The apostle Paul may be one of the most interesting, controversial, and yet beloved figures of the Bible. After his dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul shifted his entire life’s focus. Even though he persecuted followers of a seemingly failed Messiah, he later became a leader, church planter, and evangelist of that very same movement. His encounter with Jesus changed him. Despite Paul’s advanced training and knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures and faith, he awakened in that moment to something God was doing that he had missed all along the way. It’s possible for the most trained, most devout, most faithful, and most committed religious attendants to miss the very heart and work of God. That alone could be a message for the Christian church and should help to keep us humble in the pursuit of truth!
Fast forward several years after his conversion, to about 55 CE. Paul found himself imprisoned in Ephesus for his evangelistic work promoting the good news of Jesus. It turns out Roman officials not only disliked the disruptions Paul caused when he came to town, they took seriously his claim to be promoting a different king and lord over Caesar as well. It is here, in prison, that Paul writes his letter to the Philippian church. Regarding the letter to the Philippians, N.T. Wright observes that “the heart of this short letter is Jesus himself. Paul urges the Philippians to let their public behavior match up to the gospel, which will mean sharing the Messiah’s suffering—as Paul himself has done and is doing.”1 Paul’s concern is that his audience commit themselves to the way of the gospel, which is evident in just the first two chapters alone. In chapters one and two he uses the term “gospel” seven times, urging the Philippian church to take its message seriously, despite pressure, suffering, or persecution that might tempt them to abandon the truth they have received.
The Gospel as Told by Paul
Philippians 2:6–11 records a beautiful and heartfelt poem (or song or hymn) describing the embodied gospel message, Jesus the Christ. He desires his audience to remain committed not just to a confession of faith but to a way of life. Just prior to this poem, Philippians 2:1–5 provides some important context for the reader. Here, Paul tells the church at Philippi to be united with Christ, taking on the same mindset, having the same love, same spirit and unity together. Rather than doing things from selfish ambition or vain conceit, they should put others before themselves, and look out for one another’s needs and interests. Right before the poem starts, he tells them, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).
For Paul, the gospel is not just reciting theological positions, it is something that should be embodied within our lives, within our communities, within our families, and within every interaction. It is this gospel that Paul is willing to live for and die for, to be in chains or be free for, and he is encouraging his audience to embrace that same mindset. But what is this gospel that Paul is so passionate about, and that he captures so vividly in this poem? Wright again identifies the main point, “The poem suggests, above all, a radical redefinition of power.”2 Philippians 2:6–11 directly challenge the power dynamics and the power holders within Paul’s context, which is set in a very patriarchal and stratified system.
Power in Paul’s Context and the Gospel’s Response
To really grasp the fullness of what Paul was telling the Philippian church, this passage needs to be placed in his first century, Greco-Roman world. Paul was writing to people living in a Roman colony in Macedonia. They were part of a larger society where one’s status, power, and privilege mattered greatly. It was a highly stratified social culture where men predominately held superior social positions as husbands, fathers, and slaveholders. Slaves were considered “living tools,” serving the needs, wants, and desires of their master. Women were inherently inferior to men, defunct physically, emotionally, intellectually, and in every virtue. Children held no status in the culture until they reached an age of maturity. In this society, some were meant to be ruled and others were made to rule, and the gods had placed free male citizens above everyone else.3 If a person had wealth, was male, and held citizenship, they held power over women, slaves, and children. These were the accepted social norms of the time.
These norms were far from accepted by Paul though. Instead, Paul tells the church at Philippi to check their privilege and status at the door and pattern their community life after the example of Jesus. The world and society surrounding Paul and his audience considered status and privilege everything, yet Paul tells the audience that Jesus considered it nothing. Despite his equality with God, he emptied himself of all his divine privilege and status.
Paul believes there is something about the way Christians within community treat one another that is reflective of the very nature of the gospel itself. Paul is challenging his audience to re-think their understanding of power, status, and privilege. This poem hints at the fact that Jesus could have used his power to his own benefit, building an empire that surpassed Rome, and set up systems of operating that advantaged Jesus and any others he decided would be “insiders” during his reign. But that is not what he did. Instead, Jesus relinquished any claims to power and emptied himself in humility to embrace a posture and position of a servant.
