Passage – Philippians 1:1-2
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is easy to miss something about how Paul begins this letter. It is easy to miss, because the significant thing is what Paul doesn’t say here, that he normally does say in the beginning of his other letters. If you read Romans 1:1, I and II Corinthians 1:1, Galatians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, I and II Timothy 1:1, and Titus 1:1, you will notice that Paul begins by referring to himself as an apostle. Often, he also uses the term “servant” as he does here, but this is a rare occasion when he does not refer to his apostolic standing.
This is more than Bible trivia and a matter of early church polity. It reveals that this is one of Paul’s most personal letters. Paul is writing because this church is exceedingly concerned for Paul’s safety while in prison and their seriously ill friend Epaphroditus, who they sent to take care of Paul. In this situation, Paul is deciding (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) not to emphasize the authority he has as a leader of the church.
This invites the question, “When are we in similar situation?”
- We may be a parent deciding how much to tap into our parental authority when talking to our child about a life decision.
- We may be a small group leader participating in a discussion deciding how much to lean into our teacher role.
- We may be the more experienced Christian encouraging a newer Christian and want them not to defer to what we think in a conversation.
In effect, Paul is opening his letter by saying, “In the role God has given me I could speak in the tone of authoritative teacher establishing the doctrine of the church, but that’s now what I’m doing here.” We will seek to answer four questions about Paul’s choice of tone for the book of Philippians.
- Why did Paul make this choice?
- What does this choice not mean?
- What are the benefits of this approach?
- When might we be wise to make a similar choice?
Why Did Paul Make this Choice?
As we study Philippians together, we will notice that Paul doesn’t have much to correct in the Philippian church. Most of his warnings are about things happening outside this church that these believers need to avoid. There is one conflict between two church members he addresses. But other than that, Paul is mainly writing to say “thank you” for a generous financial gift and set their mind at ease about Epaphroditus’ health condition, which was perilous for a while.
Based on this, it appears that Paul understood that it is better to avoid speaking from an authoritative position when you don’t have to, even if you are in a position of authority. This doesn’t imply anything bad about the proper use of authority. Paul used it frequently. But it does reveal that using authority is “heavy” (metaphorically speaking) in a relationship and, therefore, it is wise not to put that weight on a relationship when it is not needed.
By way of example, elementary school teachers need to be in charge of their classroom; otherwise, chaos would ensure. Their authority in the classroom is good. But if the teacher is always relating in the posture or tone of authority, it will stifle student morale and creativity. If the teacher relates well in non-authoritative ways, it strengthens the bonds of trust and affection that maximize the response rate when their authoritative role is needed.
Leaders who do not understand this principle are the ones warned against in I Peter 5:3 as “domineering” or “lording over” people (depending on which translation you have). As a general rule, if you need to speak in an authoritative tone to validate your role as a leader, you are not a good (i.e., biblical, Christ-like, or virtuous) leader. Instead, an authoritative posture in one we should embrace only when it serves an individual or group best.
We might ask, “How can we arrive at this conclusion if it is more common that Paul invoked his apostolic status in his letters? If this is the exception to Paul’s general practice, why are we giving it this much significance?” First, we realize that Paul usually wrote his letters in response to crises or heresies that arose in the church. These situations call for more direct leadership. But, as we noted, Philippians is primarily a thank you letter and word of encouragement.
Second, Paul spoke directly to how he chose his tone in II Corinthians 10:1, “I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!” Paul’s letters (i.e., when he was away) were prompted by major problems. But his day-to-day pastoring, by his own admission, had a much different tone.
What Does this Choice Not Mean?
Saying that Paul did not lean into his role of apostle for this letter does not mean that Philippians is a theologically or practically light book. Some of the most robust teaching about who Jesus is can be found in the book of Philippians. Some of the most personal discussions of enduring hardship and managing anxiety are contained in this letter.
This negates the notion that friendship ministry is JV, lighter-weight, or less important than formal counseling (whether that be formal counseling or pastoral work). If informal ministry were “less than” formal ministry, then Philippians would be such an important book in the Bible. Actually, the strong personal tone of Philippians may be why it is so many people’s favorite book in the Bible.
As we walk through Philippians, if we know to look for it, we will learn a great deal about how to influence people towards growth and change via personal relationships. Appeals to change via authority call people to decide whether they are in or out: “Are you going to continue to live in addiction or seek help?” When needed, while difficult, these appeals are good and may awaken someone to the urgency of their situation. But for most of us, most of our appeals towards growth and change are going to be via friendship. That is why Philippians is a great book to in small group where this kind of influence is what we share with one another.
What are the Benefits of this Approach?
We have been foreshadowing this question, but now it’s time to engage it directly. There are at least five benefits to making our appeals without invoking our leadership role (if we are in one) when possible.
