Partnership in the Gospel

We often speak of Philippians in terms of being a friendship or joyful letter from the apostle to one of his congregations.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

May 25, 2014

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Commentary on Philippians 1:1-18a

We often speak of Philippians in terms of being a friendship or joyful letter from the apostle to one of his congregations.

What we often skip over is that this is one of his prison letters (see e.g., Philippians 1:12-14). This overlooking of the social context flattens our reading of the text, missing a crucial component necessary to its proper interpretation.

Prisons or jails in the Roman world were nothing like our modern institutions. Often no more than a glorified pit meant to keep people for a short period of time, ancient prisons forced prisoners to look outside of their place of bondage to get even their simplest needs met. Food is a great example. Without the assistance of those outside of the prison, the jailed would have starved to death. Thus, when Paul speaks indirectly of the Philippians’ assistance throughout this letter, he is referring not only to their spiritual encouragement but also to their material support.

Paul begins this letter in an interesting fashion. He begins by calling himself and Timothy douloi Christou Iesou (“slaves of Christ Jesus”). The only other place where he explicitly uses this fashion of self-presentation is Romans 1:1. Although some debate still exists, a growing consensus among scholars is that this is a form of self-address used intentionally by Paul to evoke a connection in the mind of his readers, in both cases largely Roman, between the familia Caesaris (the imperial household) and the familia Dei (the household of God).

In both cases, the status of doulos or slave is one of honor. In the imperial household, slaves served as the bureaucracy of the government. They were state officials and even provincial governors, occasionally exercising more influence and actual power than those of senatorial status. In short, to be a member of the imperial household, even as a slave, was to be a person of derived status. Derived because the status of the slave was based on the status of his master, the emperor. Because the slave was an extension of his master, whenever he spoke it was the same as hearing it from the master himself.

Paul is saying that the same is true when we belong to the familia Dei. As an apostle, which he means more in the sense of missionary than as some definitive office in the church, Paul is the mouthpiece of Christ his master. He does not speak on his own behalf. He speaks on behalf of God through Christ. Yet, even in this conceivably innocuous status indicator something important arises, the question of power.

The problem of power is more ancient than the text we are considering. Power is manifest wherever two or more humans are gathered together and construct any kind of relationship. Its deeper and darker qualities emerge as soon as the omnipresent factor of inequality raises its inconvenient head. If power is defined roughly as the ability to make a claim on life, then the range of the presence of power may be broadened to include the notion that power is coextensive with life itself. To be alive, in any sense, is to make some claim. To be alive is to exercise power in some degree.

The most common conception of power is coercive. Coercive power is the ability to produce intended or desired effects in one’s interactions with the surrounding environment. It operates so as to make the other a function of one’s ends, even when one’s aims include what is thought to be the good of the other. It is a one-sided and non-mutual conception of power. It is a notion of power that has heavily influenced traditional Christian conceptions of God. This conception of power is congruent with the Cartesian understanding of a substance as that which requires nothing but itself in order to exist. The philosophical strength of this coercive power is that it is derived from the self and from God and not from other members of the community.

The term power is indicative of worth or significance. Under coercive power the worth of an individual is measured by the range of that individual’s ability to influence others. The correlative approach is that the practice of relational power both requires and exemplifies greater size than that called for by the practice of coercive power. Since the capacity to receive an influence is a necessary component in the actuality of relational power, the principle of size is applicable to the experience of undergoing an effect. It is the factor of value or size that enables us to attribute power to the experience of receiving an influence derived from others.

Our readiness to take account of the feelings of another is a way of including the other within our world of concern. Our reception of another indicates that we are or may become large enough to make room for another within ourselves without losing our distinctive identities. It is congruent, at least, with the horizontal understanding of Christian love (i.e., the love brothers and sisters felt in koinonia, often translated as “community” or “partnership”).

The aim of relational power is not to control the other. In fact, it argues that the greatest possible good cannot emerge under conditions of control. The aim is to provide those conditions of the giving and receiving of influences such that there is the enlargement of the freedom of all the members to both give and receive. It is a partnership. This enlarged freedom is the precondition for the emergence of the greatest possible good which cannot be predetermined nor controllable. The commitment within relational power is not to each other but to the relationship, which is creative of both. It is a commitment to the koinonia or partnership and not merely to one or the other. This idea of the higher commitment is one that we should reflect on this day.



Holy Lord,
May our love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us determine what is best, so that we may be pure and blameless in the sight of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Alleluia! Sing to Jesus   ELW 392, H82 460, 461, NCH 257
Give me Jesus   ELW 770/trad.
Lord, be glorified   ELW 744


Pilgrim’s Hymn, Stephen Paulus