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Fall 2009 · Vol. 38 No. 2 · pp. 193–208 

Citizenship and Politics According to Philippians

Gordon Zerbe

John E. Toews concludes his commentary on Romans with the following claims, with special reference to the opening messianic enthronement drama (1:3–4), the thesis about the gospel of the Messiah (1:14–17), and the concluding assertion of universal messianic rule (15:7–13):

Romans is an anti-imperial tract. It begins and ends by asserting that Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. (p. 345)

Paul’s claim that God is effecting universal salvation, righteousness, peace through Messiah Jesus represents a subversive political statement. Paul frames Romans as a political manifesto—Jesus is the son of God and the only Lord worthy of confession. Caesar is not Lord, and Caesar does not bring real salvation, justice, and peace. But Jesus Christ does! (p. 368) 1

Messianic loyalty cannot co-exist with an equivalent zealous loyalty to any other dominion, human or spiritual. The notion of a co-existing “dual citizenship” is foreign to Paul’s thinking

In two lectures for the March 2008 Janzen Lectureship at Fresno Pacific University, Toews further develops this reading of Romans and Paul. 2 My purpose in this paper is to extend John’s argument on the counter-imperial character of the gospel in Romans, and on the subject of Paul and politics more generally, by specific attention to Philippians. 3


Before turning specifically to Philippians, however, I would like to make some comments that situate the current scholarly discussion of Paul and politics. One side of this is to situate ourselves as interpreters, taking into account our own social-political location, biases, commitments, and other factors that shape our treatment of biblical texts (including ourselves as beneficiaries of empire). Toews has spoken ably to this, most crucially by deconstructing our notions of the separation of religion and politics into separate domains, into the private and the public, a separation which in our context is actually a happy and mutually legitimating symbiosis.

But more to the point for this essay: how do we situate Paul? One thing is clear, what we call religion and politics were not separate spheres of life in antiquity, as Toews has emphasized; religion was embedded in politics and kinship; and politics, whether Roman or Jewish, was inextricably religious. To fail to see this means a failure to be able to interpret Paul on his own terms, in his own cultural, political and religious environment. The question is thus in what inter-textual world do we read Paul. Let me offer a very general caricature of the movement of scholarship on Paul in reference to his politics:

Stage 1: Paul the Christian Gentile (former Jew), the self-identified Roman. A pervasive image of Paul is that he is really like one of us, not really Jewish. Indeed, in traditional Christian thinking, it was assumed that Paul rejects his Jewishness absolutely (both its religion and its politics). On the other hand, it was assumed that Paul was really quite happy and comfortable with, indeed proud of, his Roman citizenship. By politics, Roman; by religion, Christian. Like us. If there is any fundamental antagonism for Paul, it is only directed against Judaism. Paul reasoned like a Gentile, not really like a Jew.

Stage 2: Paul the Jew, redefining Judaism Messianically. Especially as a result of what has become known as the “new perspective” on Paul, 4 it is now commonly held that Paul lived, thought, worked, and read Scripture as a self-identified Jew, albeit one who saw in the Messiah the fulfillment of the promises of old. His adherence to Messiah Jesus did not mean a rejection of his past; rather, Messiah constituted its fulfillment and redefinition, especially the inclusion of “the nations” (Gentiles) into a new people of God through Messianic loyalty. Nevertheless, for many associated with this new perspective reading, it is still common to treat Judaism and its Messianic redefinition, and the new “people of God,” as essentially “religious.” Paul is read primarily in light of texts thought to be “religious”; and it is supposed that Paul essentially spiritualizes the political character of his own sacred text, read religiously in light of Messiah.

Furthermore, while adjusting to some massive paradigm shifts in the wake of W.D. Davies, K. Stendahl, and E.P. Sanders, a generation of scholars (in which I include myself) learned to appreciate that Judaism was variegated, that Paul’s engagement with Judaism was an intramural debate, and that he remained a self-identified Jew to the end. But at the same time, the “Jewish context” of Paul was often seen (in Christian scholarship) primarily in terms of a notion of religious-theological Judaism.

