6. How to Maintain Unity in the ChurchRelated Media
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)
How can the church walk in unity?
In this passage Paul calls for the church of Philippi to be unified. Even though in many ways they were a model church, they were not a perfect church. They had many threats to their unity. In chapter 1, it is clear that they were being persecuted from outside for their faith. Paul said that God had granted them to not only believe in Christ but to suffer for him as well (v.29). In chapter 3, we see that there were false teachers teaching circumcision (v. 2). In chapter 4, two women were fighting in the church possibly causing it to divide into factions (v.2). Though a model church, the Philippians had many threats to their unity. William Barclay perceptively observed this:
the one danger which threatened the Philippian church was that of disunity. There is a sense in which that is the danger of every healthy church. It is when people are really in earnest, when their beliefs really matter to them, that they are apt to get up against each other. The greater their enthusiasm, the greater the danger that they may collide. It is against that danger Paul wished to safeguard his friends.1
Passions which are good things can often lead to discord. Paul calls for this church to make his joy completed by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose (2:2). Essentially he called them to be unified, to be one.
The Philippians’ struggle with unity was not unique; there were problems with unity from the inception of the church. In Acts 6:1 one of the issues was cultural. The church was caring for Greek widows and Hebrew widows, but while distributing the food, the Greek widows were being left out. Amongst the Roman Christians, there were divisions over preference (Romans 14). Some preferred to worship on Sunday, and others practiced the Sabbath day. Some ate only vegetables, and others ate everything. These differences created division. The Corinthian church was divided over the personalities and teaching gifts of their greatest teachers (1:12-13). Similarly, each church today has the potential of disunity over such things as ethnic culture, church culture, doctrinal differences, personality differences, and personal preferences. Disunity is something the church must be aware of and wisely labor against.
Moreover, it must be noted that unity does not mean conformity. The world wants us to be all the same. We should all have the same body type, the same skin, the same education, the same type of clothes, etc. However, in the church (and the world for that matter) God made everybody different with different roles, and these differences make the body of Christ beautiful. The eye needs the hand, and the hand needs the feet. We give honor to the hidden parts like the heart and liver (1 Cor 12:23). Unity does not mean that everybody is the same but that we honor our differences and work together despite our differences.
Are there any conflicts in your life with family, peers, co-workers, or church members? How can we learn to walk in unity, especially in the body of Christ? In this text we will consider several ways to maintain unity in the body of Christ.
Big Question: How can the church and its members walk in the unity God called us to according to Philippians 2:1-4?
To Be Unified, Christians Must Focus on the Right Resources
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion (Philippians 2:1)
Some might be tempted to think that it is impossible to have unity. They might declare, “We are too different! We have different backgrounds, different styles of worship, and we enjoy different things. We also express ourselves differently. How in the world can we be unified?”
Paul seems to be answering this question as he reminds the church of the resources they have for unity. He describes four resources which are both commonalities of each Christian and empowerments for unity. He says, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion” (Phil 2:1).
This really is not a question but a confirmation. The “if” could be translated “since.” Since you have encouragement from being united with Christ, since you have comfort from his love, and since you have fellowship with the Spirit, etc.
Most of our close relationships are based on commonalities—what we share in common. With relatives, it may be the blood we share in common. With friends, it may be a common ethnicity or hobby. These commonalities help us be unified. However, what we share in common as Christians is even greater than any commonality we could share with the world.
But God has not just given us these as commonalities but also as empowerments. The grace to be unified has been given by God, and we must appropriate and access it. Since God has given us all these resources—all these supernatural empowerments—we should be a unified church.
Interpretation Question: What are the resources God has given the church for unity?
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion” (Philippians 2:1).
1. God has given us encouragement in Christ.
One of the commonalities we have as believers is encouragement from our relationship with Christ. The word “encouragement” means to come alongside someone, to give assistance by offering comfort, counsel, or exhortation.2 It means to come alongside to help. “It combines encouragement with alleviation of grief.”3 Christ used a similar word in referring to the Holy Spirit and his ministry to us. The Holy Spirit is the “paraclete”—our counselor, our advocate, our helper (John 15:26). The word represents exactly what we see in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). The Samaritan comes alongside the person hurting, anoints his wounds, puts him in a hotel, and pays for his stay. He does whatever is needed to help. Christ does the same with us.
