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Confronting Conflict with the Gospel 6: Shield Wall or Just a Wall?

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. Philippians 1:27-28 (ESV)

Being married to Shirley has given me maturing moments of insight about life together with someone who is quite different from me. Years ago when I was still growing up emotionally as a believing husband, Shirley surprised me in the middle of the conflict I had manufactured. She put her arms around me, looked me in the eye and firmly told me, “I am not the enemy.” That stopped me in my tracks. I had a lot of inner issues that I was taking out on her and she saw what I would not. The enemy was involved, but she was not him. I needed to stop taking things out on her as if hurting her would ease my pain.

That phrase became a staple of our relationship going forward. Its truth allowed us to grow not only as marriage partners, but as believers who God uses to strive side by side for the faith of the gospel.

“Let your manner be worthy of the gospel,” in Paul’s mind means “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” Not just any kind of standing firm. It’s not an individual call of showing fortitude. It is a side-by-side-in-a-shield-wall of faith kind of standing firm. This is the imagery of the fighting men of Paul’s day. When they were facing the enemy, they locked shields together, thrusting their spears to create a barrier for the opponents.

We are not each other’s enemy because of the gospel. The gospel tells us we are in the process of being transformed into Jesus’ likeness. We are not yet what we will become. But our hope is that God will “strengthen [us] with power through his Spirit in [our] inner being, so that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith. (Ephesians 3:16-17 NIV)

“We all know this,” you might be thinking. But back up a second. What is behind Paul’s call to let our manner be worthy of the gospel? Paul is not speaking about our morality, as in rising above the pettiness of others. Nor is he reminding us that we need to get along to protect our witness in some way. ‘Worthy’ mean having or showing the qualities or abilities that merit recognition in a specified way.

In John 13, Jesus defined the hallmark of being identified as a believer by those from the outside. It is our love for one another. It was not about just loving your friends at church, those who are passionate believers who would never miss a Sunday celebration and who agree with you about eschatology. This includes the careless, the casual…and the confounded nuisances. It includes all who will belong.

This is work. Moreover, it is the work of the Spirit in us. We often find it difficult to not cross the lines of irrefutable judgment against other believers, in the same manner Paul and Barnabas ‘hammer and tonged it’ over Mark. Today we have grave doubts about the depth of many believers’ spirituality due to things that they advocate. We need to pause and ponder whether our personal positions have such enormous eternal value as to cause us to fail to love those who belong to Christ.

I have followed what a number of Christian writers have said about Rachel Held Evans since her early death stunned us all. Many of these writers have taken her to task in the past for her beliefs. Her passing produced some reflective responses. I personally respect Ed Stetzer’s May 6 blog post, ”Reflecting on Rachel: Why She Mattered.” In it, he stated that . . .

Many evangelicals simply wanted to attack or avoid her, and in doing so they unintentionally said to many others, “Your questions have no place here. Toe the line, or we will attack and avoid you.” Maybe we need a better conversation about some challenging issues. And maybe we need to keep showing up instead of writing off. . . .

As evangelicals, we can respond better when our brothers and sisters have serious doubts and ultimately end up on the other side of the line as us on certain issues. We must do better. J.R.R. Tolkien, one who believed differently than me on many theological issues, once said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Instead of living out our faith side by side as a shield wall of faith against the real enemy, we are often in danger of building walls between ourselves after identifying another believer as the enemy. Every Christ follower in every church in every generation faces this peril. The outcome is as Paul warns—we end up frightened by our opponents.

Here’s the good news of Jesus. He is in us. His life is ours. He is powerful and able to break down all walls. It is he who sets us side by side with a common purpose. He will fill our hearts with love for one another. Although we are weak, he is strong. This is the gospel, so live in a manner worthy of it. Look at each other and say, “You are not the enemy. I am not the enemy. The real enemy is our adversary, the devil.”

 

-Steve Smith