Reframing Unity

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2).

It’s an appeal for unity that sounds tailor-made for polarized congregations today. Churches are divided over LGBTQ+ inclusion, COVID precautions, rights and freedoms, penal substitution, critical race theory… It feels like too many things to name.

When we hear this appeal to “be of the same mind,” we probably think this means being in agreement about a set of beliefs or having the same positions on the important issues of the day. For many of us, this is what unity in the church looks like: it’s when everyone fully agrees on crucial doctrines or pressing social issues.

When there is disunity, then (meaning divisive disagreement on positions or beliefs), the typical appeal is for each side to listen to the other, to understand the other’s point of view, even to seek a compromise position or “middle way” (sometimes mistakenly labeled a “third way”—more on this later). In this understanding, both sides need to give a little if there’s going to be unity.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with listening to others and trying hard to understand their point of view. In fact, that’s crucial to living well with each other in any community. That’s also how we learn and grow.

But I’d like to suggest a different way of understanding unity, a reframing of unity that is better rooted in Paul’s language of being “of the same mind.”

Because here’s the thing: Paul never calls on divided congregations to come to a middle-ground compromise. Even more, Paul’s language of “being of the same mind” is not about “thinking the same way about doctrine or issues.” Rather, it’s about having a particular kind of “mind”: the “mind of Christ.”

The “one mind” we are to be “in accord” with is the “mind”—the way of thinking and living, the way of being—which Jesus displayed. “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus,” Paul says (Phil 2:5)—and then goes on to describe what this “mind of Christ” is.

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that divests ourselves of our individual power and privilege for the good of others, just as Jesus “emptied himself” of his divine status and prerogatives in becoming human for our liberation (2:5-7).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that enters into the life and suffering of the most disempowered and underprivileged, just as Jesus “took on the form of a slave” and even died a slave’s death, a conquered and oppressed people’s death—“death on a cross” (2:7-8).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that does all this to bring about a divine reversal, where those who have experienced oppression by the powers of our age enter with Jesus into his resurrection life and glorious exaltation (2:9-11).

Titian, Christ and the Good Thief

This is the “same mind,” the “one mind” which Paul has called the Philippians to be “in accord” with (2:2). This is the mind which Paul himself strives to enter into, living in Christ’s sufferings in order to enter Christ’s resurrection life (3:7-14). And this is the “same mind” which Paul urges mature Christians to hold—“and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15).

There’s no compromise sought here, no middle way between two apparently uncompromising positions. It’s a genuine “third way,” an alternative to two contrasting perspectives, and Paul expects full buy-in to this third-way “mind of Christ.”

Christian unity, then, is not about agreement with a Confession of Faith. It’s not about agreement with a set of positions on social issues. Confessions of faith are useful as theological guides, and it can at times be vital for us to take a particular stance on a significant issue in our world. But Christian unity isn’t found in our strong agreement with a set of doctrines or positions.

Being “united in Christ” is about our shared commitment to walk together in the way of Jesus, his liberating way of love. We are united in Christ when we commit together to hold our power lightly in our interactions with each other, to walk in humility and patience, kindness and compassion, with those who are different from us, especially with those who hold less power or privilege than we do. We are united in Christ when we commit together to pay attention to the marginalized and disempowered among us and around us, to walk in solidarity with these considered “last,” “least,” or “lost” in society toward justice and peace and flourishing life. This is “the Spirit of Christ” in which we are united, the Spirit who shapes us individually and collectively into the image of Jesus Christ.

Rather than asking two opposing “sides” in a congregation to get together and find a compromise position for the sake of unity, we’d be much better off with the whole congregation asking a few pointed questions:

  • What power and privilege do we hold—do I hold—within this congregation, within this community, this society?
  • How can we—and I myself—hold that power and privilege lightly as we walk with each other in humility, patience, kindness, and compassion, especially with those who are different from us?
  • Who are the genuinely disempowered and underprivileged, those who have historically or regularly been most vulnerable to actual physical and mental and spiritual harm, among us in this congregation and around us in this community?
  • How can we—and I—give up our power and privilege in order to empower these disempowered among us and around us, in order to walk in solidarity with them—knowing we will suffer with them, knowing we will be changed in the process—in order to bring about greater justice and more flourishing life for them and ultimately for all of us together?

When this is our shared stance, our shared way of thinking and living, our shared way of being—our “one mind”—then we can truly say we have discovered “unity in Christ.” May we, like Paul, “press on to make this our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own” (Phil 3:12).