This is one of the reasons we can be unified. We can be unified because we have in common the same friend, the same comforter, the same encourager. For each of us, Christ comes alongside to walk us through the pains and the struggles of life. Where ever you go, Christ goes with you. He said this to his disciples and to us through them, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:19).
We have the same person to come to in order to find grace and mercy in time of need. Listen to what the writer of Hebrews said about Christ.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15)
We have a Savior that can sympathize with our weakness and minister to us the exact mercy and grace we need. He understands being alone. In the hour of his greatest need, his family and friends left him. He knows depression. He said, “I’m weary unto death.” He knows being betrayed. He knows being hungry. He knows being tired. He knows being tempted by the devil, and yet, he is without sin.
Surely, we each have great encouragement in Christ. This commonality is a motivation for us to be unified. But again, this is not just a commonality; it is also an empowerment for unity.
Christ could still love his disciples who failed him. He could love those who mocked and accused him. He could forgive them. And he can encourage us to do the same when we suffer. We can be unified because we have someone who has been through it all before us, and he comes alongside us to help us.
Yes, we can be unified because we have the help of Christ. You can love your roommate, your parent, and your church because of the help and encouragement of Christ. He comes alongside you to do so.
What else has God given us for unity?
2. God has given us comfort from Christ’s love.
Another commonality and empowerment for unity that God has given us is “comfort from Christ’s love.” Each believer became a recipient of Christ’s love at spiritual birth.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. We have all become recipients of this great love; we have received comfort in our sin and failures through God’s love for us. This is a tremendous consolation that the world does not know. We have received God’s love which comforts and enables us to be unified.
John said this: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). Fear and anxiety are often the driving forces behind conflict. We fear being rejected. We fear not being loved. We fear people talking about us. We fear losing things important to us, and this encourages us to think bad thoughts about others and sometimes to even fight with them. Many of us stay awake at night rehearsing conflict and cultivating anxieties. However, Paul says we can be unified because we have comfort from Christ’s love, and this comfort should enable us to be unified. Love drives away those fears. With the Ephesians, Paul actually prays for them to have power to grasp this love. Look at what he prays:
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17b-19)
To be filled to the fullness of God means to be empowered by God (cf. Eph 5:18). That is the result of grasping the greatness of Christ’s love. Christ’s perfect love casts out fears and anxieties that keep us from unity. Fear of rejection and fear of being hurt not only cause us to fight but keep us from seeking to restore relationships. These fears are not God’s will for the believer so he sends us his supernatural love to comfort us and enable us to live in unity with one another (cf. Rom 5:5).
3. God has given us fellowship with the Spirit.
Another commonality and empowerment to be unified that God gave us is the Holy Spirit. When we were saved, God did a miraculous work in us through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit baptized us into the body of Christ. First Corinthians 12:13 says, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
Now this baptism happened at the very moment every Christian was saved. They became part of the body of Christ and eternally attached to Christ and to believers. One person becomes the hands, and another becomes the feet. God did a supernatural work through the Holy Spirit that will never be undone. Throughout eternity we will be the body of Christ, attached to Jesus and dependent upon one another. It’s a phenomenal concept.
However, even though the Holy Spirit made us one in Christ and gave us spiritual gifts that we must use for one another’s edification, we must still labor to keep this unity in the Spirit. Paul said this: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
The Spirit of God already made us one and works in us to work together and depend upon one another; however, we must labor to keep the unity he forged. The Spirit made us one, and we must work to maintain it.
This labor for unity is also done through the Spirit. Listen to the fruits that he bears in our lives to help us be unified: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Can you not hear Paul challenging this church and us? Some might say, “We are divided because this person is unreasonable!” But Paul says, “Yes, I know, but the Holy Spirit has given both of you patience.” One says, “We can’t be unified because we are so different!” But Paul says, “Yes, but God has given you love.”
Everything we need to be unified has been given to us by the triune God. Christ has come alongside us to help and encourage us. He comforts us with love in times of discouragement and fear. He has given us the power of the Holy Spirit to help us be unified. There is no excuse for us to be divided. However, Paul says, “Wait! There is more.”
What else has God given us so we can be unified?
