So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in one spirit, intent on one purpose.Philippians 2:1-2
It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has posed significant challenges to our society at large. The extended global isolation from one another has brought about the demise of millions of jobs and the shuttering of untold numbers of small businesses. Beyond the economic toll of the pandemic is also the psychological toll as mental health issues have risen at unprecedented rates across the country. Communities continue to struggle relationally as people continue to feel isolated from one another. Fear plagues various communities that continue to struggle to contain the pandemic in their areas.
In some areas, spiritual darkness has begun to take root and government entities have been overstepping the limits of their authority by imposing excessive restrictions upon houses of worship in areas that have already seen significant recovery from the pandemic (Here’s looking at your Grace Community.). As institutions of higher learning were forced to switch gears with minimal notice to online offerings in order to provide students with opportunities to complete their classes, our seminaries were no exception.
Recently, the presidents of two Southern Baptist Convention seminaries – Dr. Adam Greenway of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX and Dr. Jamie Dew of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary – held a live Zoom conversation discussing the two seminaries’ plans for the future as they look forward to extended precautions imposed in the wake of COVID-19. One thing was made abundantly clear between the two gentlemen was that while they have experienced success with their switch to online teaching and local churches have experienced continued stability and marginal growth in the midst of this grand paradigm shift, both agreed there is no substitute for human contact and in-person community.
As quoted in the Southwestern News, Dr. Dew stated “If COVID-19 has done anything, it has given us a scenario that reminds us of how much we need each other. We need each other relationally, we need each other psychologically, we need each other spiritually, we need each other missiologically. And so it’s given us a context now that should forever change the way we celebrate and embrace public gathering.”1
Dr. Dew’s statement perfectly encapsulates Paul’s encouragement to the church of Philippi. Paul, writing from his prison cell in Rome, encourages the persecuted believers at Philippi who were beginning to feel the effects of Nero’s cruelty. It was during Nero’s reign that most of the apostle’s were martyred, including Peter and Paul. It was Nero who coined the term “Roman candle” to describe the tarring of Christian prisoners and lighting them on fire in order to light up his late night feast in his golden palace. And Paul offered these words of strength in the midst of the struggle:
“Only let your manner of life be worthy[h] of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” (Philippians 1:27-30)
Acknowledging the trials that the church at Philippi was enduring, Paul laid out a four-fold foundation of unity and interdependence that is intended as a message of hope for the believers of his day, as well as an encouragement for believers today. Unity within the body of Christ is about interdependence upon one another. Our American society has become some consumed with individualism and personal expression, that the church has forgotten the call to be interdependent upon one another within the body. This is distinguished from dependence as the body of Christ was never intended to be a source for leeches who absorb from the community but never contribute to the community. God has gifted each believer with unique gifts and talents for the purpose of building up of the body of Christ together.
However, in the midst of our devotion to our Lord, we are called to live in unity with one another:
- Unity of mind (psychologically) – “being of the same mind” – having our minds mutually made up that unity for the sake of the Kingdom is THE priority.
- Unity of heart (relationally) – “maintaining the same love” – intentionally seeking to maintain healthy relationships with one another in spite of our challenges.
- Unity of spirit (spiritually) – “united in spirit” – empowered by the Holy Spirit of God and sensitive to His leading and comfort in the midst of our challenges.
- Unity of purpose (missiologically) – “intent on one purpose” – intentionally seeking opportunities to advance the Kingdom of God in spite of our circumstances.
The Roman military utilized a special type of unit called a phalanx. A phalanx was a troop of soldiers that worked in unison with one another both offensively and defensively. A phalanx of soldiers would march arm in arm, interlocked together, as they advanced towards their goal. They were often armed with spears, pikes, or other similar pole type weapons with a long reach, but their most important tool was their shield. When necessary for the defense of the troop, the commanding officer would order a defensive position that would mimic that of a turtle as a shield wall would form around the entire troop and internal troops would raise their shields to protect against arrows raining down (see image above). In so doing, these troops were not only protecting themselves, but they were protecting one another from the enemy’s attack.
All too often today, the church has been beset with attacks from within. Either by false teachers, or individuals more interested in being right than in being in a right relationship with one another for the sake of the kingdom. Personal self-interests have outweighed the interests of the body of Christ and the Kingdom of God. We have been divided by heresies and hatreds of one another. We have allowed our differences of opinion to turn us into enemies of one another, while a greater enemy eager waits to slip in and attack and win the day.
The phalanx works best when the troops work together for each other’s sake. In fact, the words “unit”, “unity”, “union”, and “unison” all originate from the same word that means “one” or “as one”. That is why Paul goes further to say “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
It is time for the phalanx of the Body of Christ to rise up. It time for us to start looking to one another to build each other up in our faith, rather than compete against one another for attention. To echo the words of Philip Yancey “How great it would be if believers would compete to outgrace one another!”2
1. “Greenway and Dew Discuss Leading In and Beyond COVID-19”, Southwestern News, Summer 2020, Volume 78, Issue 01
2. What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Yancey, Phillip. c 1997, Zondervan Publishers