Edited since originally posted. For some thoughts on parallels in other Pauline letters, including thoughts on how diversity works within this unity, see my comment below.


8 thoughts on “Reframing Unity

  1. Paul takes a similar tack in 1 Corinthians, the Pauline letter on division and unity in the church. 1 Corinthians 1:10 is much like Philippians 2:2: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” The wording in Greek is similar but not identical.

    Then he reminds the Corinthians what this “same mind” is: it is rooted in the cross, the identification of Christ with the foolish, powerless “nothings” of the world in contrast (and even opposition) to the powerful and wise of the world. Paul even uses a similar but not identical Greek phrase as in Philippians to summarize this contrast: “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).

    As in Philippians, for Paul in 1 Corinthians the unity he calls them to is not a middle-ground compromise between two (or four!) intractably opposing perspectives. Rather, it’s a unity in Christ, even grounded specifically in Jesus’ way of the cross, his way of love, his way of solidarity with the disempowered, underprivileged, marginalized, and oppressed.

    Similar dynamics are also at play in another key “church division” passage, Romans 14-15. Again, you see Paul’s concern to ground unity in the way of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus (14:9, 15), and specifically his self-giving for the good of the “weaker” other: “even Christ did not please himself” (15:3). In fact, that’s the whole approach Paul takes in the passage: following the way of Jesus, we who are “strong” (socially powerful) ought to make space for those who are “weak.” In this way we “welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed us” (15:7).

    Romans 14-15 emphasizes another dimension of this unity which comes through elsewhere in Paul’s letters, especially 1 Corinthians. Because we have the same Spirit at work in us shaping us into the likeness of Christ, we can trust others as they work out this “mind of Christ,” this way of Jesus, in their own lives. We are therefore not to “judge” or “despise” those who work out this commitment to “Jesus as Lord” differently. This—along with the manifold gifts of the shared Spirit—is the basis for diversity within our unity in Christ. Again, though, note the common commitment: we are united in following Jesus as Lord in life and death (14:7-9), a way of being that lives into God’s reign of “justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17). Where that shared commitment to what Paul elsewhere calls “the mind of Christ” is present, there can be unity, and much diversity within that unity. Where that shared commitment is not present, there is no unity in Christ, and no possibility of unity in Christ, because the Spirit of Christ is being quenched. No amount of “negotiations” toward a compromise can fix this: only repentance and submission to the Spirit to walk in the way of Christ. (Which explains much of Paul’s exhortation in 1-2 Corinthians!)

  2. Hey Michael: What do you think the main utility of calling it a Third Way is? I think you’ve got a great grasp on the Jesus way, but I am unsure why the way of Jesus has to be a Third Way or if that term is useful or not.

    • Hey, Jonny. Yeah, I’ll concede that the reference to “Third Way” might be a distraction here. But I couldn’t resist. 🙂 I do think it is helpful to reflect on the phrase in this context, especially for us who are Mennonites and like to use “Third Way” language quite a bit when what we’re really meaning is a “middle way.”

      • Just to expand on this a bit more, I’m aware that “third way” has been used as “middle way” or “centrist” in a lot of political and religious discourse, and it’s come to mean that for many in popular discourse. But that’s a departure from the original use of “third way” by early Anabaptists to describe Anabaptism as an alternative to the Reformed and Lutheran expressions of Protestantism. It’s also a departure from later historians’ descriptions of Anabaptism as a “third way” alternative to Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. This language to describe early Anabaptism isn’t about a “third way” between two options, but a “third way” as an alternative to two options. The “middle way” in that early Reformation context was actually the Church of England, attempting to steer a middle path between RC and Prot. Hence the highlighting of “via media” or “middle way” as a distinctively Anglican approach.

  3. I have found that if a congregation truly has “one mind” and the “mind of Christ”, then they are operating in “good faith”. In such a congregation, there are no “hidden agendas”. It is a place where everyone feels safe. When hidden agendas became operant, and I found myself on the wrong side of those agendas, moreover, I was expendable in the service of those agendas, there was no longer any good faith. Lack of good faith was enough to send me packing. Now, I do not seek communities of faith, but communities of good faith.

  4. Thanks very much Michael. I think this is very timely for us. It is good to clarify what being of the same mind actually means. To have the same mind is not to agree on every issue, but to have the mind of Christ. I wonder, however, if you should have left it there? Is it enough for us to be united in submitting to Christ’s lordship in our individual and collective lives?

