Unity and Fellowship in Philippians

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?

12 thoughts on “Unity and Fellowship in Philippians

  1. First of all, I think it is pretty much impossible for us humans to have unity. Our sin nature is constantly fighting for our attention, which makes is next to impossible for us to get along with or respectively live with someone we disagree with all of the time. However, God makes a way for us to come close to having unity (despite disagreements we may have) – His son! The only way we are going to come close to unity within the church is if we give up our selfish desires and really focus on what God taught us in the Bible and what His Spirit is revealing to us now. As far as having unity and guarding the doctrine, I think it could look different depending on where you are in the world. Part of me doesn’t like the first “mind” you explained about having the “light” doctrine, but at the same time I think some areas might need that in order for people to even consider it. But then that raises the question of whether or not that person is really serious about their faith if it takes something that “light” or easy to decide to give their lives to Christ in the first place. Honestly, and this is going to sound like ‘that’ Sunday school answer, I think the only way we can have unity in the church and guard the doctrine and practice is to put all of our focus on what Christ calls us to do, what God has taught us, and what the Spirit is teaching us now.

  2. There will always be controversy in the church, no matter what the issue is. The congregation will take sides and eventually begin debating certain situations that may not even be effecting them. As Loverin taught us in Ethics, the mission of the church is to be itself. I believe that this means that we need to fix ourselves and understand OUR mission before we can actually achieve unity within the church. Like Ellie said, the idea of unity among people in the church seems far fetched. But I personally believe that if unity is wanted, we as Christians need to be open to that and not focus on irrelevant differing opinions. This means loving one another unconditionally, no matter what denomination (I know, this seems to be too much to ask), not letting different doctrines get in the way of that, and using the spiritual gifts that we are given by God when we hand over our lives to him.

  3. As Christ followers, “one body”, we should strive for unity among all believers. Although, I think we should also guard doctrine and practice. We need to find the balance between the two. It is important to fellowship with one another outside of our own doctrinal statements and denominations. When Paul talked about the body as one unit he did not just mean within our own church fellowshipping group. We are supposed to connect with all believers and followers of Jesus. Polhill talks about the Philippians and how they wanted to be unified, but he said this can only be done when, “they were willing to surrender their own self-concerns in concern for others, as had been the case with Timothy, Epaphroditus…and Christ” (Polhill, 172). This is true for our churches today, we can only be one body when we surrender our own issues and concerns and care about the other people who are in the body of Christ. However, just because we are unified with one another in Christ, it does not mean that we have to through away our doctrinal beliefs or take on another group’s doctrine. We can be one body without completely agreeing with one other on doctrinal issues.

  4. In the beginning of the acts we see the believers get together and they seem to be one mind taking care of the poor, selling of their stuff, and meeting the needs of the people something that through the spirit at least at one time seemed possible. Often in today’s culture we get caught up in music and denominational fights that when it comes down too don’t hold a valid reason to fight, but i don’t think that makes it impossible to be of one mind. I would submit its a willingness of the people to be spirit led outside of a denominational church as believers to reach for a common goal. A great modern day example of this is summer camp. As a four year summer counselor vet, i have worked with many different types of Christians from pro life, kjv only, pro choice, liberal types, and much more with no problems or anger only one goal to give our group an encounter with Jesus Christ and help them come to understanding of who God is. In modern ministry we can guard against however those who are “evil doers” simply by praying and asking for discernment, background checks, interviews. These are all things that help the church stay above reproach and even training so people have ideas what they can and should do when faced with new and scary things.

  5. I believe that it is very hard to find complete unity in a church. I believe that there is always going to be someone or a group of people that feel that they are not unified with the church because of a small part of the church that they do not like. I do not think that we can all unify the church in the way that we need to. I feel that we have let the world come into our churches, and that therefore is tearing apart our unity in our church. In order to keep the doctrine of the church, but be unified I believe that it so hard to do this. We can follow the doctrine of the church, but there is always going to be a group of people in the church that want to add something or take something out because that is what is “typical” now in churches, and because that is not what the church doctrine says we cannot do it. I believe that we as Christians should never stop striving to become unified as the Body of Christ, but I believe that until we let the world view and what the world sees as what should be in the church now, out the door, and truly focus on what God wants and not what we want then we will only begin to unify the Body like it is supposed to be.

  6. You cannot force unity. Unity is a matter of the heart. If there is to be unity in the Church it has to start with the head. The head is Christ leading the Pastor. Then comes the rest of the body, the congregation. All the limbs have to cooperate in respect to the others parts for the body to function correctly. We can have unity in the church and guard doctrine by having diversity. By diversity I mean placing unique and different individuals with fresh perspectives in places of leadership so there can always be challenge through sharpening each others swords. Challenging each others beliefs through, kind, diligent, righteous, and unselfish desire to make the Church better.

  7. Speaking as a “twenty-something modern college student,” most of us are just far more confused by all of this that we care to admit. We see the way the majority of the previous generation has done it, and we’re not particularly attracted to it. We look at the way it’s been handled throughout history, and that doesn’t seem too appealing either. We want to understand what the initial intent for the church was when it was started, and get back to it. But that is a daunting task and we’re terrified because we don’t think we’re qualified; after all, far more educated people than us have tried and failed miserably right? There’s just so much information to assimilate that we don’t know what to do with it. We want the bickering to stop and for there to be unity in the church once again. We want people to understand what’s worth fighting over and what’s not. But we start sliding down the same path as many before us when we, without realizing it, start to hold our own preferences as nonnegotiable truth worth breaking company over.

  8. There is a fine line over the issue of Unity in the church. On one hand we need to strive for unity in all that we can. It is important to get along with each other in order to effectively share and spread the Gospel. If we can’t come to grounds with that, then we are not doing what we are called to as the body of Christ. On the other hand Paul makes some points in first Corinthians to basically break fellowship with Christians that are tearing the body of Christ apart. He speaks of a man in particular that was committing sexual immorality that would be vulgar for even the pagans, he told the Corinthian church to hand this man over to Satan even, these are powerful words. The whole issue of unity is a difficult one to grasp, especially as sinful humans with limited understanding. There are many cases where we simply have to learn to disagree agreeably so that we might save unity in spite of having slightly different convictions or beliefs.

  9. I think that this question of how can we have in the church and guard doctrine and practice, is a hard one for today’s world. we live in a society where we can live anyway we want and everything is ok and we should not judge. To a point I agree but there is a fine line between accepting people and going against doctrine. I do believe that we need to accept everyone, no matter where they come from but we do need to stick to the Word. I think the way we do this is to wait till the opportunity comes up. if there is something going on around thee church that may be a hinder to the church then it needs to be addressed immediately. But we need to do it with love. A lot of the time, we as Christians end to come off as better than everyone else. Paul was great at saying what needed to be said but also showing love to the people of the church and helping them with it. If we say what is right to do, we need to say it with love and bring some sort of application to it. Help them find out how to fix it.

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