Paul’s Letters sans Loyalty (Day 23)

A reading of Philippians 2:19–3:1a, 4:4–9, 4:21–23

In a nutshell: Paul preens Timothy as his successor in the event that he dies while in prison. Meanwhile, he send back Epaphroditus, whose illness raised concerns among his friends.

No one else here is such a kindred spirit, who will be as genuinely concerned about how you are getting along as I am. All of the others are looking out for their own interests, not the interests of Jesus the Anointed.
—Philippians 2:20–21

So if it’s not about loyalty…

There I went and opened my big mouth. Yesterday I talked about the loyalty loop and concluded by saying, “But I still think we can know what Paul cared about.”

“So,” you say, “what can we know?”

If I narrow my view down to just the evidence presented in this letter to the Philippians from prison, here is the content that stays behind when I pass it through the loyalty sieve. It’s not much, but it is instructive.

Observation #1: To whom or to what?

God is the one to whom we should be loyal, in the sense that whatever brings honor and praise to God defines the merits of our loyalty (1:12). Furthermore, we are also encouraged to be loyal to Jesus (1:21), or at the very least, Paul feels that his whole life is dedicated to Jesus and that his companion Timothy is also wholly loyal to Jesus—in fact, Tim is more loyal than all those other guys that are just involved for selfish reasons (2:20–21).

Sorry, yes, I just dropped a “Tim” like a youth pastor. Did I mention I still tune in to Christian radio sometimes? Am I the only member of the church alumni association that does this?

Yesterday I emphasized that loyalty always needs a buddy. Loyalty for loyalty’s sake is dangerous and sometimes even despicable. I really like that Paul is loyal to a person (albeit a deity) rather than any one cause or object or value. People can never be one-dimensional. Jesus is not one-dimensional unless you only read one story about him. Even if you restrict yourself to the Bible, you’ve got four biographies of Jesus. That leaves a lot of leeway in a dialogue with Paul: “You say Jesus was a divine king, but I say he was a healer. Let’s discuss.”

Observation #2: God has news

God has earth-shattering news (1:5, 7): the news is that Jesus is the Anointed (1:6, 10). We know this not only because the big event is named after Jesus—“the day of the Anointed”—but also because Paul has a long paragraph about what it means to go around “proclaiming the Anointed.” This isn’t a secret message, by the way. Paul is happy no matter who is shouting about it (see 1:15 onward). Paul is even happy that his imprisonment has brought more attention to the cause (1:12 onward).

Funny thing about this. It’s so familiar. I feel like I’m reciting my Pentecostal upbringing and singing Hosannas at Christmas. “Glory to the newborn king!” I’d like to say, “Aha, they were wrong and that stuff isn’t in Paul!” The newborn part isn’t in there, but the theme of proclaiming a new king certainly is.

Here Paul is happy to proclaim a message loudly and clearly, whereas back in 1 Corinthians 3 he claimed to have to hold back on some teachings because the communities in Corinth were like infants not yet ready for chewable food. That was Paul’s explanation for the misunderstandings that came between them. This isn’t a contradiction, in my opinion. The core of the public announcement could be, “Jesus is king and Jesus is coming,” while the details are reserved for those who have made a commitment to serving that king.

That’s pretty much how most community groups operate today.

Observation #3: Man against man except when it’s the other way around

The Anointed lends support to his assemblies by means of “the power and presence of God” (1:19). This is probably not metaphorical. Opponents of God and the Anointed are facing “ruin” (1:28), a reminder that like any king, Jesus is imagined as coming and putting down his enemies. Jesus will rule someday over the three-tiered universe of underworld, earth, and the heavens (2:10).

I’d like to say Paul was aware that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” but I don’t really see evidence of that. This language is all militaristic. It really does sound like Paul is planning a coup.

In his defense, he believes Jesus is more fair and good than the leaders of the current regime, and that the God of Israel has generously offered to accept any members of the nations who are willing to be adopted into the fold. One might ask, “And what rebel government would say otherwise?”

Maybe the corruption of the reigning government was so obvious, so egregious, that nobody needed to be convinced otherwise. Nelson Mandela was somewhat controversial for his willingness to commit violent acts of resistance, but many people would agree with him that the apartheid-era conditions warranted strategic violence.

I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle. (Rivonia treason trial, April 20, 1964)

There are plenty of reasons to believe the Roman Empire was violent, but we won’t get that evidence from Paul aside from the fact that he’s in prison and that, in previous letters, he described other ways he had been harmed. Like yesterday’s letter from Yves to Alex, we have to rely on external evidence to flesh out the situation.


Observation #4: Loyalty can become content

Paul lapses into a loyalty loop around Jesus in the creed of 2:6–11. Jesus was born “in the image of God,” which was probably Paul’s way of saying Jesus was a born noble like any Roman emperor (cf. practically every book on the royal family). Paul then says Jesus “accepted a servant’s lot” and “became trustfully obedient all the way to death, even death by crucifixion” (2:7, 8). “That is why,” Paul tells us, “God raised him higher than anyone” (2:9). In other words, Jesus gets to be king because he is obedient even when it seems to lead to utter shame.

I’m disappointed by this. I think Paul is missing an opportunity here. By describing Jesus as good because he was obedient, he collapsed loyalty into the content of his message and lost track of whatever more fundamental points make worthwhile the choice to pledge allegiance to this God and this king. Anybody can be obedient, anybody can be loyal. The sacrificial piece, the part about dying, is more extreme, but the people who crashed planes into the World Trade Center, blew up the London subway, and released sarin in the Tokyo subway were also pretty self-sacrificing. So what’s the real point, Paul?

I just get really, really frustrated when I don’t know what I’m supposed to be rooting for. As we move into our final letter to the Romans, this problem weighs heavily on my mind.

Questions for the Road:

  • Let’s get inventive. Right now the creed in 2:6–11 gives obedience to God as the reason for Jesus’ importance. Try revising it so that it gives a different reason. Bonus: try giving a reason Paul might be willing to endorse.

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.