Honor, Citizenship, and Philippians

It is remarkable that the issue of Paul’s citizenship first arises in Philippi in Acts 16.  Citizenship was not common in the first century, not everyone was guaranteed the privilege of being a citizen of the Empire.  In 28 B.C. there were approximately 4.9 million citizens, by the time of Claudius there were 5.9 million. Most of these lived in Italy or were serving in the army. That Paul was a Roman citizen was significant, but even more so in the city of Philippi.

TogaPartyThe city of Philippi was a re-founded as a Roman colony in 42 B.C. after supporting Octavian in the Roman civil wars. Rome settled a number of retired soldiers there in 42 and again after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.  As Polhill observes, the city was an impressive Roman city when Paul visited it (P&HL, 161).

One of the most striking features of the city of Philippi was civic pride.  Joe Hellerman summarizes this “the Romanness of Philippi,” citing the catalog of inscriptions now available to scholars. He comments that compared to other cities in the Greek world, Philippi had a “preoccupation with honorific titles and offices which characterized the social priorities of both elite and non-elite persons in the colony.”  Titles mattered to this colony of retired soldiers, since titles were a sign of social significance.  To be a citizen of Rome was to have a higher social standing than the non-citizen.

Paul’s use of citizenship terminology in the letter suggests “that Paul sought intentionally to mimic the honor inscriptions that confronted his readers on a daily basis throughout the colony” (Hellerman, 783).  In fact, Paul uses citizenship as a metaphor only in Philippians.  In 3:20 he describes the believer as a “citizen of heaven” (πολίτευμα).  In 1:27 Paul states that one’s “way of life” ought to be worth of the Gospel.  The word translated “way of life” is πολιτεύομαι, to “be a citizen” (BDAG).

Paul’s point in using this language in Philippians is to show his readers that being “in Christ” is far superior to being “in Rome.”  You may be a citizen of Rome, but that does not matter at all if you are a “citizen of Heaven.”  I imagine that someone in Philippi might have judged a person who was merely a “citizen of Philippi” as socially inferior.  The members of the church, according to Acts 16, included a business woman (Lydia), a retired soldier (the jailer) and perhaps a slave girl (formerly possessed).  That “mix” of social strata is radical in the world of first century Philippi, yet Paul describes them as all citizens of a kingdom far superior to Rome.

If this reading of the citizenship metaphor is correct, then it will change the way we read Paul’s boasting in chapter 3, but also how we read the “Christ Hymn” in 2:5-11.

Bibliography:  Joseph H. Hellerman, “Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6,” JETS 52 (2009): 778-797. This article draws out the implications in the Christ Hymn in detail.

9 thoughts on “Honor, Citizenship, and Philippians

  1. I have often marveled at Paul’s ability to reshape his presentation of the Gospel in the image of the culture of whatever people group he is presenting it to without any measure of compromising his identity or the integrity of his message. He “becomes all things to all people” so that he can best present the message to them. He is expertly able to meet people where they are at and put things in their terms and relate it back to their own experiences and knowledge base. So often, we as Christians try to make ourselves look like our culture so as best to serve them and present the Gospel to them perhaps without them even realizing it. But quite often, the result is our getting sucked into and lost in the culture to the point that the culture can no longer tell the difference between us and anyone else. We need to find a way back to regaining a “set-apart-ness” so that the world sees that we are NOT the same as everyone else while still meeting the culture on their terms.

  2. Bravo David, that a really well said statement. One that I agree with you 100% on.

    I believe the Christ Hymn, Paul’s Boasting, and and Acts 16 have great correlation with one another.

    Philippians 2:6: …”did not consider equality with God something to be ‘used to his own advantage’… ”
    Philippians 3:7: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
    In Acts 16 when Paul and Silas are beaten without fair trial. They could made appeal giving the information they were Roman citizens. But through their sufferings, Christ’s righteousness shown more brightly.

    All three of these statements hover around the theme of “making yourself nothing and embracing the suffering even if you had valid reason to get out of it”. The idea of being meek.

    For someone to embrace the idea of ‘being in Christ’ in life, and ‘being with Him’ in death, was Paul’s push to show people being in Christ is worth more than any citizenship and it is worth more than boasting in any of his reputable qualifications as a Jew. And this idea of meekness Christ displayed on the Cross, choosing to embrace suffering is what Paul was going for.

  3. David, I completely agree with you. I believe that Paul always did seem to have a way of reaching out and connecting with the culture of people that he was in on each of his journeys. It always seemed as though he knew exactly what to say just so that he could reach into their lives, and shine the light of Christ in.
    Right in the beginning of Paul’s journey he is able to say that he is a citizen, and that therefore helped him to have a door open to preach the gospel to the people of Philippi. Just by using words like “citizen in heaven”, Paul was able to reach out to the people of Philippi more. It is evident in this that “Paul’s stay probably lasted some time, long enough for a very strong work to b established” (Polhill 161). It just amazes me at how he was able to reach out to these people just by using specific words to their culture.

  4. I never really thought about the civic pride that people would have had if they had citizenship in Rome. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for Paul to try and teach that a “heavenly citizenship” was far better than a roman citizenship. I feel like people either thought that he was absolutely crazy, or a god. This subject is so applicable to modern times, more so maybe in social status or class rather than one’s citizenship. As Christians we should be taking the same values that Paul was teaching and plugging them into how we approach people with the Gospel; proclaiming our salvation and how it doesn’t matter if you’re poor, rich, homeless, or stinky, anyone can live a TRUE life. Life in Christ as opposed to life on earth. He is continually preaching about the joy he has in his life because he is rooted in Christ, rather than focusing on external circumstances.

  5. Not to be a on the David band wagon but, Paul has had a way of stating things in a way that is culturally relevant to his readers so they too may know the message and live it out to glorify God. This heavily Roman city was filled with shrines of what it meant to be a Roman, and Paul used those to help people understand what it means to be in “the kingdom of heaven”. As Paul rights this we see it being full of happier flowerier wording, much to the different style he wrote the Galatians or Corinthians. As Paul continues to write it seems clear to me this is less of an anti Rome letter and more of a Kingdom living ethics letter filled with love to those of the church. Paul doesnt seem to take them out of Rome but to put the Spirit of God into them and transform the Roman world from the inside.

    • I think that you are right, Paul used the culture of Philippi in order to communicate the gospel, but the culture or Philippi also worked against him since the idea of citizenship (in the Roman sense) meant social privilege. That is the opposite of Paul’s meaning in Philippians!

  6. Paul was definately without a doubt great at presenting the Gospel to all people in any culture or any group that he was put in front of. Whether he was presenting his faith or defending his faith, he did well at presenting it to people in such a way that was relatable and understandable wherever they were at and whatever they were going through. Paul is an expert at relating to all people in all situations. Paul always has the words to say and is always allowing the Spirit of God to lead him to speak. Paul is great at the way he words things to help them better understand the significance of it, such as in the post where it illustrates the fact of being “in Christ” is more superior to being “in Rome”

  7. Agreeing with David here, I think Paul was the type of guy whom you can throw him into a room of unknown people, and he could share the gospel easily. Paul had his own way of teaching and preaching the gospel, as if it was to change some wording, or to even get the people to trust him on what he is saying. Paul uses God to let him get among the people to whoever he is talking to. Paul always goes in and brings the Holy Spirit into the city, and fills it rather than change the whole city and bring the Holy Spirit in. If someone in today’s world would do what Paul did, it could never work. We have such a hard time communicating the gospel to people now, not because everyone knows the gospel now, but because culture has gotten much deeper than what it was before, and we just get lost in trying to preach the gospel.

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