The Answer to Disunity
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
In many New Testament assemblies throughout the world there has often existed a problem of internal disunity stemming not from clear doctrinal differences but from purely natural and temperamental differences between individual believers which cause them to apply the general principles of scripture differently. For the New Testament letters written to such assemblies in the first century AD do not provide a complete set of precisely detailed rules regarding exactly how, when, and where the members of such assemblies should or should not fulfil these general principles relating to the universal preaching of the gospel, the remembrance of our Lord in worship, and the study and practice of the scriptures. In this respect the Lord's dealing with the Church differ markedly from His dealings with Israel in Old Testament days, when He gave the Law to Moses with its numerous ordinances and detailed instructions. By contrast, in the age of grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth indwelling all true believers, much of the detail of local assembly life is left to the individual believer and individual autonomous assemblies to apply in the liberty of the Spirit of God under His leading in accordance with more general scripture principles. The names of our meetings convened to preach the gospel, for instance, are not found in any part of the Lord's Great Commission. The times of our meetings even on the Lord's Day are not laid down in scripture either. So this principle of Christian liberty can leave room for our natural inclinations to operate where they ought not and result in disharmony in the assembly with different members wishing to emphasise different aspects of the work. How often our problems in assembly life are more the product of 'personality clash' between strong-willed believers with opposite temperaments than of fundamental, moral or doctrinal error! This is the nature of the problem envisaged in this article.
The Example of Philippi Explained
Paul's letter to the local assembly at Philippi appears to have just such a problem in mind, although the letter was written in response to a further gift brought to Paul in Rome by the Philippian brother Epaphroditus, as is made clear both in chapter 1 and in chapter 4. Chapter 3 deals with the errors of Judaism and moral licence. There are several indications throughout the letter that this was the case. For, in 1. 27 Paul is most concerned that he should hear that 'ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel'. Again, in chapter 2. 2 he exhorts the saints that they fulfil his joy, 'that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind'. The matter comes to the surface in chapter 4. 2-3, where he says, 'I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel'. Since no moral or doctrinal error is mentioned in connection with these two sisters, it appears that there was a personality clash between them, and that this was the cause of some disunity in the assembly at the very time when they were facing opposition from the enemies of the gospel in the world around them. The emphasis on the little word 'all' in the letter is probably designed by Paul to address this same problem of disunity due to nothing more than personality differences between prominent members for the Philippian assembly. Therefore, if we observe him the apostle in this letter handles this problem of disunity due to personal differences of temperament alone, we should be enabled to understand how to overcome it in our own day and generation.
The Answer Given
A consideration of the whole cast and tenor of Philippians is found to be most helpful in finding the answer to this recurring problem in local assembly life. The problem is seen to be basically one of wrong attitudes of mind which can only be corrected by all the saints having a right relationship to Christ Himself as the Centre and Head of the body of the assembly. Hence the words 'mind' and 'think' recur throughout the letter. How we think about Christ determines how we relate to other believers. The attitude of mind which is most frequently enjoined upon the Philippian believers is that of 'rejoicing in the Lord', Christian joy, which is often born out of suffering for Christ and triumphs over all difficulties from within and without the assembly because it is not centred in ourselves, nor anyone else, nor in circumstances, but only in the Lord Himself. This joy in Christ is seen to be the answer to disunity arising from personal differences, and is the keynote of letter struck in every chapter of it. The letter divides broadly into its four chapters with the following fourfold presentation of Christ in relation to the believer on earth:
Chapter 1: Christ is our Life, the Basis of Like-mindedness;
Chapter 2: Christ is our Example in Humble-mindedness;
Chapter 3: Christ is our Object in Single-mindedness;
Chapter 4: Christ is our Strength in Heavenly-mindedness.
We shall now consider the contribution of each chapter in turn to the answering of the problem of assembly disunity.
In chapter 1 Paul explains to the Philippian saints why he himself was able to rejoice in spite of his own imprisonment and the wrong motives of some of the local preachers of the gospel. It was that, in the words of 1. 21, 'for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain'; Christ was his one and only reason for living as he had said in 1. 20; it was his hope that 'as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death'. This is the basis of Christian joy, and so the basis of practical unity in the assembly. We need to ask ourselves whether Christ is the focal point of our lives. If so, natural differences of temperament, education, and experience from our fellow-believers will not hinder our fellowship in the gospel.
