Note: Dr. Sam Horn is host of The Word for Life radio program.
by Dr. Sam Horn
Standing Fast for Unity–Philippians 4:2-3
Unity and harmony were important themes to the Apostle Paul. He addressed these themes throughout the New Testament in passages such as Romans 12:4-5, 14-15; 1 Corinthians 10, 12; and Ephesians 4:4. Perhaps one of the clearest cases where Paul’s concern for unity and harmony is expressed is found in Philippians 4:2-3 where he addressed two women who were at odds with each other. Although Paul does not reveal the cause or nature of their division, it is obvious their conflict was well-known to the assembly and had escalated to the point that public confrontation was needed.
Conflict among believers is not new to the body of Christ. It divided believers in Paul’s day even as it does in ours. Though never pleasant, conflict is at times a necessary part of standing for truth. For this very reason, Jude instructed believers to “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 3). There are times, however, when conflict is divisive and destructive. Conflict is at times a part of serving Christ, particularly when truth or doctrine is at stake; however, it is one thing to contend for truth but quite another to be contentious when truth is not at stake. This passage demonstrates how Paul addressed one such needless conflict and reveals several biblical principles to aid modern-day believers to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
In Philippians, Paul unfolds three primary concerns for these believers who labor in the Gospel. First, that they contend earnestly for the faith of the Gospel (1:27). Second, that they be steadfast in the face of opposition (3:1-4:1). Finally, that they maintain unity in the Spirit by adopting the “mind of Christ” (2:1-16). Almost everything in this letter can be tied to at least one of these primary concerns. If the Philippians are to effectively contend for the Gospel, they must stand firm against the opposition, and this standing mandates a unity of heart and soul. When seen in the light of the three primary concerns mentioned above, the conflict between these two women actually constitutes a major threat to the work of the Gospel and, as such, merits Paul’s direct and decisive intervention.
This brief passage contains at least eight important observations about the conflict addressed by Paul. First, the conflict is left general rather than specific in order to point out the reality of the conflict rather than focus on its particulars. Rather than getting lost or sidetracked in discussions about the history and justification of the conflict (who was right and who was wrong), Paul wanted the reader to understand the danger of the conflict and to focus on resolving such conflicts when they arise. Second, it is clear from this passage that the conflict was between two specific individual believers that Paul names. The conflict was very real and very personal. Two specific people had allowed a conflict to come between them and thereby endangered the Gospel mission at Philippi. Third, those involved in the conflict had at one time been a source of great joy and hope for the Apostle (1:1). Paul addresses them as “dearly beloved” twice in this passage. He is not writing to strangers from a distant and uninvolved perspective. These were dear friends who had been and continued to be a source of great joy. Now, two of them had become the source of deep discomfort and distress. Paul was grieved, and rather than suffer his grief in distant silence, he called for a resolution to the conflict.
Fourth, these women were at one time united in a common cause for the Gospel. Apparently, in the past these women had been praised for their participation in laboring for the Gospel of Christ. Now, they were singled out for their division and conflict with each other. Fifth, these women had become publicly divided over a nonessential matter. Although Paul does not give any particular details as to the nature of the conflict, it is noteworthy that Paul does not mention any major doctrinal problem in association with these two women as he did when he wrote to the Galatians, Corinthians, or the Romans. Rather than revealing the particulars of the problem, Paul urged the women to settle the matter so the greater issue, their relationship, could be preserved. For Paul, believers were not to stand on personal issues and opinions at the expense of Christian harmony and unity. Sixth, Paul addressed his instruction for reconciliation to both women individually. Both women bore fault for the breach; both must bear responsibility for the restoration. It is striking that Paul made no real effort to determine who was at fault or who needed to make the first move toward reconciliation. It is clear that Paul considered the need to reconcile as a mutual responsibility. As they had once labored together in the work of the Gospel, Paul entreats these two sisters to labor together in the work of reconciliation.
Seventh, in this case reconciliation demanded the intervention of a spiritual leader. Apparently, the conflict between the two women had degenerated to the point that involvement of a third party was necessary. Paul’s request was most likely made to the pastor or one of the spiritual leaders over the church at Philippi. While it is impossible to be dogmatic on this point, Paul’s understanding of the role of the spiritual leader in a church would certainly include the responsibility to preserve the bond of peace among believers under his charge. Finally, it is interesting that the outcome of this situation is not recorded for us. The reasons are obvious. When this letter arrived at Philippi, the problem was still a present reality. We have no way of knowing what the results were as there is no other mention of these women anywhere else in the New Testament, and there is no further correspondence to the church at Philippi. All the reader can conclude is that God wanted us to focus on the vital importance of resolving such breaches of unity rather than providing a specific methodology for doing so.
There are at least six important applications that these observations teach us. First, this kind of conflict between believers is a threat to the effectiveness of the Gospel. In such cases, believers have an obligation to deal with the conflict rather than to adopt a “live and let live” mindset. Second, success and mutual labor in the ministry are no guarantees for future harmony and mutual unity. No amount of past labor and ministry together can eliminate the need to actively and vigilantly preserve the bond of peace in personal relationships. Relationships between believers must be nurtured and developed through an active commitment to living out the agape principles in 1 Corinthians 13.
