Paul’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?