Stage 3: But there was still some shifting to do. The next step involved a re-discovery of the crucial relevance of Greco-Roman sources, especially those in the common domain, not just that of elite, literate society, as the world in which Paul worked and ministered. As a result, it became increasingly clear that Paul’s words are not church words, religious-theological words, but vocabulary in common civic discourse, frequently with critical political edges. 5

The result for many scholars is the following image: Paul the Messianic Judean/Jew, critical-suspicious of Rome. Paul remains as a self-identified Judean/Jew, 6 albeit a Judaism re-framed in light of Messiah, a fulfilled Judaism as a theocratic religio-politics, as one held over against adherence to Roman or any other religio-political structure and system. 7

In retrospect: scholarship had first to disengage Paul from his presumed Romanness, understanding him to be thoroughly Jewish (albeit a Messianic one), so that his counter-Roman posture could be re-discovered. Once Paul’s Jewish moorings became more manifest, his counter-Roman posture could become more obvious. Paul had first to be re-constituted in terms of his Jewish “apocalyptic” theological framework, and its special form of Judeo-Messianic religio-politics. Thereby, too, a new understanding of Paul’s own socio-cultural hybridity, and its entanglements, ambiguities, and tensions could be recognized. 8

Decisively significant in Toews’s Romans and in his 2008 lectures, therefore, is his guidance of his audience into the urban, imperial world of Paul, its social structures, its propaganda, and its political theology, a world that still doesn’t get much emphasis in standard textbooks (except for the faulty notion that without the great peace and security offered by the empire, Christianity might never have expanded and succeeded).


I turn, then, to consider how Philippians extends Toews’s thesis on the question of Paul and politics, especially in reference to the counter-Roman resonances of Paul’s texts. First, some general comments on Romans and Philippians. The two provide for a productive comparison and contrast on many levels. The political dimension of the rhetoric in both letters is so palpable that this agenda is not just a sub-text, but in the foreground and in the manifested text itself.

The differences between Romans and Philippians are obvious, and important to note: (a) Philippians is written to a congregation that has enjoyed a lengthy relationship (“partnership”) of around five years with Paul; Romans is written to a group of congregations Paul has never met. (b) Philippians is written to a struggling and threatened assembly of between thirty and eighty individuals (including children) in a city of some 10 to 15,000; Romans is written to a varied number of house churches in a city of at least a million, also under some potential threat from Roman authorities (cf. Rom. 13). (c) Philippians exhorts primarily through paradigmatic example (2:6–11; 2:19–30; 3:4–17; 4:9; cf. 1:12–16; 2:16–18; 4:10–13); Romans exhorts primarily through sustained theological and Scriptural argument. (d) Philippians is dispatched under duress while under Roman imperial custody; Romans is written at greater leisure, in the house of a rather wealthy church member in Corinth (Rom. 16:23). (e) Philippians hardly even alludes to Scripture; Romans is steeped in Scripture.

But notice also some crucial similarities: (a) Both letters are addressed to Messianic assemblies in centers of Roman imperial power. Metropolitan Rome, with over a million residents, is master of an empire that can claim five million citizens, 9 and many more times that in subjects; Philippi is a colony of Rome, founded as the final reward to veterans of Rome’s imperial legions, in the wake of Octavian and Anthony’s glorious victory over Brutus and Cassius on the plains outside of Philippi in 42 BC. It was founded to honor promises made to the victors’ troops, and involved the expropriation (and “centuriation”) of over 700 square miles of prime agricultural land to become Roman soil. Philippi was a city with a population of some 10 to 15,000 (not all Roman citizens) in a magnificent 120 acre urban area (exhibiting a wealth disproportionate to its size), dominated by a small Roman elite descended from original veteran settlers, and controlling a mini-empire of at least 40,000 subjects in its surrounding territory. In both, Latin reigned supreme, in contrast to Greek-dominated Corinth or Ephesus. (b) Both letters deal directly with issues of Roman rule, and the imperatives of Messianic citizenship and community-building in contrast to Rome’s claims of dominion and call to loyalty and patriotic allegiance. Paul’s rhetoric on such politically-loaded topics as the supremacy of the Messiah over all other rule, the character of suffering on behalf of Messiah, the character of the Messianic assembly, and the character of its justice and citizenship overlaps to a considerable degree in both letters. For instance, in Romans the declaration of the Messiah’s supremacy over all other rule brackets the entire letter (chaps. 1, 15); in Philippians this declaration constitutes its centerpiece (2:5–11; cf. 3:19–21). Yet, Philippians is roughly one-quarter the length, and so is elliptical on some points where Romans is more expansive; but on some points, Philippians is even more direct (Phil. 1:27–30; 2:6–11; 3:18–21) where Romans is subtle. 10

