Cultivating a Christ-exalting Relational Culture in your Local Church
What kind or sort of relational culture do you want to see and experience at your local church? What ought to be the personal, inter-relational atmosphere in your church? For what do you want to be known by those outside your community? When people speak of your church and the way all of you interact with one another, what do they say? What you do want them to say? That’s what I want us to think about in this article. But before I go any farther, let me give you an illustration of the kind of relational culture that we must at all costs avoid.
My aunt, who is now with the Lord, found a copy of the history of Providence Church, a small congregation just north of Liberty, Missouri, that as far as I know no longer exists. My grandfather, Charles Samuel Storms, after whom I was named, and my grandmother, were married in that church. But what was of even greater interest to me were a few of the stories of the people there.
In one particular case, a church member was excommunicated for disrupting a service one Sunday morning. He had jumped to his feet, screaming, after being hit in the back of the head by a man’s hat that had been tossed, Frisbee style, across the auditorium during a sermon. I don’t know what it was in the sermon that provoked the man to throw his hat, nor do I know what the man yelled who was struck by it, but evidently it was sufficiently obscene to warrant his being kicked out.
Another gentleman who had been rejected by a young lady decided to take out his anger on the man who had won her affection. So, during the Sunday morning service he slipped out the back door of the church building and located the team of horses belonging to this man, pulled out a knife, and proceeded to cut off their tails.
Then there was the man who was excommunicated because of his love for tap dancing! Here is the description given of him, and I quote: [He was] “a good six feet tall and over two-hundred pounds, tap dancer par excellence, light on his feet and cat-quick; he could move across the dance floor as quiet as baby shoes on the bare boards. His natural ability could have commanded top-billing with salary to match in any theater. Although David danced before the Lord in the Holy Scriptures, for [him] it was considered a sin, and he was excommunicated!”
Finally, I read the account of one man who was so angry at everyone else in the church that he returned to the building after services were over, piled wood shavings in the middle of the auditorium, and set them on fire! Thus the original structure of Providence Church burned to the ground in 1880.
My point is simply that such is not the sort or kind of relational culture that Paul calls for in Philippians 2:1-4, nor is it what we want here at Bridgeway, where I serve as Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision.
Before we jump into the text, let me take a brief moment and say something about how this paragraph is put together and the way it functions in Paul’s overall argument. Clearly, it is closely related both to what has preceded in 1:27-30 and to what follows in 2:5-11. It is in a sense both a conclusion and an introduction. We know it is a conclusion because of the word “so” or “therefore” with which v. 1 begins. This tells us that what Paul is about to say is in some way grounded in or based upon the things he has said in 1:27-30. Look also at the repeated emphasis on unity or harmony among Christians, first in 1:27 and then again in 2:2.
But this paragraph also serves as an introduction to what follows in 2:5-11. The unity that ought to exist among Christians is possible only if we humbly put aside our own agenda, only if we humbly lay down all rights and demands, only if we put aside an attitude of entitlement and serve the best interests of others. And the chief example of just such an attitude or mindset is found in Jesus himself, who although existing in the form of God humbled himself and became a human, indeed a slave, that we might be granted eternal life through his life, death, and resurrection. Thus 2:1-4 is something of a hinge, upon which both the preceding and subsequent paragraphs depend.
If it will help you to follow Paul’s argument, think of it in terms of why, what, andhow. That is to say, in v. 1 Paul will tell us why we should love and humbly serve one another; in v. 2 he will tell us precisely what this looks like; and in vv. 3-4 he will explain how it is done or how it is manifest.
In this article we’ll look at the “why” question. The first two verses read as follows:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:1-2).
There’s no way around the fact that the earnestness with which he makes this appeal indicates that he had heard or sensed a disunity in Philippi. This suspicion grieved him, or at least was a hindrance to his joy.
What had happened? We don’t know, but perhaps egos were running rampant, some thinking themselves superior to others and thus entitled to special treatment; perhaps others were insisting that everyone agree with them on secondary doctrines; maybe they had divided up into separate factions or parties, some siding with John while others took up with Mark, and then of course there were those drawn to Jane and Melissa, while a few identified more with Tom and Eddy. In any case, the problem was real and Paul wants it to end.
