Infighting. As if we don’t have enough problems.

We’d understand the nature of Christianity better if we’d remember that much of the New Testament was written from prison. Hardship is a reality for Christians. That’s one of Paul’s points in the book of Philippians, which he wrote to a fearful and divided church. “Conflict is inevitable. But it doesn’t make sense to compound it by fighting each other, as if we don’t have enough problems.” Read the book in one sitting and see if you’re not impressed with these themes:

1. Conflict from those outside the church is normal and productive.

Suffering was in the DNA of the Philippian church. Paul founded it from prison, or at least pretty close (Acts 16:19-24). Years later, Paul wrote this epistle to them from another prison (Philippians 1:7, 12-18). He was writing to persecuted people (1:28-29), probably a continuation of the sort of treatment Paul and Silas initially faced. He was writing to people being harassed by false teachers (3:2, 18-19). He was writing to people facing financial challenges (4:19). Life can be rough for Christians, not only on occasion, but as the “new normal.” Yet, the sufferer writes to sufferers to tell them they can rejoice amidst suffering  (some form of the word “joy” appears 18x in the book), to remind them that suffering is temporary (3:10-11, 20-21), and to tell them that since suffering brings about gospel advance, it’s totally worth it (1:12-21). But here’s the thing…

2. Conflict from those inside the church is neither normal nor productive.

There’s nothing more demoralizing than “friendly fire.” That’s true for an army, a family, and a church. Amazingly (at least if you’ve never been part of a local church), the Philippians were adding to their troubles from within. Yes, Paul rejoiced in their gospel partnership (1:5, 7; 2:25). But he grieved that so many Christians are useless for gospel purposes because they are seeking their own interests (2:20-21). And the way in which he urges the Philippians to humble unity gives the impression that church members were displaying pride, disunity, self-seeking, grumbling, and disputing (2:1-4, 14). If that weren’t enough, he had to call out two fighting women by name (4:2-3)! Ouch. Being an inspired example of strife probably wasn’t on Euodia or Syntyche’s bucket list, but there it is. Paul tells the Philippian church—and yours—that war is hard enough without bringing the fight into the barracks.

So how do we keep the fighting “out there”?

3. Christ is at the core of humble perseverance.

Fortunately, Paul doesn’t just yell at us about our disunity. Rather, he tirelessly points us to the gospel as our hope for perseverance and humility.

  • In one of Scripture’s high water marks of Christology, Paul details Christ’s self-emptying as the ultimate model of humility (2:5-11). His “not grasping after equality with God” (which He rightly had) and instead taking a series of downward steps that ended in the cross take on new significance when you picture the first time the book was read—by people tempted toward ambition, conceit, and self-interest.
  • Beyond giving us an example of humility (which, though inspiring, wouldn’t be sufficient to change us), Paul points us to Christ as the very source of true righteousness (3:4-10). What we need isn’t better behavior; it’s imputed righteousness from Christ.
  • Finally, Paul tells us that the goal of our unity isn’t just harmony; it’s work for gospel advance—that we would “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). So Christ is the model, source, and end of humble perseverance.

I expect that the book hit its mark. I expect that the Philippian believers persevered through trouble “out there” and rooted out trouble “in here.” I hope so. And I hope our churches will learn to do the same, enabling us to focus more whole-heartedly on our infinitely important mission. Grace.


3 Responses

  1. We have had some challenges recently in our church. Thank you for this. God’s timing is perfect. We are currently in the Ephesians 4 portion of Wendy Alsup’s “By His Wounds You Are Healed” in our Monday bible study. I am printing off “Relentless Love” for the ladies to reference today. Grateful for excellent resources to focus hearts on Christ.

  2. Have you been undercover at our church for the past three months?

  3. Good stuff, Chris. My one sentence summary of the book of Philippians is “Rejoicing in the internal and external advance of the gospel.” A sobering reminder that I am in constant need of gospel grace in order to have the mind of Christ that will allow me to effectively minister gospel grace to others.

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