Word of the Cross Bible Study
August 10, 2011

The fact is that Christians are often challenged to get along with each other. This has been true from the earliest days of the church. The Apostle Paul, who planted the church in Corinth, wrote the letter called 1 Corinthians to the believers there principally because of internal conflict in the church. By the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, the tension was largely between Paul and his church.

Even in a healthy church, such as the one in Philippi, conflict was a problem. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Phil 4:2-3). Two prominent women in the Philippian congregation, souls who had been Paul’s co-workers in ministry, were fixed in a conflict that was undermining the church, as such that they needed help from Paul and others to try and resolve. Paul calls upon an unnamed individual, probably Epaphroditus, the bearer of the letter, charging him to intervene directly to assist in ending the quarrel between them.

Perhaps one of the most discouraging things about studying church history, from the first century onward, is to see just how often Christians have been mired in disputes and strife. Sometimes, in the worst moment’s history, we have put to death fellow Christians whose theological convictions didn’t measure up to our personal standards. Even today, many are they whose worth or conviction to follow Jesus is corrupted and damaged by unloving and flesh-ruled Christians. This was not what Jesus intended by the example of his life. In his often called “High Priestly Prayer” recorded in John 17, Jesus prayed:

Read John 17:20-23 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Previous of this, Jesus had said to his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). There are times when followers of Jesus do love each other in an exemplary way. But, far too often, such love is marred by conflict, tension, and outright meanness. And, far too often, we have not dealt with these problems in a loving or mature way.

In times of conflict, our natural human emotions often try to dictate our behavior. We feel anger and want our opponent to know it. We feel fear and want to defend, retreat or attack. We feel wronged and want to set the record straight, less the consideration of what would Jesus do. Yet if we allow our emotions to guide our behavior, inevitably we’ll simply make matters worse. Conversely, if we tenaciously seek biblical guidelines on the matter, we’ll find the power to act rightly even when our feelings try to drag us in the wrong direction.

In times of conflict, we must stand solidly upon the revealed truth found in Scripture because God’s ways of dealing with conflict are generally very different from the world’s ways and our flesh. When we’re in the midst of a relational battle, we’re tempted to adopt the ways of the world. Chief among these ways is the desire to win. We can also be tempted to use human schemes to defeat our opponents. We might rally those who favor our position, to side with us. We get out the vote. We defend ourselves. We play the victim. We undermine our opponents. We conveniently ignore facts that don’t support our side. We hold onto negative emotions, and the path continues to twist and turn along the way. It will feel natural to us to use the fallen nature’s methods to win our battles, and, as we do, the world around us will cheer. The world doesn’t have much room for one who tells us to turn the other cheek, who calls us to forgive seventy times seven, and who urges us to imitate his humble, self-sacrificial servanthood.

One of the most important passages for discerning God’s guidance for Christians in conflict is found in the book of Philippians. This text speaks of being agreeable, humble, and considering others as better than yourself.

Read Philippians 2:1-11 “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [ who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Being of the same mind - Or "equally affect one another." Since they were but as one person, were one body, and had but one head, and one Spirit, they ought to be one in affection, practice, and judgment.

Having the same love - Love as unto the same in all, and the same love one for another. Though their opinions might differ on some points, yet they might be united in love. Loving all the saints as you yourself would want to be loved. Rich or poor, weak or strong believers, without making any judgments, distinction or bias, by which means the unity is preserved.

Being in full accord and of one mind - Or "being alike in soul." Having the same affection, judgment, and will, as the first Christians are said to be of one heart and of one soul; or "unanimous" in their sentiments about doctrines and ordinances. Being all of a piece in their practices, and agreeing in all their counsels, acts, and passions among themselves.

Paul shows us quite clearly in verses 6-8 [brackets] what it means to think like Jesus. This is an unusual text for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the language is not typical of Paul and therefore difficult to interpret. This fact, combined with the poetic structure of the passage, has led many scholars to propose that Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn, something he did not write. This explains the uniqueness of the language. But it’s also possible that Paul composed this poetic text when writing to the Philippians. In either case, it’s not easy to determine the precise nuance of every word here, even though the big picture is fairly clear.

Throughout the ages, commentators and preachers have seen Philippians 2:1-11 as a theological reflection on Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13. In this gospel text, Jesus literally humbled himself, doing that which an actual slave would ordinarily have done. He did this to teach his disciples how they were to love each other, in anticipation of his ultimate act of love on the cross.

Read John 13:1-17

In Philippians 2, Paul uses the image of the humble, self-sacrificing, serving, crucified Christ to teach the Philippians believers how they ought to treat each other.

Philippians 2 raises all sorts of tantalizing theological questions about the nature of Christ. In what way was he equal to God? In what sense did he empty himself? And so on. Yet Paul doesn’t deal with such questions in this text. Rather he uses the image of the humble Christ to show the Philippians – and by extension, to show us – how we ought to relate to each other. We’re called to imitate Christ, not in any way we please, but specifically with respect to his humbling, self-giving, sacrificial action.

This isn’t easy to do! Even when I’m getting along well with others I still find it natural to put my self-interest first. But, when you’re in the midst of conflict with other believers, doing what Philippians 2 requires is more than hard. It’s impossible . . . without God, that is. It challenges the very fiber of our being. It calls us to counter-intuitive and counter-cultural humility. And we’re just not naturally able to do this sort of thing apart from divine help.

But God’s help is available to us in several ways. These are highlighted in verse 1 of the text, which I’d paraphrase in the following way: “If there is any encouragement in Christ – which, of course, there is – any empowering comfort in Christ’s love – which, of course, there is – any partnership with the Holy Spirit – which, of course, there is – [agree together, love each other, etc.].” Here’s what God provides to help us do the impossible:

1. Encouragement in Christ – The teaching and example of Jesus himself empower us to do what otherwise we could not do.
2. Empowering Comfort in Christ’s love – The more we experience Christ’s love for us, the more we will be enabled to love with this same sort of love. The more we are secure in Christ’s love, the more we will be able to take the risk of loving, not only our neighbors, but also our enemies.
3. Partnership with the Holy Spirit – When we put our faith in Christ, the very Spirit of God comes to dwell in us, empowering us with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. The Spirit is in the process of making us more and more like Christ.

So, when you’re in the middle of conflict, ask yourself: “What would it be for me to have the mind of Christ in this situation?” And don’t just ask yourself, ask Christ himself through prayer: “Lord, how would you think in this circumstance? How can I imitate your example of selflessness and humility now?” The more you look to Jesus, the more you’ll discover how you’re to act in controversial and divisive circumstances. The more you depend upon Jesus, the more you’ll find unexpected strength to be agreeable, loving, humble, selfless, and Christ-like.