Which is more important in the life of the church: Truth, or unity?
It’s a trick question, of course, but it’s one we often ask all the same.
Some people say that truth is all-important. What matters is that we hold onto the truth. If that means relationships get strained with those who don’t agree with us, then that’s a price worth paying.
Others say that unity is what matters. Jesus prayed that his church should be one. If a church falls out with itself or with others because of its stand for truth, then that’s a total tragedy and a defeat.
In our own day, this is all playing out as the Church of England debates the shift in modern culture on human sexuality. Some say we must hold fast to the teaching of Jesus. Others say that could be divisive, and what matters is that we all stay together, and love one another.
Which is it to be: Truth, or unity?
The reason it’s a trick question is that it’s a false dichotomy. The risen Jesus cares passionately that his church upholds the truth, and also that his church should be united and love one another. It’s both and, not either or, and any call for truth or unity that excludes the other is not Jesus’ call for truth or unity. We should never be asked to choose between the two.
On and off we look at the letter of Philippians during our combined services, and today we reach the start of chapter 4. It’s a lovely letter. He hasn’t got major problems to sort out in this letter. He’s immensely fond of the Philippians. Verse 1: “My brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, … my dear friends.”
His letter’s nearly finished, and in these few short verses Paul has two ways he wants them to put what he’s already said in the letter into practice. They relate to truth and unity, and they tie these two together.
Stand Firm in the Lord
Here’s Paul’s first instruction: Stand firm in the Lord. Stand firm in the Lord.
This comes in verse 1: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” “Stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!”
“Therefore.” “In this way.” They’re to stand firm in the way Paul explained in chapter 3. In chapter 3, Paul had tackled a couple of wrong ideas that were beginning to spread about how we get to heaven.
The first false idea in chapter 3 was that we can get to heaven under our own steam.
If anybody could do it, it was Paul. Whether it was his family background, his religious zeal, or his sheer goodness, he was a perfect specimen. If anyone would impress God, it was him.
Then look at chapter 3, verse 7: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. … I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
Paul was a good man. The good things he did were because God told him to do them. But when he became a Christian, he had to learn that those good things could not make him right with God. They couldn’t get him into heaven. There’s only one way to get there, and that’s by knowing and trusting the person of Jesus.
Lots of people today think that God’s acceptance of us is based on us being good. Good people. Good citizens. Good neighbours. Good Christians. It isn’t. No matter how good you are, you’re not good enough for the God who is spotlessly perfectly good.
When I was younger and fitter than I am now, from time to time I’d take a break from the train and cycle into London. My train commute was about an hour door to door. I could cycle the 15 miles in about an hour and twenty, so it added 20 minutes, but I’d arrive exercised, alert and it was great fun.
There was something satisfying about my own legs doing the work. I’d got into London for the day, and I’d got myself there.
You cannot get to heaven by being good, under your own steam. Jesus died on the cross to forgive all the bad things we do. The only way to heaven is to receive this, as a pure gift. But the idea was beginning to circulate in Philippi that our good deeds, our religion, might contribute a little to our standing before God. So Paul uses himself as an example. No. You cannot get to heaven under your own steam.
The second error that was beginning to circulate, the second half of chapter 2, is that there’s no need to get to heaven at all.
Paul warns in verses 18 and 19: “… many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.”
So: this life is all there is. None of God’s blessings are future. We belong down here, in the here and now. So our goals are simply getting the best out of this life. That might be financial, material gain – the best house, car, job promotion. Or it might be physical pleasure – food, drink, relationships. Paul says it’s just living for your gut.
Forget deciding whether I should cycle to work or let the train take me. I don’t even need to go to work. I can stay at home here.
Whereas Jesus says this, verse 20: “Our citizenship is in heaven,”. We don’t belong here.
Do you remember those debates about whether the British government was right to say that young women who’d fled to Syria to fight with Islamist militants should be stripped of their UK citizenship. That’s where I leant that international law doesn’t let someone become stateless. A nation can only revoke someone’s citizenship if that person would remain the citizen of some other country.
Well, no Christian is stateless. You’ll be a citizen of some earthly nation, Great Britain, France, the United States, or Lesotho. The Philippians were very proud of their city’s status as a full-on Roman colony. They were citizens of Rome. But your real citizenship is in heaven. What nation are you from? What’s your identity? Who are you? First and foremost, you don’t belong anywhere on earth. You belong in heaven.
Which means you’re waiting. Verse 20 goes on: “And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
But there were people in Philippi beginning to teach that we don’t need to get to heaven at all. That this is as good as it gets. That we can live for the here and now.
And many today make the same mistake. Just live in the here and now, and forget that we’re just passing through this age in which we live. We’re citizens of another city.
Two errors Paul addressed in chapter 3. Errors that weren’t chronically embedded in Philippi, but that were creeping in, as they do today. The error that we can get ourselves to heaven, and the error that just settles down to be comfortable, as though this life is all there is.
“Therefore,” verse 1, “stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!”
