by which the church stands is the truth that God in Christ has vindicated his holiness by fulfilling the demand for holiness by himself. Who can remain upright at such news? Indeed, no one (Phil. 2:10).
The only proper response to the gospel is humility. To be humbled by what God has done through his only begotten Son is what it means to fear him (Prov. 1:7; 8:13; 19:23; Eccl. 12:13; Ps. 111:10). This, then, informs the church of its mission. Namely, to champion the good news which both humbles and unifies sinners by telling them about the One who reconciled the world to himself by humbling himself to the cruelty of the cross (2 Cor. 5:19; Phil. 2:8). The church is comforted by Christ’s indivisible love, and is brought into community by the Spirit of Christ himself, which ministers unto them the blessings of Christ’s deep and abiding mercy.
This sense of humility is elemental for fellowship — and any fellowship that aims at being sustainable will be humbly arrested by the truth of the gospel. Such, I think, is Paul’s point in the first two verses:
If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. (Phil. 2:1–2)
Nothing would fulfill his joy more than for the Philippians to live in fellowship with one another. That’s the shorthand version of being “likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). This, I’d say, constitutes one of the most misunderstood aspects of what it means to be the church. We so often confuse unity with uniformity — as though our common faith means we all must live the same, look the same, talk the same, dress the same, etc. That is decidedly not the gospel. And, moreover, not what Paul is after.
Those things which we often tend to look at as “unifying” are not what unifies the church. It’s not like going to a sporting event where your favorite team is playing, at which you find a common brotherhood with strangers. In defeat, you find solace in those who sport the same uniform as you. In victory, you relish in the same thing. But similar uniforms offer only brief glimpses of the commonality that’s shared by those in the church. “Christian union,” writes John Henry Jowett, “is not a common label; it is a common heart.”2 And it’s even much deeper than that. “Higher and better than the adhesion to a sentiment,” F. B. Meyer comments, “is a common devotion to a person.”3 Such is the glorious differentiation for the church.
We are united by the blood of God. We are made one by the One who stood in the place of sinners, shouldering all its guilt and shame and wretchedness, in order to bring close those “who sometimes were far off” (Eph. 2:13–17). We are brought into solidarity (fellowship) with one another by the One who humbled himself to live in solidarity (fellowship) with sinners. One blood ushers us all into the one kingdom to live and serve under one cross.
Our fellowship, then, is one of solidarity, not sameness — unity, not uniformity — which finds its ground in the mud of Golgotha’s cross. There is, therefore, a blessed and beautiful diversity within the church which ought to be cherished. We need not concern ourselves with the differences that might exist between us concerning those things which pale in comparison to all that we have in common in the Lord Jesus Christ. Such is the “one accord” and “one mind” Paul presses upon the Philippians and, by extension, us.
The kingdom of which we are all citizens by faith has no “side-rooms” in which we can sequester ourselves. There is one King and one kingdom. I am in favor of how the late Presbyterian minister Donald G. Barnhouse puts it when he says:
Protestantism is sometimes accused of being divided into a great many divisions which are more apparent than real, but there is a sense in which we are divided, even as the north wall of a building is separate and distinct from the west wall. Is it not true that though one stone may be in the north wall a hundred feet away from the corner, and another stone may be in the west wall a hundred feet from that same corner, the place where the walls touch is at the corner? “I’ll meet you at the corner.” And I can say to every man in Christ, “I’ll meet you at the Lord Jesus Christ.”4
There is, perhaps, no truer, no greater need in the church today than for its members to find their commonality “at the corner.” That is, to be more specific, at the Cornerstone, which is Jesus the Christ (Eph. 2:20; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7; Ps. 118:22; Isa. 28:16). No other movement or creed or crusade or organization can serve as the same uniting force as the shed blood of Jesus. “Nothing but the blood,” the old hymn says. I pray we, the church, find that to be true before it’s too late.
The third component of humility is deference — and this is likely the most difficult of them all. Paul’s words are sharp, piercing our well-ordered lives and the manner of living to which we’ve grown accustomed. “Let nothing be done,” he says, “through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Phil. 2:3). “Strife” is the same word from chapter 1, verse 15, carrying the same idea, too — that of “electioneering” or “campaigning.” Nothing but strife follows those who trumpet their own cause or preference at the expense of someone else. Paul, though, also mentions “vainglory,” which implies exactly what you might expect: “empty pride” or “groundless conceit.”
