Getting Along With Cantankerous Christians

Philippians 2:1-4

October 18, 1998 | Ray Pritchard

Here is the text taken from The Message, a contemporary translation of the New Testament by Eugene Peterson:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

I confess that I’ve had some fun with my sermon title this week. People automatically smile as soon as they learn that I’m going to talk about cantankerous Christians. I think we’ve all known one—and most of us have been one at various times. On Friday I received an e-mail message from David Hoy to the contemporary musicians about today’s worship services. The following sentence caught my eye: “Pastor’s message is on getting along with cantankerous Christians. Perfect, I’m sure we all know a few (present company excluded of course!).” And just before I went into the third service to preach this message, a young boy stopped me in the lobby and asked what I was preaching about. “Getting along with cantankerous Christians,” I replied. “What does cantankerous mean?” he asked. “It means someone who is hard to get along with. Do you know anyone like that?” I asked. “Me,” he replied with a grin.

Church Members in 32 Flavors

Would that we were all so honest. So how do you get along with cantankerous Christians? The answer is, it’s not easy. Cantankerous Christians are both different and difficult to live with. As a place to begin, let’s focus on the fact that sometimes our problem is simply that people are different. In a church like Calvary, there is a surprising diversity in the congregation. We are old and young, wealthy and not-so-wealthy, from Chicago and from distant states and other nations, from different church backgrounds, and embracing a variety of views on the issues of the day. Like Baskin Robbins, our church members come in at least 32 flavors—and the flavors change weekly.

Yesterday I spoke for few minutes at our Membership Seminar. It turned out to be one of our largest groups ever. As part of my talk, I asked people to list their spiritual background before coming to Calvary. I told them they could raise their hands if they had any of a long list of religious groups in their past. Some people raised their hands six or seven times, which told me that they have been on a modern Pilgrim’s Progress. I discovered that our most recent new members come from the following backgrounds:

Baptist … Methodist … Lutheran … Catholic … Presbyterian … Bible/Independent … Charismatic/Pentecostal … Church of Christ … Episcopal … Quaker … Free Church … Plymouth Brethren … Unitarian … Dutch Reformed … Muslim … and one person who mentioned “Martial Arts.”

“Die, Heretic!”

We Christians love our labels, don’t we? And sometimes we judge each other by the labels we wear. Two men met on a plane and one man asked the other, “Are you a Christian?” “Yes I am.” “Wonderful!” said the first man. After more conversation he asked, “Are you Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox?” “I’m a Protestant.” “That’s great. So am I.”

The questions continued. “Are you Calvinist or Arminian in your theology?” “I’m happy to say that I’m a staunch Calvinist.” “That’s fantastic. So am I.” “If you don’t mind my asking, Are you a Calvinistic Baptist or a Calvinistic Presbyterian?” “I’m a Calvinistic Baptist.” “What a coincidence. I’m a Calvinistic Baptist too.” “Are you a Northern Calvinistic Baptist or a Southern Calvinistic Baptist?” “By heritage and by choice I am a Northern Calvinistic Baptist.” “Unbelievable!” replied the first man. “So am I.”

“May I ask if you are a Northern Regular Calvinistic Baptist or a Northern Conservative Calvinistic Baptist?” “I’m a Northern Conservative Calvinistic Baptist.” “This is truly astounding. There are only 200 of us in the world—and two of us happened to meet on this plane.” “Tell me, sir, would you happen to be a Northern Conservative Calvinistic Baptist Convention of 1844 or a Northern Conservative Calvinistic Baptist Convention of 1868?” “I am a Northern Conservative Calvinistic Baptist Convention of 1844.” “This is a miracle!” the first man declared.

He had only one further question. “Are you a Northern Conservative Calvinistic Baptist Convention of 1844 King James Version or a Northern Conservative Calvinistic Baptist Convention of 1844 New International Version?” “I am a Northern Conservative Calvinistic Baptist of 1844 New International Version,” came the quick reply.

