Humility in the context of conflict
Canon Ernest Ndahani, lecturer at St Philips Kongwa, reflects on Philippians 2:1-11 and the connection between humility and unity.
The often-cited proverbial phrase “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am” was formulated by John Mbiti and its huge influence led to the realization of the African Philosophical tradition. In this tradition the identity of an individual is never separable from the socio-cultural environment. If individual identity is grounded in the life of community, then that individual’s good life is inseparable from the successful functioning of his or her society. Hence, in this philosophical tradition, ethics and moral reflection tend to focus much more on the collective structure than on individual decision making. It is from this understanding, I suppose, that we can think of the church as being called to the ministry within itself in order to fulfill its ministry to the world. In the words of Morgan, “the measure in which the Church is composed of men and women, who are living the life of reconciliation, is the measure in which the Church is declaring the evangel of reconciliation to the world.” With reference to this thinking we are going to look closely on Paul’s exhortation to harmony and humility in the face of conflict (Php. 2:1-4) and his illustration of the supreme example (Php. 2:5-11).
Harmony and humility in the face of conflict
I feel compelled to begin this section by mentioning, in the passing, the immediate context of Philippians 2:1-11. Prior to exhorting the Philippians to harmony and humility by following Christ’s example (2:1-11), Paul sees a united firmness on behalf of the gospel and a disciplined life of self-sacrifice as a sure and certain way to overcome all adversaries (Php. 1:27-30). In Philippians 2:12-18 Paul seems to apply the example of Christ’s humility to the situation of the Philippians. With this immediate context of the text in mind we see, in the first place, a twofold exhortation to unity and humility in 2:1-2 and 2:3-4 respectively.
Adeyemo points out to the fact that being united with Christ has an interpersonal dimension in that it creates unity among the Christian community. From this fact we may learn that prior to creating unity among members of our church, a Christian must be united with Christ (cf. v. 1). In other words: from the personal relationship with Christ flow the fruits of salvation. It must be noted that reconciliation is a finished work; For God “reconciled us to himself through Christ” (cf. 2 Cor 5:18). Humanity’s response, therefore, is to have the desire to be reconciled with God, to experience the forgiveness of sins, and to be restored to the fellowship of the body of Christ. Having being restored to the Christian community, Paul then wants to see this community being like-minded, loving and one in spirit and purpose (cf. v. 2). Hale claims, that, unity arises out of personal love and closeness between brothers and sisters in the church. If we say we are united spiritually, but there is no personal unity among us, our so-called “spiritual unity” is meaningless. Paul’s statements in vv. 3-4 suggest that the factors which can cause disunity in Christian communities include selfish ambition, vanity, a lack of humility, looking down on others, and focusing on one’s own interests. Hawthorne states that unity is impossible if each is out for himself or herself, each is promoting his or her own cause, each is seeking his or her own advantage.
In the Tanzanian context, the growing focus on individual’s interests has necessitated signs of shift from our communal lifestyle to individual identity. This is contrary to our African tradition. It is so touching to mention that even in our church today those who want individual identity by either having selfish ambitions or by seeking power are the most causative of conflicts and disunity in the church. Since they seek their own advantages they are ready to use money or anything so as to influence people. It is becoming usual that almost at every election of a new bishop in a diocese the church experiences threats of disunity. These experiences hugely affect the church in Tanzania. How can we fulfill our ministry to the world while the ministry within us as church is in question? Christ’s followers should have concern for the Christian community. This brings us back to our African philosophical attitude stated earlier, “I am because we are”, though for Christians this phrase should reflect the reality that Christ is in the believer, rather than being merely a cultural philosophy.
The supreme example – incentive to unity and humility
Biblical humility is grounded in God’s character. Christ is in very nature God. This means that God’s entire nature, character, and qualities are in Jesus Christ. Paul, in 2:5, gives the greatest possible incentive to unity and humility in the picture of Jesus Christ himself whose mind is described in the noble verses that follow. In fact, it requires humility to willingly fall in with Jesus’ example. Humankind’s proneness to pride and independence would suggest he or she resort to human intelligence and ingenuity rather than strictly abide by the normative course already plotted in the scriptures. Paul’s point is that the mindset and thought patterns of a Christian should be the same as those of Jesus Christ. A Christian has no liberty to adopt an attitude which differs from or contradicts that of Christ.
