Unity or oneness in the church is a recurring theme in the epistles to the church. Writing to one of the most mature churches mentioned in the New Testament, the church at Ephesus—one with no doctrinal error or practice that needed correcting—Paul, nevertheless, felt compelled to offer this admonition: “being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Clearly, no church is immune from the divisiveness that is native to human flesh. It should not surprise us, then, when Paul provides additional steps on the pathway to unity; particularly the following one: “Do nothing from selfishness” (Phil. 2:3).
Pride is one of three cardinal sins mentioned by the Apostle John: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). And selfishness is her twin sister. I offer no statistical proof, but anecdotal evidence suggests that far more churches have been destroyed by selfish behavior than by doctrinal differences. So strong is the ego that it requires perpetual monitoring. Sadly, stories of churches being divided over the color of the carpeting are not apocryphal. No less a paragon of virtue than the Apostle Paul himself confessed: “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31). He recognized the destructive tendency of the flesh to insist on comfort and the fulfillment of its own will and desires. He admitted that saying “no” to self was a daily battle.
It is eye-opening to consider how expansive Paul’s admonition is: “Do nothing from selfishness.” Just as a little leaven leavens the whole lump, so a little selfishness soon grows like a cancer and takes over the entire assembly—first one body and then another. Pride, arrogance, and selfishness seem to provoke a similar response from others. Much like angry words tend to prompt an angry response, selfishness has a tendency to spread like wildfire.
To put it another way, Paul is suggesting that it is not enough to check our selfishness at the door of the church when we enter on Sunday morning, because selfishness is a way of life that cannot be put off and put on at our convenience. Doing nothing from selfishness is a specific expression of what Paul will advise later in the verse, namely, “with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (v. 4).
Few of us believers would confess in a public forum (or in a private conversation, for that matter) that “I’m the most important person here. What I believe and what I desire trumps anything you believe or desire.” And yet we often dig in our heels when we want our opinion or desire to prevail. Charles Svoboda, the founder of an organization called Bible Related Ministries that serves to help churches through times of strife and division, tells of a church he was called upon to help. When he arrived, the congregation was so thoroughly split into two factions that each group was segregated by the middle aisle. And what was the profound cause of this pronounced division? The purchase of a water softener!
When no definable biblical principle is being violated, yet we want what we want and insist on our will, when we want to be commended and lauded, recognized for some outstanding skill or service, the flesh is rampant. And the end will be dishonor to the name of the Lord, dissension in the body of Christ, and possibly even division to the detriment of the work of the Lord.
Selfishness is the antipathy of Christlike character. But by submission to the Word of God (and to one another), by yielding to the influence of the Spirit of God, and by recognizing and rejecting selfish desires and ambitions, believers must cultivate an “others” attitude. If we truly desire Christ “to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18); we will find ourselves rejecting our selfish desires for the sake of blessing others. And we will be on the path to God-honoring unity.
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