Currently I am teaching through the book of Philippians, the central message of which I believe is not joy, but a call for unity for the sake of the Gospel. While the letter does not provide the details of what was going on, there seems to have been at least two factions, if not more striving for power/control among the Christians in that city. This power struggle was having consequences, the most serious being that it was threatening the spread of the Gospel. Thus, Paul’s letter, ostensibly to explain why Epaphroditus was being sent back, was at its core, a call to unity.
At the time, Paul was awaiting trial with a possible death sentence, still his focus remained on the spread of the Gospel. He points out that some were trying to preach the Gospel because they were “selfishly ambitious and insincere, thinking that they will stir up trouble for me during my imprisonment.” Given the stakes, one could easily expect Paul to be angry about this, after all his life was on the line. Yet instead, Paul’s reaction was, “But so what? Just this—that in every way, whether by false or true motives, the Messiah is being proclaimed. Because of this, I rejoice and will continue to rejoice.”
How could Paul do this? How could he rejoice that some people were trying to stir up trouble that could result in him being executed? He makes this clear a few verses later as he begins to transitions to the core message of the letter. For Paul, “The only thing that matters is that you continue to live as good citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of the Messiah” (1:27).
The core of the letter is found in the first four verses of Chapter 2:
Therefore, if there is any encouragement in the Messiah, if there is any comfort of love, if there is any fellowship in the Spirit, if there is any compassion and sympathy, 2then fill me with joy by having the same attitude, sharing the same love, being united in spirit, and keeping one purpose in mind. 3Do not act out of selfish ambition or conceit, but with humility think of others as being better than yourselves. 4Do not be concerned about your own interests, but also be concerned about the interests of others.
Note that this is not unity for unity’s sake. Nor is it a call for all to be the same. In places like Romans 14 Paul makes clear he is not calling for sameness. In Romans 14 Paul addresses some disputes that had arisen within the Church at Rome. Now he could have settled these by simply declaring the correct answer. After all, these were not trivial issues. One of them was what days should you worship (v 5). If Christians cannot agree on the day of worship, how can they worship together?
Yet Paul did not give us the “correct” answer. Instead what he writes is a much more difficult teaching, “let’s keep on pursuing those things that bring peace and that lead to building up one another” (Romans 14:19). Basically, he says stop bugging each other about the points of contentions, but rather focus on the points of agreement and build up one another.
Thus, this is not a call to sameness, or even to abandon our beliefs in these areas. It is a call to reorder our priorities. It is a call to put our own priorities and agendas second, and put the Gospel first.
How do we do this? After all, how can we work with “those people?” They are not even real Christians, they believe / do not believe X? Granted, there is a line here. I do not believe I could associate myself in any way with the Westboro Baptist Church, whose methods and tactics are flat out evil, and in my mind harmful to the Gospel. So, I am not saying that we should be completely nonjudgmental in such matters.
Aristotle in his ethics had what is called the Doctrine of the Mean (i.e., middle). He points out that too often we look at things in terms of opposites. One is either a coward or courageous. This false choice has convinced far too many people to do things that were truly stupid, lest they be seen as a chicken. Aristotle points out that what we see as a binary choice is really a range of choices from rashness to cowardice, where true courage is in the middle. Often, It takes courage to do not only what is right, but also not to do what is wrong, especially if our friends are doing it.
Furthermore, Aristotle points out that we all have tendencies, in the case of the example above, either to be rash, or to be a coward. We should therefore be aware of our own tendencies and factor this in when it comes to trying to decide on a course of action. Do we tend towards rashness? If so, we should err on the side of caution. Do we tend towards cowardice? Then we should err on the side of boldness. In this way, we are much more likely to be closer to where we should be.
While this will vary from individual to individual, when it comes to the question of unity for the Gospel, the history of the church is pretty clear as to where on the range of unity vs division Christians as a whole have fallen. Far too often Christians have divided over such fine points of doctrine that only the most theologically informed really understand even the disagreement, much less the significance. Thankfully that has greatly diminished in the last 50 years. But it is something we should be vigilant against. A question we should ask is are we letting our agenda take precedent over, and interfere with, the spread of the Gospel?