Unity and Fellowship in Philippians

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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?