What makes a church a church? Well, before we endeavor to answer that question, I’d like to pose another, because I think the answer is the same for both. What makes a team a team? Does talent alone define a team? Is it the skill of the individual players? I’d say no. To be sure, talent has a big role to play when determining the success of a team, but it’s not the only deciding factor. I tend to ascribe to Bill Simmons’ understanding of what makes a good team great. And it’s not necessarily talent. It actually has more to do with unity.
One of the big themes of Simmons’ The Book of Basketball is “The Secret” of basketball itself. He spends an entire chapter on this, in fact, recounting a scene where he and NBA legend Isiah Thomas are chatting poolside in Las Vegas. It’s here where the Hall of Famer Thomas gives Simmons the “secret” of winning in the NBA, and it’s a secret that I believe applies to every single team that hopes to thrive and succeed long-term. The secret to winning basketball? It’s not about basketball. Thomas’ sentiment and Simmons’ larger argument asserts that in order to win, the players must forfeit their egos, forget about stats, and channel their skill towards the broader success of the team, not just their individual résumé.1 The overall success of the team is inextricably linked to the players coming to grips with the fact that their numbers don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
Teams throughout sports history have realized this. And when they do, a championship isn’t too far behind (most of the time). When the unity of the team supersedes the stardom of even their best players, the whole team is victorious, the whole squad is made to enjoy the spoils of success. This is what makes good teams great, and not just in basketball. Any team sport is driven by the ideas of unity and sacrifice for the greater good. The players don’t win on their terms, they relinquish parts of their game, and even change the way they play, in some cases, to enhance and bring out the best in their teammates. And I’d say, this is true — or should be — when speaking of church bodies as well.
Returning to our original question, then, What makes a church a church? Is it the building? Is it the denomination? Is it the shared beliefs? Certainly these things are important, but they’re not really what make a church. If that were the case, then the prettiest buildings would be the best churches, and the Catholics would have us beat by a long shot. In actuality, the primary ingredient of the church is unity. A unified people standing together in and for the gospel is the chief way the lost are introduced to the gospel. Jesus’s grace is most clearly seen when the world sees our confession and camaraderie — our confession that we’re not perfect and our camaraderie as imperfect brothers and sisters clinging to a perfect Christ.
Such is what the apostle Paul hints at in the opening of Philippians 4 when he urges them to “stand firm in the Lord.” (Phil 4:1) Paul loved the Philippians. That much is evident throughout the letter, but nowhere more clear than in verse 1 here: “So then, my dearly loved and longed for brothers and sisters, my joy and crown . . . dear friends.” The church at Philippi held a place of special significance for Paul, as this was the first church he planted in Europe. (Acts 16:6–40) The first convert in the church was a prominent businesswoman named Lydia, and women would continue to play a crucial role in the ministry there. The Philippians were also unswayed by Paul’s incarceration, persisting in their prayerful and financial support of him even as he sat in chains. Imprisonment carried with it a social stigma that would’ve made for easy excuses for the Philippians to cut Paul off. But they didn’t. They stood with him.
And it’s with this consideration that we must look at Philippians 4 and note that as the apostle closes his epistle, he’s principally concerned with the nature of Christian fellowship. Paul’s affections for them inspired his encouragement of them to continue in their pursuit of and partnership in the gospel. He doesn’t want to see or hear of his beloved church succumbing to trivial contentions and conflicts. Rather, he’s desirous of them to live together for the gospel, as unified citizens of a heavenly kingdom. And it’s here that I’d like to draw your attention to the grounds for church unity as seen in these first 9 verses of Philippians 4, or what I like to refer to as the keys to gospel togetherness. Surely, this will in no way be a comprehensive discussion, but I’d contend that without at least these three components, these foundational pieces, unity will be nowhere to be found.
The first component to gospel togetherness lies in reconciliation. I don’t imagine Paul being a subtle man. That much is seen throughout his writing, and abundantly clear here, as he calls out two ladies — Euodias and Syntyche — for their dissension in the church. (Phil 4:2) He makes a point to “urge” or “entreat” each woman individually, no doubt ensuring they both would take heed of his counsel. I can only imagine the look of horror, embarrassment, and shame that swept across these two ladies’ faces upon hearing their names in their dear apostle’s letter. Paul bids them both to end whatever beef had arisen between them, to stop their quarreling, and live once again in the harmony of the gospel. Interestingly, we’re never given details as to what their dispute with each other was all about. I sometimes imagine practical details like that could help modern churches and current pastors in a myriad of ways. But the significance of this passage doesn’t lie in their contention, but in the apostle’s stress that they reconcile and how they reconcile.
