Perhaps you thought Paul was finished with the topic of unity that he addressed in his epistle to the church in Philippi and that, consequently, we were finished as well. Not quite, in either case. Paul has completed his brief treatise on unity, being essentially a list of the principles which, when faithfully applied (i.e., lived) in the spirit of Christ, result in the unity that Christ died in order to produce in the church.
But one genius of the epistolary form is that a letter can freely and naturally combine various genres or multiple forms of address. One moment it may offer a sermon, the next moment a word of thanksgiving and praise, later a list of spiritual principles or doctrinal truths, then a prayer or poem. And always it is directed to real people with specific sins, problems, and needs that must be addressed. In other words, the doctrinal passages and the principles offered for the proper ordering of the lives of individual believers and the church as a body are offered with a “built-in” audience of recipients—people to whom or through whom the message of the letter may be applied. Such is the case regarding Paul’s discourse on unity written to the Philippian believers. How do these principles work in real life? How do we go about applying them? We need only to continue reading the epistle to discover practical applications demonstrated for us.
The positive application of the principles of unity. Paul is in prison and cannot minister directly to the saints in Philippi. So what does he do? Selflessly foregoing the comfort of his only truly “kindred spirit” (2:20), Timothy, Paul promises to send his young protégé to minister to them. The apostle, in a genuine demonstration of the spirit and behavior that produces unity, sets aside his own consolation in order to serve the needs of his brethren. But that is not all: Timothy will not be sent immediately, so Paul promises to send Epaphroditus, whom he calls “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier . . . and minister to my need” (v. 25). The Spirit of the Lord is so vibrant in Paul that he is willing to forfeit the fellowship of this godly companion for the sake of his brethren in Philippi. And Epaphras, though he had come “close to death for the work of Christ” (v. 30), was himself eager to go to Philippi because he was “distressed” on account of hearing that they “had heard that he was sick” (v. 26)! When that kind of selfless love, that deeming of others as more important than self, and that concern for the interests of others becomes mutual, then the unity that God desires the church to share will thrive. We need go no further than the examples Paul offers in this epistle to discover how to apply the truths on unity that he has given us by the Spirit.
The negative application of the principles of unity. Negative, that is, only in deference to the fact that the flesh finds exhortations and rebukes unpleasant. Of course, this “negative” example, if followed will have positive and blessed results. Paul writes simply, succinctly, and directly: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel” (4:2, 3). Here are two women, who apparently have had a personal dispute or falling out, because, as several commentators have noted, had the issue been doctrinal, Paul would have dealt with the error. Two women have disturbed the unity of the body, so Paul calls them out gently but publicly as it appears that their dissension has become a public and divisive matter within the larger congregation. They have been faithful godly women who have, for the moment, forsaken the unity of spirit that honors the Lord and should characterize a body of believers. The fact that they have been both godly and faithful does not inoculate them against Paul’s gentle reprimand because a God-honoring unity is of paramount importance in the local church. It is not enough, Paul demonstrates, to wish and hope for unity, not even enough to teach and preach unity. In fact, when unity is broken, the cause must be addressed specifically and even as publicly as necessary in order to eradicate the sin that has brought on the disharmony and to restore the blessings of genuine fellowship.
The Lord is earnest for genuine godly, scriptural unity within His body. Need we say more?
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