What to do about disagreements between Christians?

“If anyone thinks otherwise” (a phrase from Philippians 3:15) . . . what then?

What to do about disagreements?

A lot depends on whether or not there is a context of mutual trust and affection.

Within the New Testament, if you were to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians side-by-side with Paul’s letter to the Philippians, you might notice a distinctly different tone. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul fears that his addressees have gone completely nuts. You Galatian fools! he shouts at them? Who has bewitched you?

The letter to the Philippians is different. Here he is writing to his beloved and trusted friends.

It’s not that there aren’t any issues between them. He’s very concerned, for example, about teachers among them who insist that they need to be circumcised. He speaks harshly to or about those teachers. He calls them dogs. He calls them evil workers. He calls them the katatomē.

The word for circumcision is peritomē. Peri means around. Circumcision—cutting around—is a carefully done surgical procedure to remove some nonessential skin. But kata- suggests going all the way, slashing away with that knife and maybe cutting the whole—um, let’s just say “thing”—cutting the whole thing off. Katatomē here recalls apokopsontai in Galatians 5:12. Paul wishes that these peddlers and enforcers of circumcision (even though circumcision is a biblical commandment!) were “cut off” or “cut away”—completely. I.e., why don’t they just go ahead and castrate themselves? Or maybe wishing they were “cut off” means wishing they were dead, or just gone? Either way, the sentiment is pretty clear.

But in Philippians, the reference to the cutters-off does not spoil the mood of the letter as a whole. Shortly after the passage in chapter 3 that we just referred to, speaking now not of false teachers who have invaded from the outside but of brothers and sisters within the Philippian community, Paul says this:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Philippians 3:12–16, ESV

Philippians 3:12–16, ESV

This is truly a remarkable paragraph, and I think generally neglected by pastors and churches that want to follow Paul’s biblical teaching.

Note how he begins: Although he is the apostle (on that he insists vehemently in other letters), he does not invoke that authority in this letter (where the only “apostle” is the Philippians’ own messenger to Paul, Epaphroditus, 2:25). And he makes a point of not claiming that he has arrived! He is still on the way. There is progress to be made. He—the Apostle Paul!—may have things yet to learn. So with regard to members of the Philippian community who may think differently than he about certain points, he does not say that they must accept his authority and fall into line. He says, “this too God will reveal to you.”

Paul has entrusted his Philippian disciples, his Philippian friends, to God. And he trusts God. Entrusting his friends to God means in effect trusting them. These two trusts are inextricably related, each enabling and requiring the other. If they think differently about something than he does right now, so be it. He trusts that God will show them the truth. Which means that he does not have to clobber them with it himself.

Why is he able to trust in this way regarding whatever the point of disagreement may be with the Philippians? After all, it is not difficult to find other cases in Paul’s letters, and not only in Galatians, where his exhortations and warnings do not indicate not a serene confidence. Every day he is stopped short by his anxiety over all the churches; such is his empathy and concern that their weaknesses or illnesses become his own (1 Cor. 11:28–29). And that solicitous concern, as Galatians demonstrates supremely, can turn into perplexity and exasperation.

So what is different with the Philippians? Why can he trust God (and them) in this matter, while in other cases he must be anxious and even angry? He is angry at the people who want to circumcise the Philippians, but regarding the Philippians themselves he is not anxious but seems to have the same attitude that he encourages them to have in 4:4–6: rejoicing always, not being anxious about anything!

What makes the difference? The first half of verse 15 tells us. The translation quoted above says “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind” (Ὅσοι οὖν τέλειοι, τοῦτο φρονῶμεν). “Mature” is teleioi, the same word that is translated “perfect” in Matthew when Jesus says “be ye therefore perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” But Paul has already told us that that he does not consider himself already to have achieved perfection. Another way of translating verse 12 (Οὐχ ὅτι ἤδη ἔλαβον ἢ ἤδη τετελείωμαι, διώκω δὲ εἰ καὶ καταλάβω, ἐφ’ ᾧ καὶ κατελήμφθην ὑπὸ Χριστοῦ [Ἰησοῦ]) would be: “Not that I have already received/grasped or been perfected, but I pursue in case I might also attain definitively (the kata- prefix), inasmuch as I have been definitively (again, kata-) received/grasped by Jesus Christ.”

Paul urges this same attitude, this already/not-yet mindset regarding maturity/perfection in Christ, upon his Philippians readers. Or does he acknowledge that in fact they already have that same attitude? Some manuscripts say “let us have this mindset (τοῦτο φρονῶμεν) but others say “we have this mindset” (φρονοῦμεν). This disagreement between early scribes reflects perfectly the already/not yet. Paul is constantly calling on his readers to live into the reality that Christ has established, and in the case of the Philippians, he believes that they are doing so. Markus Bockmuehl tells us that “perfect” or “mature” in Jewish contexts applies to “those whose trust is sincerely placed in God and who follow wholeheartedly in his ways.”

How could our disagreements within our churches be transformed if we were able and willing to regard each other as friends and as people whose trust is sincerely placed in God, who are wholeheartedly following in his ways? We have all too much of the “Why don’t they go ahead and cut their whole dick off?”/“I wish they were dead” attitude these days. It is urged upon us day after day, often by putatively Christian voices, on the airwaves and over the internet, in a million daily retorts in social-media feeds. How can we get from Galatians 5:12 to Philippians 3:15 in our differences of opinion with other Christians? Perhaps by tuning out the strident, angry voices and listening to different voices. Perhaps by having the mindset that was in Christ Jesus, who took the form of a servant, or the mindset that was in Paul, who knew that it was OK that he and his friends were not yet perfect in their own beliefs and actions because in Christ they were already received and on their way to being definitively grasped, on their way from maturity to perfection.

Then when we found ourselves disagreeing about this or that, we could, rather than become anxious, exasperated, and angry, trust God to show us all the right way over time.

Now, wouldn’t that be a good and lovely thing? Like the precious oil poured over the head of Aaron and running down his beard, like the dew of Hermon falling on the mountains of Zion.

Given my own denominational context, I cannot help thinking of Psalm 119:63:

I am a companion of all them that fear thee, and of them that keep thy precepts.

Companion, not enemy.

Friendship with God and with each other takes priority. It provides the setting within which we can seek to understand, and keep, the precepts.

It might be an interesting exercise to read through the whole letter to the Philippians with this question in mind: what, concretely, enables Paul to have this trusting attitude in their case?

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