This was the call of the Christian community to which Paul writes, and it is the message that we are called to embody today as well.
What Does This Mean for Patriarchy?
Despite Paul’s best efforts, Christianity throughout the centuries has maintained a complicated relationship with power.4 The truth is, we love it. We love to be near it, we love to wield it. Proximity to power has become a marker of our success and even that God’s favorable hand is upon us. This is demonstrated especially in the treatment and ideologies surrounding women in the church and home. Those who accept a subordinate role for women attach their claims to the very nature of the gospel itself. They believe that if men don’t hold superiority, power, authority and leadership, the gospel is violated.5 Indeed, with this mentality, there is a violation of the gospel taking place!
Paul in his letter challenges this sentiment, claiming that the heart of the gospel is in laying down power, not demanding it or forcing others into submission. In Paul’s time, and sadly often in our own context too, the people who held positions of power were nearly all men. But rather than reinforcing hierarchy, Paul redefines power as something powerholders should “count as nothing.” Following the example of Jesus, Paul implies that Christians should seek to lay aside their claims to power, status, and authority over others, and should focus on serving those less powerful than themselves. This means that wherever free men held power, they were also challenged to lay aside their privilege in order to see those with less power, like their wives, women in general, children, and slaves, as their equals within the body of Christ and to treat them as such. Paul was not blind to the social stratification that existed in the culture he ministered to; he regularly exhorted Christian audiences to avoid patterning their communities and relationships after these corrupted social systems (cf. Eph. 2:11–22; Gal. 3:24–29; Philem. 10–19). Paul himself models this redefinition of power when he calls Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Euodia, and Syntyche, among many other women, his sisters and valued co-workers in the work of the gospel, mentioning them alongside many men (Rom. 16 and Phil. 4).
Some may claim that Paul reinforced the social expectations of his time regarding women and their roles in society. Yet, passages like this one in Philippians challenge that assumption. Paul directly confronts a social system that valued people based on their status, age, and gender. Where embracing hierarchy was normal, Paul says it shouldn’t be for God’s people. Christian communities are to reflect this same Christ-like posture toward one another. When Christian communities embrace hierarchy based on gender, where men hold power while women are excluded from participation, the gospel has become corrupted. We are no longer patterned after our Messiah; we have lost our way. For those who claim Christ as Messiah and King, this message should challenge us and confront us.
Paul’s Redefinition of Power Today
Paul’s words continue to call the modern church toward repentance for clinging to worldly power and prestige while marginalizing and excluding others. This may have looked different in Paul’s own culture and context, but it is still a challenge for us today to find the way others, especially women, people of color, immigrants, the poor, or any other marginalized group, have been devalued in favor of the powerful majority. It is a call to recognize that the very gospel is at stake when we corporately disenfranchise and exclude those who don’t “fit” our preconceived Christian molds. It is a call to recognize that the only true and perfect model for Christians is Jesus himself, and male-centeredness or wealth or able-bodiedness or whiteness are not the standard of “Christian” perfection.
This should move us toward self-reflection, where we call ourselves out for our contribution to racism and sexism that have plagued the church for generations. Selfish ambition and vain conceit need to be replaced with humility, where we value others above ourselves and look out for their interests (Phil. 2:3–4). May Paul’s word to the Philippians be our unifying call to re-calibrate our communities and re-center our focus, so that in our relationships with one another, we would have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5). Maybe it isn’t Paul who we need to make peace with, but perhaps it is the uprooting of bad Pauline theology that upholds systems of corrupted power dynamics that needs to be confronted and dismantled. May the totality of Paul’s message, focused on cross-shaped service and humility, outweigh the theological systems some have built based on exclusion and male-centeredness, and lead us to a more faithful expression of Christian life together.
1. N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography, (New York, NY: Harper One, 2018), 272.
2. Ibid., 274.
3. Plato, Laws, III.689-690. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book VIII 11.1160b-1161a. Aristotle, Politics, Book I 12.1259b.
4. See Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020) for an excellent survey of the history of American Christianity and its patriarchal relationship to power.
5. Wright, 272.
This article appeared in “Making Peace with Paul,” the Spring 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine.
Read the full issue here.