4. God has given us tenderness and compassion.
Paul says God has given us “tenderness” and “compassion” in order to be unified. The word “tenderness” is translated “bowels” in the KJV. It is a physical word related to one’s stomach. It means the ability to feel somebody’s pain or hurt with them through trials. Paul used this word earlier in Philippians 1:8. He said that he longed for the Philippians with the very “affections” (or bowels) of Christ. He felt the same pain and yearning for the Philippians that Christ felt.
This is very important because when we are in discord we often only feel our own pain. We can’t hear the cries of the other person because we are too upset about being disrespected and dishonored, but the bowels of Christ feels the pain of others. This tenderness, or affection as it can be translated, leads us into compassion. It leads us to serve the very needs of those who hurt us. One author said that “tenderness is the root and compassion is the fruit.”4 Compassion is tenderness in action.
We can be unified because Christ gave us his own tenderness and compassion. When Christ looked at the crowds and saw them like sheep without a shepherd, he had compassion on them and went to minister to them (Matt 9:36).
Excuses may abound about why we cannot be unified. We have different backgrounds, different cultures, etc. But the triune God speaks to us and says,
I have empowered you. My Son comes alongside you to help and bring you encouragement. I have given you my love to comfort you in pain and to empower you to love the unlovely. I have made you one by the Holy Spirit and given you his fruits to help you be unified in trials. Finally, where others only feel their pain, I have given you tenderness—sensitivity to the pain of others—and desire to respond with compassion like my Son did with you.
Does Paul’s rhetorical argument make sense? Certainly, it does. He challenges the Philippians and us to look at the resources God has given us to be unified. These are both commonalities and empowerments for unity.
Application Question: In what ways have you experienced the resources of God in your life, and how have you, by his grace, found them helpful in working for unity?
To Be Unified, Christians Must Develop the Right Attitudes
then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose (Philippians 2:2)
Disunity always begins in the heart—the mind, will, and emotions—before it manifests outwardly. Therefore, if we are going to be a unified people, we must work on the inner man; for it is from the inner man that all divisions come. James 4:1 says this: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?”
The reason I have conflict is because I have a heart problem. It’s an inner man issue.
Observation Question: What attitudes must believers cultivate in order to be unified?
1. Believers must have the same thoughts.
Paul says that believers must be “like-minded.” It literally means “to think the same thing.”5
Interpretation Question: What does Paul mean by being like-minded in order to be unified?
It seems that this question is answered by looking further along in the context. In Philippians 2:5 Paul says that every person should have the same “attitude” or “mind” as Christ. When Christians develop the mind of Christ, it will be easy to be unified. The mind of Christ is further clarified in Philippians 2:7 where it says that Christ took the very nature of a “servant.” He didn’t come to earth to be served, he came to serve. That is the type of mindset each believer must develop in order to be unified in the church.
In fact, one of the major reasons that we fight and argue in the church is because people treat us like servants. We feel disrespected. We feel like others are not respecting our position. Church members don’t mind serving on occasion, but don’t ever treat them like servants.
However, Christ took the “very nature” of a servant. He wasn’t simply a king that was serving—he was a king that was a servant. His attitude was consumed with others over himself. That is the mindset that must be developed if we are going practice unity in the church. We must care more about others than about ourselves. We must be more about other’s happiness. Paul expands this thought in the following verse. He says this: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
This is the servant mind that each one of us must adopt. Unity cannot be achieved if only one person has this mindset. Each of us must decide to be servants in order to be unified. “No, not my way, let’s do it your way.” It’s the mindset of a servant. Lord, help us develop this.
2. Believers must have the same loving attitude.
The next attitude Paul says we must develop in order to be unified is a loving attitude. He says make my joy fulfilled by having the same love. What type of love? The type of love that Paul is talking about here is “agape.” He uses the Greek word for God’s love in this text. It is not a selfish love or a love of the emotions that is many times seen in world. “I love you until you hurt me. I love you because you love me. I love you because I feel this way, but when I don’t feel this way I don’t love you anymore.” That type of love will never result in unity. It is like the wind—it is here today and gone tomorrow. It cannot be relied on.
Interpretation Question: What does this agape love look like which unifies the church?
- Agape love is an act of the will.
