Christian Unity (Philippians 2:1-4)

In my article on Philippians 1:27-30, I identified disunity within the church as a problem that the Philippians were facing and suggested that, although so far that disunity had manifested itself only in complaining and arguing (2:14) and a disagreement between two women in the church (4:2), Paul seemed to be worried over its possible effects on the Philippians. In this article, I’ll consider the next four verses, Philippians 2:1-4, in which Paul appeals for unity.

1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.(ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)

The core of the passage, which is a single sentence in the Greek, is verse 2. In it Paul urges the Philippians to make his joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love (the love described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7), and being of one accord and mind. Elsewhere in the letter, Paul refers to his experiencing joy over the Philippians’ gifts to him (1:4-5; 4:10), the gospel’s being preached (1:18), and his suffering (2:17). Here, he indicates that his joy won’t be full as long as there is disunity among them. The phrases by which Paul describes the unity that he wants the Philippians to have mean much the same, his piling them up to emphasize the importance that he places on the Philippians’ need for unity.

Paul introduces his appeal by reminding the Philippians of the blessings that they enjoy as Christians and that should motivate them to unity (2:1) and follows it by identifying some ways in which they can promote unity (2:3-4). The blessings that Paul reminds the Philippians of are encouragement from being united in Christ, comfort from God’s love, fellowship in the Holy Spirit, and affection and compassion among Christians. Note the Trinitarian structure of the first three blessings as I’ve given them. However Bible scholars disagree on whether “love” in “if any comfort from love” refers to the love of God, Christ, Paul, or the Philippians and thus the verse should not be used as a Trinitarian proof text.

The ways identified by Paul for the Philippians to promote unity are doing nothing out of rivalry or conceit, humbly considering others more significant than themselves, and looking out not only for their own interests but also for the interests of others. Like Jesus did in identifying the second great commandment as loving one’s neighbour as oneself (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31), Paul recognizes that people naturally look after themselves and encourages them to look after others in the same way. Lynn H. Cohick observes, “We should not be surprised at this teaching because Paul taught his churches that they were the body of Christ, members of Christ’s body, the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17;12:12-27; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21). I might be an eye, needing my brother ‘ear’ and my sister ‘hand’ to complete the body, being Christ to the world” (Philippians in The Story of God Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013, page 95).

Paul’s appeal indicates that what was causing disunity among the Philippians was not legitimate differences of opinion but self-centredness and thus what was needed to bring about unity was not mediation but humility. Accordingly, he goes on to exhort the Philippians to have the same mind in them as was in Christ Jesus when he left his heavenly estate to die on a cross for us (2:5-8). I think that Paul would make the same diagnosis of and offer the same remedy for many of the disagreements among Christians today. For a simple and practical guide to this kind of unity, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954; reprint, New York: HarperCollins, 1993), pages 103-130, which can be read free online.

My prayer is that I shall have the same mind in me so that I shall be a source of peace and unity in the various communities that I am a part of.

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