Shrewd Strategies to Unity
His Will is Unity
The supreme will of Christ for his church, and subsequently the vision he has for his church everywhere, is that she be totally and comprehensively unified. So integral is this spiritual fruit that the church is everywhere called Christ’s body. Not “bodies.” Body. There’s Christ, and then there’s his body—singular. Therefore, implicit is the idea that separate members work together in perfect harmony, being directed by Christ.
Just before his brutal death on the cross, Jesus said a prayer, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21). The church’s credibility to a faithless world is proportionate to her unity.
In Ephesians 4—our first passage for 2019—Paul expressed so gloriously the vision Jesus has for his church, that we be filled with Christ “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). One measure of a Christ-filled church—and the first one Paul mentioned—is unity.
If that’s the will of Christ, then man has made a mess of it. Some have estimated there are over 40,000 Christian denominations or sects. This means, at least 40,000 times, man has intentionally ignored the call for unity. How do we fix that? I don’t know. So long as wolves in sheep clothing wear the name “Christ,” these problems will remain. The immediate concern, therefore, isn’t to sew together 40,000 disparate groups. Rather, it is to preventatively work here, in this place, to build greater unity, thereby ensuring that we, at this church, aren’t the cause of the 40,001st division. This is why two weeks ago we began studying Paul’s letter to Philippi. It is a delicately crafted admonishment to a nearly divided group.
Paul’s Prompt for Philippi
Here are four brief evidences concerning Paul’s purpose in the letter: (1) There was some kind of conflict in the church that he wanted settled: “Euodia I urge, and Syntyche I urge, to think the same way in the Lord” (4:1, my own translation). The Greek word for “urge” is one of the strongest appeals in the language. It’s also translated “beg, implore, entreat.” So this was a very weighty matter. (2) Paul told the Philippians “to complete” his joy by “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). So, he wants Euodia and Syntyche to think the same; he wants the church to have the same mind; he wants the brethren to be in full accord; and he wants the church to have one mind. If they do this, they’ll “complete” his joy. What may we infer? His joy was incomplete. For which reason? The brethren didn’t have the same mind! (3) In all four chapters, Paul appeals to the church with the word koinonia, the Greek word for fellowship; (4) Paul was so anxious to hear good news of the Philippian Christians that he was sending both Timothy and Epaphroditus to them to report back, and he himself was planning to come. At the very least, something deeply concerned Paul, and the context indicates the concern being division.
Therefore, having given those four evidences, I believe Paul’s letter to Philippi is a warm admonishment to be wholly unified in Christ by the development of a singular mind. This morning and next week we will study chapter one, verses 3-8, if you’d like to turn there.
“I thank my God in every thought of you, always, in every prayer of mine on behalf of you all, working my prayer with joy because of your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, persuaded that he who began in you a good work will bring it to perfection at the Day of Christ Jesus. Accordingly, it is right for me to think this way of you all, because of my having you in heart, since both in my bonds and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are being partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how I long for you with the bowels of Christ” (Philippians 1:3-8, my translation).
Now, we know Paul ultimately wants to build unity in a divided church. So we have to come at the passage and ask, “What’s he doing in verses 3-8 to work toward that end?" That’s the question we need to ask. So I asked that question all week in prep for this morning, and I determined there are at least four rhetorical strategies Paul is using to build unity. We will only expose two of these this morning, and next week we will unpack the other two.
# 1 - A Reminder of High Stakes
Nowhere in the letter does Paul specify why there was a division between Euodia and Syntyche. But I’d like to imagine the kind of scenario that divided the early church elsewhere in the New Testament, specifically Romans 14.
In Roman culture, markets were full of meats sacrificed daily to pagan deities. Imagine a man taking a choice cow to appease the goddess Diana. Temple priests would then slaughter the cow and essentially cook it on a big grill—an altar—after which the meat may be sold in the markets.
