I take as my text today Philippians 2:3-4:
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.
I've been reading and re-reading this scripture with the same questions running through my mind. Is the Apostle Paul simply offering a suggestion to the Christian church? When he says to “do nothing from rivalry,” what part of “nothing” can we take figuratively? Does looking after the interests of others grant a license to be nosey, or, as I suspect, is there more to it than that?
In other words, should our own conceit humiliate us?
Southern Hospitality or Genuine Deference?
I'm asking these questions because I perceive little enthusiasm in the North American evangelical church for suppressing rivalry and treating others better than ourselves. I'm not just pointing fingers at my fellow worshippers, because I don't necessarily treat others better than myself, either. In fact, I think I'm doing well if I treat them equally, instead of disdainfully!
Now, here in Texas and across the South, the thin veneer of hospitality southerners profess to show does indeed masquerade as deference given to others. However, most of the time, it's not intended to actually indicate you think the person you're holding the door for is better than you.
Which, in fact, is how many churchgoers treat other people in their pew, isn't it? Politeness is a good thing, of course, but how much of it is just a reflex from how we were socially trained, and how much of the way we treat others is based on a desire to show actual deference?
Maybe I'm Assuming Too Much?
Does it matter? Maybe not, but superficiality doesn't go very far in the secular world, does it? And within communities of faith, superficiality either tends to inoculate everyone against growth in the Fruits of the Spirit, or helps lead us down a road of relativism and nihilism. Yet another threat of superficiality is the sociological term "anomie," which means "a condition of instability (or alienation) resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals." In other words, a formerly stable group begins to splinter apart, resulting in a lack of purpose or a misguided purpose for the members of the group.
Then again, maybe I'm just reading too much into the text? Maybe Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi intending for them to be his only audience?
Maybe the fact that only one group of believers existed in Philippi at that time made the fractious character of that church easier to identify. Maybe Paul's instructions are best interpreted within the confines of localized communities of faith, like the Philippian church would have been. After all, Paul didn't send his letter to the First Baptist Church of Philippi, intending that copies also be sent to First Presbyterian, Oak Crest Bible, Family Fellowship, and the other Philippian congregations. No, this was pre-denominations and pre-church-splits, so maybe we North American evangelicals are correct in only paying lip service to his letter to the Philippians.
But we know better, don't we? The church of Christ – not the denomination, but the actual group of believers – had already begin splintering and fracturing, so Paul was writing them encouraging unity of purpose, fully aware that the Philippians would know how to apply his writings within their faith community.
However, for God to allow his letter to be included in the cannon of scripture, we can infer that the apostle’s admonitions – inspired by God Himself – apply to us as well. Everything in the bible is for our benefit. The problem is that while Paul’s instruction might have more easily applied to one group in one city than a bunch of congregations across the globe, we’re still beholden to them. All of us. Right?
Can We Define Limits to Paul's Instructions?
In other words, among all the Bible-teaching churches that exist where you live, this scripture passage should help guide our interpersonal interactions. Not only within the membership of each individual congregation, but within each of the congregations. Right?
So instead of not being conceited towards people we know in our own fellowships, that lack of conceit should extend beyond the boundaries of our churches to other believers in our city, our county, our state… most of whom we will not know. So to paraphrase the verse, not only should we look after the interests of other people within our own congregation, but also believers in other congregations, some of whom we may never meet until we get to Heaven. Right?
Hmm. How do you do that?
The logistics get pretty complicated pretty quickly, don’t they? After all, in some larger churches, adult Sunday school classes may approximate the size of the church at Philippi during Paul’s day. At my own church of 5,000 members, I personally only know about 100 of them. Almost all of them are richer than I am, which is a starting point for my own rivalry right there.
Maybe Paul doesn’t really expect us to work that hard at this. Maybe this is a nice theory that Paul knew would sound encouraging, even if he didn’t really expect the Philippians – and us – to actually take him seriously. After all, we’ve already given up on the whole unity thing by having different denominations and even different congregations of the same denomination in the same town. God understands that we’re all separate because we follow a better interpretation of the Gospel. Right?
How come I'm not convinced?
Next: Part 2; "Many Churches, Still One Body?"