In many ways Philippians anticipates Romans, for instance on topics such as “justice/righteousness,” “loyalty/faith,” and an empire-countering “Christology.” Indeed, Paul’s circumstances during his writing of Philippians constitute a crucial backdrop for his theo-political discourse in Romans. This is most clear in his extended discourse on Messianic victory precisely in the context of suffering, and more particularly in the context of assault from the Roman authorities and their military tribunals (esp. Rom. 8:26–39). Both 2 Corinthians (e.g. 1:3–11; 2:14–16; 4:7–12; 4:16–5:10; 6:3–10) and Romans are in large measure retrospectives on Paul’s recent, life-threatening experiences under Roman incarceration. Philippians was probably written around the year AD 55 from Ephesus, while under Roman imperial custody, and awaiting a hearing or ruling by a Roman military tribunal, six to twelve months before he wrote Romans.

This view is counter to that of Richard Cassidy, 11 who argues that Philippians answers the “compromises” that Paul makes in Romans, following the traditional view that Philippians was written five years after Romans, and from Rome. He claims that anyone who had experienced the kind of incarceration that Paul was under while writing Philippians could not have penned Romans 13. For Cassidy, Paul writes Philippians once he really knows by the experience of severe torture what the Roman imperium is all about, and thus Philippians represents Paul’s final (and true) perspective on Roman rule (and politics more generally). Cassidy is right about Philippians (though not about its finality), but wrong about the dating, and wrong about Romans. As Toews argues, Romans 13 is supportive of, and consistent with the radical theo-politics (christo-politics) of Romans, once read appropriately. 12

What this means is that Philippians and Romans are best read together. While Philippians anticipates Romans, Romans complements and extends Philippians, and is the best inter-text through which to understand some of Paul’s elliptical statements in Philippians (esp. 3:9 on “justice”; and on the “Jewish identity” question of 3:2–6). Along with statements in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians (and Colossians?), these two letters are the most politically provocative of Paul’s writings. Whereas Paul’s horizon of interest in Philippians is on one particular setting (e.g. focusing on the unity of the local assembly in its steadfastness), while referencing the global (2:9–11; 3:20–21), in Romans the horizon goes much more explicitly global (e.g. the world-wide unity of the Messianic assembly is the key issue, e.g. 9–11; 15:7–13; 15:14–33; cf. the global concern of 8:17–39), not just that of the local assemblies (e.g. 14:1–15:7).


What makes Philippians particularly intriguing for the present topic is what was happening on the ground in Philippi. 13 First, the present situation in Philippi, including its demographic and culture, is the result of at least 500 years of successive colonization. While its first known occupants (in historical times) are the Thracians (ancestors of modern Bulgarians), the region was successively colonized by the Athenians, then the Macedonians, and then the Romans. The result of this is a fairly mixed population culturally and religiously, including native Thracians and varied Greek-speaking immigrants, all under the thumb of the newest colonial elite, the Romans. Philippi’s strong Macedonian cultural connection is one explanation for why it is that women appear so prominently in positions of status, including those within the Messianic assembly (Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche). This history of colonization does not appear directly in the letter; but it certainly provides opportunity for reflection in relation to the text of Philippians (e.g. 3:21). 14

Secondly, Philippi holds status as a mini-Rome, with a privileged elite of those holding Roman citizenship, mainly Latin-speaking Romans, who control the civic life and culture of the city, including the large Roman-controlled agricultural estates in the surrounding countryside operated by slaves or tenants. This very stratified social and economic system, along with its framework of political domination, legitimated by all kinds of propagandistic features through various media, is one that weighs especially on the marginal Messianic assembly (which perhaps mirrored the stratification evident in the society at large, but with an absence of the decurial elite).

The primary circumstance of the Philippian assembly, the majority of whom most likely did not hold Roman citizenship, is that it is experiencing “opposition” and “suffering,” an “ordeal/struggle” of the same kind that Paul experienced earlier, and of the same sort he is experiencing now (1:28–30). Precisely what this is cannot be discerned, but it most certainly had to do with a Roman problem, and involved the authorities. Perhaps the crisis arose after certain Messianic adherents disengaged from civic festivities in honor of the civic and imperial gods (devotion to the Roman gods and to the emperors was easily assimilated into the devotion to the region’s traditional gods). Or the alienation might have had a primarily economic manifestation, as those who held Messianic allegiance found it difficult to work or participate in guilds (collegia) devoted to the honor of Roman virtues and gods: both jobs and commercial connections or opportunities were probably lost (cf. Rev. 13). Needless to say, the seeds of the conflict were evident as soon as Paul stepped into the city five years earlier. 15

