New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 2:1-2 and the Specter of Unanimity
Philippians 2:1-2, The Specter of Unanimity
After Paul has expressed so many brilliant, as well as problematic ideas, he moves toward the central theological affirmation of Philippians through the Christ hymn (2:5-11). But before he gets there he focuses on a further desire for his readers, and that is their unanimity. The language of unity or unanimity first emerges near the end of Phil. 1, but it takes on the dominant tone in 2:1-2. But, as I think more and more about the implications of unity, it doesn’t have the “desired” effect on me. That is, it is supposed to make the reader think, “Wow, this is a great idea!’ But, my rather long experience of living and associating with countless groups has given me a perspective on unity that makes it not as attractive as meets the eye.
Starting with the Text
Already in 1:27 the language of unanimity emerges. Paul urges his hearers
μιᾷ ψυχῇ συναθλοῦντες τῇ πίστει τοῦ εὐαγγελίου. . .
“Striving together with one soul in the faith of the Gospel. . .”
That is, there is joint striving, and it is striving with one soul. Double unity in the task of the Gospel, both the living of it and the sharing of it. It is a dry run, so to speak, for the multiplication of “unity” terms in 2:1-2. He actually begins Phil. 2 with a pleasant alliteration. We can capture it, and do him one better in English, if we render 2:1, “if there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation of love, and koinonia in the Spirit” (παράκλησις, παραμύθιον, κοινωνία). Then there are two more wonderful words in 2:1, “If there is any σπλάγχνα and οἰκτιρμοί.” Let’s try to go 5/5 with “c” or “k” sounds: “If there is any compassion and merciful concern. . .” Thus, we might have: “If there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation, any koinonia, any compassion and merciful concern. . .” If we see the effort here, though only a little stilted, as something like what Paul is trying to do (by loading up the “mercy/compassion” terms) we are understanding him well. Here we have vintage Paul, where a careful attention to language precedes his major appeal.
Then, in verse 2, comes the major appeal:
πληρώσατέ μου τὴν χαρὰν ἵνα τὸ αὐτὸ φρονῆτε, τὴν αὐτὴν ἀγάπην ἔχοντες, σύμψυχοι, τὸ ἓν φρονοῦντες,
“Fill up my joy by your thinking the same thing; having the same love; being same-souled, thinking only one thing.”
Paul really loads up the rhetorical terms, and there is reason for him to do so. He is imprisoned and apart from his beloved congregation. Just as the most comforting news a parent who is ailing can hear is that the children are not bickering, so the most reassuring thing for the Apostle Paul in these circumstances is to hear that the Philippians aren’t quarreling.
But this language takes it much farther than that. He uses four phrases that all focus on the same idea: not just similarity in thinking or generic harmony, but absolute unity in thought. They are to think the same thing; with common souls (σύμψυχοι is a NT hapax). Lest we miss what he says, his last words are “thinking the one thing.”
On the one hand we might take the language as uncontroversial and simply reflective of the typical rhetorical overkill that is so characteristic of the Apostle. Part of his enduring charm is his ability to go “over-the-top” in his eagerness for people and for his ideas. But not here. The concept of unanimous thought, and that thought being one thing, is strangely unappealing to me. Why? Because I have spent my life with groups of people. I know that people can agree on certain courses of action (to raise money; to allocate it to something; to adopt an action plan; to decide on various strategies) but that this agreement often comes at the expense of disagreement which either is buried for the common good or is stored up for a future occasion when the person disagreeing can get his/her way. That is, unanimity or unity is almost always an evanescent phenomenon, but it really doesn’t fully reflect the same feelings in all participants. Often the best you can do is to come up with a resolution that all people can “sign.”
Thus, when Paul is not just asking, but demanding that people think the same thing, with common souls, we can have two reactions. We either can say, “Ah, this is just Paul, and he knows the nature of human disagreement and the process of coming to agreement” or ‘What is he really expecting?’ If he is expecting a kind of unanimity of mind, so that there really is only one idea floating around, then I probably don’t want to be part of the discussion. Where is the room for contrarians? For people who actually like the Apostle but disagree with him on many things? For people who can’t stand each other but, for the sake of Paul, temporarily paper over their differences? Absolute uniformity or unity bespeaks a kind of scary situation, for people so united will stop at nothing to effectuate their ends. Maybe that is what some people think we need, but my experience tells me that if those type of people rule the world, there won’t be the same compassion towards outsiders that they are supposed to demonstrate among themselves.
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