The book of Philippians has much to say about Christian unity (Philippians 1:27, 2:1-4, 3:16, 4:2). At the conclusion of this book, there is a verse on unity, often overlooked, but quite remarkable if you consider its implications. It is actually Paul’s final imperative in this letter and it functions as a last plea for gospel unity.
“Greet every saint in Christ Jesus.”
The first thing I want to point out is that this is not a suggestion; it is an imperative that God expects you to obey! There are two things that we need to know in order to obey this imperative:
- What does it mean to greet?
- Who are the saints?
I want to answer these two questions, starting with the latter.
Who are the saints?
Depending on who you ask, you could get some conflicting answers. According to Roman Catholicism, all saints are dead saints. In other words, you cannot be alive and be a saint. It is a title attributed only to a Catholic who lived an exceptionally virtuous life. Upon his death, if he was considered virtuous, his application would be sent to the Vatican for further investigation. After several tests and confirmation of a miracle done in his name, the applicant would be finally designated with the title of saint.
Though a Catholic understanding of sainthood is fascinating, it is not scriptural at all. When a person believes in the gospel he is made holy through a union with Christ. According to the Bible, the moment you become a Christian, you are declared a saint (which literally means holy one). We did not reach sainthood because of our righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness. God calls believers saints 61 times in the New Testament.
So who are the saints? All believers.
What does it mean to greet?
This directive is in the context of Christian fellowship. Paul begins this book by relaying his joyful prayers for the Philippians because of their fellowship in the gospel. All through the book he is encouraging them to continue to have one spirit and one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel. This greeting at the end of the book is a command that will encourage this Christian fellowship.
There is more to this greeting than just saying, “Hello.” It is a warm reception into the fellowship that stems from our deep affection for one another as fellow believers. The warm reception is based on the fact that one has received Christ and Christ has received him. Romans 15:5-6 states it this way:
“Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.”
Another way of saying this would be that our fellowship and warm reception of one another is based on the gospel alone.
To give us more of a scriptural basis for this fellowship in the gospel, I want us to consider what Paul says in Philippians 2:1-2:
“Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.”
Now I want you to give your focused attention to what Paul is saying here. This is vital in understanding the basis of Christian fellowship. In verse one, Paul begins with what we call a conditional subordinate clause which is used to express a condition under which the main verbal action occurs. The main verb in this sentence is at the beginning of verse two where Paul says, “fulfill my joy by being like-minded” So if the verbal action is to fulfill Paul’s joy by being like-minded and of one accord, what is the condition?
The condition is everything that we find in verse 1 – consolation in Christ, comfort of love, fellowship of the Spirit, and affection and mercy. All of these things mentioned in verse one are true of all believers.
Now the application should be very apparent. If the condition is met by simply being a believer, than the basis of our fellowship is the gospel. Paul begins this book with rejoicing about this gospel fellowship among the Philippian believers (Philippians 1:4-5). He encourages them (and us) to continue to walk worthy of the gospel by possessing one mind and one spirit, and striving together for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). He explicitly commands this unity in the gospel at the beginning of the second chapter (Philippians 2:1-5, 14-15), and at the end of the third chapter (Philippians 3:16). It is what he specifically addresses between two ladies at the beginning of fourth chapter (Philippians 4:2-3). Then he brings us to this closing command to warmly receive every saint in Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:21). In essence, we are called upon as believers to fight for unity (also reference Ephesians 4:1-6).
If you make the basis of fellowship anything else but the gospel, you are disobeying these clear directives. If you make the reception of other believers based on certain denominational labels, you are disobeying these verses. This verse does not say greet every Baptist saint, or every Presbyterian saint; it says greet every saint. I was talking to an Independent Baptist pastor who relayed to me that he can separate from anyone he wishes – “that is the blessing of being independent,” he said. It is not my intention to sound harsh or unkind, but this thinking is very flawed, and frankly, unscriptural.
That is not what it means to be independent. To be independent means your local church is self-governing or automous. Being autonomous as a church does not free you from obeying the Lord’s directive to receive all Christians with warm affection. This type of separation is not only harmful, it is sinful.
Scriptural fellowship is not
the gospel plus your opinions,
the gospel plus your preferences,
the gospel plus your music taste,
the gospel plus your political views,
the gospel plus your preferred Bible translation,
the gospel plus your denominational convictions,
and the list could go on and on.
Scriptural Christian fellowship is based on the gospel alone. That is not to say that your opinions, preferences, music philosophy, political views, Bible translation, and denominational convictions do not matter. But it recognizes that my warm reception of a believer into fellowship is not founded upon those things. We are to receive all that Christ has received (Romans 15:6). Who has Christ received? All that have believed on his name (John 1:12).