With that the first man ceased to smile. “Die, heretic!” he shouted.

Filling in the Cracks

Satan loves it when Christians split hairs. First we split hairs, then we split churches. This is a message we do well to heed. It is God’s word to us today. We ignore this word from God at our own peril.

Unity is a precious gift of the Spirit. It is to be prized, to be sought, and to be guarded at all costs. When it is lost, it is hard to regain. The Apostle Paul understood this truth well. He sensed that underneath the surface there were cracks in the Philippian church that if not repaired would fragment the congregation. Like any good builder, he wanted to repair those cracks while they were small and the fissures easy to fill.

Behind this fact lies a truth for us to closely consider. Today’s blessing doesn’t guarantee tomorrow’s success. A church may do well for a long period of time only to go through a crisis that leads to a period of decline. I believe that Satan loves to attack churches when they are doing well. If Satan can’t destroy from without, he’ll attack from within. If he can’t destroy the doctrine, he’ll attack the moral life of the leaders. If he can’t corrupt the moral life of the leaders, he’ll attack the unity of the body.

I. The Resources for Unity v. 1

Our text begins with a reminder of what God has done for us. You’ll notice that verse 1 contains four “if” statements. Those “ifs” do not express doubt. In the Greek this particular grammatical form actually expresses a certainty—”If such-and-such is true―and I know that it is …” It’s like a commencement speaker at a Christian college saying something like this: “If you have been encouraged by your education here, if you have grown in the Lord, if you have met your life partner here, if you have discovered God’s will for your life here, then when you leave this place, don’t forget to pray for us and don’t forget to support this college financially.” The “ifs” of verse 1 express truths that the Philippians would readily assent to:

Yes, they had been encouraged by their union with Christ.

Yes, they had experienced God’s love.

Yes, they had enjoyed the fellowship of God’s Spirit.

Yes, they had received an outpouring of mercy from God.

Well, then, says Paul, in light of all that, it shouldn’t be such a great thing to ask that you maintain the unity God has given you. The underlying principle here should be noted. All Christian duties flow naturally from God’s kindness to us. It’s not as if God says, “Do this and I will bless you” but rather “I have blessed you, now do this.”

II. The Requirements for Unity v. 2

Verse 2 brings before us the three-fold requirement for unity. In point of fact the various phrases in this verse are very close together in their meaning. One writer calls this the tautology of the earnest heart. Paul piles up phrase upon phrase to show the Philippians what he has in mind. It’s like a speaker who is so caught up in his message that he repeats himself several times to make sure his listeners get the point.

We learn from this verse that true Christian unity means a deep sharing together.

A. The Shared Mind. The NIV speaks of “being like-minded” while Peterson says “agree with each other.” Being like-minded touches what we believe. Unity begins with a shared statement of faith.

Doctrine matters. As my illustration earlier pointed out, it is possible to “major on the minors” in our Christian fellowship. But it is equally possible to “minor on the majors” by de-emphasizing those historic Christian truths that form the foundation of our faith. I’m thinking here of such doctrines as the existence, personality and Trinity of God, the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, salvation by faith alone, and the personal return of Christ. These things are non-negotiable because they have joined true Christians across the centuries.

Yesterday at the New Members seminar I was struck by something Pastor Larry Korbus did just before I got up to deliver my talk. He had the membership class read our Articles of Faith together. In my ten years as your pastor, I had never heard anyone read them out loud. For those who don’t know, the Articles of Faith comprise the doctrinal foundation of our church. It’s not a short statement either. The sound of all those voices reciting one article after another had a profound effect on me. It struck me that this is part of what it means to “be of the same mind.”

Of course not all believers see things exactly as we do. For instance, we don’t practice infant baptism although we recognize that some genuine believers do. Likewise, we hold to the premillennial return of Christ even though some people see things differently. How should we relate to Christians who don’t see things exactly as we do? Let me give three quick answers to that question.

