The Message of Philippians
The heart of Paul’s message is twofold: (1) the Philippian Christians must stay united; and they must do so (2) in the face of opposition from pagan residents of the colony—all for the sake of the gospel.
The two issues—unity within, opposition from without— surface in the first directly hortatory section, which introduces the body of the letter:
Just one thing: Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or am absent, I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, working side by side for the faith that comes from the gospel, not being frightened in any way by your opponents. This is a sign of destruction for them, but of your deliverance—and this is from God. For it has been given to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I have. (1:27–30)
Paul had apparently heard from Epaphroditus that the church was experiencing hostility from the non-Christian residents of Philippi. He was concerned about the social solidarity of the community in the face of this opposition.
Paul likened the sufferings of the Philippians to his own struggles—first, when he was in the colony a decade earlier, and “now,” as one who had been imprisoned for the gospel (1:30; see also 1:13). In each case, Paul came into serious conflict with Roman imperial values and priorities.
The comparison Paul drew between his own struggles and the sufferings of his readers suggests that the community’s “opponents” (1:28) were maltreating the Philippian Christians for promulgating anti-Roman customs, in a manner somehow parallel to the way that local residents harassed Paul and Silas during their visit in Philippi.
Nothing in the letter points, however, to physical persecution, that is, to flogging, imprisonment, or martyrdom for the gospel. The Jesus community in the colony was likely experiencing the profound social ostracism and economic hardship that often troubled minority groups that had been marginalized by representatives of the dominant culture.
In the midst of these challenges Paul urged his readers to maintain a united front, to strive “with one mind,” unmoved in the face of opposition (1:27). The theme of unity, in fact, surfaces throughout the letter (2:2; 4:2).
The Challenge of Unity: Then and Now
Unity is difficult to maintain. Any group of persons banding together for a common cause will eventually encounter “people problems” among its members. This was true in first-century Philippi, and it is true in twenty-first-century America today.
Interpersonal discord—like the situation Paul addressed between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2)—is a transcultural reality. There is nothing culturally unique about two individuals not get- ting along with one another.
However, in addition to those transcultural people problems that seem to surface wherever two or more are gathered, a Christian community in a highly stratified social environment like ancient Philippi would have faced culturally-specific threats to unity, as well—threats that had the potential seriously to com- promise the social ethos of the church as a whole.
It is easy to identify and, at least, attempt to address a generic interpersonal dispute, like the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche. Paul’s solution—he appealed to an unnamed “true partner” to mediate (4:3)—constitutes timeless wisdom that could find application in almost any such situation.
It is profoundly more difficult to “stand outside of ourselves,” so to speak, in order to identify and resist culturally systemic patterns of thought and behavior that are antithetical to the gospel, since we have been socialized from infancy to view these patterns as normal. Yet, where social status and honor- seeking were concerned, this is precisely what the Philippians had to do, in order to remain united in the face of opposition against them.
Marginalized by the pagan majority, Christians in Philippi would have been almost irresistibly tempted to replicate the ideals and practices of the dominant culture, by generating in the church a hierarchy of honors that would mimic the social contours of the colony at large. As you will recall, the phenomenon of value replication, in this regard, found expression throughout the empire, as voluntary associations reproduced Roman cursus ideology and practice at every turn.
Such adaptation to cultural norms, however, would have divided the Jesus community in Philippi along lines of social status. And this, in turn, would have undermined Paul’s desire that the church remain united by “thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal” (2:2). In response to such a threat Paul, in Philippians, pointedly challenged and subverted Roman hierarchical social tendencies.
It is beyond the scope of this project to offer a detailed running commentary on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I will limit my treatment to a handful of passages that particularly underscore the value of our socio-historical background materials (chaps. 1-3) for the interpretation of the biblical text, particularly where issues of church leadership and Christian community are concerned.
We will first look at the opening greeting (1:1) of the letter, and then examine Paul’s list of Jewish honors (3:4–6). Chapter 5 then considers the majestic portrayal of Jesus in Philippians 2:6–11.
Each passage finds Paul reconstructing the honor-oriented world of the colony in Philippi, in an attempt to create an alternative social environment marked by the values and behaviors modeled by Jesus of Nazareth—a social environment where power would be used in the service of others.
This post is adapted from Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today by Joseph H. Hellerman. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
Healthy church leadership based on the model of shared ministry in the early church
Social historian and pastor Joe Hellerman addresses issues of power and authority in the church—in the New Testament and in the church today—in a fresh, culturally nuanced way. The local church, Hellerman maintains, should be led and taught by a community of leaders who relate to one another first as brothers and sisters in Christ, and who function only secondarily—and only within the parameters of that primary relational context— as vision-casting, decision-making leaders for the broader church family. Unique among contemporary treatments of servant leadership, Hellerman interprets the biblical materials against the background of ancient Roman cultural values, in order to demonstrate a social context for ministry that will provide healthy checks and balances on the use of pastoral power and authority in our congregations.
“Joseph Hellerman is one of those unique individuals who is equally a scholar and a practitioner. Not only is he an expert on early Christianity, but he is also a longtime pastor, having served in both larger and smaller church contexts. His research and writing always challenge my thinking, as well as offer fresh insights into church life and ministry. Embracing Shared Ministry presents a radical, rediscovered view of community and pastoral leadership for today’s churches. If you are seeking a fresh perspective on pastoral leadership and fellowship, read this book.”
— Gary L McIntosh, PhD, Professor of Christian Ministry and Leadership, Biola University