Some early Christians looked at the meat and thought, “I can eat this meat. It’s just meat.” Other Christians thought, “How could anyone eat meat sacrificed to an idol?” These two very different opinions actually divided the church in Rome. So Paul wrote to them and said, “2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Romans 14:2-3).
Just for the sake of illustration, imagine this was the divide at Philippi. Euodia wanted to eat the meats sold in the market next to her home. Syntyche believed Euodia was defiled for doing so. And therefore the two women turn against one another, and Euodia rallies supporters from the church who see her angle, and Syntyche rallies supporters who stand with her. [Again, this is just a hypothetical scenario for illustration purposes.]
And in the midst of the high emotions and what not, Euodia is convicted, “God doesn’t judge me for eating meat! It’s my right to eat meat. There’s nothing wrong with eating meat.” And that’s totally true. Paul said in Romans 14, “the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking.” But Syntyche grew up on that street, and she used to be a pagan. And she used to go daily to Diana’s temple to make sacrifices with her parents and grandparents. So, for her, she’s immediately reminded of her former sins when she sees that meat for sale. To eat of it is unthinkable.
Just imagine this kind of situation. Both ladies seem to stand on firm ground, theologically speaking. But! Syntyche is about to fall away from the Lord because Euodia is eating steaks. Euodia is about to fall away because Syntyche has turned the church against her. It’s really silly, isn’t it? When we become so steeped in personal preferences and desires, we need a reminder of what actually matters.
I remember one time as a kid getting real bent out of shape because the last piece of bacon or something. Then I saw a headline of some horrible tragedy in the middle east involving women and children. It fell on me like an anvil. I think Paul does that with the Philippian church. Notice the following phrases just in this passage alone.
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you…because of your partnership in the gospel” (vv. 3, 5).
“He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (v. 6).
“you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
Central to everything is the gospel—the good news of what Jesus did on the cross. Just get bent out of shape about bacon, then imagine Jesus on the cross. Paul brings the divided church back to the gospel.
Paul reminds them of the work Christ is doing in them. This isn’t their church to do with as they please. It is Christ’s church and Christ’s work. Therefore, personal preferences mean utterly nothing if they destroy the work of Christ.
Paul spoke of the day of Christ Jesus. In other words, judgment day. Jesus is coming again. Salvation is fast approaching. Eternal matters are at stake!
Paul even says, “I’m in jail!” How’s that for a reality check? The gospel is everything. Christ is working in them. The day of Christ Jesus is approaching. Paul is in jail.
The first strategy I see Paul doing to build unity is to bring people back to ground zero by a reminder of what actually matters. This church is Christ’s church. This work is Christ’s work.
# 2 - Considerate and Habitual Prayer
Second, and last for today, what’s the main activity Paul is relaying in these verses? Prayer! “I thank my God in every thought of you, always, in every prayer of mine on behalf of you all, working my prayer with joy” (1:3-4). In verses 9ff, which we will expose in two weeks, Paul says, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (1:9-10).
What was Paul doing? Praying for a divided church. He was thanking God for their many wonderful qualities, and he was praying that they’d have greater love, greater discernment, and a pure and blameless condition for when Christ returns.
You’d be hard pressed to find a letter from Paul that doesn’t reveal his deep faith in the power of prayer to solve all problems. Paul was always praying. He wasn’t rallying supporters to be on his side of an argument. He was pursuing unity by prayer.
Philippians is a warm admonition for greater unity within a church Paul loved dearly. For the next several months, we will unpack the countless layers of spiritual depth concerning this call to greater unity.
As we work toward a greater unity in Jesus Christ, consider these two strategies employed by Paul. He reminded the saints of the things that truly mattered. And he spent a great deal of time in prayer for them.
The challenge this week is twofold: (1) Spend some time meditating on all that Christ has done for you by the cross. Consider the work he’s still doing. Remind yourself of the things that will actually matter in a hundred or ten thousand years. And (2) spend time thanking God for this place and these people. This church is filled with spiritual blessings. Thank God for individual people—even the ones you don’t know as well as others. Pray that God be magnified by our unity of faith and knowledge in him.