But when we look at this passage closely, we see that Paul was saying that faith was the basis of our communion, of our acceptance of each other with our differences. Paul was speaking about us breaking down our divisions, so we could build a common fellowship of service toward each other.
This way, Paul’s gospel of world renewal could be lived out in our Christian groups. The gospel here wasn’t individualised justification, but group justice.
In evangelical circles, what we have taken from this chapter, is firstly that the Jewish traditions are wrong. Those who practice such traditions are to be shunned. This view became stronger in the church after the merger of the church with the Roman Emperor, Constantine. Faith then became a matter of politics, and the dispossession of others. The Jews became a target, and the excuse was that they were heretics in their religious traditions. The synagogues were burnt and the Jews were persecuted. This “displacement theology” continued, on and off, up until the end of WWII.
Next, we have taken from Paul a doctrine of personal salvation by faith. Philippians 3 is one of our leading passages for this teaching. We have said that Paul was teaching about our personal salvation. So, from this passage, we have built a Christianity about our individualistic salvation. We have claimed that this is Paul’s teaching on soteriology, his gospel. We have then narrowed down Paul’s salvation teaching to this claim, that he was speaking about our individualistic faith and how we go to heaven when we die.
This is the opposite to what Paul was saying in Philippians. If we build a doctrine of the individual from this passage, which is exactly what we have done, we are building the thing Paul was writing to refute. It was this individualism that Paul was writing against.
The situation was, as the book of Galatians says, that certain had come from James, in Jerusalem.
(Whether James sent them is another matter.) The people had gone around to all the churches, and were teaching that Jewish believers in Jesus, could not fellowship with gentile believers. They were told, that unless the gentiles were circumcised, and became Jewish believers first, they could not be accepted as equal in Christ. They claimed that Christ was a Jewish faith, and they had to become Jews first, before they could claim salvation in Christ.
They were teaching a doctrine of nationalism. It is not unlike the faith that many believe today. We believe in Christ, but also believe in our national and racial culture. The way we dress, speak, eat, and otherwise conduct ourselves. We sometimes claim that these matters are important for sanctification. One way or the other, we respect people, or not, based on whether they look like us, behave like us. Our fellowship and calls for justice, our concern for the welfare of others, our integration together in life, is often based on our national, racial, cultural or colour identity.
This nationalism of the Jews was individualism. They wanted to maintain control over the faith, just like we often do today. They wanted Jerusalem to continue to be the main pilgrimage centre, where all the money, esteem and control was focused. They couldn’t let the gentiles take this from them.
They had to be first in the gospel leadership worldwide. It was this individualism that Paul was writing against.
Our interpretation of Paul was later extended to the Catholics in the Reformation. Till today, our rejection of all Catholics, because of their different traditions, is a tenant of faith among many evangelicals. To reject Catholics is an eleventh commandment, often the first commandment, that overrides the other commandments. And the reason is the same. Politics. It is to secure protestant control over our governments and wealth. We have misread Paul deliberately, until we no longer notice our mistake.
Principalities of Self
It is clear, that in all of Paul’s letters, he wasn’t writing against the traditions of the Jews. He himself was a Jew, and he kept those traditions. He still went to the temple, and shaved himself after making vows, according to the Jewish customs. He still circumcised Timothy, because of his Jewish parentage.
The thing that Paul was against was the individualism. He was against the Jews insisting that the gentiles become like them. He was against them not accepting others with their different traditions.
This refusal of community, where we accept one another from our diverse backgrounds and cultures, was a form of individualism that is still common today. Paul was against it.
The reason why Paul was against this was because it undermined the gospel. Paul explained this in Colossians 2. There, he called our insistence on religious traditions, the rule of the “principalities and powers.” In Paul’s letters, principalities and powers, were all those things that divided people and created injustice, instead of fellowship. They were principalities and powers, because they were a self-centred rule in our hearts, bringing destruction to the common good. God has come to renew the world. These powers of division and self-centeredness must be brought down.
“Christ is now the head of all principalities and powers and we are complete in him.” Christ fulfils what religious traditions point to. If we have Christ, we have the fulfillment of the traditions. Instead of arguing about circumcision and water baptism, whether, for example, we are baptised as an infant, or an adult believer, we have the real circumcision and the real baptism of the heart. This inward circumcision and inward baptism unites us as believers to care for each other. This heart transformation defeats the powers.
