“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3
It was a sermon I’ll never forget. Back in the mid ‘90s when I was doing my pastoral internship, my pastor handed me an audio tape of a sermon that a friend of his had preached a few years earlier. What was most noteworthy about the sermon was not the fact that it was unusually short (less than twenty minutes) or biblically sound. What was most striking about the sermon was the fact that the pastor was fired before he could finish it. Since the sermon was being recorded, the whole incident was caught on tape. An elder called out from the crowd, “Please leave the pulpit,” and proceeded to tell the congregation that the pastor would never again preach in their church. It was shocking to say the least.
What on earth happened? Was the pastor preaching heresy? No. Had he been caught in an immoral sin? No. Was he guilty of a dereliction of duty? Once again, no. Sadly, it was because the elder didn’t like what the pastor was teaching about the dangers of division in Christ’s Church. The pastor had correctly identified one of the congregation’s practices as “a beautiful tradition,” not as a non-negotiable gospel truth. The pastor’s words were humble. Unfortunately, the elder’s response was not. And as a result, the worship service didn’t end well.
Of Paul’s thirteen letters in the New Testament, nine were written to churches. And in all nine Paul emphasizes the importance of unity in Christ’s Church. Paul understood well that, according to Jesus, Christian unity is critical. In fact, just a few hours before he was arrested, beaten and crucified, Jesus prayed, “I pray also for those who will believe in me…that all of them may be one…. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me” (John 17:20-23).
When we consider Jesus’ prayer in John 17, we can’t help but conclude that disunity is one of the most destructive forces in the Church. To a watching world, disunity reflects poorly on Christians. But more tragically, it reflects poorly on Christ. After all, if a raucous group of believers claim to follow the Prince of Peace, unbelievers draw the conclusion that the Prince of Peace must not be all he’s cracked up to be. Disunity in the Church causes both Christ and the gospel message to lose credibility. So, with one voice, the New Testament writers urge Christ’s followers to be united under the banner of Christ.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. It’s one thing to nod our heads in agreement when God’s word says, “Be unified!” But it’s quite another to live it out. Thankfully, in Philippians 2:3, Paul highlights the key to Christian unity while at the same time identifying two mortal enemies of unity in the Church: selfish ambition and vain conceit.
Selfish ambition is an unrelenting pride that pushes its way to the front. Selfish ambition drives us to pursue personal desires and goals over Christ’s desires and goals. And it’s so destructive because selfishness is the root of all other sin. Think about it: It was selfishness (putting his own desires above God’s desires) that led to Lucifer to rebel against God and get kicked out of heaven. And selfish ambition was at the heart of the sin that severed Adam and Eve’s relationship with God. And today selfish ambition is destroying otherwise peaceful relationships between Christians in the Church. Without a doubt, selfish ambition is a mortal enemy of Christian unity.
And so too is vain conceit. Whereas selfish ambition leads us to pursue personal desires and goals over Christ’s desires and goals, vain conceit leads us to seek personal glory over God’s glory. At its heart is an over inflated self-image. A Christian with vain conceit thinks he is always right. And in his conceited mind he believes he is God’s gift to his congregation. He believes he is more valuable, more important and more intelligent than most other Christians. And that being the case, he is seriously deluded. Vain conceit is, by definition, self-deceptive. That’s why Paul writes in Galatians 6:3, “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Yes, vain conceit is self-deceptive. But worse still, it’s a very destructive force in Christ’s Church, spawning disunity where there should be unity.
In Philippians 2:3, Paul also identifies the key to Christian unity: humility. Paul writes, “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” Humility is the key to unity and harmony in any church. Instead of focusing on myself and pushing myself to the top, humility calls for me to focus on you and push you to the top. Instead of being full of vain conceit expecting you to bow your preferences to mine, humility calls for me to bow my preferences to yours. And instead of pridefully considering myself to be more important than you, I should humbly consider you as more important than me.
When a group of Christians is humble, it doesn’t matter how different their cultural backgrounds, personalities or experiences may be. God can unify them and use them in incredible ways as one body contending for the faith of the gospel. Had there been more humility in the room during the fired pastor’s sermon, I’m sure that the service would have had a much better ending. And if you and I are humbly serving each other and putting each others’ needs above our own, is there any doubt that our services will end much better as well?
Dane Davis is the Lead Pastor of First Christian Church in Victorville. For more information,
visit www.fccvv.com and join us for worship Sundays at 10 am.