In chapter 2 1 Paul proceeds to state the basis of like-mindedness among all true believers. This verse points out that every believer has a new nature and a common spiritual heritage in Christ which should outweigh all differences connected with the old nature. This common heritage consists in:
i. The union of every believer with Christ. We are all 'in Christ', members of His body the church by new birth and baptism in the Holy Spirit;
ii. The characteristic feature of the Christian faith, the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the indwelling Spirit;
iii. Fellowship with God's Holy spirit, and thus with God Himself;
iv. Tender and affectionate feelings in our new natures for each other as fellow-believers in Christ, however different we may be in our old natures.
This spiritual affinity between true believers is the basis of like-mindedness in the way we apply the principles of scripture to our lives and the work of the Lord in any given locality, so that there can be real local expression of the truth of the church as the Body of Christ.
In the remainder of chapter 2 Paul presents the truth that humble-mindedness is the key to like-mindedness in situations where no breach of clear scripture is at stake, but rather where differences have arisen over how broad principles of scripture should be applied. Selfless subordination of purely personal feelings in the matter and mutual tolerance are here the way to achieve practical unity. This principle is explained, first, by the supreme example of Christ Himself, but then by three further examples, namely those of Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus. All exhibited a selfless humble-mindedness that thinks of others as more important than oneself and that does not stand upon what might legitimately be thought of as our natural rights.
The significance of Christ's example in His incarnation, death, and resurrection as outlined in chapter 2. 5-11 maybe paraphrased as follows: Although as a Person in the Godhead He held rights over His creation as God, He did not stand upon those rights. He was content to take less than his due, and willingly chose to serve as a bondslave in the lowest place, when He might rightly have been served in the very highest place. He became man, accepting the position of a dependent creature when He was the Creator, and was content to be known to all as a man. Even in manhood He deliberately took a humble place, born of a lowly virgin and working as a carpenter in a despised region of the country. But, more than that He became obedient to the point of dying, accepting man's position of accountability and responsibility to God to a degree far beyond that in which He naturally stood even as perfectly sinless Man. He accepted the ultimate shame of a criminal outcast's death on a cross undeservedly. And having done that He did not vindicate Himself, as He rightly might, but waited for God to vindicate Him in His own time in resurrection; and in all this time His one aim and object was not His own glory but the glory of God His Father'.
This self-denying humility is far beyond our normal experience even as believers, but we are told to have this attitude of mind that was in Christ Jesus, and the three further examples later in the chapter prove that this is a possibility for us. Certainly, when selfless humility is found in us, then all needless causes of disunity in assembly fellowship will be removed.
In chapter 3 Christ is presented as our sole object or ambition in life. Single-mindedness in pursuing our personal relationship with Christ is seen to be the only way to a spiritual maturity that will remove natural causes of division in the assembly. Disunity is evidence of immaturity in the assembly's corporate life. Paul here lists all his natural advantages of birth, education, and attainment, and then says that, in order to advance in his personal relationship with Christ, he had first to discount them all and stand before God and man simply as a redeemed and justified sinner saved by grace, one who rejoiced in Christ Jesus and had no confidence in the flesh. If Christ is our one ambition in life, then the pride as well as the degradation of the old nature in us will not hinder our fellowship until the Saviour Himself removes it for ever at His coming and gives us perfect new bodies like His own.
In chapter 4 Christ is presented as our strength, the source of spiritual power and the provider of our human needs. 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me', says Paul. This is the key verse in the chapter. Heavenly-mindedness, dependence upon Christ in glory in prayer, is the means of protection from anxiety and of the supply of every thing material and spiritual that we really need. For anxiety about our difficulties can cause distress and disharmony in assembly fellowship. The answer to anxiety is prayer and concentration in our thought life upon all the good things of this world and our spiritual blessings in Christ. For in answer to prayer God's peace will protect us from the attacks of the enemy upon our minds, and when we are constantly thinking about Christlike things and drawing upon His resources in every situation, He enables us to learn acceptance of our lot and perfect contentment in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. A Christian who is looking to the Lord to supply his needs can accept both wealth and poverty from His hand and use the trial to prove the power and sufficiency of Christ. What Paul had proved in his own life we can prove in ours, 'My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus'; so that anxiety need not disturb our lives either individually, or corporately as an assembly.
Thus we have seen from the letter to the Philippians that personal rivalry, selfishness, pride and anxiety can all be disturbing factors in our lives, quite apart from clear moral or doctrinal errors, but we have also seen that if Christ is our only reason for wishing to go on living on earth, if He is our example of humble-mindedness, our single-minded object in all we strive for here, and if He is known as our all-sufficient strength, then the root causes of persona! disunity in the local assembly fellowship should be removed. Then the assembly will be able to give visible local expression to the world around us of that wonderful mystery of the church universal as the body of Christ, the one new Man functioning perfectly in response to the directions of our glorified Head in heaven.