By Mike Willis
The unity of local churches must be preserved. One reputable preacher among our liberal brethren is reported to have said that very few churches exist 25 years without having at least one major conflict resulting in a division. Whether that is absolutely true or not, my limited experience confirms that it is near enough to be being true to be of concern to each of us.
The problem is not new; divisions also occurred in first century churches. Most of us are aware of the divisions in the church at Corinth; we may not be as aware of the threat of division in the church at Philippi. In the four short chapters of that book, Paul exhorted that the church preserve its unity in four different places (1:27; 2:2; 3:15; 4:2). The problem in Philippi, like that in most church divisions today, was not doctrinal. Division was threatened by brethren who were unspiritual, if not carnal. Such is more likely the case among us today. A study of these four Scriptures may help us ward off division in the local church.
Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.
This passage exhorts Christians to stand fast in a common element (one spirit – not the Holy Spirit, but the human spirit) to maintain the unity of Christians. The oneness of the spirit is “the perfect accord of their minds in conviction, volition, and feeling” which “presents the appearance of one spirit which the various persons have in common” (H.A.W. Meyer 42). This spirit existed in the church at Jerusalem, for Luke records, “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul” (Acts 4:32). They “continued daily with one accord” (Acts 2:46). This bonding of brethren is necessary for the preservation of the unity of the local church.
Some churches lack oneness of spirit because they have strong-willed brethren pushing to get their own way. Where this occurs, there may exist three or four parties within the local church, each vying with the other for control of the church. (Do a word study of the works of the flesh, “strife, seditions, heresies,” in Galatians 5:20 to learn the progressive development of division in a local church.) The congregation may continue meeting together for a time, but there is no meshing of the gears together, no oneness of spirit; instead, there is strife, factions, and division.
If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, or one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
The motives for unity in the local church are our consolation in Christ, the comfort of our love one to another, our fellowship of the Spirit and our bowels (of compassion) and mercies toward one another. As we think of these precious blessings available to us in the local church, we should work to attain and maintain the unity of the local congregation. The psalmist described the blessedness of unity as follows:
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments.
As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore (Psa. 133).
The blessedness of this unity should cause us to “give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Therefore, we should be likeminded, which is further defined as having the same love toward one another and being of one accord to each other. This is destroyed by strife and vainglory. Strife (from eritheian) means “a desire to put one’s self forward, a partisan and factious spirit which does not disdain low arts; partisanship, factiousness” (Thayer 249). The word was “used of those who electioneer for office, courting popular applause by trickey and low arts.”
Perhaps you have seen this spirit at work in the local church. A man who is bent on having his own way begins politicking among the brethren to line up a coterie of followers who might look toward him as their leader. When he has enough power to push his way over the objections of others, such a man will make his move to seize control of the church.
The word vainglory (from kenodoxian) means “glorying without reason, conceited, vain-glorious, eager for empty glory.” There is a spirit which sometimes manifests itself among brethren in which a man desires to exalt himself. He would rather be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond. Arrogance and conceit destroy the unity of the local church. Where arrogant, conceited brethren are, the peace of the church is threatened. Sometimes vainglorious men seize control of the church and dominate it with their high-handed rule, lording it over the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Humble men can take only so much of this kind of rule before they rise up in rebellion against the arrogant. The cause of such church troubles is not the humble men who rise in rebellion but the arrogant, conceited brethren who trample under foot the consciences, wishes and desires of others.
As a preventive to division caused by arrogant brethren, Paul instructed brethren to manifest “lowliness of mind” and to “esteem others better than themselves.” Where brethren imitate the humility of Jesus, the sacrificing of his best interests in order to secure the best interests of others, division will not occur (Phil. 2:4-5). The humble mind cannot co-exist with the selfishness which has its own bests interests foremost in its mind.
Every brother should “esteem other better than themselves.” Contrast this with that spirit of strife which is bent on having its own way at all costs. Every man should look out for what is best for others, rather than promoting his own selfish interests. Where this spirit of cooperation exists, unity and peace will prevail.
Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.
Paul exhorts the Christians not to deviate from the revelation which they already have received, but to continue walking according to divine revelation. This might be illustrated as follows:
A ———————————————————B ——————————————————– D
The person who is walking the line from A to B should continue the line from B to D, not deviating to C or E. To do so would be to change one’s direction, to head in a different way.
We need to “mind the same thing.” So long as Christians resolve to abide in the doctrine of Christ, there will be unity. Those who depart from the doctrine of Christ trouble churches (Gal. 1:7) and cause division.
I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.
Paul referred to two sisters in the church at Philippi who were having conflict. He exhorted them to “be of the same mind” because their differences were troubling the church. Sometimes the unity of the local church is destroyed by women who have conflict one with another. Perhaps one did not invite the other to her Tupperware or Home Interiors party; maybe one gossipped about the other; perhaps one was caustic in her speech and hurt the other sister’s feelings. We will never know what the circumstance was which created the dissension. We only know that it was damaging the unity of a good church.
When two or more sisters “lock horns” in a local church, it still destroys and damages the unity of the local church. Sometimes the tension is noticed by all and transmitted to others (“if you are her friend, you are not my friend”). For the sake of the peace of the local church, let every brother and sister “be of the same mind in the Lord.”
The unity of the local church is precious. We must not allow carnal men to destroy local churches by their political self-assertion. God-fearing brethren, in a spirit of true humility, must stop the spread of strife and vainglory before it destroys the local church.
Let us resolve to grow spiritually. Let us be Christ-like. This is the best preventive to discord and division. Let us receive the rebuke of spiritual men, making correction wherein we are out of step with God’s word. Because of the consolation which we have in Christ, the comfort of love, the fellowship of the Spirit, and the bowels of compassion and mercies, let us have the same love one toward another, show true humility, and esteem others better than ourselves.
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 8, pp. 258, 277
May 2, 1991