“I choose to love even when you are unlovable. I have committed to love you no matter how much you harm me or do wrong to me.” Many would call this an irrational love or a crazy love. But it is actually the type of love found in God. Look at how Scripture describes God’s love:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us…For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:8, 10)
God loved us while we were sinners and enemies of his, and yet, he still gave his life for us. That is the type of love that brings unity. In fact, some have defined love as this: “Love is when you give not caring what you get in return.” That is the type of love God gives us. We fail and dishonor him, and yet he still loves us. He gives the unjust “rain and sunshine” even as he does the righteous (Matt 5:45). This common grace is a reflection of agape love.
Because agape is a love of the will, it can be “commanded.” We can be commanded to love our enemies, to bless them, and to do them good. We can be commanded to feed our enemy when he is hungry, and when he is thirsty to give him drink (Romans 12:20).
Is your love an act of the will in obedience to God? Or is your love up and down based on how you feel emotionally?
- Agape love is a sacrificial love.
Christ gave up his life for us and taught that we should do the same thing for others. People who would truly die for one another are not going to be divided by temporary petty issues. Agape is a sacrificial love that is willing to give up its privileges.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16).
- Agape love is practical.
John said this: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Agape love is not simply saying you love the church; it is being overwhelmed with a desire to serve the church and meet one another’s needs. Romans 12 says this: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love… Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (12:10, 13).
Is your love sacrificial—willing to give up your rights for others? Is your love practical? Is it given to acts of service among the church?
This is the same love that we must have if we are going to be unified. We must choose to love each other sacrificially and practically, regardless of how we are treated. This is the type of love that unifies.
If your love is the selfish love of the world, you will love your church as long as they don’t fail or disappoint you. But when they do, you will hold a grudge and complain causing more dissension or you will simply leave. We must all have agape love in order to maintain unity.
I don’t mean to imply that this is easy; it is not. But it is possible because the ability to love like this was given to believers in their salvation. Romans 5:5 says, “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” The love of God has been lavishly poured out in our hearts. God has given the church ability to love like him. Let us then in faith choose to love each other the way God loves us.
3. Believers must be united in spirit.
The word “united” literally means “one-souled”6; therefore, to be united in spirit means to care for one another as though we were caring for ourselves. This means to follow the golden rule, to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). When we are united in spirit and love one another as ourselves, then we will become a united church.
We see something of what it means to be “one-souled”—“united in spirit”—by reading Romans 12:15-16. It says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”
We should rejoice when others are successful or happy. We should mourn when others mourn. Paul actually describes this as “living in harmony with one another.” He essentially describes this as being “united in spirit.”
Too often members of the church live independently of one another. Church is just to fulfill their desire to worship on Sundays and that is it. However, in order to be “united in spirit,” we must live life together. We must get to know one another and be connected to one another.
I remember during my junior year of high school, we got a new basketball coach. And one of the things he initially implemented was our strategically getting to know one another better. He said he wanted us eating together, going to the movies together, etc., so we could essentially become one in spirit. He said chemistry on the basketball court did not happen only by practicing and playing together. It came by living life together. This was the type of culture that he fostered in order for us to be successful, and this culture should be similarly fostered in the church. The early church met every day breaking bread from house to house (Acts 2:46). They were united in spirit—one souled—and we must be as well.
How are you fostering unity in spirit with your church? How are you developing intimate relationships? How are you getting to know one another in such a way that you think the same and feel the same—where you weep and rejoice together? When we are “one-souled,” we will care about people so much that we will make every effort to be unified with them (Eph 4:3).
A good example of becoming one-souled is a marriage. When a couple gets married, they move in with one another, eat together, and share entertainment together, among other things. Then all of a sudden weird things start happening like finishing one another’s sentences or being able to sense when the other person is upset or something is wrong. They start to become united in spirit—one-souled. As this process continues to deepen, the conflicts typically lessen in a marriage union. However, when they are less united, more conflicts happen.
This is God’s will for his people as well that they would live as “one body” (Ephesians 4:4). The phrase “one body” is actually very similar to the one God uses for marriage—“one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). We must be united in soul to maintain the unity.
4. Believers must have the same purpose.
Finally, Paul says believers must have the same purpose. What purpose is Paul referring to?
