Is Philippians “anti-Imperial”?

The SystemPaul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the most fruitful for studying Paul’s “anti-imperial” comments.  Lynn Cohick offers three reasons why Philippians fertile ground for Empire studies (Jesus is Lord, 169).  First, inscriptional evidence indicates that the imperial cult was present in first century Philippi.  Second, there is a great deal of citizenship language in Philippians as well as the usual “Jesus is Lord.” Third, there are studies on Philippians that describe Paul as “colonialist and imperialist” (Joseph Marchal) as well as those who see Paul as critiquing the Empire (N. T. Wright).

It is not insignificant that Philippians is the only letter in which Paul call Jesus a slave (2:6) and the only letter in which Paul describes himself only as a slave (1:1; Rom 1:1 has both slave and apostle). This is obscured in most modern translations, the NIV 2011, for example, uses “servant” in both cases. Christians are so used to the language of servanthood that we miss this culturally disruptive language. In Joe Hellerman’s recent Embracing Shared Ministry (Kregel, 2013) he points out that social status was the dominant factor in determining honor and shame in the first century. Since Paul is a Roman Citizen, he has a level of honor that came with certain privileges and expectations. Yet he does not identify himself as a citizen of Rome, but rather a slave of Jesus Christ. Rather than a citizen of Rome, he is a citizen of Heaven and equal in status with all the other citizens of Heaven (3:20).

It is even possible to read Philippians 2:2-6 as saying something like, “Jesus set aside his imperial status symbols and became a slave.” In the Roman world, one’s status was usually clearly evident at all times by how you dressed.  A member of the most elite of the Roman class dressed in a way that intentionally drew attention to their class. For an elite Roman citizen to remove their toga, for example, and but on the rags of a slave, was unthinkable.

But is Philippians intentionally anti-imperial?  Cohick is not convinced by most of the post-colonial or post-feminist readings of Philippians (p. 171), but does think that there may be a kind of implicit anti-imperialism in the letter that is a part of the typical Jewish and Christian critique of oppressive actions in general. Cohick concludes that if Paul is anti-imperial, it is part of his Jewish context.  Certainly there is a challenge to the power of Rome, but that is not very different than any Jew living in the middle of the first century.

It is possible that a Roman Citizen might hear Paul’s words as attacks on the social structure of the Empire. For a citizen to identify themselves as a slave might be dishonoring, but for a person in the Roman world to claim to be a citizen of a superior kingdom is an affront to Roman superiority. While Paul might not have intended a direct attack on Rome in the letter to the Philippians, the social structure of early Christianity was so different from Rome that it could not help but be interpreted as an offense to the Roman worldview.

To me, this is the major challenge of reading Paul’s letters with an anti-imperial method. Whatever Paul said, he was understood as challenging the social order in a way that could be described as “turning the world upside-down” (Acts 17:6).  Honestly, does Christianity really challenge contemporary American culture? A recent church plant in my area sent a flyer to my home inviting me to their first service, promising me that I would not be judged; there was no dress code, etc. That particular church was challenging a social order, but it was the established church that was wrong, not the pagan world. The flyer looked like an invitation to a new micro-brewery – come join us at the pub for some judgment-free good times. I am no fan of the old line denominations, but perhaps the pub culture is not good either.

Is the American church missing the radical nature of the gospel by attacking established churches?

12 thoughts on “Is Philippians “anti-Imperial”?

  1. Just a helpful note (because I saw the same thing in an earlier post): Philippians isn’t the only letter in which Paul refers to himself as a slave. Romans 1:1 starts the same way.

    • Good catch, what I ought to have said was “only as slave,” Romans has Slave and Apostle. (I modified the post and added that line, thanks for the correction!) It is still the only letter Paul calls Jesus a servant, δοῦλος.

  2. I think it can be dangerous to read into Paul’s letters with an anti-imperial sentiment. Christianity was not meant to be Christianity with (insert your political view here). It was just supposed to be Christianity. That’s it. I think If Paul was writing with an anti- imperial sentiment lingering in the background then it would have detracted from the message that he was trying to get across. Furthermore, It would have been contradictory to the statement he made In Romans 13:1-2 “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” Paul understood their Government as instituted by God and I don’t think he would go and write another letter that had anti- imperialism hanging in the background. That is not to say that he agreed with everything they may have done (especially the Imperial Cult worship), but he understood that his main mission was to spread the Gospel and not to challenge authority. The same goes for us, I think. In America we are more or less praised when we challenge authority, which isn’t always bad, but we need to challenge ourselves to figure out when its necessary. We also need to understand that nothing happens without God allowing it to happen. Even in terms of the Authorities that are above us.

