Put Others’ Interests Above Your Own
Coming up with a list of what makes a good church member seems like an easy enough thing to do—until you try it. At the top of that list, of course, is “believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.” What comes next? What sort of actions, characteristics, and attitudes would you list second and third and fourth?
The potential danger with such a list is that the things further down the line will perhaps seem less necessary, provided we think we have what’s most important. But the real danger is that a list of what makes a good church member may easily turn into a performance checklist—something by which we weigh our successes or failures in the balance of boxes ticked. With that said, there is a text that I put at the top of the list and that likely sums up most of whatever else we might include. That text is Philippians 2:1–4:
If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, make my joy complete by thinking the same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others. (CSB)
Here Paul shows what life looks like for citizens of heaven (Phil 1:27); those who live in the hope that God will complete his work of salvation (Phil 1:6); those who have righteousness—that is, Jesus himself—purely as a gift from God (Phil 3:9). Ultimately, the life Paul desires for the Philippians, and for us, is a life that reflects Christ who, rather than using his person and power for himself, became a servant who gave his life for us (Phil 2:6–8). For church members, love and service flowing from unity in Christ are not added virtues or the trickle-down effects of sound doctrine.
Living for others is living as Christ—hardly just another item on a list.
IF YOU ARE CHURCH MEMBERS . . .
Paul’s exhortation to put aside self-centered ambition and personal gain in exchange for putting others first flows from the unity believers have (or at least should have) in Christ. When Paul says, “If there is any encouragement . . . consolation . . . fellowship . . . compassion and mercy,” he’s saying, “Since there is . . .” It’s kind of like a parent saying, “If you’ve ever heard me say anything, then hear this.”
The exhortations in verses 2–4 aren’t more things to do or add to a baseline of what it means to be a believer (or a church member) but show how the reality of verse 1 is expressed. In other words, the exhortations aren’t just good if and when we get around to them. They’re not icing on the cake of salvation but part and parcel of the reality of salvation. Notice also that Paul’s joy will be fulfilled through seeing the Philippians living for each other (2:2). All in all, the church at Philippi was a relatively healthy church. But Paul is concerned about more than beginnings—his pastoral joy comes in seeing the Philippians grow in God’s on-going work of salvation as they display Christ for one another.
. . . THEN YOU WILL SHOW CHRIST TO ONE ANOTHER
When you look at Philippians chapter 2, your eyes likely will drift to verses 5–11 (thanks in part to Bible headings). This is understandable to a degree since these verses contain some of Paul’s highest and most concentrated Christology. Paul, however, might be surprised to find that we often unpack verses 5–11 in minute detail but sometimes pay little attention to the verses right before.
We must guard against abstracting the Christology of verses 5–11 from the context. At the same time, we must avoid over-reacting, as some do these days, and only emphasize Christ’s example in verses 5–11. Happily, we don’t have to choose either/or. When we choose both/and we’ll have a greater appreciation for all eleven verses. If we want to know what it looks like to prefer others more than ourselves and to seek the good of others over our own good, then we need look no further than verses 5–11. Good church members will look at others the way Christ regarded them—as people in need of love and service.
PUTTING OTHERS FIRST: MINISTERING CHRIST TO EACH OTHER
When it comes to living out Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2, we cannot simply respond with, “Yes, I need to be less selfish,” or “I need to be less self-absorbed,” or “I need to put others first,” and then resolve to make some changes. Of course, we must consciously and deliberately put others first. But if we take this expression of the gospel of Christ and turn it into what we must do, then the Christian life becomes a matter of performance. Worse, it potentially makes us view others as objects for fulfilling a personal checklist of what it means to be a good church member. If I live for others as an attempt to show that I’m walking in obedience, then I’m still living for myself.
So where do we begin? First, we need to let the text do its work of exposing how we fail to live for others—how we are selfish and self-centered. We begin with confession without excuses and justifications. If we’re honest, these verses will bring a certain amount of fear and trembling. At the same time, we turn (or better, we are turned) to the hope of the gospel, the finished work of Christ the Lord and King (2:9-11) in whom we are righteous (3:9). In this way, we receive 2:1–4 as a gift that sets us free from the self-absorbed ambition that holds us back from fellowship and service to one another in Christ.
We’re all familiar with Philippians 2:12: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” We need to put that together with 2:1–4.” Living united in the fellowship of the Spirit and serving one another as Christ served us—that’s what it looks like to work out our salvation, the salvation that God began in us and promises to complete (1:6). The work of love and service cannot be “done” apart from believing that it is God who works in us according to his will and purpose (2:13). It is his salvation work in us. As we’re called to look away from ourselves to God in Christ alone for salvation, so we are turned away from ourselves to serve one another as good church members.