Many commentators believe Paul is referring to the gospel being the church’s primary focus. Paul mentioned the gospel five times in chapter 1, and in the last one he said this: 7
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27)
A support for the possibility that Paul is referring to the gospel being their purpose is the fact that chapter 2 is connected to chapter 1. The NIV 1984 does not demonstrate this clearly because it removes the “therefore” from the passage. However, the NIV 2011 translates it this way: “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion” (Phil 2:1). Therefore, points back to Paul’s emphasis in Philippians 1:27—walking in a manner worthy of the gospel.
When the church is unified around something as big as the gospel, then our petty differences, by necessity, fall to the wayside. What will unify a people with different cultures, different careers, different ages, etc.? It has to be something bigger than all those things. It is the gospel—the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ for the world. Competing purposes will only divide.
If your purpose is your kingdom and your will be done, then you will fight with everybody who gets in your way. If your purpose is your comfort, then if the music changes in the church, the seats change, or the order of service changes, you will fight against everybody and against everything that makes you uncomfortable. But when your purpose is the gospel, you will gather with people very different from you, even doctrinally, to seek to advance the same cause.
Is your purpose the gospel—seeing people know Christ and living out the faith of the gospel? This is the purpose that will unify us.
What attitudes must we have in order to be unified? We must have the mind of Christ—serving others. We must have the love of Christ—loving sacrificially and practically. We must live as the body of Christ—being unified in spirit—living as though we are one. Finally, we must have the same purpose of Christ—to spread the gospel.
Application Question: Which attitude necessary for unity challenged you the most? In what ways is God calling you to work on a specific attitude in order to increase the unity of your church?
To Be Unified, Christians Must Develop the Right Practices
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
Next Paul goes from our inward motives to outward actions. We must develop certain practices in order to maintain unity in the church.
Observation Question: What type of practices must we develop if we are going to maintain unity in the church?
1. Believers must practice forsaking selfish ambition and vain conceit.
Paul gives us a very difficult challenge. He says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition and vain conceit” (v. 3). The phrase “selfish ambition” pictures “a person who persistently seeks personal advantage and gain, regardless of the effect on others.”8 They will use anything to get what they want including: “flattery, deceit, false accusation, contentiousness, and any other tactic that seems advantageous.”9 The word was often used of politicians.10 It has the connotation of building oneself up by bringing others down. In politics the desire to win is so great that they will often do anything to get what they want including tearing down the other candidates’ family, past, etc.
“Vain conceit” can literally be translated “empty glory.” There are some differences between selfish ambition and vain conceit. John MacArthur said this:
Whereas selfish ambition pursues personal goals, empty conceit seeks personal glory and acclaim. The former pertains to personal accomplishments; the latter to an overinflated self-image. Understandably, a person with such conceit considers himself always to be right and expects others to agree with him. The only unity he seeks or values is centered on himself.11
One causes division because of goals they are pursuing; the other causes division in order to receive or protect glory. Selfish ambition and vain conceit often go together. We saw this in the Pharisees who loved to be greeted by others and to sit in the best places. They desired to both be honored and maintain their position. Therefore, the Pharisees were in conflict with both John the Baptist and Jesus because they were threats to their position and glory.
This is often how the world is. Life is all about selfish ambition and vain glory—getting the best grades, the best degree, the best job, the nicest car, and receiving praise because of these things. Therefore, the world will often do anything to get or protect these things. The world system is driven by selfish gain. People will cheat to get what they want. They will cut others down. They will fight, steal, or do any number of dishonest things to achieve their desires.
It is not surprising that Paul lists selfish ambition and vain glory as attitudes we must forsake to have unity since these attitudes originally brought disorder in the world. It was Satan’s desire to be like the Most High that brought division in the heavenlies. He had an inflated view of himself. Satan then tempted Adam and Eve with the same desire to be like God causing a division between God and man. Selfish ambition and vain glory are really the root of all sin. It is the desire to get our will done over God’s and have our glory over his. It is the cause of all division.
James said, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16). Where envy and selfish ambition are, you will find disorder and every evil practice. He then described how this was affecting the early church. Look at what he said:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. (James 4:1-2)
These Christians were warring because they were living like the world. They were seeking their own desires and glory instead of the desires and glory of God. Somebody had even died amongst these scattered congregations because of their selfish ambition. Similarly, selfish ambition and vain glory led the Pharisees to kill Jesus. They did not want to lose their place and authority in Israel.