First, it honors the work that God is already doing in someone’s life. As you read Philippians, you will notice how often Paul refers to the work that God has already been doing in these believers or the fruit they are already exhibiting. Paul taking a non-apostolic tone in his letter further affirms this reality, not only with his words, but also by his tone and style of relating.
Second, it fosters maturity rather than compliance. Calls to obedience may protect someone from the danger of sin. But these authoritative appeals don’t cultivate the internal embrace of the values that undergird obedience in the same way that arriving at the same conclusion via conversation does. Maturity emerges when obedience and faithfulness are our friend’s idea, rather than something we convinced them to do.
Third, it invests in the relationships rather than draws upon trust. When we appeal to authority, we make a trust withdrawal. We are trying to change the direction of someone’s life by the exertion of outside force (i.e., moral appeal or imposing consequences). When we appeal via friendship, we are expecting that our friend has good intentions and, as the subject is explored, will arrive at God-honoring choices. Over time, the excessive use of authority deteriorates (building metaphor) or bankrupts (financial metaphor) a relationship.Over time, the excessive use of authority deteriorates (building metaphor) or bankrupts (financial metaphor) a relationship. Click To Tweet
Fourth, it preserves the influence of a directive tone for when its most needed. Again, we are not saying that appeals based on authority are bad. They are good. We are striving to protect those we lead from growing deaf, numb, indifferent, or agitated towards our leadership influence. Leadership, like time and money, is a resource to be stewarded. We are learning from Paul how to avoid spending it at unnecessary times.
Fifth, it protects and cares for the leader. This point could be easy to miss. Paul needed a church (i.e., a set of encouraging friends who knew him and he trusted) too. If Paul only made his appeals via his apostolic role, he would have stifled the development of these friendships. Knowing how and being willing to make non-leadership appeals is a vital part of a leader’s emotional and relational health.
When Might We be Wise to Make a Similar Choice?
It is easy to fall in love with an idea like making appeal through friendship and think it is the only way appeals should be made. But if it is a good thing to aspire to be a leader in the church (II Timothy 3:1) and the absence of leadership results in chaos (Proverbs 29:18), then we can’t dismiss this question as a simple “always” or “as much as possible.” Here are four occasions when an informal appeal is highly advised. You will notice these occasions do cover a significant percentage of our life and relationships.
First, when we’re advising on a wisdom decision rather than a moral decision. Let’s take the example of changing jobs. This is almost always a wisdom decision; rarely do people ask us if they should open a meth lab. Our tone of influence is friendship, not authority, even if we have strong opinions and an authoritative role. For example, it would be unwise for parent to say, “You will not take that job, because I know your grades will drop,” even if they are right. Instead a response like, “The question I would raise is whether you can keep your grade up because I don’t want a job in high school to detract from the quality of career you have as an adult because of your grades falling,” is more effective at cultivating the desired outcome.
Second, when we don’t have authority. This may be most difficult for people who have authority in most of their relationships. If you are a principal at a school or boss at a business and must make most of the “big decisions,” it can be hard to step into a different role when talking with friends. That should make us marvel at the example of Paul in this letter. One of the marks of spiritual maturity for Paul, that qualified him for this kind of leadership, was his ability to put on and put off whatever role served the people around him best (I Corinthians 9:20-23).
Third, when we do have authority but want to preserve the relationship. This is the “Is it worth it?” variable. Parents, teachers, coaches, and pastors make this assessment almost daily. Perhaps a parent has a teenager who has recently lost several friends after getting cut from a sports team and is increasingly irritable with their siblings. This could easily become a moral issue – dishonoring their siblings through condescending and harsh words. But the parent is asking, “Is it worth it? Does the teenager need compassion or correction? How will it affect them if I address the problem directly, and how will it affect their siblings if I do not?” This is a value judgement based on how your action or inaction will affect the variety of people involved in the situation.
Fourth, when the need is for warning rather than rebuke. This is a primary theme in the book of Philippians. Paul is concerned for the selfish ambition and self-promotion he sees arising in many Christians leaders (Philippians 1:15). Paul hasn’t seen this in the Philippians Christians, but he wants to warn them against following this trend or buying into this model of Christian leadership. If he made his appeal based on his role as an apostle, it would make his concern come across as an accusation. Making his appeal in the tone of friendship is what allows it to be received as concern rather than condemnation.
- What are the leadership roles you fill, both inside and outside the church?
- What are the types of decisions or interactions in which these principles from this reflection are most relevant for you?
- Have you ever noticed how Paul altered the tone and style of his appeals based on the type of relationship he had with a church or the need of the moment?
- Can you think of examples of when you or someone else thought, “Because I am a leader, I have to make my appeals in an authoritative tone”? If so, what was the impact of this mindset?
- As you think about leadership this way – both via friendship and using authority well – what are the ways or times in which you become more grateful for leadership expressed well?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.