In 1985, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) invited the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) to join the young denomination. This was a hot topic in the conservative Presbyterian world, and it was discussed widely in various publications including New Horizons and The Presbyterian Journal.
Dr. Richard Gaffin, professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, gave this sermon as retiring moderator at the opening service of the 52nd General Assembly of the OPC on May 30, 1985; it was reprinted in the September 4 1985 issue of The Presbyterian Journal. The next year, as the OPC was celebrating 50 years since its formation, the 53rd General Assembly would fail to ratify the motion to join the PCA.
On Being Like-Minded
Next month, on June 11th to be exact, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church begins its 50th year of existence. Plans are already well underway looking toward our semicentennial celebration a year from now. Such a milestone naturally promotes a sense of denominational awareness and reflection about ourselves and our future. But in our case this self-awareness is heightened by the fact that we are faced squarely with the question whether or not we ought to continue to exist as a separate denomination. In what may well be a unique moment in church history we are being called to celebrate and to consider cessation at one and the same time.
Understandably there are deep differences of conviction among us on this issue, and several other difficult and controversial items are on our agenda. Just in view of these differences, then, as we come to the work of this General Assembly, we do well to consider something of what Scripture says about unity in the church. In particular our text, Philippians 2:1-5, is a timely word, one which we all need to hear, regardless of which side we may take on the critical issues before us.
The theme of Christian unity is prominent, even emphatic, in these verses. In fact, so far as I see, nowhere else does the New Testament speak to this issue in such a perceptive and practical way. In verse 2 the accent on unity is especially strong and repeated: “ … the same mind, … the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.”
One useful way of reflecting on this emphasis is to do so in terms of certain barriers to our understanding, certain limitations in our perception that need to be cleared away. To begin with, we have the difficulty that the unity Paul has in view is contrary to so much of our experience in the church and among Christians, and to our expectations reduced as they so often are by these experiences. But we must be clear that here Paul is not simply expressing a yearning, or indulging in wishful idealism. No, unity is a reality he expects to find and to be experienced in the church. He expects that because the call to unity in verse 2 doesn’t hang in the air, or exist by itself. It is rooted in what is said in verse 1: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, ….” The fourfold stress on unity in verse 2 answers to the fourfold “if…” in verse 1. The best translation for each of these four “if” clauses can be debated, but their basic thrust is plain: They refer to the salvation revealed in Christ and experienced in union with him, and to the fellowship created by the Holy Spirit.
Here, as always in the New Testament, indicative and imperative belong together. The imperative is not an isolated call to action, but flows out of the grand gospel indicative of God’s salvation revealed once for all in “the fulness of time” (Gal. 4:4, Eph. 1:10). Where salvation in Christ is a reality, Paul is telling us, there he expects to see the reality of Christian unity. The two are inseparable; the one is really unthinkable without the other.
Having the Mind of a Servant
What now, more exactly is the substance of this reality, the nature of the unity to be realized? Immediately, we have to deal with a further limitation in our perception. Our initial reaction, predictably, is to think that the answer is unity in doctrine, a doctrinal uniformity to be prized and which would then be threatened by differences in understanding and formulation. No doubt doctrinal concerns are involved here; they are not to be depreciated or denied. But doctrine, at least in the conventional sense (for example, the written confession to which we subscribe), is in the background here and is not what Paul has in mind primarily. Other factors, as we shall see, are highlighted as establishing and maintaining unity; other factors are seen to undermine unity.
Yet, having said that, all the more striking is the fact that “thinking” is very much at the center of the unity in view in this passage. Verse 2 speaks of being “like-minded” (literally, “minding the same thing”) and “intent on one purpose” (that is, having a common mind). The verb that Paul uses twice in this verse for thinking occurs next in verse 5, and that establishes a link which enables us to identify more exactly what, measured by our conventional usage, is the “nondoctrinal” thinking Paul has in view.
Verse 5 tells us that believers are to have the same mind-set or attitude as Christ. Here we encounter still another barrier to our understanding. Too often this verse is memorized and preached on together with the magnificent ode to Christ’s person and work in verses 6–11, but in isolation from verses 1–4. When this happens, the command of verse 5 is largely unintelligible: Paul exhorts us to have the mind of Christ and then proceeds directly to appeal to the permanent and awesome differences between Christ and ourselves. Where, we are perplexed to ask, in this awe-inspiring description can there possibly be a point of contact between his “mind” and ours?