Third, when division comes between believers and such division is not over a doctrinal or ethical violation, then mutual reconciliation is mandated. Believers do not have the option to live in the supposed comfort of unresolved personal conflict at the expense of the harmony of the body and the ministry of the Gospel. Fourth, at times believers may be unable or unwilling to resolve the conflict between themselves on their own. At such times, a public call for reconciliation is warranted, and the involvement of a third party, such as an objective spiritual leader, may be helpful or needed. Fifth, the context of this letter reveals that believers must esteem the cause of the Gospel higher than any personal preference or right they have. Rather than causing conflict with another believer over a nonessential matter, believers should give careful consideration to how their actions affect the ministry of the Gospel. Personal differences or slights must be set aside for the greater cause of spiritual unity among believers who are standing together for truth. Let there be no question about Paul’s willingness to rebuke or even separate from a believer who is in doctrinal or ethical violation of truth. One has but to recall his stinging rebuke to Peter at Galatia or his instruction to the Corinthians to deliver the sinning brother over to Satan and avoid even eating with him to understand that Paul is not advocating unity at the expense of truth. Rather, he is urging unity at the expense of personal preferences or slights. It has become fashionable to justify our division over personal hurts or slights by arguing that we are “standing for spiritual truth.” While there are legitimate grounds for division over truth, it is imperative that truth be the real ground for division rather than just the pretext. Finally, this passage reveals that preserving the bond of peace among believers can be a laborious process. It must have been difficult for Paul to write these verses. From the tender terminology used to address them, it is clear that Paul does not desire to embarrass or hurt these former co-workers. It must have been very difficult for these women to have received Paul’s rebuke and appeal in this matter. However, as laborious and difficult as it may have been, Paul was willing to engage in the process so that the bond of peace could be preserved and, in so doing, leave for us an example to follow.
Conclusion and Application
Modern fundamentalists stand behind a heritage of older saints who stood together in the battle for truth and the labor of the Gospel. While they may have differed in many areas of personal conviction or preference, they stood shoulder to shoulder in the harvest field for Christ and on the battle field for truth. Today, however, that spirit of co-laboring stands threatened by believers who stand together on doctrinal truth but contentiously divide over matters of personal preference or specific applications of how certain biblical principles in nonessential areas are to be fleshed out in daily life. It is one thing to differ from another fundamental believer in these areas; it is quite another to do so contentiously. Modern Fundamentalism has been divided over issues that were never considered points of contention, tests of fellowship, or indicators of orthodoxy by past fundamentalists. Modern fundamentalists are divided over such things as educational philosophy, homeschooling, personal dress standards, the King James Version, courtship and dating, acceptable entertainment, and a host of other issues. While believers are certainly within their rights to have strong views and positions on each of these issues and to teach these view to others, Fundamentalism has never made similar issues of past days points of fellowship or tests of orthodoxy. The right kind of discussion between godly men who hold strong but differing positions on these issues promotes a healthy environment for debate, biblical study of the issues, and a responsible and careful exegesis of relevant biblical material. However, much of what is going on within our movement is far from healthy; it is divisive and contentious and is far removed from the spirit and history of traditional Fundamentalism. It is quite possible that if Paul were writing a letter to the churches of American Fundamentalism, and if it were read publicly for all to hear, we would hear the tender entreaty of the Apostle personalized to our situations. “I beseech ______________, and beseech ______________, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.” One does not write an article of this nature without some measure of trepidation that some will misunderstand the true intentions and motives of the author. Whenever one speaks in this fashion on unity, there is the risk that others will wonder about his commitment to truth and separation. Biblical separation, however, does not preclude biblical unity; it presupposes and enhances it. It is precisely a concern for truth that ought to motivate believers to ardently guard the bond of peace and to preserve biblical unity among each other. Contentions, however, do occur. In such cases, passages like this serve to encourage estranged believers to begin the process of reconciliation. No one desires to see truth sacrificed in the name of unity. Unity achieved in such fashion is not genuine unity; however, although the Bible does not allow believers to sacrifice truth for unity, it does place a high value on biblical unity. Furthermore, the New Testament exhorts believers to preserve the bond of peace and to live peaceably with one another as they strive to walk worthy of their calling. Often fundamentalists of past years were called upon to stand firm for truth and did so willingly, leaving us a heritage of truth. In our day, in addition to standing for truth, there is a call to stand for the right kind of unity. Our response to this call will determine the heritage we leave for the next generation of fundamentalists.
Dr. Sam Horn is pastor/teacher at Brookside Baptist Church (Brookfield, WI). He received a B.A. in Bible, M.A. in Bible, and Ph.D. in New Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). In 1996, Dr. Horn joined the administration of Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) as vice president for academic affairs. In 2000, he assumed the position of executive vice president. While at BJU, he served as faculty member and director of extended education. He is an experienced pastor, conference speaker, and board member of several Christian organizations. He and his wife, Beth, have two children. This article is reprinted by permission of Brookside Baptist Church.