Unity and How to Experience It in the Local Church

In Ephesians 4:4-6 Paul lists seven great “ones” (“There is one body …”[1]) – fundamentals that we hold dear. Yet in that context of unassailable truths, there is a practical exhortation: “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v3). Thus we are reminded that while being of one mind doctrinally is essential for the enjoyment of unity, it does not guarantee it; we must walk “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (v2).

How is this to be experienced in the local assembly? If we had to answer in one sentence, we could do no better than quote Philippians 2:5, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” In this epistle, we do not read of major differences in doctrine and practice in the Philippian assembly, but there is evidence of “strife” and “vainglory,” and the saints needed to be “likeminded … of one accord, of one mind” (vv2,3). However, it is not sufficient to be of one mind: our “one mind” could be a wrong mind! It must be “in the Lord” (4:2). In chapter 2, Paul shows the Philippians (and us) the characteristics of the right mind, the mind of Christ. We will consider four of these features and examples of how they were practiced by the Philippians (vv12-16), Paul (vv17,18), Timothy (vv19-23) and Epaphroditus (vv24-30).

His Selfless Mind

All too easily we tend to think too highly of ourselves, and hence to look to our own interests rather than those of others. Paul exhorts the very opposite: “In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (vv3,4). The supreme example of this attitude is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, though infinitely higher in status than any of us – “being in the form of God” – did not lay hold upon His high rank in order to further His own interests, but, for our blessing, “made himself of no reputation” (vv6,7).

We see this followed in Timothy, who, in contrast to those who “seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s,” would “naturally care for your state” (vv20,21). We also see it in Epaphroditus, who was “full of heaviness,” not because he was sick, but because of the burden placed on the Philippians by their hearing of it (v26). What a selfless, Christlike attitude! If this were more evident among us, it would surely engender a greater spirit of unity.

His Serving Mind

What was involved for the Lord in exhibiting this selfless attitude? He “took upon him the form of a servant,” becoming “in the likeness of men” (v7). “Servant” is doulos, a slave. We always delight to read (in the Gospels) the record of the Lord’s tireless service in this world. He was the One who was supremely entitled to be served, but His was a life devoted in service to God, and to others.

The same word (doulos) is in the opening verse of the epistle: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ” (1:1), and the former says of the latter that “he hath served (douleuo) with me in the gospel” (2:22), while Epaphroditus is called a “companion in labour, and fellow-soldier” (2:25). A sense of entitlement pervades modern society, and there are people in assembly fellowship who complain that the assembly is not doing enough for them. If the attitude were more like that of Christ and His servants in this epistle, who desired to serve rather than demanding to be served, and delighted in laboring for God, for His people, and in the gospel, it would save us from many “murmurings and disputings” (v14).

His Submissive Mind

Paul goes further concerning the Lord Jesus, stating that He “became obedient unto death” (v8). Of course, He was ever totally obedient to His Father, but here Paul is indicating how far His obedience took Him – all the way to death. There was no limit to His submission to the will of God, no matter how great the cost.

Paul applies this to the Philippians (vv12,13): they had “obeyed” (from the same root as “obedient” in v8) when Paul was with them, and are to do so when he is not, with the outcome that they will desire and do God’s will (“His good pleasure”). While it is true that in every aspect of our lives obedience to God’s Word is essential to doing God’s will, the particular context here is assembly unity, and hence Paul is stating that there can never be true unity if there is not obedience to God. We have God’s written Word for our instruction, and He raises up and equips overseers in the assembly to shepherd the flock. In the world, authority is despised and disregarded, but we ought to honor and obey our godly guides. Failure to do so is a sure recipe for disunity and division.

His Sacrificial Mind

The selflessness, service and submission of the Lord Jesus, which caused Him to sacrifice His own rights, reached its ultimate in this: “even the death of the cross” (v8), with all that was involved in this death. Paul has this spirit: “Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all” (v17). Their service of faith was a sacrificial offering to God, and Paul would count it an honor to be like the drink offering, poured out upon it.

Happy is the assembly where such an attitude abounds! If each of us were to have a higher view of others than of ourselves (v3), and a higher estimation of the devotion and service of others than of our own (v17), so that we served God humbly and happily, in obedience to His Word and to the authority that He has established, and with a Christlike, self-sacrificial disposition, then surely precious unity would be enjoyed in the assembly. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psa 133:1).

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.