But if we take verses 5-11 together with what immediately precedes, then we begin to get a hold on what Paul is saying. “This mind” (verse 5) is described in what precedes, not by what follows. In the ordering of the text, ethics come before doctrine, Christology serves to illustrate Christian conduct. And the point is one basic to New Testament teaching on the Christian life: Just in (the glorious uniqueness of Jesus as our Savior and Lord we find the point of comparison with ourselves. Just where he is not what we are and has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves, just there we find what we are to be and to do. Peter expresses this very concisely: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). The thinking that grounds the firm, unbreakable unity of the church, Paul wants us to understand, is not, say, our doctrinal grasp and correct theological formulations, important as they are, but the kind of “thinking” that led Jesus, being in “the form of God,” from heaven to the cross–that attitude which brought him, with the glory he had with the Father before the world was, to humble himself and become a servant. The thinking at issue here is the mentality or mind-set of the servant.
Humility is the Source of Unity
Verses 3 and 4 are essential for deepening our grasp of this thinking. What are the mortal enemies of unity and harmony in the church?–“selfish ambition” and “vain conceit.” What is the essence of the like-mindedness that promotes unity?–in one word, “humility.” Our resistance to the text at this point is our inclination to let it slip away as a truism. But there is nothing self-evident about humility. Humility is not a universal human value. In fact, in Paul’s day it was not a value at all. In the surrounding pagan world the word he uses here was a term of contempt, applied for the most part to slaves and suggesting mindless servility. According to Scripture, in contrast, humility is a distinctly Christian virtue, a “grace” that takes us to the heart of the gospel itself. Here Paul tells us it is the opposite of self-centeredness and pride and means “considering others better than yourselves.”
What is involved in this valuing of others above self? It is not, for instance, an insincere politeness that makes heroes of the weak or tolerates what is truly despicable; nor is it a false modesty that sees only superior gifts in others. Rather, in contrast to all forms of self-centeredness (in some instances masked by self-depreciation and feelings of inferiority, which are not humility but its very opposite), humility means being genuinely disposed to others, being able and willing to “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (verse 4). In contrast to selfish ambition and vain conceit, humility means not setting myself up as a standard for others. It means an end in the church to all partisanship and all forms of individualism, “hearty” or otherwise. In fact, humility means valuing others with their concerns as more important, even when we know them to be weaker and less gifted. This self-renouncing humility, Paul wants us to know, more than anything else so far as our involvement is concerned, is the source of unity in the church.
Humility and Doctrinal Orthodoxy
The teaching of our text so far considered addresses all believers. But now we must see that it applies in a heightened way to elders and leaders in the church. Here we have to confront not simply another of our limited perceptions. but a massive and critical blind spot, one that can prove fatally disruptive in the life and work of the church.
Let me try to anticipate a rejoinder some of you may have at this point: “The differences in this General Assembly are doctrinal in nature; the divisions among us are matters of principle. But, as you yourself have pointed out, doctrinal error and its threat to Christian unity are not in view in Philippians 2. The text you have chosen and your remarks on it are not really to the point.”
But can we so easily isolate our doctrinal concerns from Paul’s concerns in our text? Must not the thinking he has in view be a part of our doctrinal thinking?
One thing church history shows clearly is that absolute uniformity in doctrine and strict conformity in theological thinking have never provided the basis for stable, enduring unity in the church. In fact, efforts to insure such uniformity have had just the opposite effect; they have tended to cause division. The course of church history demonstrates a virtual principle: Uniformity without room for diversity, destroys unity and produces the very dissension it wants to avoid.
We should expect this to be the case. The doctrinal grasp of any one denomination or any single generation of the church is always fragmentary, never finished. Faced with Scripture, our understanding of its “unsearchable riches,” its “manifold, multifaceted wisdom” (Eph. 3:8, 10) is necessarily incomplete. For our theology, too, it holds true that “we know in part” and “we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:9, 12).
I am well aware that we are poised here, as with every central Christian truth, on a razor’s edge. I beg you, please don’t hear what I have just been saying as a veiled call to doctrinal indifference or a casual Biblicism. That we can least of all afford, surrounded as we are by an evangelical world rife with doctrinal poverty and confusion. No doubt, too, doctrinal differences result from another, darker factor than we have so far mentioned: the spirit of unbelief and error, ignorance that is culpable. But this is not the only factor, and our failure to recognize that is too often our blind spot.
Doctrinal orthodoxy (to be an orthodox Presbyterian) is a legitimate and important concern. Through the centuries of its maturity the church has been brought to an appreciation of the vital and essential role of its creeds and confessions. They function to promote and maintain the doctrinal stability necessary for the peace and unity of the church. But the confessional bond, however essential, must leave room for differences in perception and expression; it must not make every issue into an issue of confessionalism that, despite an ever so impeccable doctrine of Scripture, effectively supplants Scripture.