    • That being said though, I find that Paul almost takes on an anti-imperial mindset because of the fact that paganism was so rooted in the Roman rule. The issue, in Paul’s mind, was not whether the Roman rule was unimportant or not, like you said, but it was about the citizens of Rome turning to God. Maybe I am being to severe in saying that Paul was anti-imperial and should rather say that he was anti-pagan, meaning that he viewed Rome through his Christian worldview. It comes down to his focus change from being on the Law and Rome, to being entirely wrapped around Christ and the cross. He viewed what was happening in Rome as entirely against the work of Christ and urged the citizens to either turn to Christ or continue on in the faith, not allowing the pagan rituals to become a stumbling block. It is true that God has allowed the authority above us to be in place according to His will and it is important that we follow the law, however I caution that we can only follow the government to a certain extent. Paul would have said to allow the government to continue, but put off all the pagan religion and traditions that were rampant around them. This is much like, say abortion. According to our government, abortion is legal and is completely fine for us to do, but according to God, life is valuable and it is against Him to murder so we, as Christians, do not take part in that allowance of government. Overall, anti-imperialism may be a severe term to describe Paul’s view of Rome, but I think it could offer an accurate representation of him at times.

      • Good conversation you two. Honestly, I think you’re both on to something. I think Travis is right in saying that Paul is not anti-government, and Kim is certainly correct in saying that Paul would insist on obeying God over human authority when the two conflict. I think the reason for Paul’s apparent double-standard on human authority is that Christianity is not a political movement. Christ is in the business of saving souls – not countries. Paul doesn’t waste his time talking about the flaws in the current political system, because that’s not the point. Paul states that the Lord commanded him to “bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47b). Paul considered reaching the lost to be more important than reforming the political system of his day. Although that political system was often in conflict with Paul’s message, Paul did not consider this opposition to be of great consequence. The world will always hate those who faithfully follow Jesus Christ, and that’s the way it should be, because we do not belong here (John 17:14). Honestly, the condition of our government concerns me far less than the desire that many churches have to fit in with popular culture. I think a big part of the problem is that we like to believe that the United States is a “Christian Nation”, and that the government and the Church should think and behave the same way. As a result of this, we either try to get the American culture to like us or we freak out when the unbelievers in the government act in an ungodly manner. Think about it: when the president comes to mind, are you more concerned with him making decisions that negatively affect our country than you are about his spiritual condition? When Paul talked to King Agrippa in Acts 26, he gave him the message of salvation, not tips about social reform. The Church needs to focus on spreading the Gospel, encouraging believers to live their lives in a Christ-honoring way, and praying for those whom God has placed in authority over us. Sure, the world may hate us for it, but we’ll be right with God by doing it, and that’s what really matters.

  3. I think Christianity today, in American culture, is way too similar to the ways of American culture. Many times, people have a hard time seeing differences in us as Christians compared to people who aren’t Christians. Today, if Christians really lived out their faith, maybe even like Paul did, it would most definitely still challenge the contemporary American culture! In fact, it is probably just as challenging to the American culture as it was back in the time of Paul – the difference may be that we don’t get punished or thrown in jail for it. In regards to your comments about the new church plant the pub culture – I totally agree with you! Recently I have been thinking a lot about where churches seem to be headed in America, and how they are changing – and I have to say, I don’t think I like it. We all seemed to be so caught up in singing the right songs and creating an “authentic worship experience” and trying to seemingly totally abandon the ‘old ways’. If we were truly giving our lives to Christ, then why do we need an authentic worship experience to make us feel on fire for God? In the book, “Spirituality According to Paul” by Rodney Reeves, Reeves talks about how Paul was not a good speaker and yet people responded to his sermons. Paul recognized that it was by the grace of God that they were responding; he knew that how he spoke wasn’t going to be the thing that influenced people to give their lives to Christ. Yet, in churches and youth groups in the contemporary American culture, we seem to only really respond to a powerful, moving message where the speaker is very passionate and good with his words. And even then, we seem to forget about it after the message is over. The American church is too focused on the American culture, and seems more like a business than a group of people who live their lives for God and come together every Sunday to talk about what God has been doing in their lives and how they can further the Kingdom of God. I do think the American church is missing the radical nature of the Gospel by attacking the established churches. They are too focused on being hip and “new-agey”.

