We hear much talk of unity in our day. The dastardly theological compromise of ecumenism, as well as unreflective (and ignorant) cultural liberalism frequently combine to issue calls for unity at any cost. And in the minds of many average people, the rhetoric and unentreatability that often accompanies the cultural (and sometimes theological) divisiveness in our nation is distasteful; surely unity and togetherness is far better?
Well, there is a nugget of truth here, despite the profoundly bad applications: God does desire unity and oneness—between His people and Himself, between individuals among His people, and between the whole creation and the other two. Moreover, it is sin, whether doctrinal, practical, attitudinal, emotional, verbal, or otherwise that creates disunity. Ironically, disunity can only be dealt with by dealing with sin—which sometimes means separating from the persistent sinner! When it is based on truth, holiness, and obedience, unity is a wonderful and necessary goal to be pursued by God’s people.
Philippians has encouraged us to know and live the joy that is ours in Christ. As chapter 3 has focused on our sanctification and the hope of glorification, chapter 4 exhorts us to apply them in practical ways—for our joy! Today, we will learn how to maintain the unity God desires among His people.
A. Sincere Affection (v. 1)
A main reason our Lord desires a unified church is because a disunified one has lost proper focus and effectiveness. Instead of focusing all our energies on gospel ministry—evangelism, discipleship, personal sanctification, and the like—we have instead emphasized our petty disagreements, preferences, squabbles, and fleshliness. This quenches the work of the Spirit among and through us, and renders our prayer life and witness ineffective. We cannot, after all, “strive together” (Phil. 1:27) for the whole counsel of God centered upon the gospel—the very purpose for which the Lord leaves us on earth—if we are instead focused on ourselves!
But how to have a scripturally unified church? We all come from different backgrounds, struggle with different sins to different degrees, are at differing levels of spiritual maturity and doctrinal understanding, have different personalities, and often make different applications even when we agree on biblical and moral principles.
Paul does not leave us unaided without words from heaven. The first practical step to unity is to have a sincere affection for other believers.
Note verse 1 begins with “therefore.” This ties this paragraph (and the whole chapter) back to chapter 3’s discussion of sanctification, perseverance, and the promise of glorification. Is it not most interesting that Paul applies this discussion first to a consecrated love? For he exhorts the Philippians by subtle example: He overwhelms them with words of loving affection, demonstrating the set and direction of his heart. There is no disunity on Paul’s end, for Paul has purposed an integral foundation stone of unity: consistent love.
Did you realize that unity is in part enabled by how you view other people? If you focus on the sins and foolishness of others, you’ll stay as far away from them as humanly possible. (Unless you’re trying to take God’s job and ensure they’re fixed, in which case you may be around them too much!) But if you focus on the truth of what God has done in and for them, you will begin to feel and act upon the feelings of affection and devotion to them. This is a profoundly important part of unity.
“Beloved” translates the Greek word that refers to something deeply loved and of high value, while “long” is a passionate word denoting deep, internal, persistent yearning for a dearly valued thing or person. (Manuscript evidence shows that at least one pair of parents had it engraved on the tombstone of a child who died in infancy.) But not only this: The Philippians are his joy and crown. (If you have true joy in people as gifts from and expressions of God, you will have a hard time not getting along with them!) As Paul’s crown, they serve as the divine seal and reward on his ministry; because they will be in heaven on the last day, due to Paul’s ministry among them, they serve as the divine assurance and observation that his ministry was not in vain.
If you view people like this, you will have to practice to be disunifed from them. Paul launches his discussion of spiritual stability at this point; he uses a military term that carries the idea of standing ground, not letting it be taken by the enemy, a term of holding one’s position. And the first way to do this, he says, is in love. Satan will go after your love. Your flesh will go after your love. Be like Solomon and catch the little foxes that spoil the vineyard of the Lord (Songs 2:15)—make a decision to endure in love as the first practical step to unity.
B. Stated Harmony (v. 2)
Do you want to be unified with that difficult person at your church? You can only do so “in the Lord.” Paul exhorts two strong, godly, but disunified ladies at the Philippian church to lit. “be of the same mind” in the Lord! The great commentator Peter O’Brien writes that the word behind “harmony” is the word denoting a whole attitude and disposition of mind, the basic aim and orientation that governs all thinking and behavior. Notice Paul is not instructing them on details or even much application. He is telling them the foundation. Get that right and the rest will follow.
What is this foundation? Well, we know it is in the context of union with Christ, for this mindset can only be had “in the Lord.” I believe the foundation is at least the gospel, and by extension gospel ministry—in other words, the dominating influence on their thinking ought to be the gospel and its implications, and as such they are to give themselves to the spread of the gospel in evangelism, discipleship, and sanctification. That is what is to consume and drive them. They are not to be bickering and squabbling about an issue so low in priority and significance that Paul does not even mention it.
Proper focus and foundation will aid unity. If we are banded together in a common goal—particularly that most noble goal of gospel advancement, the church’s mission in this age—and that is where our focus lies, we will more easily be able to overcome our disagreements and differences. We will begin to look at our “opponents” as precious partners fulfilling a necessary aspect of ministry, instead of people who seemingly exist simply to rankle us. We will begin to sense our need of them and their input and influence. We will thank God for them. And, by God’s grace, we will grow in our love for them—and for Him.
While we must make every effort to agree doctrinally and principally, we will often disagree on application, and it is those areas that should be weighed less heavily as obstacles to fellowship. It is here that a healthy focus on gospel advancement and the foundation of a biblical mindset with be of most help in ensuring a unified church.
C. Superintended Assistance (v. 3)
But what if we can’t get this mindset on our own? If unity is essential to a powerfully advancing, fruitful church, then we ought to do all that is necessary to achieve and maintain it. And sometimes, the disagreements and differences are so great that we cannot see past our own blindspots. It is here that outside counsel can be of help. That’s why Paul calls upon someone in the church to see to it that unity between these ladies is restored.
We do not know for sure who this “true companion” is. Most conservative commentators believe that “true companion” is actually the proper name of a church leader—as in our day, most names in Paul’s had very specific meanings, so it is possible the words translated as “true companion” are really someone’s name, Syzogos. If that is the case, it is very likely he was an elder or at least a prominent man in the church that had the respect of both women. Paul highlights him not simply for his evident godly character and wisdom, but as a play on words—his name means “true yokefellow,” so Paul is asking him to live up to his name in this point of need.
“Help” is a strong word—it means to lay hold of, seize, even arrest. Paul calls upon Syzogos to decisively and with true spiritual authority lay hold of this situation and resolve it. Why? It is very likely the two ladies were prominent, respected members of the church, given their close association with Paul. For them to be so publicly disagreeing would have easily created factions and further dissension—and Paul knew that that would spell the end of the Philippian church’s such obvious effectiveness and fruitfulness. He knew they needed boots-on-the-ground help to resolve their squabble, and he saw to it that they got what was necessary.
If two godly women who were known associates of the apostle Paul could have a falling-out, then any of us are susceptible. Pride, arrogance, and an overbearing spirit are among the fastest ways to disunity. And realizing that the body needs every part to achieve everything the Lord called it into existence to be (1 Cor. 12:12-31; Eph. 4:1-16), for even one of those parts to malfunction threatens the whole body. Assuming we have the same doctrinal and practical foundation—the only context in which unity is legitimate—we must earnestly seek to have no division or discord in our local churches. Only then will we know the fullness of blessing and the real power of the Spirit to accomplish His program for the church and the nations. May God help us to die to self and give our “resurrected” persons entirely to the advancement of His gospel and the victory of His kingdom!