We are one in the Spirit

Conflict in the church? Heaven forbid. But if you’ve hung around congregations long enough, especially in a leadership role, you know that difference and disagreement are a fact of congregational life. The issues can be minor, with people getting into tiffs and grousing their way through committee meetings. They can be major, resulting in the departure of members of staff. And what we often don’t realize is the the minor stuff can become major over time, if it’s not handled well.

As we’ve seen, one of the reasons for Paul’s letter to the Philippians is some pressure they’re experiencing from the outside, possibly persecution for their commitment to following Jesus as their Lord and their subsequent refusal to revere the emperor. Paul doesn’t want the Philippians to live in fear, and counsels them to stand together as one. Such unity would show grace under fire, and would itself be a witness to the truth of the gospel:

Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel. That way, you won’t be afraid of anything your enemies do. (Phil 1:27-28a, CEB)

But why does Paul need to tell them that? Even a casual reading of the letter would suggest that the Philippians were much more together than the Corinthians or Galatians. By the time we get to the end of the letter, however, we read about two women who need to be reconciled. Just as Paul doesn’t say why the Philippians have “enemies” in the passage above, he doesn’t say what the issue is between Euodia and Syntyche. But the conflict seems serious enough that Paul asks someone else to intervene:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord. Loved one, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel… (Phil 4:1-3a)

The language here is important. In both passages, he tells the Philippians to “stand firm.” He also uses the verb “struggle together,” a word which suggests something like teammates in an athletic competition (these are the only two uses of the word in the entire New Testament). The juxtaposition of the two verbs is hardly accidental; the later passage echoes the first in a way that suggests Paul had the two women in mind from the beginning of the letter. He doesn’t merely want the two women to get along — their disunity may be threatening the unity of the church as a whole, a unity they need in order to weather the persecution from their neighbors.

Be “united in one spirit and mind” (1:27), he tells them. Translated that way, “spirit” and “mind” sound like synonyms, pointing to the kind of fellowship and like-mindedness that so many of us look for in a church. But notice how the New International Version translates the same passage: “stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one.” That’s “Spirit” with a capital S: Paul isn’t talking about the “spirit” of the community, but the Holy Spirit. The two translations, of course, don’t lead to mutually exclusive implications. But I would side with the NIV here. Paul isn’t just telling them to hang together; he’s reminding them of the source of their unity.

To “live together” (with all its possible political associations, as we saw earlier) in a manner worthy of the gospel, in a way that embodies its truth, is not something we do merely as individuals. It is what we do in relationship to one another, in Christian community.

That means more than just “getting along.” When the chips are down, superficial togetherness will quickly fall apart. Real unity is grounded in the Holy Spirit. And as we’ll soon see, that Spirit-empowered unity is expressed through humility, through our day-to-day embodiment of the humility of Jesus himself.