Philippians 1:1; Brief Thoughts

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Paul and Timothy begin this epistle with an introduction typical of Paul. Calling themselves “slaves.” A faithful reader of Scripture will recognize Paul’s title of slave/servant. The interesting and peculiar nature of this title is that it is self-assigned. No one forces it upon Paul and it is certainly not prestigious. However, for Paul, this descriptor is a powerful engagement of an extremely significant truth. Christians are slaves to Christ. A believer’s allegiance, obedience, and even will are all submitted to the authority and mastery of Jesus Christ.

Christianity is an invitation to slavery. Romans 6 gives a thorough explanation of this slavery. Before Christ, you are a slave to sin, held in bondage to a master that rules your every step.[1] If you have trusted in the righteousness of Jesus, then you have been set free from sin’s grip and have become willing slaves of righteousness.[2] This is the only type of slavery that is intrinsically free. One who has become a slave to Christ has been rescued from an inability to do anything righteous and has been set free for righteousness sake. This is a glorious state for the Christian.

The addition of Timothy as a co-author in this letter is a unique aspect. Paul’s inclusion of Timothy as a fellow slave gives us an insight into his character. For Paul, slavery is not an individual occupation, but a communal reality. Christians are bondservants together. Our condition as slaves is best understood within the context of a community that is faithful to obedience together. You are not alone in the Christian walk! You have brothers and sisters to aid you in joyful obedience and to share in your struggles and sufferings.

The address of this letter is to that very same voluntarily enslaved community. It is important to recognize their positions as saints who are enslaved together. Slaves have no hierarchy in the eyes of the master. A slave/servant may be given more responsibility or positional authority to accomplish a task, but their intrinsic condition is utter dependence on their master’s benevolence. In light of this truth, the positions of overseer and deacon are not positions of prestige or honor, but positions of service and responsibility. Oh, the headaches that could be averted in the western church if we would recognize that offices in the church are not a recognition of intrinsic value but are positions of willing self-subjecting service to fellow slaves. Just think of how many issues could be simply put to rest in the face of a humble understanding of this truth. When pastors, deacons, and other leaders recognize that they are no greater than any other slave in the congregation, effective leadership will become common place and churches will advance the Gospel Kingdom over their own humanistic agendas.

Take note that there are two offices mentioned here in Philippi: overseers (episkopos meaning bishop or guardian, emphasizing leadership and protection) [3] and deacons (diakonos meaning servant, helper, or assistant).[4] In Philippi there were a plurality of elders and deacons.

A debate has raged in the last 50 years within the Baptist denomination over the ecclesiastical system. This debate is silly but is important enough to make a few simple comments… So here’s a paragraph:

There are a variety of leadership structures that were implemented in the New Testament church. In Iconium and Lystra there existed a system of house churches led by a plurality of elders, presumably one in each house. (Acts 14:19-23) Corinth appears to have had a single elder whose primary responsibility was teaching. (c.f. 1 Cor. 3, some might point to this as the reason for Paul’s words in Chapter 3-4.) Philippi seems to have maintained a single congregation with a plurality of elders and deacons governing the body. (Philippians 1:1) Titus is instructed by Paul to “appoint elders in every town” while in Crete, thereby indicating a system of local churches with at least one elder in each. (Titus 1:5) Finally, the church at Jerusalem appears to have been governed by elders with James as the leader of the elders. (Acts 21:17-18) So, a variety of leadership structures exist within the New Testament church but one thing remains clear: every New Testament church has at least one overseer, elder, or pastor leading in teaching, prayer, and direction… although they usually have more than one.

These positions that we prize so much as prestigious and honorable are only viewed correctly when the leaders and the people recognize that all Christians are slaves to Christ and our only authority comes from Him and His word. Revel in the truth that you are a slave to Christ within the community. This letter is going to be a great encouragement, whatever responsibility you bear within the body. We will walk together in obedience, following Christ.

[1] Bondage to sin is explained in Romans 7:13-25, while slavery to Christ is exemplified in Romans 8.

[2] For a more thorough examination of the passage in Romans I recommend Douglas Moo’s commentary on Romans 6,7, and 8 and John McArthur’s explanation of chapter 6 and 8. If you want to explore an alternate interpretation of Romans 7, go ahead and read McArthur’s view on 7.

[3] Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (p. 246). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

[4] Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (p. 152). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.  epískopos. The term means “overseer,” “watcher,” and thus comes to be used a. for “protector,” “patron,” diakonéō. This word for service, as distinct from douleúō (to serve as a slave), therapeúō (to serve willingly), latreúō (to serve for wages), and leitourgéō (to do public service), carries the basic nuance of personal service.

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