So he encourages us to ask ourselves this question: “Has being a Christian brought me any encouragement? Have I been uplifted and empowered because of what Christ has done for me? Have I found reasons to press on in the face of horrible obstacles because of who Jesus is and because of what he accomplished on the cross for me? Is the reality of his presence in heaven right now where he intercedes and prays for me a source of strength and a boost to my sagging soul? When I feel led to quit, just quite simply to throw in the towel and move on to some sin that keeps nagging at my heart, have I instead found that my mind is suddenly overwhelmed with the reality of grace and forgiveness and the love of Jesus such that I experience a surge of energy and confidence to say No?”
Well, is that true of you? If so, says Paul, “if there is any encouragement in Christ” (v. 1a), there is something I want you to do.
Or again: “Have you derived comfort for your soul knowing that God’s love for you is eternal and ceaseless and permanent and powerful and kind and is of such a nature that it will never let you go? Have you discovered that in times of severe loneliness, even seasons where you have felt utterly abandoned, you nevertheless experienced comfort when you reflected on the magnitude of how much God has loved you in Christ? When the pain and hardship of life almost became unbearable, have you been energized to hold firmly to your faith in Jesus and your hope for the future because the love of God overwhelmed your soul and reminded you that ‘while you were yet a sinner’ Christ died for you (Rom. 5:8)?”
Well, is that true of you? Have you experienced “any comfort from love” (v. 1b)? Perhaps it’s only true to a small degree. Perhaps it’s not overwhelming or magnificent but has come to you in short spurts or in tiny drops. That’s ok, because Paul is asking if there is “any” encouragement in Christ or “any” comfort that comes from being loved. You don’t have to have experienced it all, but only a little here and there. If even that has touched you and changed you and kept you going when it felt so reasonable to give up, there is something he is asking you and me to do.
“What about your ‘participation in the Spirit’ (v. 1c)? Have you experienced the Holy Spirit in any meaningful way? Have you sensed his presence? Have you been the recipient of his power? Have you been upheld and sustained by his power? Have you tasted even a little of his sweet presence? Have you enjoyed, even if only for a short season, the intimacy of fellowship with him and through him fellowship with other believers? Have you tasted the sweetness of the Spirit’s touch on your soul during worship or during a time of reading and studying God’s Word or during a time of prayer or while sitting with other Christians listening to what God has done in their lives? Have you had a time when you were meditating on God’s Word and suddenly the lights went on in your heart and you saw for the first time some glorious truth, some reassuring word, some good reason to praise God?”
Well, if so, if you were able to say Yes, even if it was only due to a momentary taste of these realities, or perhaps for some of you it was a virtual flood of spiritual awakening, however so much it may have been, there is something Paul is asking you and me to do.
“What about your experience of ‘affection and sympathy’ (v. 1d) from others in the body of Christ? No group of Christians does it perfectly. No church loves the way they know they should. There may even have been times when you were desperately needy and no one took notice of you or showed up at your door or reached out to you on a Sunday or offered to pray for you at a small group gathering. But surely you’ve known here and there something of the affection and concern and love of other believers. Surely you’ve seen their sincere desire to help you and support you. Surely you’ve felt their heartfelt sympathy when you’ve walked through difficult times or suffered great loss.”
Well, if you have, if you know something of the affection and sympathy from God and from other believers, there is something Paul is asking you and me to do.
To sum up, Paul is appealing to the blessings we have because of who Jesus is and what he has done for broken, fallen sinners like you and me. Let the reality of all you have in Christ wash over your heart and wake you up to the incredible inconsistency of claiming to be a recipient of these gracious blessings while at the same time you treat other Christians as trash.
These are all an appeal to your experience as Christians. If you’ve touched it, if only in part, if you’ve tasted it, if only some here and there, if you’ve reveled and rejoiced in the sense of belonging to the body of Christ and being united to others who care deeply for you, there is something that you must do, says Paul. We’ll discover what that “something” is in the next article.