You see, Paul’s appeal to “be of the same mind” is conditioned with “in the Lord.” (Phil 4:2 KJV) He goes on to explain what he means in the next verse: “Yes, I also ask you, true partner, to help these women who have contended for the gospel at my side, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the book of life.” (Phil 4:3) Did you see it? Paul’s stress for reconciliation stems from their redemption. He reminds Euodias and Syntyche — and all in earshot — to look to the book of life, to remember that their names are recorded on the rolls of heaven in the red ink of the Savior’s blood. (Rv 3:5; 20:1–15) Paul’s encouragement towards unity drives them back to a place of remembrance of their shared interest and passion for the things of Christ.
Christians are often guilty of the most ruthless forms of cannibalism. We devour our own and the only blood on our hands is that of our own kind. We devastate the gospel through cannibalistic division and segregation. But as the apostle stirs us to remember, the gospel of the Kingdom and the good news of the assurance of the Lamb’s Book of Life reminds us that the blood of God was spilt for us — and that’s all the blood that should ever be on our hands. We’re on the same side, saved by the same Lord, redeemed by the same grace, walking under the same banner: “No Condemnation.” Remembrance of the blood poured out for you from the Savior’s side breaks down any wall of bitterness, bigotry, estrangement erected between brothers or sisters.
Again, “agree in the Lord” conveys the idea that they come again under a common calling. Paul’s not after unanimity or uniformity in the church. He’s after reconciled hearts and lives. Uniformity in the church is not always possible — in fact, I’d say it never is. Gospel togetherness isn’t about looking and acting and talking and walking the same. It’s about coming under the banner of Christ crucified and letting that define our “conversation.” (Phil 1:27 KJV) Uniformity is never the endgame of God’s gospel. But unity is. And unified believers are those who remember the incredible lengths to which God the Father went to have their names written in the book of life.
And as Christ’s redemption of us is recalled, the hope of the gospel is kindled. The hope that nothing is so disjointed that it can’t be restored again in Christ. That no relationship is too fractured for God to bring his healing hand to it. That no one’s too lost for God to find them. Think about how true this must’ve been for Paul himself, and how he was reconciled to the church. The man who was once “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), going about “ravaging the church” (Acts 8:3), is now tenderly and affectionately calling for the church to be reconciled together by remembering their common bond in Christ. He most of all understood that unity in the church wasn’t about perfect Christians learning to be more perfect. Rather, it’s about broken sinners learning to be broken together and remembering their bond to one another by the grace of the gospel. And so it is that we learn that forgiveness is the fulcrum of ministry. Unity begins with broken people pursuing reconciliation on the grounds of gospel-restoration.
Rejoice in the ruins.
The second key to developing and maintaining church unity is rejoicing. Rejoicing together “in the Lord” is the leading stimulus towards gospel togetherness. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” the apostle writes, in one of the more famous verses in your Bible. (Phil 4:4) It must be noted that he’s not speaking in platitudes. He’s not broadcasting a cliché motivation for rejoicing in the bad times. He’s not urging the Philippians to maintain a pseudo-happiness as turmoil swirls around them. Paul’s double directive to rejoice find its footing in what comes next. He carefully constructs his letter so that he’s always making proofs — he delivers a statement and then corroborates it — not with his words only, but God’s.