1. We should major on what we have in common.

2. We should respect their right to disagree.

3. We should hold our convictions in love.

B. The Shared Heart. Paul speaks of “having the same love.” This touches how we feel about each other.

C. The Shared Soul. The NIV says “being one in spirit and purpose.” I like Peterson’s translation: “Be deep-spirited friends.” This touches how we relate to each other. The Greek literally means “same-souled.” It has the idea of such a deep unity that your souls are “unanimous” in their love and respect for each other. A. T. Robertson says that when we have this kind of unity, we will be “like clocks that strike at the same moment.”

Perhaps I could illustrate this from the realm of football. On any football team there are many players and many positions. You have a quarterback, a halfback, a tight end, linebackers, split ends, safeties and defensive ends. You also have those huge guys on the line who like to knock people down. Put them all together and the many players make up one team.

The best coaches—the ones who win in the long run—stress that the team wins together and loses together. If one player does well, everyone celebrates. If one makes a mistake, the whole team suffers together.

I saw this illustrated yesterday as I sat in the stands during a driving rain watching the Oak Park-River Forest High School homecoming game. It was raining so hard that we were all thoroughly soaked by halftime. I’m sure that if my son had not been on the team, I would have been someplace much drier—and warmer.

At the end of four quarters the score was tied 6-6. After the first overtime it was 12-12. The Huskies scored in the second overtime and then held on for a thrilling 19-12 victory. By the end of the game the field was a quagmire of wet, sticky mud. I left as soon as possible so I didn’t get to see the post-game celebration. About an hour later my son Mark came home. “Hey, Dad, guess what we did after the game? The whole team lined up and we all went belly-flopping in the mud.”

I pause here to comment that because it was a close game they played the starters the whole time, which meant that lots of second-teamers didn’t see any action. But after the whole team flopped in the mud, you couldn’t tell who had started and who never made it off the bench. They were all thoroughly covered with mud and dirty water.

That’s the kind of unity Paul calls us to in verse 2. We are to have a shared mind, a shared heart, a shared soul, and in this case, shared mud. Let the church remember that we’re all in this together. When one wins, we all win. When anyone loses, we all lose. In God’s family there are no “benchwarmers.” We all have a role to play.

In Matthew 18:19 Jesus reminds us of the incredible power of this kind of unity. When two or three Christians agree on earth regarding the doing of God’s will, God says it will be done in heaven. The word for “agree” is the Greek word from which we get the English word “symphony.” When our hearts reach deep agreement regarding God’s will, God says Amen from heaven.

We may say it very simply. A united church experiences God’s power—and a divided church does not.

III. The Results of Unity v. 3-4

The final two verses of our text tell us about the attitudes that both lead to unity and spring forth unity.

A. A New Attitude Toward Others

First, there will be no more selfish ambition. This particular word in verse 3 is sometimes translated “factions” or “strife.” It speaks of a competitive spirit that destroys unity by dividing the church into groups and cliques.

How easily this happens. We divide into the old-timers and the newcomers, the men versus the women, the traditional worship crowd versus the people who like contemporary music, the political activists versus the personal evangelists. And on and on the list goes.

Remember, it’s not wrong to have opinions and preferences. But God will not bless you if you decide that you must have your own way at all costs.

Second, there will be no more vain conceit. This phrase translates a word that means “arrogance.” Picture a balloon full of hot air and you’ve got the right idea. It speaks of those people in every church who are full of empty ideas loudly spoken. Often those “empty ideas loudly spoken” cause great pain to other people.

This week a young man died in Wyoming. They say he was murdered because he was a homosexual. Many of you know that I have been outspoken in my opposition to the homosexual agenda in Oak Park. Not only have I been outspoken, I have also taken a fair share of public criticism for the stand I have taken. Therefore I think I have earned the right to say the following things.

During the young man’s funeral on Friday a group of so-called Christians gathered outside the church to protest homosexuality. They carried signs saying “God Hates Fags” and “AIDS cures Gays.” They also engaged in a shouting match with those who came to mourn the death of this young man. The evening news carried pictures of these hatemongering Christians and many enemies of the gospel used this occasion to attack all evangelical Christians and to link us with those who showed up carrying signs and shouting vile slogans.

