Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. - Philippians 1:1-2
Paul begins his letter to the Philippians by first identifying the sender and then the recipient in the customary letter-writing fashion of his day. Strikingly unusual is the way Paul introduces himself and Timothy. In other letters, such as Colossians, Paul introduces himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” and then adds, “And Timothy our brother.” But to the Philippians, Paul simply claims that he and Timothy are together “servants of Christ Jesus,” or, as in some translations, “slaves of Christ Jesus.”
Throughout this letter, Paul makes no deference to positions of status or privilege among the People of God. Instead he uses terms such as “slaves of Christ Jesus” and a “partnership in the Gospel.” Such is the case not only in the way Paul identifies the sender of the letter but also in the way he identifies its recipient.
Paul writes to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” At first glance Paul’s mention of two of the offices in the church appears to offer an exception to his view of a church of equals. However, a closer look reveals that Paul mentions the leaders for the very purpose of discounting the distinctions. Notice that both offices – bishops and deacons – are plural, not singular, which indicates that Paul is not referencing a specific individual or office. In addition, the term bishop is better translated as in the NIV and New American Standard as “overseers,” and deacon means “one who serves.” When all of this is put together, we find that Paul’s words may be recast, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus, who are in Philippi, including those who oversee and those who serve.” Paul envisions a church in which all persons who are in Christ are simply saints – holy people – including those who differentiate themselves as being over or below the others.
In her book Church in the Round, Dr. Letty Russell, a professor at Yale Divinity School when I was there, challenges the institutional church to replace the status-ridden hierarchical structures, which she calls “Jacob’s Ladder,” with a church of equals, more in the image of “Sarah’s circle.” As Paul addresses the saints in Philippi, with the authority of a slave of Christ, in the context of partners in the Gospel, he envisions a church of equals – a “church in the round.”
Lord Jesus, as your slaves, bought at a great price, may we advance the Gospel simply by expanding the circles of your grace and love. Amen.
A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston