Philippians has for a long time been one of my favourite books in the Bible. I’m not sure if I can justify that. Maybe it’s just because of the overall encouraging message set against the backdrop of persecution and eschatological anticipation. I jumped at the chance then to do my assignment on it for biblical interpretation — that and the fact that it was the shortest out of the books we had to choose from. Reading Philippians this morning was a good time to reflect on one of the book’s most influential verses for my own faith and what that looks like in terms of the whole:
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Coming to this as a serious new Christian in a Pentecostal context there was only one way to interpret the passage: After Paul has given the model for faith and overseen young Christians as they come to terms with how to live that faith, they must then be weaned off their dependence on him and depend solely on God’s Spirit at work within them, existentially working out the faithful life in their individual relationship with God. This interpretation was no doubt consolidated by my enthusiasm for Kierkegaard and his use of “fear and trembling” for the title of his most famous work, one dealing with how the individual through relationship to God is an exception to the ethical context they find themselves in.
But there are some problems with this approach, especially considering the weight of importance Paul puts on the Christian community in writing to the Philippians. In reading the letter as a whole this sense of the individual working out their salvation in distinction to those who forsake the inner call of the Spirit is not as forthcoming as this reading of 2:12-13 would suggest. Au contraire, the sense is of the faith community at Philippi as a whole working in relationship with God.
2:12-13, starting with the “Therefore”, actually conclude the previous section where Paul sets out life in community demonstrated in the example of Jesus’ incarnation:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 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. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
As in v.13, God working within is the point from where the community works out their salvation, so at the beginning of this passage “encouragement in Christ” and “sharing in the Spirit” are the points from where the community learns to love each other in godly love. When Paul lays out the model of Jesus’ incarnation (vv.5-11) he only demonstrates in greater detail the point with which he has already begun. Therefore, a few verses later when Paul compares Timothy with selfish people, “All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (v.21), the interests of Jesus here referred to are actually those concering the welfare of the community at Philippi: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (v.20). The point is that a primary concern of the Spirit working among the Philippians is not to justify them each as individuals in their relationships with God but to live and love together as community.²
Ok, so Paul in Philippians definitely shows the importance of right living in community but isn’t the community just a collection of individuals whose communal love stems from each of their individual relationships with God? The love does not exist in the community itself but in the collective of individuals who existentially come to terms with the importance of expressing that love. But I don’t see much of a problem in saying that the community itself is something more than a collection of individuals. There is something that cannot be accounted for in community by simply tallying the individual spiritual values of all contained within it. What if the category of the individual for Paul is something completely different to the category we employ today?
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.
Here it is interesting that Paul uses the same context to make his point: Whether he is present or absent should not affect the faithful state of the Philippian community. But in comparison with 2:12-13 there is no possibility of misreading it as the individual’s relationship to God when external support is withdrawn. In this case the external support (Paul) may be with the Philippians or not but the Spirit will lead them as a community into unity with “one mind”: “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15). There will be differences among individuals within the community but these are not so much differences between some individuals and other individuals. They are differences between these individuals within the community and the mind of the community as essentially beyond a collection of individuals. The mature within the community mediate the one mind in spirit and together as a community, and the exceptions who are earnest in their commitment to the community will receive help from the Spirit to become fully a part of that community’s revelation.
The community as defined by the Spirit precedes the individuals within it, having a being both distinct from yet dependent on the individuals within it. This has been an attempt to explore that relationship, with more emphasis on the collective which individualistic Christianity, though sincere and a productive ground for people who would otherwise be caught up in the institutions of the status quo, largely ignores. I welcome any alternative readings of the passages and further discussion on the issue.
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¹All scripture quotations taken from NRSV
²Cf. Jesus’ focus on being reconciled to others before reconciliation with God: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Perhaps more difficult are his words on not being forgiven unless we forgive others (Mt 6:15).
³Little “spirit” here can also be read as “Spirit”. The Greek does not distinguish between the two. Also, it is unhealthy to say that Paul meant one or the other because saying this dismisses the possibility that Paul could be talking about both with a particular emphasis on one. Also notable is the use of the plural “you” in the Greek here and throughout Philippians.