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Servant Paul, Not Apostle Paul, in Philippians

I’ve been studying Philippians recently, both because I continue to find myself attracted to the book for my own edification and because I intend to preach through it this summer. When I study like this I like to go segment-by-segment, studying each line in detail, in the original languages, and in the context of the larger segment and the whole of the book. It’s part my Inductive Bible Study training and part just that I’m a nerd.

When you look closely at the first few verses of Philippians, something quite unique stands out fairly quickly:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.

You’ll notice that Paul does not refer to himself as an apostle.

This is strange by its absence because his apostolic credentials are a prominent part how Paul identifies himself nearly everywhere else:

  • Romans 1: Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…
  • I Corinthians 1: Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes…
  • II Corinthians 1: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother…
  • Galatians 1: Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…
  • Ephesians 1: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…
  • Colossians 1: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother…
  • I Timothy 1: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope…
  • II Timothy 1: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus…
  • Titus 1: Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ…

The only other of his letters where he doesn’t claim apostleship is I and II Thessalonians and his brief letter to Philemon.

Many commentators suggest the reason Paul doesn’t appeal to his apostleship in Philippians is because he was on such good terms with them. He didn’t have to “pull rank” by appealing to his apostleship to get them to obey him or recognize his authority. This answer seems to have some merit, especially when you consider that in Galatians and I Corinthians, Paul is arguing against persons who are distorting the gospel he has preached or people who are questioning his apostolic credentials.

But should those controversies be read in a reverse sort of way onto Philippians? Should we assume the lack of defensiveness is the primary reason Paul doesn’t appeal to his apostleship? I don’t think so. After all, Paul has some major eschatological issues to set right with the Thessalonians – a setting in which it would be perfect to wield his apostolic title – yet he doesn’t refer to his apostleship. The same goes for his letter to Philemon – Paul could have appealed to his apostolic authority to get Philemon to welcome Onesimus back home and treat him like a brother, but he doesn’t (indeed, he even goes out of his way to note to Philemon that he doesn’t appeal to him in an authoritative way: vs. 18). Further, if Paul does not appeal to his apostolic credentials merely because he’s on friendly terms with the local church, then why does he need to remind Timothy twice of his apostleship? Timothy is Paul’s closest companion we’re aware of.

Of course, none of this denies that Paul’s friendship with the Philippians is a factor. Of course it is! But I don’t think it’s the only thing to consider. It seems to be the relational context of his reason for not appealing to his apostleship, but there are other immediate and book-as-whole contextual factors to consider as well.

Overseers and Deacons

The first reason Paul may not appeal to his apostolic credentials (in the context of a friendly, supporting church) is because Paul is deferring to the authority and leadership of the “overseers and deacons” within the church. He doesn’t have to appeal to his authority or his credentials with this church because the faithfulness of the church (as shown in their continued financial support of him while in prison) is the product of good leadership. He can defer to their authority, thus further giving credence to their pastoral leadership. Again, the context of this is his friendship, but the reason for it goes beyond friendship to the fact that this is a healthy church led by healthy leaders. He’s not writing to set anything right, but to thank them for their righteous conduct. On some level, I imagine Paul knows people are enamored with him and his authority, so by showing himself to be a servant, and by supporting the existing leadership of the church, he shows that the overseers and deacons – those who live life with them on a daily basis – are the true leaders of the local church, not a guy who just shows up every few years to encourage them.

Incarnating the Christ Hymn

The context of the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:1-11 calls the Philippians to follow the example of Christ, who did not cling to his own privilege and status, but rather, laid those things down to die on the cross. This laying aside of privilege and status for the cross turns out to be the precursor to lordship and resurrection.

The point of Paul’s quotation of this ancient hymn is not purely theological, but practical – that they may regard each other as better than themselves as they see in the hymn, Paul’s own example, and the example of Timothy and Epaphroditus (the rest of chapter 2). In the end, these multiple examples, particularly that of Christ, ask the Philippians to consider a new kind of authority, leadership, and power – an authority, leadership, and power that does not cling to its privilege and status, but is willing to lay down all of its credentials in order to die and resurrect.

By calling himself a “servant of Christ” he’s making a direct thematic connection with the “servant Christ” he references in Philippians 2. By not appealing, then, to his apostolic authority or credentials and referring, instead, to his servant status, Paul models the very heart of his letter to the Philippians. If Christ did not cling to his credentials and privilege, why should Paul? Why should the Philippians?

Yes, of course, none of this can be separated from his friendship with the Philippians and his long history with them, all of which comes into play in the larger context of Philippians. But you also cannot disregard the immediate context and the explicit things repeated throughout the letter.

For those reasons I think Paul has no need to cite his apostolic credentials, but rather lays them aside to promote and encourage the leadership of the “overseers and deacons” and also incarnate that which Christ incarnated when he laid aside his glory and took on a human body, dying a human death, and resurrecting to glory.

Featured image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash