In 1985 it was estimated that there were 22,000 Christian denominations with 5 new ones forming each week. If those numbers held true we should be at about 28,000 today. I am not sure how those numbers were arrived at or what constituted one church being different from another to count as separate denominations but even if there were only 25 or 50 denominations that would be too many.
We are not sure how much division there was in the Philippian church but we do know of two members Paul encouraged to be in agreement (Euodia and Syntyche – 4:2). Starting in 1:27 Paul begins his appeal to Christian unity. He writes about them being in “one Spirit” (1:27), their “striving together” (1:28), and being “in one accord” (1:28) even in suffering and opposition (1:29-20).
In 2:1 Paul continues his plea for their unity. Notice in the first verse he talks about them and God:
- “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ”
- “if any comfort from his love”
- “if any tenderness and compassion”
He then moves to how a unified relationship with God/Christ that is characterized by tenderness and compassion should result in unified relationships with each other. It is easy to have tenderness and compassion for Christ. He has done so much for us! But it doesn’t stop there. It is made complete when what we have experienced with Christ is reciprocated and lived out with others, “then make my joy complete by [doing this]:
- “being like minded”
- “having the same love”
- “being one in spirit and of one mind”
and by avoiding this:
- “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit”
Then he pens one of the most difficult verses in the entire New Testament. Not difficult because it is hard to translate or hard to exegete. It is difficult because it dismantles life as we know it. These words are read with hesitancy because we know that if we take them seriously life will never be the same again, “Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (TNIV). On this verse F.F. Bruce wrote,
The simplicity of Paul’s language should not blind us to its difficulty. Those who really try to consider others better than themselves soon discover that this does not come naturally. It is too easy to introduce permissible exceptions to Paul’s rule…There is a tendency, for example, to think one’s own denomination better than others, to the point of imagining that God himself is better pleased with it than he is with others (and therefore, surely, better pleased with me for belonging to mine than he is with others for belonging to theirs.). No such exceptions are permissible where true humility reigns.
I appreciate what Bruce has to say and I know that what I am about to say is pie in the sky but I also believe it is what Jesus intended and so I am going to say it anyway – If we had the attitude of Christ and practiced what Paul is talking about here in Philippians, the only thing we would call a denomination are different types of coins. I know you have probably heard dozens of lessons on this passage or at least read it many times. I just want to point out a few things that if we really lived out would change Christianity and the world as we know it.
Christ was God. He had all the privilege and authority. But he didn’t use that to his own advantage. Society teaches us that you are to use everything at your disposal to promote yourself and your own agenda. Not so with Christ. He who was supreme and had everything became nothing and had nothing. He who had every right to be served came as a servant. The one who had every right to be proud and boast about himself humbled himself even to the point of death. And the question is, in light of all of that, how many of us can say we are better or more worthy of honor and getting our way than Christ was? None of us can say that. If the one who was able to get his own way refused it, who are we to selfishly chase after our own desires at everyone else’s expense? We can’t. Instead we are to die to our own arrogance and our own selfishness on a daily basis and instead we are to hold up others above ourselves. Death almost sounds easier than that! Oh, we are called to that too! If we lived like this division would be a thing of the past and we would all seek out Christ first and foremost.
What is the secret to Christian unity? Living out the example of Christ (humility, servanthood, and death to self) and removing all obstacles to making that happen (selfish ambition and vain conceit). Only then will our tenderness, compassion, and unity with God translate into tenderness, compassion, and unity with each other. One last bit of motivation. Have a look at John 17:20-23 and find out how the world will know about Jesus and will start to love his disciples.