“If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, make my joy complete by thinking the same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.”-Philippians 2:1-2
I don’t know how to quantify it officially, but it feels like our culture is more divided than we’ve ever been. Just imagine walking into your local coffee shop and asking, “What do you think about Trump/masks/vaccines/riots?” I guess then you should imagine ducking for cover.
The church is not immune to these cultural divides, but it seems this round of divisive issues has been particularly damaging to church unity. Should we be dividing over Trump? Masks? Vaccines? The short answer is no. This is not to say these issues are not important or complex. They are, and they require careful wisdom as we weigh them, but they are not the basis of our unity.
The church must demand of ourselves nothing less than unqualified unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Politics and COVID have created an “either/or” environment in our culture, and we must rise above the fray and refuse to divide. But how? By focusing on the gospel.
The danger of division is not new to the church. The church at Philippi was facing issues of division when the apostle Paul wrote Philippians (from jail). In Philippians 2:1 he offers four compact conditional clauses that bring into focus the kind of community Jesus has created in the church. These four benefits of life in the church setup his call for unity in the gospel. He rhetorically asks,
1. Is there encouragement in Christ? Yes! In spite of reasons to be discouraged in our lives, in Christ we find encouragement in his love seen in his sacrificial provision for us that results in eternal blessing. Paul may have in the mind the specific scenario of believers reminding other believers of Christ’s love in the context of the gathered church. We stand together encouraged in Christ because of the gospel.
2. Is there consolation from the love of God and the love of believers? Yes! This comfort is a unique function of love that is not conditioned on attractiveness or performance. No matter how we look or how we fail, God’s love for us is stable and our acceptance in the body of Christ is eternal.
3. Is there fellowship with one another based on the fact that the same Spirit dwells in us? Fellowship here means cooperation. We are on the same team—team gospel.
4. Is there love and compassion for one another in the church? There must be. God’s design for the church is that his love for us will produce grace-based love between us. When we need love and care we find it in the unity of the church. The gospel produces this remarkable selfless love that sets aside divisions and puts the body of Christ first.
In light of these refreshing truths Paul then commands, “make my joy complete by thinking the same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” How is the apostolic heart made joyful? By unity.
Unity is a result of “thinking the same way.” In Philippians that means valuing the gospel above all else (cf. Philippians 1:27). Unity means choosing to live by unconditional love for others in the church. Unity means being united in worldview/attitude by living out the mission of the church. Unity means choosing to prioritize one purpose, namely living as citizens of the gospel for the glory of God.
We could divide over so much, but God commands us choose to unite under the gospel of Jesus Christ. What then shall we do about our different views on Trump, masks, vaccines etc.? We must downgrade their importances in our hearts.
- Some Christians think Trump lost the election fair and square. Others believe that there were enough irregularities in the voting in some states to warrant suspicion. Both must stand shoulder to shoulder on Sundays singing praise to Jesus.
- Some Christians believe mask mandates are the best way to love our neighbors. Others believe that mask mandates are based on faulty science and are oppressive. Both groups must gather in unity on Sunday and receive the Lord’s Supper because both are sinners saved by faith in the same shed blood.
- Some Christians believe it is helpful and wise to get a COVID vaccine while others believe it is wise to wait until these vaccines have been more thoroughly tested. Both groups must sit together on a Sunday morning, open their Bibles, and receive the Word of God in unity.
We could cite further examples of issues on which the church could divide—schooling preferences, congregational music style preferences, Sunday dress codes, perspectives on alcohol use for Christians, and so on. But unity in the church is not optional. It is essential. We must decide to remain united in the gospel for the glory of God and his kingdom.