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.

Belushi TogaThe 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.

10 thoughts on “Citizenship and Philippians

  1. You said that this interpretation of citizen may change the way we look at certain passages. The passage of Philippians 2:5-11 covers Christ’s example. Christ though he had every reason to boast and consider himself above the other people but instead humbled himself in order to save people. There is a differentiation made between Christ status as God and the fact that he made himself a servant (2:6-7). The necessity of the humility is demonstrated better when told in the context of the pride associated with citizenship. Status is not what matters. Longenecker explains that this humility serves not only to define how people are to act but is Paul’s solution to conflicts that had occurred in the church. Just as Christ made himself nothing to serve so also Euodia and Syntyche could use Christ’s example as a model for how to solve the conflict that they were experiencing (203). Paul also represents this idea in chapter 3. He explains that he has the right to boast in his status since he lived as a model Jew. His behavior was commendable but he understood that knowing Christ was more important (Phil 3:4-9). Just as the Philippians had a special status due to their citizenship, Paul has special status as being a not only a roman citizen but part of the chosen people of Christ. Paul says he counts “everything as loss” basically rejecting his status for his new found status as a follower of Jesus. Paul lists himself, Christ, Timothy and Epaphroditus as “human models” for the Philippians as examples of humility (Longenecker 201). Paul is saying to reject human being’s idea of status in order take on humility thus living out their lives as Jesus followers.

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  2. I agree with the fact that being a citizen of Christ is more important than that of being in another class of citizenship. In my opinion today’s society has come to adopt this mindset of being part of another class than Christ as well. If we look at especially the teenage groups we see that being part of the “cool” fads that are happening, has become more important to us than the fact that Christ is our only way to the kingdom of Heaven. Longenecker in TTP states, “Paul came to consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord (TTP, 203). In this, it shows that Paul wants us to focus on Christ because nothing else really matters in the ends. In Philippians 1:21 Paul says this, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (ESV Bible). Again this shows how important it is to Paul that putting the focus on Christ is even better than life.

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  3. Paul’s use of the ideology of citizenship and ‘honor’, in the sense of ‘letting your life be worthy of the gospel of Christ’ (1:27), is no accident in my thinking. The city of Philippi, as I understand it, had many retired Roman soldiers living in it, who probably practiced the imperial cult, which hailed Caesar as god/a god (Longenecker 196). If Paul had any Roman converts from that cult, they would have been able to understand the parallel instantly, amidst their culture. In any case, no matter what original religion, converts to Christianity would have been ingrained with the honor system of the day, and Paul sought to disengage that. Prof. Long, you brought up a point that I will always remember: More than one convert is mentioned: Lydia the business woman, the retired soldier (jailer) and possibly the formerly possessed slave girl. Given only the two absolutes, “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” (Long). It helps me reinterpret Paul’s boasting in chapter 3 by realizing that he is not only referring to himself but all he preaches to; that all are equal ‘in Christ…From God’. The application to 21st century churches should be obvious. All should live ‘worthy of the gospel of Christ, as citizens of heaven’. We can take pride in our citizenship of heaven, and take our eyes off the temporal and look to the eternal, because of Paul’s writing about citizenship in heaven, an extension of identity. Anyone, from any background, can accept Christ, and become a citizen of heaven, young, old, poor, rich. As equals ‘in Christ’.

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  4. Citizenship probably created a deep sense of pride for their nation. Coming from an American stance I definitely have a pride for my nation. Freedom, flag, bald eagles, ‘Merica. If Americans can have as much pride as we do today when America is starting to slip in the standing it once had, how much more pride did the Philippians have for being a part of a very powerful nation. Being a citizen meant something very strong not only because of the perks but because of the pride. However Paul says that it is meaningless. We are citizens of Heaven and that’s what really matters. “Paul encouraged the Philippians both by example and by precept, to be mindful of their spiritual future in the present by not living in the past” (TTP 203). Basically Paul says remember we are going to live in heaven one day lets be proud of that. Tell everyone about it. Wear Christian t-shirts, listen to Toby Mac, and carry your colorful journal everywhere. Show others what being a citizen of heaven looks like today.

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  5. To Paul, nothing was more important than to live in Christ, even if that meant the end of his life. (Philippians 1:21)
    When Paul talks about the heaven’s citizenship, it was a way to make the church feel empowered and encouraged. In a time where being Roman was practically make part of a high society full of privileges, those people could not have the same status. Not different than today where we still find pride and patriotism in small things like our earthly citizenship. The phrase that heard the most when I first came to U.S. was “This is America”, as it was the most important thing I had to know in my life or that it could change my life so deeply that every time that I remembered that, I would be empowered by some kind of supernatural power. My point is that none my dual-citizenship will bring me eternal life and will make more like Jesus. Paul was definitely devoted to the idea of pressing towards the goal to be more like Jesus and when talking about citizenship, there’s no way better to be more like Jesus than to have His citizenship.

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  6. I personally believe that being a citizen in Christ is far more important than being a citizen of the world. True characteristic of a Christian who is a citizen of Christ are unselfish ambition because he realizes that true happiness doesn’t come from worldly possessions. We are reminded to store up treasure in heaven and not on the earth. As long as we are on earthy we be citizen of whatever nation we live in. We will be a part of a government and will participant government events. However, we must remember that Christ rules above all. Christ rules above leaders of the government. God will continue to rule over all things. As Romans 8:28 says “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”.

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  7. I think that reiterating the fact that we are all citizens of Heaven is an important thing to do in our modern churches as much as it was in Philippi. As Allyssa stated above, many people in our culture get hooked on other things like alcohol, new technology, video games and even America itself. A lot of people put their stake in these things more so than they put their stake in Christ and that is very troubling to me. Being a citizen of Heaven is the highest honor that anyone can get but people are more interested in instant gratification. Expressing our Heavenly citizenship is so important because we need to always put Christ first in our lives and not put anything that is superficial in front of God ad what He has done for us.

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  8. Interesting site and very serious. I’m an academic so hear, hear. But, I did notice that you used a drawing (very nicely done) of the late Jim Belushi in a toga as your “Citizen” of the Roman Empire. Very cheeky. Is this intentional? Hilarious.

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    • I used the John Belushi (not his brother Jim) on purpose. I thought he looked more like my imagination of Nero than any real statue.

      I try to make this an academic site, since that is my passion and calling. But I am often intentionally cheeky!

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