A Word in Edgewise

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Working through Philippians

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Over the next few weeks I plan to work my way through one of Paul’s best known letters, the letter to the Philippians.  Some of these thoughts have been published earlier in the book I co-authored with Randy Richards and Rodney Reeves, Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters and Theology (InterVarsity, 2007).  I expand them significantly here.   I welcome your comments.  Rediscovering Paul cover

A few initial thoughts

The letter to the Philippians is often referred to as “the epistle of joy.”  The title is well deserved because “joy” and its sister traits abound in the letter from beginning to end.  Despite the circumstances attending the letter—Paul’s imprisonment, the threat of false teachers and apparent rifts in the congregation—Paul prayed with joy (1:4), endured incarceration with joy (1:18), instructed the Philippians on how to fulfill his joy (2:1-11), pondered the possibility of his death with joy (2:18) and admonished them to live joyfully (3:1; 4:4).  For the apostle joy is not a mood that can be worked up or attained apart from faith; it is the gift and the fruit of the Spirit.   Joy (Greek, chara) is the by-product of the work of divine grace (Greek, charis).  Those who have received God’s favor through Christ Jesus are able to experience joy even in the midst of suffering.  Therefore, joy is not dependent on favorable circumstances; it is based upon “the Lord” and his work in our lives.  That is why Paul encouraged them to rejoice “in the Lord.”  The Lord is both the cause and the sphere of life’s joys.  Moreover, a believer is able to rejoice in suffering with the full assurance that these hardships are producing a wealth of patience, character and hope (Rom 5:3-4).  Joy’s sisters are hope and peace.  Hope manifests in joyful waiting for the fullness of salvation at the parousia (Phil 3:20-21).  Peace, according to Paul, protects our hearts and minds by turning anxieties into thanksgivings (4:4-7).

Philippians 1:1-11

Paul addressed “the epistle of joy” to the saints at Philippi “with the overseers (episkopois) and ministers (diakonois )” (1:1).[1]  This is the some of earliest evidence we have for the division of labor and shared leadership in the early church.  Although we cannot distinguish accurately the functional differences between overseers and ministers[2], this is clear evidence that “offices” existed at this time.  Based upon its use in other places, we may conclude that overseers engaged in a ministry of teaching and providing general leadership and guidance to the churches.  Similarly, “ministers” took on teaching and preaching responsibilities in the church and may have served as traveling missionaries.[3]  The fact that Paul listed “overseers” before “ministers” in Philippians 1 and 1 Timothy 3 may indicate a fledgling hierarchy in the making.

In other letters Paul described ministry functions in terms of spiritual gifts or charisms (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4).  Because of this–and perhaps modern anti-institutional bias–some interpreters have tried to distinguish sharply between charism and office.  They theorize that Paul’s charismatic, Spirit-led communities lost their “enthusiasm” giving way to less dynamic, hierarchical institutions.  According to this perspective, the loss of charism was inevitable as time progressed and regrettable.  Some have even used this as part of a developmental model to argue that letters like Philippians, 1 Timothy and Titus—letters that refer to established offices–were written later, perhaps even into the second century AD.   But are charism and office so different as to be mutually exclusive?  Not at all.  First, even in those letters where charism figures prominently (especially 1 Corinthians), some gifts are considered higher gifts.  Prophecy is always ranked first among the charisms.  Furthermore, the gifts themselves are under the control of the gifted.  They are to use them to build up the congregation in an orderly fashion.  Second, most scholars today agree that Philippians is a genuine letter of Paul written just a few years after 1 Corinthians.  The letter clearly depicts a church where overseers and ministers were active, recognized and set apart from the rest of the congregation for a continuing work of leadership, preaching and teaching in the church.  They may have even been paid for their service.[4]  In the end, no good reasons exist to suggest these leaders in Philippi were somehow less Spirit-led or Spirit-gifted than Paul’s other congregations.  The work of the Spirit does not necessarily contradict order and hierarchy.

In a sense Philippians is a celebration of the friendship and partnership that existed between the apostle and the first church founded in Macedonia.   In his thanksgiving he set the tone of the letter by explicitly citing “your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:5) as the basis for his gratitude toward God.  Paul was confident that the one who began the good work [in that partnership] would complete it at the day of Christ Jesus (1:6).  The apostle concluded the letter by thanking the Philippians for their recent financial gift.  In so doing they became “partners in his affliction,” namely, his imprisonment for the sake of the gospel (4:14).  This was not a new arrangement but a renewal of concern for their imprisoned founder.  Indeed no church partnered with Paul in the ministry more than the Philippians (4:15).  They were partners in the gospel and in God’s grace (1:5, 7).  They shared the fellowship of the Spirit (2:1) and hopefully would imitate Paul in seeking to share the sufferings of Christ (3:10).  From first to last, this letter celebrates their partnership and, no doubt, deepened their resolve not to abandon Paul in his time of need.


[1] Some translate episkopos with “bishop” and diakonos with “deacon.”  We must be careful not to read later church polity and ecclesiastical offices back into Paul’s Christian communities.

[2] Paul provided instructions for the qualifications for “overseers” and “ministers” in the Pastoral letters (1 Timothy 3) but he did not set up any sort of “job description.”

[3] Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society, 95-96.

[4] Ellis, 95-96.

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2 Comments

  1. Dr. Capes, it sounds like an interesting book. I look forward to reading it. I have always been intrigued as to when the leadership of the Church became more formalized. Do you have a ball park for when the book will be out?

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