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Paul’s letter to Philippi is often mined for theological statements on Christology, but that was not the main purpose of the letter.  Certainly Phil 2:5-11 is perhaps one of the most foundational statements on the nature of Christ, but the reason Paul included the words of this hymn in his letter is to serve his point that the followers of Christ ought to be unified. 

Early in the letter Paul praises the church at Philippi for being his “partners” in the preaching of the Gospel (1:5).  This word has certainly been over-used in corporate America and (sadly) as a ministry description.  I hear ministry leaders say “we are partnering with another ministry” as a way of describing the joining of material resources to get some particular job done.  The Greek κοινωνία (koinonia) does have the sense of pooling resources, but that is not the sense in Philippians.  Notice that in Phil 2:1 the church has “fellowship with the Spirit.”  This is not an even-handed sharing of resources; the church is completely dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s point is that within the Body of Christ, there must be some basic unity.  In 2:1 he says that all believers ought to “think the same thing” or “be of one mind.”  This is indeed the goal of much of the ethical teaching which follows and is the point of using the example of Christ’s humility in 2:5-11. Christ set aside the very nature of God and took on the nature of human flesh. He is therefore the best example to the members of the church of how they ought to serve one another.

That unity, however, obviously does have some boundaries since Paul does identify some people (perhaps) within the church who are “outside” what it means to be a Christian.  These “dogs” and “evildoers” pervert the Gospel and therefore are condemned as a destructive influence.  We can comb through all of Paul’s letters and find many examples of “false teachers” which are condemned as being outside of the “unity” of the Body of Christ.  The one who perverts the gospel no longer is “in fellowship” or “in partnership” with the Church.

I have often had discussions with students about the potential unity of the modern church.  Usually this comes down to doctrinal statements and denominations.  The modern (Protestant) church has doctrinal statements in order to draw lines around their group and define who is “in fellowship” and who is not.  Some doctrinal statements are brief; others are historic Confessions of Faith with detailed arguments supporting theological statements.

I have the sense that there are two “minds” of the modern college student.  One group wants as “light” a doctrinal statement as possible in order to draw people to Jesus. The model is Jesus, who turned no one away but ate and drank with all sorts of sinners. I have the sense that some people would spend more time defining worship or describing the social interactions within a church than defining doctrine. In this model, anyone could be “in fellowship” with the church as long as they did not complain about the style of music used in the worship service!

On the other hand, there seems to be a solid movement among the twenty-somethings to “return to the Reformation” and define doctrine rather precisely.  Consequently I see occasional stereo-typical angry young Calvinists with copies of John Piper’s latest book declaring people to be heretics for not being Calvinist enough.

Obviously I am painting this picture as two extremes, most people fall in between.  Paul did push for unity, but Paul also called people “dogs and evildoers” and urged his churches to put people out if they did not “have the same mind.”  How can we have unity in the church and guard doctrine and practice?

In the days leading up to Pentecost, Luke describes the disciples of Jesus as being of “one mind.” This nouns (ὁμοθυμαδόν) is repeated in 2:46 (translated simply as “together” in the ESV) and 4:24 to describe the worship of the apostolic community. As Keener notices, the word forms an inclusio, framing the events of Pentecost with the idea of the unity of this early community of believers (Acts, 1:751). In fact, the unity of the early community is an important theme in Acts.

The word means “one passion” (ὁμός, “common,” and θυμός, “passion, anger”), and can be used for any group that has a single interest, whether for good or bad. For example, in Acts 8:6 it describes the crowd paying close attention to Philip the Evangelist). In Acts 15:25 the word is used for the unanimous decision of the Jerusalem council.

The shoe is the sign. Let us follow His example.

The shoe is the sign.
Let us follow His example.

But the word is not always positive since the crowd in Acts 7:57 were also “of one mind” when rushed out to stone Stephen, in 18:12 for the Corinthian Jewish attack on Paul, and in 19:29 for the mob in Ephesus which rushed into the theater to (potentially) persecute Gaius and his companions. and 12:20 (political parties in agreement). It can even be used quite generically, as in Acts 5:12 where it simply has the sense of the word is simple “together.”

The idea of unity is important for Paul in his letters. In Phil 1:27, for example, he urges the readers to “be of one mind.” In Col 3:14 Paul tells his readers to “put on love” since that will bind them together in “perfect harmony.” There are examples in the Hebrew Bible of people coming together as “one person” (Ezra 3:1, Neh 8:1). The Greco-Roman world thought that harmony was a virtue, Dio Chrysostom said “For when we praise human beings, it should be for their good discipline, gentleness, concord, civic order, for heeding those who give good counsel, and for not being always in search of pleasures” (Or. 32.37).

