Challenging the Status Quo: Part II

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from Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today
by Joseph H. Hellerman

The Greeting: Philippians 1:1

The opening greeting of Philippians is unique in several ways. A comparison with Paul’s other letters to his churches highlights the differences:

Sender(s) and Recipients in Paul’s Letters

Romans (1:1, 7)

1  Corinthians (1:1, 2)


2  Corinthians (1:1)


Galatians (1:1, 2)



Ephesians (1:1)

Philippians (1:1)


Colossians (1:1, 2)


1  Thessalonians (1:1)


2  Thessalonians (1:1)


Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle

Paul, called as an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Sosthenes our brother

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother

Paul, an apostle—not from men or by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy


Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy


all who are in Rome, loved by God, called as saints

To God’s church at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called as saints

To God’s church at Corinth, with all the saints who are throughout Achaia

To the churches of Galatia



To the faithful saints in Christ Jesus at Ephesus

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons

To the saints in Christ at Colossae, who are faithful brothers

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ


It is easy to identify what is unique about the recipients of the letter. Only in Philippians are the titles of church leaders included in Paul’s opening greeting.

The way in which the letter stands out in the “Sender(s)” column is a bit more subtle but equally informing. Paul described himself (and Timothy) as a slave of Christ Jesus, but not as an apostle. In only one other letter (Romans) does Paul refer to himself in his greeting as a slave, and in Romans the term occurs alongside the more familiar title “apostle,” a designation that occurs in six of the church letters (Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians).

Scholars have variously explained the absence of the familiar title “apostle.” Some suggest that “apostle” is missing because Paul’s authority was not being challenged in Philippi, as it was, for example, in Corinth and in the Galatian churches.[1] This is doubtful, however, since Paul did not hesitate to use “apostle” in his greetings in Romans and Ephesians, where we have no evidence that Paul’s authority was in question.

Gordon Fee traces the absence of the term to the genre of the letter, suggesting that the exhortation in Philippians is predicated on a relation of mutual friendship, and no assertion of apostolic authority was necessary.[2] This explanation is an attractive one, especially since Philippians is the only Pauline epistle formally crafted as a friendship letter. The friendship genre, however, lacks the explanatory power to account for the other exceptional aspects of the salutation.

Why, instead of “apostle,” did Paul refer to himself and Timothy as doulos, the Greek term for a common slave? Only in Philippians does Paul use “slave” as his sole self-designation. Some have taken “slaves of Christ Jesus” in a positive sense. The Hebrew Scriptures use the phrase “servant of the Lord” of persons like Moses or David (Deut 34:5; Ps 18:1), who enjoyed divinely delegated authority, and who thus occupied honorable positions. It is suggested that the same idea is present in Philippians 1:1.

A better alternative takes “slave” in Paul’s greeting in the opposite sense. Given the high population of slaves in the empire, and their location at the bottom of the social pecking order, Fee rightly asserts that “no one would have thought it [doulos] to refer other than to those owned by, and subservient to, the master of a household.”[3] Here the connotations of “slave” are anything but positive, since doulos in the Roman world was associated with the dishonor of humiliation, subjection, and obedience.

Paul’s self-reference as doulos would have resonated with a great degree of credibility when the letter was first read to the church in the colony. For, as we saw above, Paul and Silas had refused to capitalize upon their Roman citizenship and took a beating worthy of slaves, when the missionaries first visited Philippi some years earlier.

This interpretation of doulos as humble “slave” finds further confirmation later in the letter, where the word appears again. In 2:7 Paul refers to Jesus as a “slave” (doulos), in a context that can hardly refer to anything but the abject social status of a Greco- Roman slave.

Now, let’s consider the recipients of the letter. The mention of “overseers and deacons” has also attracted much scholarly attention, since it is one of our few pieces of hard evidence dealing with leadership in Paul’s congregations. Unfortunately, much of the discussion has been energized by preconceived notions of what church organization must have been like in early Christianity. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and others all have their interpretations of the passage, often in support of their respective views of church government. Clouding the issue further is the unfortunate English translation “bishops” in some versions (kjv, nrSv), which implies a church hierarchy of bishops, priests, and others—a hierarchy that developed generations after Paul and his contemporaries had left the scene.

The most straightforward way to interpret our New Testament evidence for positions of church leadership takes “overseer” (Greek episkopos) as interchangeable with the more familiar “elder” (presbyteros), a Greek term for church leaders occur- ring elsewhere in Acts and the epistles (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Titus 1:5; Jas 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1).

What we have in Philippians 1:1 is a reference to two groups of leaders—overseers and deacons—who provided oversight to local Christian congregations during the formative years of early church history.

We are left, once again, though, with a rather puzzling question. Why does Paul make reference to these groups of leaders only in Philippians? The answer: For precisely the same reason that Paul omits “apostle” and refers to himself and Timothy as “slaves”—a reason that arises directly from the social context of the recipients in the town of Philippi and their preoccupation with honorary titles.

Picture the scene when Epaphroditus returned to the colony. The church is abuzz with great anticipation. Epaphroditus has arrived from Rome with a letter from their beloved and esteemed apostle! A solemn hush descends on the community as Epaphroditus stands to read the letter. He begins with the greeting: “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus: To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.”

One can only imagine the cognitive dissonance that these words would have generated in the minds of the letter’s audience. The Philippians had been socialized from infancy to publicly promote and proclaim their own honors and titles, in order to position themselves as high as possible along the relational hierarchy, relative to others in their social networks.

Paul did precisely the opposite. He intentionally downplayed his own social status and elevated the status of his recipients. By portraying himself not as God’s authoritative apostle but, rather, as Jesus’ abject slave, Paul placed himself on the lowest rung of the social ladder. And by explicitly addressing the leaders of the congregation by their titles, he elevated the recipients of the letter above himself and honored them in the greeting.

Thus, Paul began, at the outset of his letter, to challenge the fixation on titles and status that was so prevalent in the colony, by practicing in his greeting the very relational ethos he would enjoin later in the epistle: “in humility consider others as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). And this is only the beginning of Paul’s epistolary exercise in social engineering, as he proceeded throughout the letter to subvert the values and behaviors that characterized the status-conscious world of Roman Philippi.


[1] O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, 45.

[2] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 62.

[3] Ibid., 63.

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


About Author

Joseph H. Hellerman is a social historian with a PhD from UCLA and seminary training at Talbot Seminary. Hellerman also co-pastors a church near his home in California. His other publications include The Ancient Church as Family, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi, and Jesus and the People of God: Reconfiguring Ethnic Identity.

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