    I know that at some point, we need to get practical. But I wonder if you have already taken a few too many steps to define exactly what the mind of Christ is – “We are united in Christ when we commit together to pay attention to the marginalized and disempowered among us and around us, to walk in solidarity with these considered ‘last,’ ‘least,’ or ‘lost’ in society toward justice and peace and flourishing life. This is ‘the Spirit of Christ’ in which we are united, the Spirit who shapes us individually and collectively into the image of Jesus Christ.”

    Although I don’t disagree with your interpretation here, I still think it is worth noting that this is your interpretation which has very specific implications in divisive topics. Although I see how they are connected, this sounds different than how Paul describes the mindset of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11:

    Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
    rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
    And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!
    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
    that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

    Again, I don’t disagree with how you interpret the mind of Christ, but I also don’t think it’s complete. Yes, justice, peace, and the flourishing of life are part of what Jesus came to bring, but they must be understood within the context of Jesus’ mission to bring about the reign of God.

    I’m sure if we asked 100 Christians what the mind of Christ looks like practically, we would get 100 slightly different answers. So, should we take a step back and simply say that our common goal of having the same mindset as Christ is enough to keep us unified? If not, then confessions of faith may actually play a more important role than we think. If so, why do we rarely see this whenever we get into heated debates?

    • Thanks for this, Moses. There are at least two problems with simply leaving “the mind of Christ” generic or undefined and claiming that as our basis for unity.

      First, that leaves it open to people to insert whatever they think “the mind of Christ” means (your “ask 100 people what they think…” comment), which is not a biblically faithful (or all that helpful) way to go about this. We too often do the same thing with things like “gospel” and “kingdom of god” and “love,” letting people define these things as they wish without any serious engagement with how these things are actually talked about in the Bible. That’s problematic. When we use biblical language, and claim to ground that in Scripture, we need serious engagement with the biblical text to shape our use of that language.

      That leads to the second problem with leaving “the mind of Christ” undefined: Paul doesn’t leave it undefined, or at least not undescribed. That’s a key point both in my piece and in my additional comment on other Pauline passages: Paul describes “the mind of Christ” in exactly these ways, and he does so consistently in every context addressing division, unity, and diversity. The “mind of Christ” isn’t some generic category for Paul; it has a particular, cruciform shape that relates to power and powerlessness. It’s not about “right beliefs” but about “shared commitment to live a specific kind of cruciform way in the world.”

      That makes me unsure what your point is in citing Phil 2:5-11. About half my piece is walking through exactly that passage, so how I conclude the piece is following directly on my exegesis of those very verses. Those verses speak of Jesus identifying with and walking in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed toward justice and peace and flourishing life (“the form of a slave,” “death on a cross” leading to exaltation at God’s right hand). And of course this is my interpretation! Not sure exactly what your point is in emphasizing that, either. Moving to “no interpretation is more valid than any other” so then we might as well keep “mind of Christ” generic isn’t a helpful approach (similar to my thoughts above).

      And I’m also not sure exactly what your point is in your distinction between “justice, peace, and the flourishing of life” and “the reign of God.” As I allude to in my comment discussion on Romans 14-15, Paul’s sees “the reign of God” as “justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” For Paul, that’s what the kingdom of God is. So, yes, Jesus brings in the reign of God; and this reign of God is about justice, peace, and joy (or flourishing life, one could say).

      If you have time, I’d love to hear some clarification on what you mean by these things and why you’ve brought them up.

      As to your note that this may lean a certain way in some current disputes, yes, it might. But that’s only problematic if we define unity as a “middle ground” compromise, which is, of course, another basic point of my piece. That’s simply not how Paul envisions “unity in Christ.” It’s also deeply problematic. “Middle ground” compromises can save churches from an obvious church split, as they can keep most of the people with power happy enough to maintain a status quo, but that’s not Paul’s “unity in Christ.” “Middle ground” compromises keep marginalized people on the margins and disempowered people without power, and those people just drift off and leave, often deeply wounded. No public church split, so we claim “Unity!” But there’s nothing Christlike about it.

      I’d highlight, though, that my closing invitation is for everyone in a congregation to ask those hard questions. These are not just hard for “conservatives,” they’re hard for “liberals” as well, because more liberal-minded folk can often talk a good talk about inclusion etc. but fail to actually take the hard steps necessary to change their use/abuse of power in their own lives.

    • Moses, I’ve edited the post slightly, adding more about how we interact with each other generally based on Paul’s descriptions of the “mind of Christ.” I think those additions might address some of what I think is behind your concern, and I think it makes for a better piece.

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