The crucial issue in the letter, then, is how to maintain steadfast loyalty to the Messiah and to the citizenship/commonwealth that is generated through his work. Part of this exhortation to steadfast loyalty is consolation and reassurance about the Messiah’s imminent victory, both in personal terms (resurrection), but also in global terms (global subjection, 3:20–21; 2:9–11). A secondary concern of Paul is with the internal common political life of the assembly, namely, that it retain the Messianic citizenship virtues of lowliness, neighborliness, and unity in contrast to Roman consumerist, status-pursuing, and self-promoting glory, along with its general immorality (2:14–16; 3:20–21). No doubt some of the tension within the assembly implied in the letter can be attributed to differences of opinion on how to respond to this Roman political-cultural-religious threat.


Paul writes Philippians for multiple reasons. The most obvious is that he must say thank you for a financial contribution recently received (4:10–20); and he must prepare for the return of their own emissary Epaphroditus back to Philippi, who probably also accompanied the letter or carried the letter (2:25–30). But these two immediate occasions are subordinate to Paul’s chief concern: that the assembly remain steadfast and united in the context of a massive assault by the powers of Rome in Philippi. And his primary mode of discourse is an exhortation that has a deliberative (persuasive) intent (1:27–2:18; 3:1–4:9). This is not merely a nice, warm, friendly letter, as commonly thought.

Philippians, in fact, is both deeply personal and relational, but also deeply political and subversive, a quite remarkable combination. Paul’s striking personal and relational expression, however, has often blinded readers to the much more fundamental political dimension of his rhetoric, happily describing it as a “letter of consolation,” or as a “letter of friendship.”

There are indeed very significant personal and relational features of Philippians, having to do with (a) Paul’s relationship with his readers (longing, deep feelings, joy, partnership, solidarity, actual persons named, etc.), (b) Paul’s relationship with his co-workers (e.g. Timothy as “same-souled”; feelings relative to Epaphroditus), and (c) Paul’s relationship with the Messiah himself (“knowing Messiah”). Moreover, these are triangulated in a very important way, expressing a remarkable mutuality and con-formity (Paul and readers; Paul and Messiah; Messiah and readers). The letter is full of relational depth and feeling, of personal anxiety and prayer, and of the guarding of hearts and minds. And most strikingly, Paul consoles when he is the one who himself should be consoled. One might say, taking up the threefold analysis of deliberative (persuasive) rhetoric in Aristotle (Rhetoric II.1–9), that while Romans has especially logos (that is, straight-forward argument), Philippians has a special dose further of ēthos (where the author inserts himself, his credentials, and his example into the deliberative rhetoric) and pathos (where the author seeks a solidarity of feeling with his audience, pulling on heart strings).

But most fundamentally, Philippians is an exhortation (discourse) on the “practice of Messianic citizenship,” the keynote theme sounded in 1:27: “But singularly practice your citizenship in a manner worthy of the good tidings of the Messiah” (my translation). Each one of Paul’s Greek words is loaded, 16 and this thesis resounds through the rest of the letter. But unfortunately, its explicit political significance is covered up by most modern English translations. 17 Paul had already prepared his readers for this thesis, when he described his own circumstances in Roman custody (1:12–26)—the highpoint of that narration is his determination that whatever the circumstance “he will not be ashamed,” that “the Messiah will be honoured in his body, whether by life or death” (1:18b–26). This is the language of public honor so significant in a setting like Roman Philippi, and it is a counter voice to measures of honor based on its status system. If the ultimate honor in a place like veteran-dominated Philippi was either high achievement of public honor through economic advancement and honorific public office, or willingness to go to the death for Rome’s mighty victory in the name of Caesar, Paul turns that on its head and claims the nobility of death for his counter Lord who moves to embrace lowliness (cf. 3:7–11).