Humility and Openness to Diversity
In an important, still timely essay on “The Future of Calvinism,” written nearly a century ago, Herman Bavinck noted that an attractive feature of the Reformed tradition, one of its strengths, is the multiplicity of confessions it has produced, the diversity it allows at the confessional level. This openness to variety in doctrinal formulation, he maintained, results from the conviction that “To no individual or individual Church has it been given to assimilate truth in all its fulness. Truth is too rich and manifold for this.”
Clearly, then, the “mind” and thinking Paul is concerned for in our text is anything but irrelevant to our doctrinal thinking and the controversies that so often ensue. Humility demands, without abandoning or trivializing my own convictions, a genuine openness to the doctrinal insights others may have, even when they differ from my own. “Considering others better than ourselves” involves making every sympathetic effort to enter into their thinking, especially where they acknowledge a common confessional bond with us, allowing ourselves perhaps to be convinced by their Biblical grounds, and, where we are not convinced, being ready to consider that the problem may still lie with us and our views. “Looking not only to your own, but also to the interests of others” means, among other things, that there is room in the church for diversity, a place for various schools and different special interest groups, but that there is no place for these groups to become polarizing factions, or for a partisanship where one school looks down on or aims to exclude the others. It means that, while there is certainly no place in the church for favoritism and partiality, principles (doctrine) are not more important than people, and that how we deal with each other is itself also a doctrinal issue, a matter of principle.
By the same token, selfish ambition and vain conceit exist not only in their coarser, obvious manifestations. Like all “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19) they also come veiled in refined and “principled” forms; and these are particularly a snare for the gospel minister. That this danger can’t be too far from Paul’s mind comes out just a few verses earlier where he describes his opponents as those who “preach Christ out of selfish ambition” (1:17, see 1:15).
Essentially, selfish ambition and vain conceit mean that I consider myself better or more important than others, and the truly terrifying thing is that this can even happen in the name of the gospel. A special trap of the ministry is sclf-centeredness. On a greater or lesser scale we are in the limelight. More often than can be good for us, we are preoccupied with what we are saying, while others are giving us their attention. “Ministerial narcissism” is definitely an occupational hazard.
In all sorts of self-deceiving ways this self-centeredness disposes me (perhaps unknowingly) to seek authority in the church as a means to dominate others. At the level of doctrine it turns theology into an ideology which has (to have) the answer for everything. With that, since sound doctrine is left behind, theology becomes a self-centered enterprise, a sophisticated boasting over others, which can only see that my insights and formulations are on the line and others must conform to them. Openness to others and w hat they have to offer, the capacity to learn and to grow, is cut off. Perceived differences are intolerable because they challenge and threaten me and so have to be suppressed. And so, too, division and disorder in the church are just one inevitable result.
Humility Takes Us to the Heart of the Gospel
Selflessness, patterned after Christ’s own example, promotes the unity of the church; our self-centeredness is the source of disruption and disunity. As this fundamental truth begins to dawn on us, the bankruptcy of our own resources and pretensions is relentlessly exposed, and our crying need of God’s grace, which this communion table seals to us. is brought to light.
I have often heard it said that nothing is more difficult for the unbeliever to grasp, and for the believer to retain, than the truth that salvation is by faith and not by works, that we are saved not by our own efforts but by God’s grace. This is certainly right; the spirit of the Pharisee threatens to assert itself in each of us.
Yet as I look about in the church (I really don’t have to go farther than myself) and see so much self-centeredness and selfish ambition–now blatant, now refined–I wonder whether it is not equally, if not more, difficult for us to grasp and retain the truth of our text. But then I wonder whether these two difficulties are really all that far apart. At bottom are they not in fact one–two sides of the same basic difficulty sinners have?
For when I go back and re-read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, I discover, to my surprise, that the conclusion is not as I have been taught since childhood and so often heard it quoted: “This man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” As important as this is and as surely as it takes us to the heart of the article on which the church stands or falls, here it is not the last word, but the next-to-last word. For Jesus the bottom line, the gospel bottom line, reads: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
You can see, then, how, as we have already said, humility is a call to abandon ourselves to Christ. The essence of the humility that promotes unity in the church is faith, faith that can’t be parceled off from this humility and so knows and delights in the answer every lime it hears the question which Paul asks elsewhere, that same question which so perplexes and confounds all pride and self-centeredness: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
With the question and its gospel answer, let us together take up the work of this Assembly and let us now together come to the Lord’s table.