It is hard to over-estimate the theological importance of Philippians 2:5-11. This hymn is foundational for Christian understanding of the nature of Jesus and the incarnation.There are more than a few major theological problems in these few verses, such was what it means that Jesus is God, yet he emptied himself.
But Paul’s original intention was not to create a theological statement, he is focused on Jesus as the ideal example of humble service. Paul is drawing out a practical implication for “living a life worthy of the Gospel” (1:27-2:4) from this important theological statement: serve one another with the same attitude of Christ Jesus.
The noun Paul uses to describe Jesus’ outward appearance (μορφή) is used twice in the passage: Jesus goes from “form of God” to “form of servant.” While the word refers simply to “what something looks like,” it is used to describe the outward appearance of a god. Philo used the word to describe Caligula as “dressed up as a god” (Leg. 110). Most cultures have some sort of system of social stratification that can be discerned from what people wear. Joe Hellerman describes well the Roman emphasis clothing as an external sign of one’s social standing (Embracing Shared Ministry, 142). For the most part, one could tell social status by the clothes a person wore. A slave, for example, could not parade around in a toga, nor would a wealthy Senator and leading Citizen of Rome dress in rags like a slave.
Jesus was “equal with God.” This parallel phrase uses “equal” (ἴσος). While the word often is used for two things that are equal (for example, Luke 6:34), it appears in several theological important passages. In John 5:18 Jesus is accused of making himself “equal with God,” something the Jewish religious authorities though worthy of death! Some Greek and Roman rulers claimed to be equal with God. In 2 Macc 9:12, Antiochus claims to be “equal with God” (ἰσόθεος), Appian described the honors Augustus gave to Julius Caesar as “equal with God” (BCiv. 2.148, cited by Hellerman, 143).
But his equality was not “a thing to be grasped.” A “thing to be grasped” (ἁρπαγμός) refers to asserting a title or putting forth a claim for something, or something to be exploited. Think of someone who “makes a claim” for a legal settlement, they think they are entitled to compensation so the “make a claim.” The King James Version had “did not think it robbery,” reflecting the idea of grabbing at something. Maybe another way to think of this is a benefit that gives you an advantage over other people, maybe handicapped or expectant mother parking at the mall. This is a “status” that allows someone to take an advantage over others.
Paul describes Jesus in this verse as occupying the very highest rank imaginable by anyone in the ancient world, he was in fact God. Yet that position and rank was not something he insisted upon, as the Romans would have done. He set aside that rank in order to humble himself. The Roman world was based on extreme social stratification. There was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power.
This humble attitude of mutual submission, even to people of a lower social class, flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99). Paul’s main point here is to encourage the believer to serve other believers without respect to their rank or position in society. This includes everyone in a local church, including the pastor!
The larger a church grows, the more need there is for power structures reminiscent of American corporate business models. A church could have a “CEO Pastor” who is paid (respected) like CEO in a major business. Perhaps they think of themselves as too busy “casting vision” to drive a van for the youth group, or play games with the elementary kids, or teach a small Bible study, or weed the church lawn on a work day.
The pastor worthy of respect is the one who sets aside his title, respect and power, and serves others, doing tasks that might be “beneath” their position. This understanding of what it means to serve one another in love as the potential to transform local churches, but it is completely counter cultural to the way many American pastors understand their role in the church. Is it wrong for a pastor or church leader to see themselves as “vision casters” or function more like the CEO of a large business?