Get ready, we’re about to dive into some deep conversation about a passage of scripture and the implications of that passage. Specifically, we’re going to dig into Philippians 1:27. Here’s the Greek:
Μόνον ἀξίως τοῦ εὐαγγελίου τοῦ Χριστοῦ πολιτεύεσθε, ἵνα εἴτε ἐλθὼν καὶ ἰδὼν ὑμᾶς εἴτε ἀπὼν ἀκούω τὰ περὶ ὑμῶν, ὅτι στήκετε ἐν ἑνὶ πνεύματι, μιᾷ ψυχῇ συναθλοῦντες τῇ πίστει τοῦ εὐαγγελίου
Here’s a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.
Here is the NRSV translation of Philippians 1:27:
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,
Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ so that– whether I come and see you or whether I remain absent– I should hear that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, by contending side by side for the faith of the gospel,
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel
Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;
When you read these, you may not see a whole lot of difference, but the differences are there – especially on this verse.
Here’s my translation of Philippians 1:27:
Only worthily of the Gospel of the Christ to live as a citizen! In order that whether I came and saw you all, whether I am being absent I would be hearing about you, that you all are standing fast in one Spirit, one life force you all are struggling/contending along with for the faith of the Gospel
(I tried to take a more literal translation of the passage, which is why my translation is a bit unpleasant to the ears of an English-speaker.)
The biggest difference between my translation and the others is in the translation of πολιτεύεσθε.
The word is an imperative verb that can be translated as to live one’s live or to live as a citizen. What’s important to note is the context. Throughout the first chapter of this letter, Paul is writing in a way that is poking his finger at the Roman authorities and Roman culture. From the very beginning of the letter Paul is presenting a theology that is counter cultural. He flips the notion of honor and shame on their head. He is writing from prison and is talking about how he is free. He describes himself as a slave of Christ. He is writing to a church in a city that is loyal to Caesar – it had all the rights and privileges of an Italian city and was home to veterans who were loyal to Rome.
I translate πολιτεύεσθε as citizen because of this context. Likewise, πολιτεύεσθε is an imperative. This means it is a command. Paul isn’t just offering some nice words of personal advice here – it’s a command. Paul is saying – Philippians, pay attention, you are to live as a citizen of the Gospel of Christ!
The implications of this are huge. Paul is essentially saying that you, dear Philippians, aren’t to be concerned with being Roman citizens and all the rights and privileges that come with it. Instead, your allegiance and your loyalty are to Christ – that is who your citizenship is with.
When we see most of the English translations, we don’t get any sense of the idea of citizenship. However, even the Lutheran Study Bible, which uses an NRSV translation does note the following:
These words refer to life in community and its responsibilities. Christianity is more than a religion; believing in Christ is a way of life.
When we read these translations, it sounds more like a suggestion (leaving out the imperative) on how to live. These translations loose the impact of this statement by Paul. They make it sound more like the personal relationship with Christ, rather than the counter-cultural message that Paul is promoting.
If you think I’m way off on this, go back to the King James version which begins:
Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ
This loses the impact of what Paul is writing even more. Now it’s just about conversation, not even living one’s life. Could it possibly be that good old King James might not have wanted his subjects to hear Paul saying that their citizenship is in Christ, not the empire? Considering that the translators for the King James completing miss several Greek words in this translation, there’s a good chance.
So what’s the point of all of this? It’s that often we lose some things in our translations. Too often, our English translations make Christianity to be just a personal relationship thing with Jesus. In an American context, that fits nicely with our ideas about individualism and freedom. The problem with that is that individualism and personal freedom are relatively new ideas – ideas that Paul would have no idea about. I argue that Paul is intending the idea of citizenship here to emphasize that impact and responsibility of following Christ – it’s not just a personal relationship. It goes far beyond that. Christ is who we swear allegiance to. Because we follow Christ, there are responsibilities that we carry out. Being a citizen is more than just a suggestion on how we live our life. It’s much deeper than that.