In the first century, groups that were peaceful and harmonious were attractive, no one would join a movement which was perceived as fragmented and tempestuous. The reason that Luke highlights unity throughout the book is that unity and harmony where attractive to the Greco-Roman world. Luke presents the community in Jerusalem as unified around certain beliefs about Jesus as well as a few practices (prayer, sharing meals together, etc.)

If there is anything in the earliest community of followers of Jesus which ought to be a model for all churches, it is this unity of mind and purpose. It is fairly easy to point to church splits or denominationalism as symptoms of a larger problem. Everyone knows of a church which has been through a split, a pastor who was divisive, or a denomination which seems designed to fight with other Christians. It quite easy to point the finger at Fred Phelps (someone I do not consider a Christian). There are plenty examples of disunity in churches I respect.

But the early community did separate on some theological issues, primarily who Jesus was, and later in the book of Acts there will be significant differences between Paul and other Jews on the issue of Gentile salvation. While Acts 15 is sometimes used as a prime example of unity, there are some serious differences between the parties even in that point in story of Acts. This means that there are some things that are intensely important, things that unify Christians everywhere. It also means there are less-important issues. How can the church of the twenty-first century use the unity of the believers in Acts as a model for “doing church” today? What is it that ought to unify us, what might separate us?

My guess is that the things with unify are more important that the things which separate.

Paul’s letter to Philippi is often mined for theological statements on Christology, but that was not the main purpose of the letter.  Certainly Phil 2:5-11 is perhaps one of the most foundational statements on the nature of Christ, but the reason Paul included the words of this hymn in his letter is to serve his point that the followers of Christ ought to be unified.

Early in the letter Paul praises the church at Philippi for being his “partners” in the preaching of the Gospel (1:5).  This word has certainly been over-used in corporate America and (sadly) as a ministry description.  I hear ministry leaders say “we are partnering with another ministry” as a way of describing the joining of material resources to get some particular job done.  The Greek κοινωνία (koinonia) does have the sense of pooling resources, but that is not the sense in Philippians.  Notice that in Phil 2:1 the church has “fellowship with the Spirit.”  This is not an even-handed sharing of resources, the church is completely dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s point is that within the Body of Christ, there must be some basic unity.  In 2:1 he says that all believers ought to “think the same thing” or “be of one mind.”  This is indeed the goal of much of the ethical teaching which follows and the point his the example of Christ’s humility in 2:5-11. The humble service of Christ, who set aside the very nature of God and took on the nature of human flesh, is an example to the members of the church of how they ought to serve one another.

That unity, however, obviously does have some boundaries since Paul does identify some people (perhaps) within the church who are “outside” what it means to be a Christian.  These “dogs” and “evildoers” pervert the Gospel and therefore are condemned as a destructive influence.  We can comb through all of Paul’s letters and find many examples of “false teachers” which are condemned as being outside of the “unity” of the Body of Christ.  The one who perverts the gospel no longer is”in fellowship” or “in partnership” with the Church.

I have often had discussions with students about the potential Unity of the modern church.  Usually this comes down to doctrinal statements and denominations.  The modern (Protestant) church has doctrinal statements in order to draw lines around their group and define who is “in fellowship” and who is not.  Some doctrinal statements are brief, such as the Evangelical Theological Society (basically Inerrancy of Scripture and Trinity).  Others are rather detailed historic Confessions with detailed arguments supporting theological statements.  Maybe a group uses the Nicene Creed plus their own “special” emphases.

I have the sense that there are two “minds” of the modern college student.  One group wants as “light” a doctrinal statement as possible in order to draw people to Jesus.  The model is Jesus, who turned no one away but ate and drank with all sorts of sinners.  In fact, I have the sense that some people would spend more time defining how worship ought to happen and describing the social interactions within a church than defining doctrine.  In this model, just about everyone can be in fellowship with the church.

On the other hand, there seems to be a solid movement among the twenty-somethings to “return to the Reformation” and define doctrine rather precisely.  Consequently I see occasional stereo-typical angry young Calvinists with copies of John Piper’s latest book declaring people to be heretics for not being Calvinist enough.

Obviously I am painting this picture as two extremes, most people fall in between.  Paul did push for unity, but Paul also called people “dogs and evildoers” and urged his churches to put people out if they did not “have the same mind.”  How can we have unity in the church and guard doctrine and practice?

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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