In 2:6 Paul looks back to Jesus’ nature as the second person of the Trinity: In terms of essence, dignity, honour, glory and power, Christ had the very nature of God. He was truly God in his pre-incarnate state but he was prepared to give it all up and become a servant. Christ’s humbling of himself was not a one-time act but was spread over his entire life, from his birth in the manger to his crucifixion (cf. 2:7-8). It is clearly stated, in v. 7, that Christ made himself nothing implying that he gave up his environment of honour, glory and power. Following this he took the form of a servant becoming in likeness of a humankind, i.e. Christ’s assumption of human flesh. In v. 8 Paul explains that Christ not only took the nature of humankind, but he made himself even lower than that. Christ willingly accepted the worst kind of death which was intended only for the worst criminals. There was nothing lower than a crucified criminal. And yet Christ came down from the highest position of all and put himself in the lowest position of all – for our sakes.
In v. 9 Paul claims that by becoming nothing Christ gained everything. His reward was exaltation as great as his humiliation had been deep; And in vv.10-11 Paul shows God’s purpose in giving Jesus the name that is above every name. Thus it can be stated that the humiliation of Jesus Christ in vv. 6-8 is the ground or basis for his exaltation in vv. 9-11.
The church should desire unity through humility
Conflict, as we know, generally means some level of difference in the positions of two or more parties. Parties that are involved in the conflict “take sides” based upon current perceptions of the issues, past issues and relationships, roles within the organisation, and other factors. Sometimes people are surprised to learn they are a party to the conflict, while other times people are shocked to learn they are not included in the disagreement. In many conflicts, both in families and community, people respond to the “perceived threat”, rather than the true threat, facing them. If people can work to understand the true threat (issues) and develop strategies (solutions) that manage it (agreement), they are acting constructively to manage the conflict.
In the church in Tanzania, the single greatest need of every member of the church is to be reconciled to God. This means bringing about the end of hostilities between God and humanity though Jesus Christ. Ladd mentions that God the Father is the author of reconciliation, and he goes on to translate 2 Corinthians 5:19 as “God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself”. Hence, the grounds of human hope may be summed up by Ferguson’s words: “it is what God has done in Christ that enables sinners to approach him and enter into his blessing now and in the hereafter”. Reconciliation, according to Ladd, is primarily a divine, objective act by which God has removed the barrier of sin which had separated humanity from God, and has made possible humanity’s restoration to fellowship with God. Paul, I suppose, expects this reconciliation to have taken place in every Philippians believer when he uses the phrase “being united with Christ”. This reconciliation consequently brings about the end of conflict between humans estranged from each other by the anti-social consequences of their godlessness. In other words: reconciliation between God and humanity through Christ is the ground for believers to walk in unity through humility. Hence, Paul’s desire in Philippians 2:1-11 is to see us as Christ’s followers walk in unity through humility. The means to the unity is a humility which regard other people as more valuable than one’s self. We are to regard other people as more valuable because it is from them that our identity exists.
It is amazing that God has committed to us (every Christian) the tremendous task of proclaiming this message of reconciliation (the Gospel of Jesus Christ) to the entire world. Croft points out that in baptism every disciple is called to make Jesus Christ known as saviour and Lord and to share his work in renewing the world. In the name of the Church, the Lord’s servants are to care for those in need, serving God and his creation after the pattern of Christ our Master. The Church in Tanzania must remember, for all time, that God’s power works in and through believers to fulfil the ministry of reconciliation – we are only servants. The ministry given within the Church is that of living a life of reconciliation to God. The Church is to be faithful to the message of the word of reconciliation. What Morgan calls acceptation of the responsibilities of reconciliation and grace is what, I think, should take place in the Church today. There must be discipline in church and there must be recognition of unity – in terms of sharing gifts and resources.
In concluding this paper, we have observed that disunity in the church is caused by selfish ambition, vanity, a lack of humility, looking down on others, and focusing on one’s own interests. In order to create unity among the church through humility, Christians must apply their personal experience of being reconciled to God through Christ. Reconciliation between God and humanity through Christ is the ground for believers to walk in unity through humility. A reconciled church should be like-minded, loving and one in spirit and purpose. The church should imitate Christ’s attitude, that is, although he held a valuable and highest position, he willingly left that position in order to become human and to die on the cross to redeem humankind. In other words: the mindset and thought patterns of the church should be the same as those of Jesus Christ. Following this unity through humility, we are to care for those in need, serving God and his creation after the pattern of Christ our saviour. The Church must remember that God’s power works in and through believers to fulfil this ministry of reconciliation. The ministry given within the Church is that of living a life of reconciliation to God. The Church is to be faithful to the message of the word of reconciliation.