This theme of singular Messianic citizenship is unpacked in various ways throughout the main body of the letter, written in a primarily hortatory form (1:27–4:9). For instance, as soon as this primary issue is put forward, Paul elaborates by employing the military imagery of a city-state (polis) defending itself against a siege: (a) “standing firm as one” in military alignment (an image also used in 3:17, stoichein), (b) “contending/fighting together with a united disposition,” oriented to and driven by “loyalty” based on the Messiah’s “good tidings,” and (c) refusing to be affected by the “terror” waged by opponents. The imagery is military-athletic (as then and now, of one piece), with the military aspect uppermost in this context. 18

When the exhortation comes to a close, Paul comes back to these same themes: (i) the clarification of the alternative “heavenly citizenship” oriented to the saving work of the Messiah (3:20–21, which clarifies its source and security, not its homeland or destination; Paul’s theological vision is consistently next-worldly, not other-worldly); (ii) the call to “stand firm” is the primary implication of the declaration of Messiah’s final, global victory, involving the subjection of all things, including the Roman imperium (4:1); and (iii) the need to “contend/fight together” in a posture of unified Messianic disposition (4:2–3). Other closing comments also round out this fundamentally christo-political exhortation: (a) Messianic citizenship takes the posture of celebrative rejoicing “in the Messiah” (4:4), that is, in the deliverance that the Messiah has secured, in contrast to the civic/imperial festivals of celebratory rejoicing over the salvation of Caesar. In Philippians, “rejoicing in the Messiah” is parallel to “boasting in the Messiah” (1:26; 3:3) or “putting one’s confidence in the Messiah” (1:14; 3:3), and has a strong political edge. (b) Forbearance (non-retaliation) even to hostile opponents can and must be displayed, because final vindication through the Messiah is near, and to whom claims for justice can be deferred. (c) Anxiety (4:5; cf. “fear/terror” of 1:14, 28) can be let go of in recognition of the “guarding of hearts and minds” by “the peace of God” (4:6–7), another military image, and parodic word play on both the imperial pax Romana and the Roman garrison guarding the city itself. (d) Finally, the pursuit of civic “virtues” must continue, but through a discernment ever cognizant of their Messianic redefinition, as mediated by Paul (4:8–9).

This discourse on “the practice of Messianic citizenship” comes in two main parts (1:27–2:18; 3:1–4:9), interrupted by “travel talk” (2:19–30) pertaining to two co-workers. Even this apparent interruption contributes to Paul’s argument on Messianic citizenship by putting forward two supreme models of Messianic patriotism and life-risking soldiering. Both parts have as their centerpiece, and their primary foundation, two exemplary paradigms of “the practice of citizenship”: that of the Messiah (2:6–11), and that of Paul, who seeks to embody the path of the Messiah (3:2–14; e.g. doulos in 1:1; 2:7; cf. 1:20), and whose example only leads to a reminder of its foundation in the loyal act of the Messiah (3:18–21). And after each declaration of Messianic deliverance, both of which emphasize the Messiah’s cosmic dominion (2:9–11; 3:20–21), the practical consequence is a combination of reassurance and call to steadfast loyalty (2:12–16; 4:1).

John Toews has impressively unpacked the counter-imperial force of the Messianic declaration in chapter 2: the Messiah’s enthronement drama (2:5–11) is a direct parody of imperial pretensions and claims, not a narrowly theological treatment of Christology for right doctrine. Rome is no less a head-on target in chapter 3. 19


After the apparent digression about travel plans (2:19–30), Paul in chapter 3 resumes the discourse on Messianic citizenship. The words of Paul’s resumption (3:1), however, have caused interpreters such great difficulties that they have resorted to all kinds of explanations of the apparent incoherence in Paul’s argument. 20 Once it is recognized that part two of the exhortation (3:1–4:9) recapitulates the earlier exhortation in different terms (while still drawing on its patterns and words), the entire letter becomes eminently coherent, and the problems associated with 3:1 evaporate. 21

The traditional, and prevailing interpretation of chapter 3 is that Paul is suddenly introducing a new topic, targeting specific theological threats or “opponents,” even “agitators,” within the broader Christian community, if not within the Philippian assembly itself. Importing the agenda of Galatians (and 2 Cor. 10–13), the most common opinion is that Paul is now primarily attacking a “judaizing” threat within the church, namely, “false teachers” who are seeking to impose strict law observance on Gentile converts, including the practice of circumcision. It is thus thought that Paul is trying to expound his doctrine of justification by faith against “works of law,” in the same manner that he is in Galatians.