Paul simply said, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition and vain glory.” Do nothing to exalt yourself and your goals. This was not something seen in Christ. He gave up everything to come to the earth and to serve those he ruled over. Christ wasn’t living for his glory; he lived for the glory and the will of the Father and for others. He often would do miracles and say, “Shh… now don’t tell anybody” (Matt 8:4). Sometimes he would try to avoid the crowds (Mark 1:35-38). He wasn’t a glory seeker, and he wasn’t fighting for his glory like others. He came to do the Father’s will and give glory to the Father. This type of attitude will deliver us from much division. We must forsake selfish ambition and vain glory.
Ambition and desire for glory in itself are not wrong, but our ambition must be to honor God and receive glory from him. Christ didn’t even rebuke the disciples for desiring to be great; he just tells them how to do it by being last, for the last will be first in heaven (Mark 9:35).
Application Question: How do we practice doing nothing out of selfish ambition and vain glory?
- We should survey and question our motives.
Christ challenged the disciples to look at their motives when they did works of righteousness. Don’t do it to be seen by men like the Pharisees (Matt 6). Therefore, we must always survey our motives, especially when in conflict and struggling with anger.
We should ask ourselves questions when feeling tempted to react with anger or to fight with others. “What is really motivating this? Is it my desire to be respected? Is it my desire to see my will done? Or is it my desire to do God’s clearly revealed will? Is it my desire to help others?” We should ask ourselves these types of questions.
- We should ask God to test our motives.
This is what David did. Consider what he prayed: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
2. Believers must practice the humility of a servant.
Paul said “in humility consider others better than yourselves” (v. 3). The word “humility” can also be translated “lowliness of mind.” In secular Greek literature this word “was used exclusively in a derisive way, most commonly of a slave. It described what was considered base, common, unfit, and having little value.”12
Again Paul gives us this slave or servant metaphor in order to teach us how to have unity. We must practice the humility of the servant. We must not see ourselves better than others but less than others.
This is very countercultural. We live in a culture that is all about “self-esteem.” We must all know how special we are, how good we are. If you are depressed, the world would say, go to the mirror and say to yourself over and over again, “I am special. I am significant.” This is the very opposite of what Paul says and also opposite of how he lived. Consider some of Paul’s comments about himself.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)
Was Paul really the least of the apostles? We probably hear about Paul more in the Bible than any other apostle. He wrote almost half of the New Testament. Paul, is that really a fair assessment of yourself? What else did Paul say?
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. (1 Timothy 1:15)
Why did Paul talk about himself in this way? He called himself the worst sinner; the KJV translates it the chief of sinners. Why did Paul have such “low self-esteem”—the least apostle and the chief sinner? Why was his esteem so low? It was because he esteemed everybody else higher than himself.
If this were not enough, Paul also said that he made himself a servant or slave of everyone. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19).
Here we see the reason we are so divided. We think too highly of ourselves (vain conceit). Satan has developed a system that is all about self-esteem—building ourselves up—, and therefore, it is a system full of division. However, the kingdom of God is all about coming down—becoming low like Christ—to serve others. Christ lowered himself in order to unify the earth. It should be the same for us. The kingdom of heaven should be full of peace-makers.
Application Question: How do we develop humility in order to view others better than ourselves?
- We practice humility by living in the presence of God.
A person that lives in the presence of God will by necessity continuously see their sin (Isaiah 6:4). They will by necessity see how far they fall short. They will also by necessity become a servant of all. That is why Paul saw himself as least of the apostles, chief of sinners, and slave of all. A person only looking at others or himself will develop an exaggerated view of himself that will cause division.
- We practice humility by an act of the will—by choosing to put others before ourselves and consider their interest.
What other practice must believers develop in order to have unity?
