Last week we considered the important distinction between the qualifications for fellowship (sheer grace) and the qualifications for the various forms that leadership takes (grace manifested in and through performance). Not surprisingly, it is a topic that takes a good bit of careful thought, and hence another message on it.
“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
Summary of the Text
Paul says that nothing should be done (in our midst) through strife and vainglory (v. 3). These are sins which require the presence of other people, and the presence of others is sure to bring this temptation. The alternative to strife and vainglory is esteeming others “better than” ourselves (v. 4). Don’t hover over your “own things,” like a hen with one chick. Give a thought to how others are doing. Give a thought to the things of others. In the next verse, Paul ties the whole thing in with the express imitation of Christ. Let this mind be in you which is also in Christ (v. 5).
Now a lot rides on what it means to esteem others “better than” ourselves. Does this mean that LeBron James has to sincerely believe that an eight-year-old boy with pride problems is better at dunking than he is? Does it mean that B.B. King has to honestly think that some blues hack with sausages for fingers is better at a sweet blues lick than he is? Not at all – I believe the sense here is captured better by phrases like “more significant” (ESV), or “more important” (NASB). Remember that we are imitating Jesus here, and Jesus was not delusional.
Looking Out Your Own Eyes
Every man always thinks he is right, but the wise man knows that he is not always right. Thinking you are right is what it means to think at all. But a wise man is capable of stepping out of the immediate moment, and considering the trajectory of his life. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise” (Prov. 12:15).
In Orthodoxy, Chesterton put it this way. “Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed.”
Mimetic Envy, Mimetic Learning
The word vainglory here is a very good transfer of the word Paul uses – kendoxia, or literally, “empty glory.” Vainglory is driven by the sly, sidelong glance – the comparison that eats away at your insides. Like a snake eating its own tail, envy tries simultaneously to imitate and deface. It is fundamentally an imitative gesture, but one that is dislocated at the center. Destructive envy tries to caress and punch at the same time.
We avoid this, not by avoiding imitation. We cannot avoid imitation – God has built an imitative race. We are all reflective mirrors, and the only choice we have is that of reflecting glory or reflecting vainglory. We are told to imitate. As dearly loved children, be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1). Imitation is consistently urged and praised (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1, 1 Thess. 2:14, Heb. 6:12).
“Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good” (3 John 11). It is not whether you imitate, but which thing you imitate.
Fellowship and Leadership
So then, returning to the issue of the strong and weak, how do we decide who is who? Rock, paper, scissors? Who’s the weaker brother here? One, two, three, not it! No, the Lord shows us a more excellent way . . . “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith”(Rom. 12:1-3).
The Way of Strength
The weaker brother is one who thinks too highly of himself, or too little of himself, and, not infrequently, both at the same time. Weakness is a mass of contradictions, and strength (the real kind) is the way of liberty. It is the path of freedom out of all that.
The way to biblical strength is to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, to take your minds away from the world’s mind-press and offer them to Christ, and to think accurately in accordance with the measure of faith that God has given. This is the track – physical holiness, worldview discipleship, and then . . . a right to your own opinions, including your opinions of yourself and your abilities.
No Short Cuts
Now suppose you are no good at all at any of this. Suppose you’re an amateur porn junkie, and the only thing you know about postmodernism is that it lets you put way too much hipster gel in your hair, and so you kind of like it. Suppose you get your worldview analysis from supermarket tabloids. Suppose your soul is all tangled up in that worldliness-gunk, and you have a hard time getting through a week without getting even more on you. Are you welcome here? You are as welcome as it gets. Repent all the sins you see, and ask Jesus to deal with any other ones (1 John 1:9). Welcome. But do you want to start writing movie reviews for the church newsletter? Don’t hold your breath.
Growing Up Into Faith
Secular democracy says that you have a right to your opinion simply by having one. The way of a fool is right in his own eyes. The lazy man (including someone who is intellectually slack) is wiser in his own conceits than seven men who can offer a reason (Prov. 26:16).
But in Christ, in the church, we are called to grow up into imitative wisdom. We grow up into having a right to our views by imitating those, without envy, who clearly have a right to theirs. Consider the outcome of their way of life (Heb. 13:7), and imitate their faith. Stop attributing it to “luck.” Their garden is not free of weeds because they are “fortunate.”