But Philippians 3 in fact recapitulates (thus constituting “the same things,” 3:1b) what has been Paul’s consistent concern throughout the letter, namely, to clarify the distinctiveness of Messianic identity and practice for a persecuted, suffering, and (somewhat) fractious community. Paul essentially uses his own citizenship story to address the critical issues that his readers face in Philippi, namely, the pressure of Roman imperial authority against their own allegiance to the Messiah, and especially the insidious draw of Roman values and the obvious attractiveness of Roman citizenship (for success and comfort, let alone survival). He thus first presents his own case on the basis of his primary, Jewish identity, which is now redefined through the Messiah (3:2–11). Of course, it is important to clarify this Jewish identity first, since Messiah’s people is a redefined expression of God’s elect people of old, in complete continuity with it as its climaxing fulfillment. Paul remains a self-identified Jew to the end; non-Jewish adherents of the Messiah become attached to the root of Israel as, in effect, honorary Jews (cf. the gloss in Romans 11:17–24). The purpose of the chapter, then, is to lay the groundwork for ensuring the readers’ own steadfast citizenship and loyal trust (faith) in the Messiah in Roman Philippi, whatever the consequence (4:1).

The section comprising 3:2–21 is the longest, most closely argued passage in the letter. At issue is the establishment of a Messianic identity and citizenship, which involves a call to a focused and exclusive loyalty to the Messiah, who is the intimate of any loyal follower (3:8–12), whose own fidelity is the ground for an alternative citizenship identity of “justice” (3:9), who is above any other, and who will reign supreme in the universe, exalting and redeeming his beloved (3:20–21). This Messianic citizenship cuts two ways: first it redefines membership and citizenship in Israel (3:2–11; “we are the circumcision”); but secondly it means the renunciation of imperial Roman claims, and the privileges, statuses, allegiances, practices, and values that accompany that citizenship (3:18–21). The climax is one of the strongest direct hits against Caesar and the Roman empire in Paul’s writings. 22 The chapter takes up the themes of the Messianic drama (confession) of 2:6–11 in two significant ways. First, Paul’s own story becomes an illustration of the “mindset” and practice that it represents, especially in the narration of his divestment of assets and status toward solidarity with Messianic suffering as the necessary path to exaltation and to the final prize (3:4–14, 15–17). Second, the climax of this section takes up the themes of the Messiah’s world-wide victory and dominion, while putting the readers’ own story of humiliation to exaltation (resurrection) within that framework (3:20–21). Paul’s story of negation and divestment relative to his prior status in Israel (3:2–14) becomes the set-up and the point of analogy for the Philippians’ own story of the “practice of Messianic citizenship” (1:27) in their own context (3:15–21). This carefully argued clarification of Messianic citizenship, with its assurance of final Messianic victory, becomes the foundation for the most crucial appeal of the letter: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, . . . stand firm in the Lord” (4:1; cf. 1:27), the antiphonal counterpart to the parallel exhortations, “Rejoice in the Lord” (3:1; 4:4), and “boast in the Messiah” (1:26; 3:3).

The initial alternative definition of citizenship against contrary understandings of Israel is set up with exceedingly sharp, ironic, and insulting caricature (3:2–3), a set-up that builds toward the primary point of re-evaluating Roman citizenship, status, practice, and values (3:18–21). But this latter Roman citizenship cannot be similarly named and assaulted directly without the consequence of Paul’s immediate execution. Paul must remain somewhat subtle and coded on that front, for obvious reasons (cf. also 2:15, Roman society as a “corrupt and depraved generation,” also somewhat indirect).

The climax to which the chapter has been leading entails a clarification of Messianic citizenship, along with its supreme benefits (resurrection) and ultimate scope (world-wide reign). Messianic citizenship stands over against those whose practice (“walk”) of citizenship is an “enmity to the cross of the Messiah,” and oriented to a rival savior and lord—unmistakably Caesar, for the first readers (3:18–21). What Paul specifically targets by way of caution is the pursuit of worldly status and privilege made possible through Roman citizenship (should one have or gain it), along with its characteristic values of consumptive self-aggrandizement and excess, and general moral bankruptcy (3:19). Such a pursuit and practice is a de facto denial of the meaning of the cross of the Messiah (cf. 2:5–11), which means a solidarity with the lowly (1:1; 2:3–4, 7). Paul appears to be identifying both a general practice in the surrounding culture (cf. 2:14–16), and an insidious tendency that has affected (or could easily affect) the corporate life of the assembly of the Messiah (cf. 1:27–2:4; 2:20–21; 4:2–9). And just as the Messiah was the primary paradigm for the argument about citizenship in 1:27–2:18, now Paul becomes the primary paradigm, in imitation of that of the Messiah. While the logic of his argument is that he is renouncing any serious identification with his own Roman citizenship (just as the Messiah renounced claims to his status by birthright), he can hardly say so specifically here, without serious risk to his life. His nominal Roman citizenship, even though it really meant nothing to him, is what is keeping him alive by a thread.


Some clarifications are appropriate by way of conclusion and reflection.

