23 January, 2014 William Taylor
Partnership in the New Testament is an inter-congregational affair. Nowhere is this more evident than in the letter to the Philippians where partnership is so much the focus. Paul urges his Philippian ‘partners’ to strive side by side for the Faith of the Gospel (1:27). The teamwork between Christians in Philippi is for the objective truth of ‘the Gospel’. It is for the Faith of the Gospel, not my faith in the Gospel. The remit of their partnership, then, cannot be confined either to their own subjective experience or little world in Philippi. The Gospel itself demands that horizons be lifted beyond the local. Inter-congregational partnership is evident in Paul’s own example, which he urges the Philippians to imitate. He is determined to ‘remain in the flesh on your account’. Timothy and Epaphroditus are held up as model partners with a Gospel mind-set and their partnership has been worked out at an extra-congregational level (2:19-30). The Philippians themselves have looked well beyond their own immediate situation and are repeatedly commended by Paul for doing so.
The shape of inter-congregational partnership displays itself in numerous ways in the letter. Prayer (1:3-5, 9-11, 19), Gospel proclamation and suffering (1:7), visitation for the purpose of mutual encouragement and joy (1:25-26; 2:23-24), letter-writing and delivering for the same purpose (2:25- 30); personal warning and exhortation (3:1-11, 4:1-3). Perhaps above all else in Philippi it has taken the form of financial support of the ministry, though from 2 Corinthians we know that the Philippian church was extremely poor (2 Cor 8:2).
If convinced of the extra-congregational nature of true Gospel partnership, every church leader and all congregations should be encouraged to form Gospel links beyond the immediate local context. One wise pastor of a small congregation observed that ‘we will only really have understood New Testament partnership when our small and poor churches start to [word missing?] congregations beyond their own’. I was challenged by that!
If the nature of partnership is inter-congregational, the context is that of the cross. This is perhaps the most unnoticed aspect of partnership in Philippians. Paul states that for him, ‘to live is Christ’ (1:21). But what does that look like for Paul? Paul’s description of the life he wants us to imitate is dominated by a desire to ‘share’ (literally ‘partner’) in the suffering of Christ so that he may attain The Resurrection from The Dead (3:10). This means that, as Paul ‘presses on’ to ‘what lies ahead’ (3:12-13), the whole context of his life is now cross-shaped. It seems that, without a present taking up of his cross, Paul can see no future ‘prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ (3:14). There are those in Philippi who walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. The Judaizers think that they can side-step the cross. They are not willing to bear the cost of partnering with Christ and they will know none of its joy. But Paul’s concern for his Gospel partners is that they should continue to share in what he calls the ‘grace’ of suffering with Christ (1:7, 1:28). For Paul, then, ‘to live is Christ’ is no fridge-door slogan. It is a call to selfless sacrificial service and suffering for the Faith of the Gospel. Genuine partnership will only be forged between our churches as we grasp that, when Paul says ‘to live is Christ’, he means to live is to ‘share (partner) in His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death’ (3:10).
It may just be that rising hostility to the Gospel will do the world of good to our partnerships! Certainly partnership will not flourish if we seek to avoid the cross – which is why Paul urges his partners to ‘rejoice in the Lord’ because it is ‘safe for you’. He means, rejoice in the crucified Lord Jesus (2:6-11).
The question remains as to how this inter-church partnership is generated. Paul’s answer appears to be that it is ‘all in the mind’! The idea of the mind is dominant in the whole letter (ie 1:27; 2:2, 5; 3:15, 19; 4:2, 10). The mind does not refer simply to the intellect. Our minds have to do with our aims and goals; what shapes our lives; what makes ‘me’ me. As one Sunday school child put it: ‘it’s what we are on the inside’! Paul’s appeal in the Philippian letter is that the ‘mind’ which we have already in Christ should be expressed in Christ-like selfless service of others – both within and, importantly in Philippians, beyond the local congregation. The great obstacle to partnership is a mind dominated by the ugly vices of ‘rivalry’ (1:17, 2:3) and ‘conceit’ (2:2). It is jealous, self-interested pride that caused some to be so hostile to the preaching of Paul (1:15). They preached Christ out of rivalry and envy. There is to be no inter-congregational one-upmanship. Instead ‘love’, ‘humility’, ‘the interest of others’, and ‘the interest of Christ’ are the fruit of righteousness that flow from the mind ‘which is yours in Christ’ (2:5). It has sometimes been suggested that there were two threats to the Philippian church – one from within, the other from without. I wonder if it is more accurate to suggest that there was just one threat – the un-Christ-like mind.
If partnerships are to flourish we must repent of inter-church rivalry and envy. A handful of very obvious rivalries spring to mind: north/south; ‘free’/Anglican; big church/small church; church planter/Church ‘re-vitaliser’; ‘wealthy’ church/‘poor’ church; urban/rural; inner city/suburban and so forth.
It seems then, that we need to get to work on our ‘minds’ – and Paul encourages us to do that both by teaching us of the ‘mind’ of Christ (2:5-11) and by urging us to ‘think about these things’. As our churches have ‘the mind which is yours in Christ’, so we should find an explosion of partnership. Does a lack of appetite for extra-congregational partnership suggest that there’s something wrong in our mind?