Our conduct is often guided by who we are with and where we are at. We act one way at work and another way while standing in a checkout line. The different groups we belong to each have their own set of expectations or rules of conduct. Motorcycle riders have an expectation of “the wave” as they pass each other on the road. Campers have an expectation of helpfulness and of respecting the temporary boundaries of each other’s campsites. Parents have guidelines that specify what is helpful and what is off-limits when someone’s child is acting up in the canned goods section of the major mart. There are formally expressed workplace expectations from employers and informally understood ones between workers. Is it any wonder then that Paul said, “Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ.” (Philippians 1:27a, NLT)
In this, our fourth article in the series Walking Through Philippians, Paul begins the meat of his letter. The preliminaries of welcome, prayer, and personal update are finished. In the next four articles we’ll see Paul opening up what living or walking in a way worthy of Christ looks like. In Philippians 1:27-2:4 Paul talks about worthy conduct.
“Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News. Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it. Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” (Philippians 1:27–2:4, NLT)
Good and God-fearing folks have hung all kinds of expectations on Paul’s encouragement to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel. Expectations about clothes, jewelry, food and drink, hairstyles, demeanor, timeliness, and certain activities have been underscored with Paul’s words. To be perfectly frank, most of those are more cultural than Biblical. So, instead of hanging something on a verse that doesn’t belong let’s ask Paul. Take a look at verses 1:27-2:4 again. What kind of conduct do you think Paul is proposing for his readers?
In my mind Paul’s overriding thought in this section is the unity of believers. He expresses this in phrases such as – “standing together with one spirit and one purpose”, “fighting together for the faith”, “We are in this struggle together”, “make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other”, “loving one another”’, and “working together with one mind and purpose.” That’s what conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of Christ’s good news looks like. Elsewhere in the scriptures we are reminded that the body is made up of many parts, each having its own function. That there are a diversity of gifts, talents and abilities in God’s kingdom. Unity is not the same as uniformity. Outward attempts to enforce unity eventually steals the focus from what it should be. So, looking again at Philippians what do you think Paul wanted their focus to be?
Here’s what I see. Paul anchors worthy conduct in the Good News or the Gospel of Christ. He reminds his readers that because of the good news they “have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.” Their unity is to be anchored in the Good News of Jesus. Not only that they have received the truth of life-changing love and forgiveness because of Jesus’ sacrifice but also finding unity in letting others know as well. When the rules of our church, denomination, or group become the central focus we are not walking in the unity of Christ’s Good News. We may be unified but it will eventually fracture under its own weight. Anchoring our unity on the Gospel allows for great diversity without judgement. For instance, one may spread God’s Good News with “turn or burn” tracts, while another seeks to build bridges of friendship, while another fixes someone’s roof, while another offers comfort, while another prays, while another writes blog articles, while another plants seeds of truth, while another harvests, while another sings songs of praise, while another…. What did Paul say in our last lesson? “But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.” (Philippians 1:18, NLT) That’s the difference. I may not be able to share the good news like you do and watching you may even make me a bit uncomfortable. But if I look down on you with judgement then I have thrown unity out the window.
Now, Paul doesn’t leave us wondering how unity is to be nurtured and maintained. He gives us several attitudes and activities that encourage unity. Consider verses 2:2-4, what attitudes and actions does Paul encourage? The wording may vary depending on the translation but here’s what I see from the NLT. 1) Agreeing wholeheartedly. Agreeing without reservation with honesty and transparency. (I don’t’ think the hedge to “agree to disagree” is included in Paul’s thoughts. More in that in a moment.) 2) Loving one another. 3) Working together with one mind and purpose. I always visualize this as pulling in the same direction. 4) Don’t be selfish. 5) Don’t try to impress others. We should do our best out of an attitude of service and not one of empty pride. 6) Be humble, valuing others as better than ourselves. One way is to be willing to be wrong. 7) Look after your own interests but also take note, encourage, and participate in the interests of others as well. Wow! What would happen if we brought these attitudes and actions to our church, fellowship, or small group? We could always try it and find out.
Let’s talk for a moment about this “agreeing to disagree” thing I threw on the table. Think about it in terms of the seven attitudes and actions we just read through. I don’t think it fits at all! It usually means that one or both parties are so blinded by pride that they can’t see value in the other person or what they are saying. Keep in mind that we are talking about brothers and sisters in Christ. There are times we may need to “agree to disagree” with the world in order to maintain a bridge for the Gospel. When it comes to brothers and sisters in Christ though, this phrase is usually a cop-out. A way to say, I’m right and you’re wrong and I’m just not going to talk about it anymore. It’s a mind twisting picture of proclaiming unity in disunity. There are ways to disagree with grace; to recognize what the other person is saying and value their point of view without violating our own. We do have to be willing to be wrong, however, which is a gigantic risk. It also means being willing to invest time instead of just shoving something aside. “I recognize that we don’t see eye to eye on this right now. Will you give me some time to pray about it and consider what you are saying? Will you do the same? Can we talk about it again next week?” Of course the promise to pray, consider, and talk must be followed up on. It’s possible that the disagreement will stand. What happens next depends on more factors than we have the space to cover. In the end, you may need to agree for the sake of the Gospel to lay the disagreement aside. The difference is subtle but the effect is huge. You see, the first agrees on the disagreement. We are agreeing that we will never agree. The later is an agreement that the Good News of Christ is more important than our disagreement. There is whole hearted agreement, there is love for one another, we can still work together with one purpose, we’ve laid aside the selfish desire to win, we aren’t holding on to pride, we are humbly valuing each other, we are looking out for their interests as well as ours. Give it a try the next time you’re in one of those “we seem to be stuck” moments.
We’ve covered a lot of ground so let’s summarize. Find unity in the Gospel of Jesus. There may be huge differences if the way the Gospel is presented but rejoice. Avoid building unity on anything other than the Good News of Christ. Grow unity by maintaining the seven attitudes and actions listed above. By doing this we will be conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of God’s kingdom in all that we do even when we disagree. This kind of unity is itself a witness to the world about the Good News of Christ. We have been given the privilege of trusting Jesus and also the privilege of suffering for him. Sometimes, perhaps more often than we’d like to admit, that means the sacrifice of our pride. Are you willing to bear that cost to see God’s Kingdom come?
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