(1) Despite the quite palpable counter-imperial rhetoric in Paul (in effect, Paul out-empires the empire), it cannot be said that Rome is the chief or sole enemy to be overcome in Paul’s theological rhetoric. Paul perceives the powers at work in the universe to be far more subtle and pervasive than to easily pin-point by referencing only one obvious exemplar. Nor is it true that Paul is motivated by some kind of built-up resentment focused on Rome and the glories of the Greco-Roman cultural world more generally (as F. Nietzsche would have it). 23 Paul is not simply hostile to or envious of Rome. Rather, the point is that the good news proclamation (euangelion) of the Messiah when experienced, articulated, and proclaimed by its own inner reality and logic simply runs against alternative totalizing allegiances and polities, whether public or private, political or religious.

(2) It is interesting that Paul refuses to dignify Rome by naming it specifically, even when directly referring to it. This is not just because it would be too dangerous to do so (which is so especially in the case of Philippians; cf. 1 Cor. 2:6–8). Rather, Paul is hesitant to give Rome to too much credit; it is merely one face of a much deeper crisis. Nor does he wish Messianic assemblies to be able to simplistically find an easy focus to their own resentment; the powers cannot be so easily particularized. Paul’s move, rather, is to place even Rome under the ultimate sovereignty of God (e.g. Romans 13).

(3) For Paul there is no separation of the personal, relational, religious and political. And Paul’s primary practical political undertaking is focused on drawing people into and nurturing communities that celebrate (rejoice in) an alternative citizenship through the Messiah, a citizenship in anticipation, a citizenship in exile; a citizenship with a nurtured mental disposition, and a corresponding practice. Paul’s politics is not one of direct assault on powers such as Rome. But Paul’s politics is also not one of mere detachment and idle waiting. As J.C. Beker puts it, in Paul there is a crucial combination of eschatological passion and practical sobriety. Paul’s vision of a world in the process of transformation through the past and imminent intervention of the Messiah is the very driving force of his “political” work in establishing and nurturing alternative assemblies as “the beachhead of God’s reign.” 24

(4) Paul’s Messianic politics is of a decidedly “patriotic” variety. That is, Paul expects those welcomed into the saving sphere of the Messiah to be fervently loyal to it, to the point of death. As a result Messianic loyalty cannot co-exist with an equivalent zealous loyalty to any other dominion, human or spiritual. The notion of a co-existing “dual citizenship” is foreign to Paul’s thinking. Life doesn’t carve up easily into that dualism (or co-dependency). For Paul, there is only “heavenly citizenship,” which means that its members, those from Israel and the nations, can only be “world-citizens” (Phil. 2:9–11; 3:20–21). Paul rejects an identitarian particularism, whether statist or ethnic (Phil. 3:2–6), but equally a coercive, universalizing Roman citizenship (Phil. 3:18–21).