He follows a similar pattern here. The reason we can “rejoice in the Lord always,” and the reason we don’t have to “worry about anything” is because the “peace of God” is implanted in your soul the moment you’re redeemed. Salvation in Christ naturally entails reconciliation with the Father. All is settled between you and God. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1) The enmity’s been appeased. The wrath’s been shouldered. The propitiation’s won. (1 Jn 2:2; 4:10) Nothing now remains for you to accomplish. There’s nothing left to fear. The Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for and sovereign in all things. Therefore, “Rejoice . . . do not be anxious about anything.” (Phil 4:4, 6 ESV)
Understand, though, that this rejoicing won’t necessarily mean that you’re always caught smiling. But it’s also not a happiness that ebbs and flows with the circumstances. Difficulty and despair will come. Paul was all too familiar with that reality. But the rejoicing and calm exhibited here by the apostle is a deep-seated contentment that finds peace and power in the very presence of God. It’s rooted in the Lord’s sovereign control over present and future events. (Lk 10:20) “The Lord is at hand,” the apostle writes. (Phil 4:5) He’s in control. The end of all things is being ordered by his fingers. The future rests in his hands — and so should you.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:7)
Don’t skip over Paul’s use of the word “guard” in verse 7. He writes, “And the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and minds.” (Phil 4:7) “Guard” conveys the idea of watching or keeping, as with a garrison. This should immediately bring to mind Paul’s own situation. He’s writing this letter in chains, imprisoned in Rome. Therefore, the idea of being kept under guard would be particularly relevant for the apostle. And the principle rings loud. It’s not in men that you’ll find your peace. It’s not in circumstances either. It’s in God himself! God the Father garrisons his children with the all-surpassing peace of his Son’s substitution. The sovereignty of God safeguards the Christian in all circumstances — even in the desperate and desolate times. And because God is sovereign and in control, Christians can entrust all their difficulties to him. To the One who rules over all creation and who is wise and loving in all his ways. (Rom 8:31–39) Both the peace of God and the God of peace guard the believer who is a partner in the work of the gospel. God’s peace defends the soul for gospel mission. When Christ’s victory is ever on the heart, we’ll be given songs in the night. As we reflect on what matters most, we’ll be made to rejoice in the ruins.
Reflect on the relevant.
This leads us to the third component for church unity and gospel togetherness, which is reflection — specifically, reflection on what matters most. Now I’ve heard Philippians 4:8 expounded many times, most often with the intent to inspire a greater degree of awareness and discernment when it comes to our choices, specifically in the realm of entertainment. Perhaps you’re familiar with this idea. Perhaps you’ve heard sermons in the same vein. The preacher explains that we better be sure that whatever we’re listening to or watching meets the standards laid out here. Is it true? Honest? Just? Pure? Lovely? Commendable? Excellent? Okay, then that’s the thing you should read, watch, or listen to. Now, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a wrong exegesis of the verse, I just believe it ignores Paul’s larger point.
Paul’s not primarily concerned with correcting the thought life and recreational choices of the Philippians believers, but rather, with directing them back to the One who is the true and better source of all truth, honesty, justice, purity, loveliness, commendation, and excellence — that is, Christ himself. The Son of God is the fulfillment of all these praiseworthy things. “Thinking on these things,” says Alexander Maclaren, “is not merely a meditating upon abstractions, but it is clutching and living in and with and by the living, loving Lord and Saviour of us all.”2 The command to “dwell on these things,” then, is really an incentive to cleave to the person of Christ, making him the first thing that spills from your lips. Our goal ought to be to turn every conversation into a christological one, to the point where those around us become annoyed with the fact that we can’t escape talking about Jesus.
All our trains of thought should find their respite in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Our entire lives ought to be defined by his perfect sacrifice for us. All our running conversations should be drawn towards him. Towards the One in whom dwells the fullness of the godhead in bodily form. (Col 1:15–20) Towards he who is perfectly true, perfectly honest, perfectly just, perfectly pure, perfectly lovely. We should have a tendency and magnetism of Christlikeness about us — not that we’re perfect, but that all that we are tends to go back to Christ and his infinitely secure gospel of grace. Back to the truest truth and lone source of all goodness. As long as Christ is in our thoughts, all good thoughts will be there. Indeed, the greatest apologetic for Christianity isn’t our wits or our knowledge but the church united in perpetual reflection on and rejoicing in Christ.
This is what the church is erected upon. Not mortar. Not morals. Not traditions. Not saints. No, the church is founded, cultivated, sustained, and empowered by nothing but the grace of Christ and the power of his cross. These alone unify and align the hearts and minds of otherwise delinquent and divergent sinners. Apart from this, the church is nothing more than a social club. But with this power, we are the Kingdom of God on earth, unified in blood and by blood. All that we are, all that we do, all that we share, all that we say ought to be drenched, soaked, completely saturated in the gospel of Christ crucified for you. This is what draws us. This is what keeps us. This is what holds us together.
Bill Simmons, The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy (New York: Random House, 2010), 30–57.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 14:2.57.