Throughout his New Testament epistles, the Apostle Paul models for us the way in which we ought to approach what may seem to be minor situations in the church by applying the greatest theology to the smallest of problems. Take, for instance, the great Christological hymn in Philippians 2:5-11. One might conclude that Paul was writing about the humiliation and exaltation of Christ in order to combat a theological controversy over the deity or the humanity of Jesus. After all, Philippians 2:5-11 has been used by theologians throughout the history of the New Covenant church to defend the biblical truth of the full deity and the true humanity of Christ. Or, one might consider Paul’s allusion to Jesus’s perfect life of obedience, referenced in Philippians 2:8, as reflective of some debate in the early church over what is often called the “active obedience of Jesus.” However, neither of these things explain the rationale for Paul’s greatest Christological exposition. Rather, the Apostle’s chief concern was to pastorally apply the glorious truths about Christ’s deity, humanity, humiliation, exaltation, and perfect obedience to a disruptive work of self-centeredness and pride among certain members in the church.
In his outstanding little book, The Humiliated and Exalted Lord, Donald Macleod noted the significance of the context in which Paul wrote Philippians 2:5-11. He explained,
“Paul uses the Christological teaching precisely because of its relevance to the pastoral problems in the church at Philippi. That is enormously instructive, because it reminds us that theology does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the interest of pastoralia. It exists in order to be applied to the day-to-day problems of the Christian church. Every doctrine has its application…Similarly all the application must be based on doctrine.”
Reflecting on the connection between Paul’s Christology and the nature of the pastoral problem in the church in Philippi, Macleod wrote,
“Paul is dealing with what is surely comparative trivia, the problem of vain glorying in a Christian congregation and the problem of failure of Christian liberality. As a pastor one meets these difficulties daily. They are standing problems. Yet, Paul…has recourse to the most massive theology. It is not only that you have the emphasis on the unity between theology and practice but you have the emphasis on the applicability of the profoundest theology to the most mundane and the most common place problems…Who might imagine that the application of the glories of New Testament Christology might be to stop our quarreling and our divisiveness in the Christian ecclesia? That’s what Paul is doing here. He is telling them ‘You have these practical problems. The answer is theological. Remember your theology and place your behavior in light of that theology. Place your little problems in the light of the most massive theology.'”
This, it seems to me, is the most essential need of the church in the twenty first century. We must, of course, know our theology in order to apply it to the pastoral situations that arise in the life of the church. However, we must also understand that the greatest truths in Scripture are often exactly what we need when we bring our theology to bear on what is a menial or trite problem among the members of the church.
In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, the Apostle dealt with the problem of quarrelsome division and the propensity of members of the church to pick what Christian minister they would follow–by asking them, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul” (1 Cor. 1:13)? If Christ was crucified for us, then we should recognize the implications of that truth on our Christian unity in the church by together following the One who laid down His life for us. Or, consider how Paul takes the truth of the humiliation of Jesus in become poor for the sake of those He came into the world to redeem in order to address his concerns about the collection for the poor in the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 8:9-10).
As we consider the divisions in the church in our own day, the answer is not to downplay theology for the sake of unity; neither is the answer found in seeking out pragmatic solutions that seem commensurate with the nature of the problem. Rather, it is to know the Scriptures well enough to apply the greatest truths to the most minor of problems. If we saw more of this in our fellowships and in our interactions, what would the church look like? So, as we face these standing problems–as Macleod calls them–let’s remember that “the answer is theological.” We have to continually “remember our theology and place our behavior in light of that theology.” We must learn to “place our little problems in the light of the most massive theology.'”