One of the most amazing autobiographical texts in all the letters of Paul occurs in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Philippians.
Here we read a powerful and moving account of Paul’s personal circumstances. (The italics used in the text below are of course mine. I use them to draw attention to certain parts in this whole account.)
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have (Philippians 1:12-30, NRSV).
Do you realize that Paul plainly says that he rejoiced even when his critics preached the gospel out of envy, taking advantage of Paul’s imprisonment? Paul is more concerned that Christ be proclaimed than he is about the motives and reasons held by those who proclaim it. Simply put, he does not care a fig about why people proclaim Christ so long as it is Christ who is proclaimed.
Paul’s identity is connected with living a life worthy of the gospel. This will lead to joy and suffering. He is prepared to joyfully suffer so long as Christ’s good news is advanced and his kingdom is served.
We should further note, in the early part of this account, that Paul says “most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” The fruit that pleased Paul so deeply was this – the whole church, all the brothers and sisters, were living and proclaiming the gospel because of his sufferings. This gospel ministry was not simply the work of the apostle. It was the work of all the people. This is the same truth communicated by my continual use of the word “missional” in the idea that I call “missional-ecumenism.”
The church of today has combined biblical truth, in many instances there is actually quite a good bit of truth in our message, with American individualism and consumerism. I believe that we have done this in ways that most of us don’t even understand or recognize. But here is the deadly fact: We believe that we’re right! We are not just right about Jesus, we reason, but we are also right about doctrinal minutiae reinforced by our own human traditions and unique family and cultural circumstances.
Do not misunderstand – doctrine is important. Doctrine is, biblically speaking, apostolic teaching. Teaching people life-giving truth is extremely important. Even careful theological reflection is critical to healthy ministry, especially to a well-equipped leadership. Yet having said this we must realize that at the end of the day that the Holy Spirit didn’t inspire a detailed theology textbook. He did not provide a systematic treatise on every detail of the faith.
God appears to have left some areas of Christian thought deliberately unclear and unresolved. This is why we have what has been called apophatic theology, which is the knowledge of God that is gained by negation. God inspired the writers of Scripture to write a faithful account of his love the life and revelation of that love in Jesus the Christ. Yet we act as if every detail in the Bible is very clear so long as we study the Scripture with the right tools and confessions.
But we miss the real truth when we would argue over the meaning of certain texts and continually stoke disagreement about the details. Look, it is fine to see many issues differently. This diversity of insight can be useful in many ways. What is not acceptable is to separate ourselves from others who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and confess him as Lord. These are our brothers and sisters. When we say that we know who belongs to the Lord, and who does not, we speak in a way that only God can speak because only God can finally know this truth.
We actually need each other far more than we know. As we enter into conversation with one another we realize this in fresh ways that transform us. Further, the world needs to see (through our unity) – whether we call it cooperative evangelism or missional-ecumenism – that we actually believe all who confess Jesus as Lord belong to him. Only the Lord knows who is, and is not, a true disciple so we should accept those who confess him in baptism and faith. At the same time let us speak the truth to one another in love, never compromising the gospel in the process. Unity and the gospel are not enemies. They are actually not in tension at all, except when we create a world in which we think we know what we actually do not know.
2 Timothy 2:19 plainly says, “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’” (NRSV). He knows who belongs to him and we do not. Let us confess him and not judge others lest we pull up the wheat and destroy the unity of the church in the process.