< September 27, 2020 >

Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13


The Indonesian national motto is Bhineka Tunggal Ika, the Malaysian motto is Kesepanduan dalam Kebelbagaian, and the United States’ motto is E pluribus unum.

All call us to “unity in diversity.” But how do we live that out? What does this unity in diversity look like? Differences are the reality of life, and the rhetoric of unity can often become a way of silencing different voices, dissenting opinions, and of subjugating them into sameness masquerading as unity.

Churches today have to deal with racial differences, economic differences, theological differences, and so on. How do we navigate these very real differences? Should we see them as a threat to the church? Should we burn people at the stake like what Christians did in the past in order to maintain unity and theological purity? Should we worship in a different space in order to accommodate these differences and perpetuate the reality of 11AM Sunday as the most segregated hour in America?1

The early church in Philippi apparently faced just such a problem. The clash between Euodia and Syntyche in 4:2 is probably just the tip of the iceberg. We do not know the exact nature of the clash between these two women because we only hear from Paul about them. Euodia and Syntyche might have described the situation very differently. In any case, this interpersonal conflict seems to concern Paul in this letter.

Paul insists that he would like to see the Philippians being “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). Such rhetoric in itself can be problematic because it seems as if Paul is erasing their differences by subjecting them to the same mind. However, the idea of being of the same mind is not the end of the story in this letter. The next two verses are crucial to how we understand what is going on.

Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:3-4). The same mind, same love, full accord, and one mind of which Paul speaks in 2:2 cannot be about erasing differences because he immediately urges them to regard the other as more important. Verse 4 clearly places ta eauton (yourselves) and ta heteron (others/differences) side by side. The self is not a negation of the other, and vice versa. Paul demonstrates that a self-other binary should not be the measure or model of human social relations.

It is important to note that the regime of sameness is always self-centric. As Emmanuel Levinas has demonstrated in his book Totality and Infinity,2 totality is about absorbing others into the self, into the same. It is subjugating others into the likeness of the self, putting others in the box of the self. It does not let the other be the other. In a sense, the totality is the absolutization and totalization of a particular. In many predominantly white churches, people who come from other cultural backgrounds are often forced to “behave white”— to speak white language, to sing white songs, to dress like whites, and so on. In such churches, unity seems to be practiced as uniformity. Paul’s statement on unity in verse 3 has to be understood not as a call for uniformity, but as making a space for others, as opening oneself for otherness. It is about being hospitable.

About 400 years before Paul wrote this letter, Aristotle published his Politics, which became one of the most important political treatises in the history of western thought. There, Aristotle likewise wrestles with this issue of unity and diversity in Greek polis. According to Aristotle, the wellbeing of the whole must take priority over the wellbeing of individual members. The polis exists prior to the individual. Thus, in this sense, unity is more important than diversity. Why? Aristotle uses the analogy of body to argue for his point. Just like a hand or foot cannot be a hand or foot without the body, so too when the body is destroyed the foot and hand will not exist.3

Paul seems to flip this Aristotelian argument. Paul tells the church in Philippi to prioritize others, to put others first. This move to prioritize others is the key that unlocks Paul’s overall rhetoric here, particularly in his Christological argument. Joseph Marchal has correctly demonstrated that the use of idealized slavery as the image of humanity in this so-called “Christ hymn” (2:6-11) is indeed problematic. “The use of this imagery encourages acceptance of the system, instead of change,” writes Marchal.4 In spite of this problem, Philippians 2:3-4 still has the potential to break Paul’s rhetoric of imitation and obedience from within. That is to say, the absolute obedience and imitation is impossible to project in light of the others, in light of prioritizing others. Philippians 2:3-4 opens the door for what Jacques Derrida calls “absolute hospitality,”5 which means that when the other knocks at the door, one does not even need to ask the name or the origin of the other; one simply opens the door to welcome the other in.

What does the church need to do when these “others” come, when they do not speak English, when they dress differently, smell differently, worship differently, sing differently? Will your church look not to their own interests but to the interests of the others? Will your church open its door to otherness? Paul’s discussion here is a serious challenge to us as the church today. Unity in diversity is almost an oxymoron, but unity without diversity is oppressive. Diversity gives us a way of destabilizing the rhetoric of unity in order to make sure that the others are not erased and subjected to the regime of sameness.


  1. “‘11 A.M. Sunday Is Our Most Segregated Hour’; In the light of the racial crisis, a Christian leader assays ‘the structure and spirit’ of the nation's churches, and asks some probing questions.,” The New York Times, August 2, 1964. https://www.nytimes.com/1964/08/02/archives/11-a-m-sunday-is-our-most-segregated-hour-in-the-light-of-the.html

  2. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991).

  3. Aristotle, Politics, 1.1.11.

  4. Joseph A. Marchal, “Expecting a Hymn, Encountering An Argument: Introducing the Rhetoric of Philippians and Pauline Interpretation,” Interpretation 61, no. 3 (July 1, 2007): 245-55.

  5. Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 25-26.