  4. I do not believe that it comes as a surprise when we think of the general influence that American culture has played out within the walls of the Church. It goes back to the times of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower—the critical times of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. With both nations competing for a higher imperialistic outreach, the two powers collided with sound disagreement. U.S. feeling threaten with the rise of atheism on the side of the U.S.S.R., they countered by developing a halfway superficial/authentic façade of labeling the U.S. as a “Christian Nation.” Adopting “Christian ideals” and pushing for Vatican ties during this predicament, only served as an impetus to illustrate how American culture came to be so influenced by Christian ideology. So if anything, it is fair to say that American culture was actually influence by Christianity itself. All this information can be read in William Inboden’s book Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment.
    Even Polhill states, “The Philippians needed to be more accepting and patient with one another in order to realize their full unity (pg. 175). Maybe there is a correlation here between Paul’s implications of imperialism and that of the Cold War tactics. Not to mention Polhill states in the very next sentence, “And there was anxiety in their midst as they worried about opposition from outside (pg. 175).” This can also be found in Philippians 4: 4, 5, and 1:28-29. Nevertheless, because we proclaim to be a “Christian Nation” doesn’t mean that we live up to the expectations of Christianity. Instead, Christianity involves faithfulness and much more than just proverbial ideals.

    • Very interesting historical reference, the myth of a Christian nation as a response to “godless communists” is a shocking thing to hear, since the “founding fathers” are usually described as modern evangelical Christians.

      • Sorry Professor Long, I know this might be a bit overdue but I was just rereading through some of the information shared and when I read your reply I had an idea that just couldn’t resist being put into words.

        When you take a look back to the first universities in the country (a.k.a. “Ivy League” schools), they were primarily founded to teach Christian clergy. Even crucially important institutions, such as hospitals, refugees, etc., along with the fact that it permeated into American religious imagery– such as, “In God We Trust”– was all influenced by Christianity. And, I don’t believe anyone can argue that Christianity has had the biggest influence of all the different religions that have found their way into America. In comparison, you can see the same American ideals to those that Constantine implanted during his reign of the Roman Empire. When Constantine did this, he was attempting to improve the modern institutions that had already been established by the time he came to being emperor.

        Nonetheless, I guess my thought in question is, do you think it is possible that America only accepted these “ideals” in order to create order in the new nation (specifically in 1776, when we were more looked down upon than up) and further into its development was it then used to create some sort of moral superiority (especially against the rise of atheism in the U.S.S.R., which was a fairly foreign form of catalyst to be the main impetus behind leading a nation, if I must say) over other nations and in some way manipulate them into believing this is what America actually stands for but in reality we’re only forming our own theology–“Judeo-Christianity”–, in order to achieve FDR’s belief that America should be a “policeman” to the world, therefore creating a universal ideology that all persons could accept?

      • Good question…I do not think Christianity was a pragmatic choice by the founding fathers “to create some sort of moral superiority,” it was simply the religion of most of the founders. I want to stress, though, they were not all Christians and none were Southern Baptists in the modern sense of the word! It was a very real faith for most, but some were atheists (Tom Paine, IIRC) or strongly deist (Thomas Jefferson).

        I think they really did believe the Bible, correctly interpreted, would support democracy and a “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Perhaps this is because of the value the Bible places on human life (making slavery and treatment of the Indians even more perplexing!)

  5. I think it is interesting because you have to ask what made this new church plant think it was necessary to stress that you would not be judged for going. I do agree that maybe we are too obsessed with attacking our own church culture. However, there are so many people who look at the church and only see hypocrisy and judgmental people, hence the flyer that had to be sent out to advertise against it. In addition, I also think that a healthy level of correction is not unhealthy and should not necessarily be called “attacking established churches.”

  6. The last statement of your post is one of the most major problems in the church today. There is no controversy. There is no anti-cultural mindset. It’s understandable in this postmodern “coexist” style of of culture that churches focus almost entirely on the “come as you are” ideal. Maybe churches ought to be a little more “anit-imperial”. It might be that churches ought to be following Paul’s example of challenging the ideals, and identities formed in the culture we live in. I agree that reading Paul’s letters as “anit-imperial” is a dangerous game. But, it does seem that the Jewish culture as a whole, as well as the Christian church; went rather harshly against the grain of Roman culture. I wouldn’t say that this is intentional, but it is more a matter of living up to a higher calling of morals, and forming your identity in something other than your place in society.

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