Truth matters. There are all kinds of distortions of Christianity around. Some are major grotesque distortions, others are more subtle. Paul wants us to hang on to the real Jesus, and not be led astray into things that aren’t quite right. The real Jesus died on the cross and rose again, so we could go to heaven, something we could never do for ourselves. The real Jesus will come back from heaven to bring heaven to earth and to transform us, so that we can live where we really belong.
Hold on to this Jesus. Stand firm in the Lord.
Stand Together in the Lord
Paul has a second appeal for them. Stand together in the Lord. Stand together in the Lord.
In verses 2 and 3 we meet two women, Euodia and Syntyche. They must have been prominent to get a mention. But besides that, we don’t know who they were or why they’ve fallen out.
But we do know three things about them. Number 1: Why it’s so serious and so sad that they’ve fallen out. 2. Number 2: How they will come back together. Number 3: The help they are going to need.
Number 1: Why it’s so serious and so sad that they’ve fallen out. Verse 3: “They have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel”.
These weren’t just any old women. They were Paul’s former teammates. Paul’s great work is to spread the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ, to help other people become Christians. The great work of every church is to spread the gospel. And these two women were former teammates of Paul in this great work.
The word used is actually a sporting word. He says they “contended at my side”. We might say they were with him in the scrum on the rugby pitch. Fellow midfield players on the football team. A pair in the doubles at tennis. Sprinter and leader in the British team trying to win the Tour de France.
But now the relationships have broken down within the sports team. To push the metaphor, these women refuse to be on the pitch at the same time. Or they’re competing for catches. Or they won’t pass to each other, because the other woman mustn’t take the credit for scoring.
Here’s why it’s a tragedy that they’ve fallen out. The gospel is what suffers. People are not hearing the life-saving good news of Jesus because these two ladies are at loggerheads. A church with broken relationships cannot hold out the word of life with the same clarity and focus as a united church.
That’s why this is so sad.
Number 2: How will they come back together? Here’s where the truth comes into play. Notice we get the same phrase in verse 2 as we did in verse 1. Verse 1: “Stand firm in the Lord.” Verse 2: “… to be of the same mind in the Lord.”
The key thing is how they think. They both need to change the way they think. They need to come to the same mind.
And the united mind they need to have is to do with Jesus. “The same mind in the Lord.” Their thinking is out of kilter with Jesus. Let him shape their thinking, their attitudes, their priorities, they’ll come back together. Because they’ll agree on the things that matter.
Many years back I heard a youth leader tell their youth group that when two Christians are in a romantic relationship, the key to thriving is their relationship with God. Read the Bible together. Go to church together. Pray together. Because, he said, your relationship is like a triangle – there’s the two of you, and there’s God. But as you draw up towards God, the triangle changes shape, and the two of you come together as well. So don’t focus on each other, focus on God.
Well it’s twee, but there’s something in it. And it’s Paul’s point here in a very different context. The key for these women is not to focus on their disagreement. It’s to focus on the Lord Jesus they both serve. Bring their thinking into line with him. Make sure it’s the real Jesus they each worship. And as they move closer to him, so their shared commitment to him will bring them to a common mind with one another.
Then number 3, the help they need. Verse 3: “Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women…” Paul has pleaded with Euodia. He’s pleaded with Syntyche. Now he addresses another unknown member of the congregation. They’re going to need help.
Maybe they need someone to listen to them. Pray for them. There’s another possibility. The word for “help” here is the usual word for seizing something, or arresting something. It’s used of Jesus’ arrest in the garden. If that meaning is in play here, Paul may be asking this other person to grab hold of these women. To seize them. We might say: bang their heads together.
Either way, they need the help of the rest of the church.
A tiny bit of A Level chemistry I do remember: Some reactions need what’s called a catalyst to help the reaction to progress. Say you have two chemicals that are reacting together. A catalyst is a third chemical. It’s not actually involved in the reaction. It doesn’t get used up. But unless that third ingredient is there, the other two don’t react, or react very slowly. It happens in the exhaust of your car.
This companion is a catalyst for these two ladies. It’s not his dispute. They need to sort it out, not him. But he may be able to help.
There’s something here for all of us.
If your relationship with someone here has broken down, this is for you. Don’t wait for the other person to make a move, however much it may feel like they have to. Paul doesn’t address just one of these women. He pleads with each of them in turn. They both have responsibility to sort this out.
Even if you’re not in a dispute, think how you could be a catalyst to help others get along within the church. Pray any time you see others not getting along. Maybe pray for opportunities to help too, but if you’re going to do that pray also for yourself, that you’d not do anything with a meddling spirit.
In some communities there are families who don’t speak because their ancestors were on opposite sides of the civil war. 350 years ago. In 350 years’ time there will be families who don’t speak because one had ancestors who voted Remain and another had ancestors who voted Leave.
But we mustn’t have this in the Christian church. If we do, our witness to the Lord Jesus will suffer, and it’s the world at large that loses out.
We don’t unite as an alternative to the truth. On the contrary, coming back to the truth of the Lord Jesus is the very thing that brings those warring parties back together.
Stand together in the Lord.
So, which is more important in a church: Truth. Or unity
The answer is both. If we are to be a healthy church, we must stand firm in the Lord, hold fast to the truth. And as we do that, we have the key to healthy relationships within our church, as we stand together in the Lord as well.