Working on a good team doesn’t happen by accident. It’s natural for us to fight for our own way and do our own thing, but a good team is refreshing and effective. When it comes to teamwork, we can choose unity or division. We can choose to either do our own thing, or to lay ourselves aside in order to strengthen and benefit the team’s mission.
The church in Philippi was divided. Two of the leading women in the church, Euodia (yoo-oh-dee-ah) and Syntyche (sin-tih-key), were fighting and the Apostle Paul wasn’t happy about it. He publicly affirms both of them, but then essentially tells people to lock them in a room until they learn to get along again (Phil. 4:3). Paul’s message is essentially this: “The ministry of the gospel is more important than your disagreement. Figure this out and make it work.” Since they are both united to Christ, they are exhorted to be “of the same mind in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2).
Isn’t that a message we need today, after such a contentious election? To acknowledge that we have differences and disagreement, but we need to learn how to be of the same mind because we are both united in Christ. The gospel is what bonds us together and makes us family, why should we allow our differences to overpower Christian unity?
A Call for Faithful Unity
Instead of giving in to the fear that drives us apart, Paul urges the Philippian Christians to rejoice and come before the Lord with thanksgiving, presenting their prayers and requests before the Lord. Rather than living full of fear and anxiety, they are reminded of the peace of God which guards their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus just as a soldier guards his assignment.
The following is one of the most commonly memorized portions of Scripture, and yet we rarely consider its context: Paul’s plea for unity in the midst of conflict.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
(Philippians 4:6–8 NIV11)
Seasons of conflict breed great anxiety and stress for everyone involved. Instead of giving into the anxiety, Paul simply says, “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” How often do we give our mind over to our worries instead of filling our mind with confidence in the promise of God. After all, the God of peace is guarding our hearts and minds – and that should count for something!
Remember, Paul doesn’t write this while sitting on the beach. Instead, he himself writes these words while in prison because of his own gospel-minsitry. He has experienced great opposition. He is practicing what he’s preaching.
The call for unity is never fulfilled quickly or easily. Time is invested, not merely words (“get over it and just agree together”). We listen to and love one another in the midst of the conflict, and it is that posture which leads towards reconciliation.
Christian unity is a demonstration of the power and hope of the gospel. It is a living witness to the power of the gospel to bring together that which is otherwise very different. One only needs to look on social media to see how easily conflict and division can be stirred up. My prayer is that people would see something different among Christians.
What About Our Legitimate Differences?
When we are divided, we are declaring that our differences are more important that our common faith in Christ Jesus. Yes, there are times when we agree to partner by doing different things, but we must do so out of an expression of unity, not strife or resentment. What about the issues that genuinely cause division?
Here are a few questions to consider:
- Does this issue change the message or centrality of the gospel? Are the 5 Sola’s effected in any way? If so, then the gospel is being impacted more than you initially realize. This is a problem. We are always called to love, but Christians are not united with those who reject the gospel.
- Is there clear biblical teaching addressing this conflict? If so, then you need to heed what the Bible teaches. In other places, Paul is very clear about matters of church discipline. He doesn’t sweep every conflict under the rug, saying, “It doesn’t matter, just work it out and get along.”
- Is there simply an incompatible mission? This doesn’t mean it’s an unbiblical mission, but it is different from the mission God has given me. In this sense, division isn’t as much in play as distinction or difference. Faithfulness to God’s call to ministry has many forms, this question helps discern where unity is a unity-in-diversity rather than an active-partnership.
A Look in the Mirror
We all need to look in the mirror before we point any fingers. As we reflect on Paul’s plea for faithful unity around the gospel, we need to be honest enough to confess our own shortcomings.
- Is there someone in the church with whom I need to seek reconciliation for the sake of gospel-partnership?
- When I consider my prayer-life, does it reflect a rejoicing and thankful heart, or a worried and anxious one?
- Reflecting on the promise that “the peace of God will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus” (v.7) … How might my attitude and actions be different if I truly rested in the promise that I am secure in Christ?
America is in a season where we are more divided than any other period in my lifetime. There is hurt and anger and fear on multiple sides of the political aisle. Mud is flying and names are being called.
If we’ve been united with Christ by faith, then we’re united in him… together. And that should make a real difference in how we approach our differences.
We need to stand together, across everything else that divides us, because the promise of the gospel is greater than anything else that brings division.
[Note: This is based off a sermon I am preaching on Sunday, Nov. 13 at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Norfolk, MA. Within a few days after, you may find the sermon audio on the church’s website. ]