The point here is that we can treat others as having fulfilled those conditions. We don’t have to divide based on our different traditions. Christ has fulfilled them, and made us complete in him. We can therefore receive each other. This was Paul’s point in Philippians. His point was one of community, not our individualistic faith in Christ.
What Paul counted as dung, was his former individualism and the promotions it provided for him.
His former advantage in the Jewish nationalistic faith, or his advantage as a Roman citizen, he counted as dung, so that we might follow Christ, serving his body, the whole church community. This is what he was telling the believers at Philippi.
Philippi was a major Roman city, of great advantage to special Roman people, some of whom were now coming to faith. What was once a great privilege for them, they would now have to lay aside, to embrace fellowship with the poor and slaves of the empire. Paul was giving himself as an example of the new community and our service towards each other. Paul’s main example was in Philippians 2, where Christ laid aside his privileges and served, laying down his life, even becoming a slave who died on a Roman cross.
Community Brings Justice
Why did Paul insist so much on this common fellowship? His message in Galatians was the same. It was when Peter withdrew from a common table fellowship with the gentiles, that Paul sprang into action to correct this. What was his reason? What was Paul thinking?
Paul was thinking about justice. He wanted to break down nationalism, and put in its place a people of justice. He knew that justice was only possible if our divisions were broken down, if we came together at one table and treated each other with acceptance and love in Christ. This open fellowship would provide care for each other.
The reason we divide isn’t really because of faith. It isn’t really because of holiness or godliness. It is because of self-centredness. We separate because of resources, to maintain our position in society and our privileges. This is the topic of Paul in Philippians and why the whole letter focuses on service. Faith, for Paul, is our door into family, into service, into becoming followers of Christ amongst the whole people of God.
And this is exactly the position of Jesus in the Gospels, where he taught the Pharisees. The topic there was the same. They had shut themselves off from the poor, saying it was because of their traditions. They said it was for godliness. Jesus denied this. He wasn’t denying their Jewish traditions, but the way they used these traditions to shut out the poor and the sinner from service and care.
So, why is Paul focusing on building one table of believers, to serve each other? This is where we get to the centre of Paul’s thinking. It is because this, to Paul, is the gospel itself. Paul’s gospel was a gospel of world renewal. It was a gospel where soteriology is the healing of our communities and relationships.
It was the same gospel Mary preached, in Luke 1. “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the poor from the dunghill.” It is a gospel where we follow God, who condescended to serve his enemies and the outcast from society. Mary’s gospel was one where the rich condescend and build one family with the poor, healing society and bringing us together as one.
This is the gospel that Isaiah spoke of. This is the healing of our nations. This was what Paul was preaching. Christ had forgiven us, and brought us into the family of God by faith, so that we might become followers of God, who came down to our level to lift us up. His purpose is that we treat each other this way, and break down the divisions and injustices that satan uses to tear our world apart and destroy it. Instead, we become repairers of these breaches and restorers of our relationships and broken societies. This is salvation, or soteriology, to Paul, the renewing of our creation.
Correcting Our View
Therefore, if we use Philippians 3 as a passage to build our doctrine of individualistic soteriology, or individualistic salvation, we are in fact a long way out from what Paul was saying in that passage. We are, in fact, building a doctrine opposite to his intentions.
If we build a doctrine of individualism from Philippians 3, and use it to separate from others, and not care about justice for our neighbour, we have defeated Paul’s whole gospel message. Paul was speaking about leaving behind his former teaching of nationalism and building instead a community of faith, which included all believers, from different traditional backgrounds… to build a life of justice together, that would be a sign to the nations of the inbreaking kingdom of mercy to renew the world. This is Paul’s soteriology.
This also points to our role in the world as believers. Our concern is not to maintain our national strength in the word, but to be a voice for the injustice that our national divisions and wealth structures create for the vulnerable. Paul’s message locates the character of the church in the world.
This is what we, as evangelicals, should be reflecting with passion and action.
The evangelical church must lay aside our fascist tendencies, our marriage to power, and become like the servant Christ in the nations. We are to take up our cross to serve, not use our nationalism as a cross for others.
And we must stop breaking fellowship with other believers because we disagree with them, or with their traditions. This pride of our faith must cease. This divisional nature of our denominationalism, for our personal advantage, must go. We are to receive each other in love, and eat and work together, as one body, for justice, mercy and love among all people, of all nations.