In a couple of weeks I get to preach on Philippians 2:1-4. The passage emphasizes unity and humility within the Church, or more properly, unity through humility. I’m sure I was given the passage either because I’ve mastered humility or because I’m prideful and need to meditate on it more. I’ll let you figure out which one is correct. Paul strongly pleads with the believers in Philippi to pursue unity (be of one mind, one purpose, one love) by practicing humility. Humility is cultivated as we consider the blessings in the gospel we’ve received only by grace (2:1), as we follow the ultimate example of Jesus (2:5ff), and as we put into practice by valuing others higher than ourselves and serving them. By nature we are self-serving, self-promoting, and self-justifying so it takes a miracle of God for us to put God first and others second. Thankfully, this miracle, this counter-cultural and unnatural mindset that denies the “me, me, me” voice screaming in my head is the work the Spirit is performing in us since we now have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5).
This ties really well to something I’ve just read. A group of men at my church are reading through Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In chapter 4, “Ministry,” he opens with one of the challenges the disciples faced/created that every church also must immediately extinguish with the slightest scent of its smoke. “An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest” (Luke 9:46). For Bonhoeffer, it’s not a matter of if this becomes a potential threat in a church fellowship but when, and how quickly and proactively we will be on a search-and-destroy mission until all pride and rivalry is wiped out. In settings and relationships we consider how we might get the upper hand, use someone to our advantage, or promote our agenda.
“All this can occur in the most polite or even pious environment. But the important thing is that a Christian community should know that somewhere in it there will certainly be ‘a reasoning [argument] among them, which of them should be the greatest.’ It is the struggle of the natural man for self-justification. He finds it not only in comparing himself with others, in condemning and judging others. Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together” (91).
I’ll list and provide a comment or two from Bonhoeffer on each of his points. These aren’t always easy to do and the chapter is a like wrecking ball to the ego, but Bonhoeffer roots our serving others humbly in our justification by free grace (as Paul does in Phil. 2) and provides some practical steps to put others first.
1) The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue
One of the best ways we can overcome our self-justification and serve others well is refusing to say many of the things that enter our mind. Just because you think of it, and just because you have an impulse to say it doesn’t mean it should actually be said. In a serious but funny statement he writes, “Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him” (92). He roots this in James 4:11-12 and Ephesians 4:29 and the rule of the NT for how we should speak to one another. Rather than speak ill of others, judge or condemn one another, assert our authority over others, or put others in their place we should speak to lift them up, to rejoice with them and over them, and to speak to our own need for mercy.
2) The Ministry of Meekness
If we are ever are to serve others we must not think of ourselves as being above service. In other words, we think too highly of ourselves and need a push to think less of ourselves, or to at least think of ourselves less. “Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think of himself” (95). Remember who you are by nature, what God has forgiven you of, and that everything good in you or done by you is God’s work and gift. Don’t push and fight to get your own way or to receive honor but work for the will and the honor of others. When we are meek it allows us to bear insults, to release the need to defend ourselves or retort back, to always clear our name. When we are meek we see our sin not as less than the sins of others but as greater.
3) The Ministry of Listening
The first service we owe to one another is listening. It is a sign of pride if we always feel like we have to get our words in or that we can fix it with our words. As we’ll see, there is a place for speaking but we need reminding again to be slow to speak and quick to hear. If we don’t listen before speaking we won’t actually know what the fitting word needing spoken might be. “Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear” (97). Bonhoeffer calls us out for being too quick to talk when we should be listening.
4) The Ministry of Helpfulness
We should not only listen and speak but also actively help one another. We’re often more than happy to give advice but are we willing to actually help? “We must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions” (99). Ain’t that the truth. He continues, “But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God” (99).
5) The Ministry of Bearing
This ministry is at the heart of the Church and the “one anothers” in the NT. We are to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). The greatest example of this is again from Philippians 2 where Jesus was willing to bear on his back the full weight of our sin. Although we’re not like Jesus in that he alone bears our sin as a legal-substitute we are like Jesus in that we’re called to take up our cross by dying to what’s a better option for us personally in order to put others before us. “It is the fellowship of the Cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian” (101). By way of reminder, these aren’t theoretical doctrines or ethics by Bonhoeffer to be held up as praiseworthy. This is the nitty-gritty reality of being part of a community where we are all sinners who continually must forgive, show patience towards, and bear one another. “He who is bearing others knows that he himself is being borne [by others too], and only in this strength can he go on bearing” (103).
6) The Ministry of Proclaiming
This isn’t the official proclamation of the ordained ministry by the free and off the cuff speaking of the word to one another as is needed by each situation. This requires us to have listened, to have actively helped, to have borne other’s burdens. This seems to mirror Paul’s commands to “speak the truth in love to one another” (Eph. 4:15) and letting the word dwell in us so we can admonish one another in all wisdom (Col. 3:16). Just as there is a time for listening so also there is a time for speaking a fitting word. We can speak to one another because we’re aware that all of us are “lonely and lost if not given help” (106). We speak out of humility and the awareness of our need, and we speak as those willing to receive both encouragement and reproach. This allows us to speak with candor, even at times with words that first might wound before they can be healed. “We are gentle and we are sever with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s severity” (106). If we cannot speak both and cannot hear both than something is out of balance. Furthermore, we don’t speak from our own opinion or judgments but from the wisdom of God’s Word.
7) The Ministry of Authority
The least shall be the greatest. “Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service. Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out” (108). What provides authority isn’t our own gifts, knowledge, position, attainments, or personality. “Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted ot the authority of the Word” (109).