Humility, Paul affirms, has nothing to do with either of these. Indeed, the humility which unifies the church is antithetical to the gross self-interest which so encumbers and enamors the heart of man. Paul is, therefore, calling out the almost inescapable albeit natural human tendency to put ourselves first. Such is how the world operates. “Have it your way” has been the anthem of the human heart long before fast food was invented. We are enslaved to our own glory. If we’re bored with what’s happening in front of us, we can pull out our phones and “have it our way.” If we’re not getting the love and attention and affection we think we deserve, we can find it somewhere else, in someone else, and “have it our way.” If someone offends us in some way, we can get them out of our lives with a simple click and “have it our way.” And so it goes.
However socially acceptable these things are, the church’s acceptance and approval of them stunts its understanding of what it means to be humble and, therefore, what it means to be united. As long as those who make up the church are caring only for their own conceited campaigns, the church cannot thrive. There will be no flourishing, only floundering. Divergent pathways always have different destinations. Consequently, the church’s truest means for growth is the strangling of “strife” and “vainglory” — which is precisely what the preaching of the gospel does.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. He continues by affirming that not only should those in the church not pursue their own selfish interests, but also that they should “esteem others better than themselves” (Phil. 2:3). This is well-nigh impossible to put into practice. The bent of our hearts instills in us a proclivity to operate by grace with ourselves and by law with others. We are so often lenient on ourselves and strict with others. “We tend to judge others by their actions, and ourselves by our motives,” writes Douglas Wilson, “we always lift the hood of the other guy’s car first. We always give ourselves the advantage.” Paul, however, insists on just the opposite.
He is adamant that the unity of the church is driven by a humility which gives the benefit of the doubt to others first. Such is what it means to be deferential, according to Scripture. You’re treating others in grace, not law. You’re adjudicating yourself and your sins before you go on a witch-hunt for the sins of others (Matt. 7:5). Such, I think, is why deference remains both the most important, and also the most difficult, of the components of humility — precisely because it necessarily involves, as Wilson continues, “the possibility that you might be the difficult one.”
What all of this leads to, of course, is service, the last component of humility. “Look not every man on his own things,” the apostle says, “but every man also on the things of others” (Phil. 2:4). The truth of the gospel, and the fellowship it inspires, and the deference it instills, culminates in the sacrificial service of others before yourself. Deference leads to service. Strife leads to seclusion. And a life of seclusion is contrary to the gospel. “To be absorbed in self is of course to have the heart shut to others,” writes Alexander Maclaren.5 To use an oft-cited paraphrase of Martin Luther, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.”6 You can’t serve your neighbor in a monastery, you know. An actual quote of Luther’s goes like this:
The gospel directs that everyone be the servant of the other, and beside, see to it that he abide in the gift which he has received, which God has bestowed upon him; that is, the state or vocation, whatever it be, whereunto he has been called.7
The byproduct of the gospel is always service. The navel-gazers are made to look “on the things of others.” Gospel-living is always “living with,” that is, with others. This is the precise meaning of the one of the most basic words for the church in the New Testament, koinōnia (Phil. 2:1) — meaning “fellowship,” “communion,” or “joint participation.” The simple fact is that you can’t be in communion with yourself. Therefore, to bring it full circle, the “conversation” that “becometh the gospel of Christ” is nowhere better exhibited than when sinners are serving one another, as Christ served them (Phil. 1:27; 2:4).
Such is what Jesus himself embodies. His whole reason for descending to this realm was service. “Unselfish devotion for the good of others summed up His whole life,” notes H. A. Ironside, “and all in subjection to the Father’s will.”8 “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered [served] unto,” Christ himself declares, “but to minister [serve], and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The Son of Man saw the plight of man and not only considered it his own but actually took it on as his own (Ps. 8:3; Isa. 53:5). He himself looked on the things of others and went to their aid, offering himself as the blood-payment which makes disparate sinners one.
Therefore, in the mission of preserving and promoting ecclesiastical unity, the church is invited in the gospel to humble themselves at the feet of the same Christ. “It is having our hearts directed to Christ that makes us one,” concludes Maclaren. “He is the bond and centre of unity.”9 May, then, the hands of those who make up the church be joined in the humility and unity that flow from the gospel of Christ crucified.
Robert Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 23.
John Henry Jowett, The High Calling: Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New York: Revell, 1909), 57.
F. B. Meyer, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), 75.
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vols. 1–4 (Philadelphia: The Evangelical Foundation, 1963), 3:3.73.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 14:1.252.
“God does not need your works, he has enough in your faith. Yet he wants you to work that you may show thereby your faith to yourself and all the world. For God indeed sees faith, but you and the people do not yet see it, therefore you should devote the works of faith to the benefit of your neighbor” (The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, edited by John Nicholas Lenker, Vol. XIV [Minneapolis, MN: Lutherans In All Lands, 1905], 288).
Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter & Jude, edited by John N. Lenker (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1990), 183.
H. A. Ironside, Notes on Philippians (New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1954), 37.
Maclaren, Expositions, 14:1.250.