3. Believers must take care of their own personal interests in order to have unity.
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
It must be noted that Paul does not teach us to eliminate our interests all together. He says that we should not only look to our own interests. Throughout the history of the church some have taken a view that Christians must forsake all interests and adopt a form of asceticism. Like many monks, they forsook all forms of pleasure and treated their bodies harshly in order to pursue God and serve others. We see that asceticism had crept into the Colossian church. Colossians 2:20-23 says this:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
People in the church were teaching “Don’t eat this!” and “Don’t touch that!” They were treating their bodies harshly in order to restrain their urges. In 1 Timothy 4:3 we see that this teaching sometimes even included abstaining from marriage. Scripture does not teach that we are to forsake all of our interests; however, it does teach that our interests must be submitted to the Lordship of Christ. John MacArthur said this:
Christians who do not take reasonable care of their bodies cannot live or minister effectively. Nor are they required to forsake all personal interests in other regards. Paul’s point here relates primarily, though certainly not exclusively, to personal interests in serving the Lord.
At times Christ left his disciples and the crowds to go up on the mountain so he could pray and be with God. The crowds were looking for him, but in order to properly minister to the crowds, he had to take care of his spiritual needs by being with God (Mark 1:35-37). At times, he took the disciples away so they could have rest and food. There is a proper balance of taking care of ourselves in order to better serve God and others.
This is very important for anybody in a serving ministry. It is very easy to become overworked, overburdened, and eventually burn out. There are always more needs and more people struggling, and if you don’t take reasonable care of yourself, you cannot properly serve them. Certainly, in this time of church history the pendulum has swung where most people are caring for themselves and their interests over others. The church is about its health, wealth, and prosperity, and therefore, it is not a great servant. However, we must see the balance in Scripture, lest we swing again to the opposite side—asceticism.
4. Believers must look out for the interests of others in order to have unity.
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Not only must we take care of our personal interests, but ultimately we must exalt the interests of others. This is the nature of the servant. We should notice the word “look.” “Look“ means to observe something. But, as in this context, it often carries the additional ideas of giving close attention and special consideration.13 I think many Christians would be servants if others just told them their needs. However, the best servants are not just waiting to be asked; they are observant. They are looking out to discern others’ needs and how to best meet them.
They notice needs in the children’s ministry. They notice a need for the walls to be cleaned. They notice how people are doing. But, they just don’t notice; they want to meet those needs. I think many times the very reason we have discord is because we are not observant enough. We haven’t observed how to best serve or edify others and have only observed how to best serve and edify ourselves.
Consider what Hebrews says about how the church should function: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).
Churches that are unified are always looking out—considering how they can best “spur one another toward love and good deeds.” This attentive look delivers them from much discord. If I observed my wife more and discerned her needs, we would be delivered from much conflict. It’s the same for us as a church community. This is what Paul exhorted this congregation to do.
If believers are going to be unified, they must have the right practice. They must forsake selfish ambition and vain glory. They must practice the humility of a servant. They must take care of their own interests in obedience to God, and finally they must look out for the interests of others. These are essentials for unity.
Application Question: At which of these practices are you the weakest? In what ways is God calling you to grow in these in order to stir the church more towards unity?
How can we as a church be unified? How is unity possible if we are so different—different backgrounds, cultures, gifts, etc.?
- To Be Unified, Christians Must Focus on the Right Resources. We have Christ who comes alongside us to help, comfort from Christ’s love, fellowship with the Spirit, and Christ’s tenderness and compassion.
- To Be Unified, Christians Must Develop the Right Attitudes. We must have the same mind—the mind of a servant. We must have the same love—agape. We must be unified in soul and unified behind the purpose of the gospel.
- To Be Unified, Christians Must Develop the Right Practices. We must forsake selfish ambition and vain conceit. We must in humility esteem others better than ourselves. We must take care of ourselves. Finally, we must look out for the interests of others.
1 The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. Rev. ed., [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1975], 31
2 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 104). Chicago: Moody Press.
3 Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W., Jr. (1996). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.
4 Motyer, J. A. (1984). The message of Philippians (p. 104). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
5 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 106). Chicago: Moody Press.
6 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 108). Chicago: Moody Press.
7 Hughes, R. K. (2007). Philippians: the fellowship of the gospel (p. 76). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
8 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 110). Chicago: Moody Press.
9 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 110). Chicago: Moody Press.
10 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 110). Chicago: Moody Press.
11 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 111). Chicago: Moody Press.
12 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 112). Chicago: Moody Press.
13 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 113). Chicago: Moody Press.