  1. John E. Toews, Romans, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA; Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2004), 345, 368; see also pp. 38–42, 46–48, 62–63, 318, 342, 349–49 362. This thesis could be extended further in reference to 8:18–39; 11:25–36; and 15:14–32.
  2. Now published as John E. Toews, “Righteousness in Romans: The Political Subtext of Paul’s Letter,” in The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People: Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens, ed. Jon Isaak (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 209–22; and “The Politics of Confession,” Direction 38, no. 1 (2009): 5–16.
  3. It is a delight and privilege to be able to honor my first significant mentor in biblical scholarship through this essay. I am deeply indebted to John for inspiring and drawing me into the field of biblical studies, and more specifically the study of Paul.
  4. See e.g. Toews, Romans, 29–32.
  5. Two significant early contributions in this area include Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), Dieter Georgi, Theocracy in Paul’s Praxis and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).
  6. The term “Jew” itself is misleading: it translates “ioudaios,” that is, a “Judean,” identified as much by land and polity as religion. For a discussion of this term, especially in its ethno-political dimensions in the time of Jesus, see esp. Shaye Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 69–106, 132–39.
  7. For various forms of this reading of Paul’s politics, see e.g. N. Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994); R. Horsley, ed., Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997; R. Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation (Harrisburg, PA: TPI, 2000); R. Horsley, ed., Paul and the Roman Imperial Order (Harrisburg, PA: TPI, 2004); Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006); John D. Crossan and Jonathan Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (New York: HarperCollins, 2004); Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004); Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of the Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008); Marcus Borg and John Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon (New York: HarperOne, 2009). For a cautionary reaction, see Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).
  8. See my “The Politics of Paul: His Supposed Social Conservatism and the Impact of Postcolonial Readings,” Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 1 (2003): 82–103.
  9. As claimed in the testamentary memoirs of Caesar Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The Things Accomplished by the Divine Augustus), #8. Available in the public domain, in Latin, Greek, and English translation. See “Monumentum Ancyranum” from the Loeb Classical Library at LacusCurtius: <>.
  10. See e.g. Bruno Blumenfeld, The Political Paul: Justice, Democracy and Kingship in a Hellenistic Framework, JSNT Supp 210 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 12, 301. Blumenfeld notes: “The letter to the Philippians provided certain key ideas and terms that clued me to the notion that Paul thinks politically.” He thus turned to Romans to find the “coherent theory” that informs the usage in Philippians. He concludes: “Paul’s views in general, and particularly in the letters to the Romans and the Philippians, are structurally, argumentatively and conceptually coherent with Classical and Hellenistic political thought.”
  11. Richard Cassidy, Christians and Roman Rule in the New Testament (New York: Crossroad, 2001), 86–87.
  12. See Toews, Romans, 318: “The text supports Paul’s anti-imperial stance in the letter. Despite the high view of governmental office, it constitutes a clear rejection of self-divinizing Caesars.”
  13. For relevant discussions, see e.g. Craig de Vos, Church and Community Conflict: The Relationships of the Thessalonian, Corinthian, and Philippian Churches to Their Wider Civic Communities (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999); Peter Oakes, Philippians: From People to Letter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Michael Tellbe, Paul between Synagogue and State: Christians, Jews, and Civic Authorities in 1 Thessalonians, Romans and Philippians (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 2001).
  14. This history became especially apparent to me while I lived in the Philippines, whose name also reaches back to the conqueror after whom Philippi received its name, and whose land has also experienced successive colonization, both territorial (Spanish, American, Japanese), and now economic.
  15. Note for instance the “accusations” in Acts 16:21–24; 17:6–7: Paul is accused of preaching a Lord who is rival to Caesar, and for promoting a non-Roman pattern of life, indicating that the author of Acts is aware of the critical political tensions involved in Paul’s work in Philippi.
  16. Monon axiōs tou euaggeliou tou christou politeusthe. The opening adverb monon (“only, alone”) both has interjectory force (cf. Gal. 5:13), and qualifies the main verb politeuesthai (“live as citizens, practice citizenship”).
  17. The TNIV rectifies this somewhat, with its translation “as citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” For the strong nuance of the verb politeuō as significantly involving citizenship and a public manner of life, that is, conduct appropriate to a/the polis (city-state), see e.g. Cohen, Beginnings of Jewishness, 125–26, 136.
  18. See E. M. Krentz, “Military Language and Metaphors in Philippians,” in Origins and Method, ed. B. H. McLean (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 105–27; T. Geoffrion, The Rhetorical Purpose of the Political and Military Character of Philippians: A Call to Stand Firm (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1993), 35–36, 66–67.
  19. This reading of Philippians 3 depends significantly on that of N.T. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Horsely, Paul and Politics, 173–81.
  20. Why the “finally” (Greek loipon, literally “as for that which remains”)? What are the “same things” being treated (the command to “rejoice,” or something else)? Why is the repetition said to be “not irksome” (RSV; “no trouble,” TNIV; for the sake of their “safety?” Why such a grammatical shift from 3:1 to 3:2? For those defending the integrity of the letter, the explanation includes interruption and delay; many also posit a conflation of distinct letters to Philippi by a scissors and paste method, leaving the awkwardness of 3:1.
  21. It is also now evident that 3:1b represents a kind of customary “hesitation formula,” explaining how the repetition (“same things”) that occurs in 3:1a and that follows in 3:2–4:9 does not involve a “negligence” or “laziness,” but will assure their safety. The common translation “trouble” or “troublesome” for oknēron is unattested elsewhere; the word literally entails a “shrinking” and thus a “negligence” or “hesitation.” See especially J. Reed, Discourse Analysis of Philippians: Method and Practice in the Debate over Literary Integrity (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 257–58.
  22. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” 173.
  23. For a discussion of Nietzsche’s view of Paul and Rome, see Taubes, Political Theology, 76–88.
  24. J.C. Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 135–81, 303–49.
Gordon Zerbe is Professor of New Testament at Canadian Mennonite University. This article is based on a presentation at the John E. Toews Symposium, Fresno Pacific University, March 28, 2008.

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