Sunday, April 23, 2017

Seminary PL3b: Leadership and the Philippian Hymn

After finishing the series on The Pastor as Leader, Manager, and Administrator, it occurred to me that I missed two posts that I might have made. This is the first, which I will back fill into the series.
1. Experts on Philippians have long wondered if Paul is quoting something in 2:6-11. [1] There are a number of places in Paul's writings where the word "who" introduces a few verses that seem distinct from the flow of the text and have a somewhat poetic structure (e.g., Col. 1:15-20; Rom. 1:3-4).

There would seem to be three main possibilities: 1) Paul himself goes poetic, 2) Paul is building on something he himself wrote elsewhere, or 3) Paul is building on something someone else wrote at some point. If this is a distinct composition, there is then the debate about whether it is a poem or creed of some sort or whether it was a hymn of some sort that was sung (cf. Col. 3:16).

My personal sense is that Paul is quoting something that someone else wrote at some point. The key reason I and others think so is 1) there seem to be additions to a basic poetic structure and 2) it is just possible that Paul's additions qualify the original composition. In other words, the additions suggest that Paul is quoting something and the qualifications suggest that he was not the original composer.

2. The literary context of the hymn is Paul's plea for the Philippian church to be unified. We know from the end of the book that there were at least two female leaders in the church that were at odds with each other, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2). Unity in the church is all the more important when facing opposition from the outside world (1:27-28).

At the beginning of Philippians 2, Paul tells them to be like-minded, to be in one spirit and one mind (2:2). This unity should naturally result from them being united in Christ, from them sharing the same Spirit, and from them all experiencing Christ's love for them (2:1). So Paul tells them not to act on the basis of selfish ambition or conceit (2:3). They should actually think more about the benefit of others than their own interests (2:4-5).

The so called Philippian hymn fits directly into this train of thought. [2] Paul is asking the Philippians to have the same attitude that Jesus demonstrated throughout his life, from pre-existence to death on the cross. [3] Although he had the highest status, he did not exploit that status, but took the disposition of a servant at every point. So also should they.

3. Numerous different attempts to identify the poetic structure of the underlying poem have been suggested. Those who oppose the idea that it was a pre-existing hymn use this as an argument in their favor. However, it is quite easy to identify the poetic structure of two first stanzas:

In the form of God existing,
     not plunder he considered equality with God,
     but he emptied himself,
Having taken the form of a servant.

In the likeness of mortals having become,
     and in shape having been found as a mortal,
     he humbled himself,
Having become obedient to death [even the death of a cross].

You can see that the first and fourth line of these stanzas have a clear parallelism. The third line of each has a finite verb that is the core of the sentence.

The meaning is arguably that although Jesus was equal to God, he did not exploit that status. By contrast, he emptied himself of the rights and privileges of that status and instead behaved like a servant. Then even as a mortal human being, Jesus humbled himself to die for others.

Many think that the line, "even the death of a cross," is a line that Paul himself added to the hymn. The cross was of course the cruelest and most shame-filled punishment the Romans administered, and it was a key focus of Paul's preaching (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23). Those of us in the church--including leaders--should be willing to take the humblest of roles for the benefit of others.

4. The final stanza is much more difficult to identify, making us wonder if it was added at a second stage of the hymn's history. Here is a stab:

Therefore, God highly exalted him
     and gave him the name above all names [that at the name of Jesus]
     that every knee should bow [in heaven, on earth, below earth] and tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord [to the glory of God the Father].

The material in brackets is material that I am suggesting Paul might have added to the original hymn. The details are not important for this article. What is clear is that those who humble themselves and take the form of a servant now stand to be exalted by God when the kingdom comes.

5. In a previous post in this series, we mentioned "servant leadership" as an approach to leadership. The phrase, "servant leadership," was especially coined by Robert K. Greenleaf who wrote an essay called the Servant as Leader in 1970. Here is a quote from that essay: "The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first."

For Greenleaf, the servant leader is servant first, then leader. This is different from the leader who is leader first, then servant. Good leaders have to be directive sometime, but a servant leader is servant even when he or she is being directive.

There is a tendency for power to go to a leader's head. The less likely the leader is to be removed from a leadership role, the less accountability, the less transparency, the more likely that power will go to the head of the leader. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

By contrast, Jesus says in Matthew 20: "The rulers of the Gentiles act like tyrants over them and their great ones are overbearing over them. It must not be this way among you, but whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant."

Does culture play a role here? No doubt some cultures expect more autocracy than others. But every culture also knows what a servant is, and whatever that might look like for each culture, is what Christian leaders must be. The bottom line is that the leader is working for God and God's people, not for him or herself.

[1] The classic study of this hymn is that of Ralph Martin, A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:6-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship (Downer's Grove: IVP Academic, 1997).

[2] Ernst Käsemann's version of Lutheran theology would not let him draw this obvious conclusion. Unable to bring himself to the conclusion that Paul was asking the believers at Philippi to follow the example of Christ, he took this hymn as a celebration of Christ largely unconnected to Paul's train of thought.

[3] James D. G. Dunn gives a minority interpretation when he suggests that the hymn does not pre-suppose the pre-existence of Christ (Christology in the Making). He interprets the first stanza as a contrast with Adam. Although Adam grasped after equality with God, Jesus did not. While some still see a contrast with Adam here, few have followed him on the question of pre-existence. There are other ways to read the hymn that do not involve pre-existence, but that would take us beyond the purpose of this article.

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