It is important to note that in John’s second epistle, he gives us a passage in which he commands us not to extend Christian fellowship to those who would reject the doctrine of Christ (2 John 1:9-10). Since they have rejected the gospel, do not regard them as a brother or sister in Christ. When the church gathers, don’t allow them opportunities to speak or teach the congregation. They may claim the title Christian, but if they reject the core tenants (fundamentals) of the Christian faith, they are not true Christians.
In order for there to be true Christian fellowship, there needs to be agreement on the fundamentals of the faith. When we say something is fundamental to the Christian faith, we are saying it is a necessary component to become a Christian. If you deny a cardinal doctrine then you are not a Christian.
A Catholic will claim to be a follower of Christ, but if he adheres to Catholic dogma, then he is not a true Christian. A true evangelical and a Catholic cannot strive together for the faith of the gospel – they don’t possess the same gospel. They are fundamentally different.
The first time Christian people identified themselves as fundamentalists was in the late 19th – early 20th century. This fundamentalism was interdenominational. There were Baptists, as well as Methodists, Presbyterians, and other mainline Protestant groups, coming together to combat liberalism and modernism. They did not agree on every doctrine, church government, or methodology, but they did agree on the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The liberals were directly attacking cardinal doctrines like the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the literal bodily resurrection, and so forth. In 1910, conservative Protestant theologians responded to this aggressive attack against scriptural orthodoxy by putting together a twelve volume set of essays called The Fundamentals. These essays functioned as an apologetic and a polemic of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. This type of fundamentalism was and is a scriptural necessity. We must earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 1:3). We must protect the purity of the gospel (Galatians 1:6-8). When Paul reached the end of his ministry, he described it in these terms, “I have fought a good fight…”
This call to gospel unity is not a call to lay down your arms; it is a call to stand and to strive together for the heart of what we believe. Many would conclude that this unity in the gospel is some sort of reductionism that diminishes other teachings of the Bible. This is not the case. It simply recognizes that there certain doctrines that are essential to becoming a Christian, and therefore the importance of those doctrines is heightened.
Let me give you an example. In 2 Corinthians 11:5-6, Paul instructs ladies that, when the church is gathered, they must have their heads covered when they are praying or prophesying. Now, without getting too involved in the passage, I want you to know that there are some scripturally committed pastors who believe that this passage teaches that a woman should wear something that actually covers her head when the church is assembled for worship. Others (myself included) believe the head coverings are in reference to the ladies’ actual hair. Now, keep in mind that these are inspired instructions for worship. It is important – God has spoken. Should a disagreement over this teaching (doctrine), be grounds for separation from other believers? Should we refuse to receive a brother with deep affection if he disagrees with us over this teaching? I don’t know anyone that would answer yes to that question. Here is the point: there are things the Bible teaches, the interpretation of which good and godly men disagree over. These men desire to obey the Lord and walk worthy of Him, yet they simply understand the passage differently. They do agree on the fundamentals, they are all a part of the family of God, and therefore are called by God to gospel unity.
Should I refuse to receive a brother into fellowship because he has a different view of eschatology (the doctrine of last things)? I personally have some friends who believe and live according to the gospel, yet differ from me on Bible prophecy. We will engage in intense and vigorous conversations about this subject. We will take time to voice how strongly we disagree, yet we won’t allow the disagreement to supersede our fellowship in the gospel. We won’t allow our disagreement to take preeminence over the Lord’s command to warmly receive every saint in Jesus Christ.
A great historical example of having a strong disagreement yet not allowing it to supersede scriptural fellowship is the relationship between John Wesley and George Whitefield. These men both preached the true gospel and lived according to the gospel, but they disagreed strongly over the subject of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Their discussions would get heated, and perhaps went too far at times, yet if you study them, you will see that they had high regard for each other and would receive one another in the gospel. This was highlighted for me in a story I came across several years ago. After the passing of George Whitefield, a lady approached John Wesley and asked if he expected to see Mr. Whitefield in heaven. After a lengthy pause John Wesley replied, “No.” The lady was shocked by his answer. But then Wesley said, “Do not misunderstand me, madam; George Whitefield was so bright a star in the firmament of God’s glory, and will stand so near the throne, that one like me, who am less than the least, will never catch a glimpse of him.”
Here is the bottom line, our fellowship as believers is in the gospel alone. With that said, I now want to raise this important question: If unity in the gospel is the rule, is there ever any exception? In other words, is there ever an occasion when a believer should separate from another believer?
At the tragic occasion when a believer clearly and deliberately chooses to live in sin, and therefore not according to the gospel. ( 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Romans 16:17, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Titus 3:9-10)
In my next article, we will look more closely at the passages that call for believers to withdraw from unrepentant believers.