I condemn the arrogant, self-righteous attitude that motivated these so-called Christians to use one family’s moment of tragedy to publicize their hatred of homosexuals. When will we learn that we can’t win the world by spitting at the people God called us to reach?

I have spoken out against homosexuality in the past—and no doubt will do so in the future. But today I speak out against Christians who use the name of Christ as a cover for their own hate.

B. A New Attitude Toward Yourself

First, there will be true humility. The King James uses the lovely phrase “lowliness of mind.” This is a word that in classical Greek meant to grovel before someone else. Paul takes this negative word and elevates it into a Christian virtue. In this context it means to have a proper estimate of yourself so that there is no need for self-promotion.

Someone once asked St. Augustine, “What is the first mark of true religion?” “Humility,” he replied. “And the second mark?” “Humility.” “And the third mark?” “Humility.” True religion always begins with humility because unless you humble yourself before the Lord, you can never be saved. The proud go to hell because they will not bend the knee to Jesus Christ. Only the humble can ever be saved.

Second, there will be a new estimation of others. When Paul calls us to esteem others as better than ourselves, he uses a word that means “far surpassing.” I read this week about a Sunday School class called the “ME-THIRD” class. That’s an entirely biblical concept: Jesus first, others second, me third.

How does one develop humility? C. S. Lewis says that the first step is to admit that you are a proud person. This is not easy to do because there is something in us that rebels at the thought of admitting that we are filled with pride. But if pride caused Lucifer to fall from heaven (see Isaiah 14:12-14), should we be surprised that pride still lurks inside the human heart? Are you a proud person? The answer is yes. Am I? Same answer. Let’s admit it and then move on from there.

You will begin to grow spiritually as you think less of your abilities and more of your imperfections. Take a sheet of paper and list as many character defects as you currently possess. Perhaps the following list of questions will help focus your personal inventory.

Some searching questions …

1) Do I love to argue too much?

2) Do I worry whether others recognize my contributions?

3) Am I secretly envious at the success of others?

4) Do I secretly rejoice at the misfortunes of others?

5) Am I too conscious about what others think of me?

6) How do I respond when someone else gets rewarded for my work?

7) Am I too quick to criticize others who are different from me?

8) How much time do I spend talking about myself?

9) Is it becoming easier for me to say, “I was wrong?”

10) Would anyone call me a cantankerous Christian?

One final question: Would anyone read this text—and think of me?

I know that my words may seem dangerous because to live this way may be to open ourselves to being trampled on by others. It seems unrealistic in a fallen world to expect us to give preference to others over ourselves. And it seems impossible because we are constantly told to build our own self-esteem.

It is all of that—dangerous, unrealistic, and impossible. It is also the Word of God. What God wants is truly impossible without God’s help. That’s why verse 5 exhorts us to let the mind of Christ dwell in us. Without Christ’s help we simply can’t—and won’t—live this way. But with his help all things are possible.

When I finished preaching this message, a woman told me that she had tried living this way years ago but she found that people took advantage of her left and right. What should she do? I answered that she should do what God says anyway. Will people take advantage of you? Some will―but do it anyway. Will people laugh at you? Yes, but do it anyway. Will some people use you for their own ends? Yes, but do it anyway. Jesus lived this way—and they crucified him. Can we expect anything better?

One final word and I am done. In preaching this message it occurs to me that there is one fatal objection to what I have said. We’ve heard it all before. True, and you’ll hear it again many times. I have not said anything new in this message but have simply put before you the Word of God. Have you heard all this before? Very well. Now do something about it.

Heavenly Father, it is much easier to listen to a sermon than to put it into practice. We confess that our problem isn’t information. We already know what you want from us. You have already given us everything we need to obey. Help us to do it. Give us the mind of Christ that we might live as he did—living only for others. We pray in the name of him who gave himself for us. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?