As the West goes ever faster through the process of de-Christianization, the Church approximates ever more the situation of the Church before Constantine, God’s people on earth challenging and converting the pagan culture and empire with which it was often at odds. Indeed, although we often think too romantically about it, the Church before Constantine endured persecutions great and small, official and unofficial, sporadic and sustained, local and universal.
Much of the persecution Christians suffered resulted from the necessary rejection of their prior identities as Roman citizens or subjects for the sake of their new identity in Christ given sacramentally in baptism. No longer could they honor and worship the pagan gods, and no longer could they worship the image of the emperor. They had one citizenship, in heaven, from whence they awaited a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. There was as yet no unity of throne and altar, of cross and crown. While endeavoring to remain on good terms with their fellow men and women and obeying the laws where they could, Christians could serve and worship no other Lord than the God of Israel incarnate in Jesus Christ. And so Romans regarded them as atheists, since they rejected the Roman gods, and thus also as traitors, as the Roman gods guaranteed the health of the empire.
St. Paul confronts these issues directly in Philippians. Philippi was a Roman colony full of veterans, many of them bona fide Italians, settled there on two main occasions by Antony and Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus), men who had spilled and shed copious blood for Rome. Jewish presence in the city was minimal at best. In Acts 16, Paul and his companions go to the river in search of a synagogue and find only a handful of women, one of whom is Lydia, a “worshipper of God,” meaning she was likely a Gentile who followed the God of Israel in faith and morals without undergoing formal conversion. There are no Jewish men there, certainly not enough to maintain a formal synagogue. Archaeology has also failed to find a synagogue in Philippi.
In sum, Philippi was a thoroughly Roman city. Indeed, Acts records that the precise accusation made against Paul and Silas concerned their Jewish ethnicity and the threat it posed to Roman identity: “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
It is thus not surprising that the earliest Christians in Philippi were in all likelihood Romans facing serious persecution for turning their backs on Rome in turning to Christ. St. Paul, himself a Roman citizen and now a prisoner of Rome for turning to Christ, refers to their struggles in his letter to them. It is thus not surprising that unity is a major theme of Philippians, for persecution can drive Christians together or drive them apart, or both, as the community is sifted as some fall away and others strengthen in their resolve. And thus Paul, likely intending to evoke the military image of the Roman testudo, the formation in which legionaries would pull together united in a defensive posture, shields all around, like a tortoise: Like good soldiers, he hopes to find them “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.”
Who are these opponents? Although Paul talks a lot about his Judaism and Judaizing in the letter, it is likely he means Romans. Again, there are few Jews in Philippi and there is no evidence of a Judaizing mission to Philippi like the one for which we have evidence in Galatians. There are indeed Romans loyal to Rome, however. Thus, when Paul writes, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have,” it is likely that Paul is referring to his own Roman imprisonment. Like them, he struggles with the Roman authorities.
Why, then, all the language about his Judaism in chapter three? Many scholars think St. Paul is writing in a subtle code, encouraging them to leave behind their Roman identity for the sake of Christ in the same way he left behind his strict, Pharisaic Jewish identity. Although St. Paul was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews” and “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless,” he forsook his identity for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord.” These Philippian Christians are supposed to do likewise, and so Paul reminds them, “Our citizenship is in heaven”—not in Rome—“and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ”—not any earthly Caesar, who also routinely received the titles of Savior and Lord.
So too is the situation now with us Americans. Too often we commit idolatry in conflating God and country, seeing America as a new Promised Land and ourselves as the chosen people. But as Paul found his identity in the Jew Jesus Christ, not in Pharisaic Judaism, and as the Philippians were to find their identity in Jesus Christ, not in their Roman citizenship, we must find our identity in Jesus Christ, and not in our status as Americans, especially as culture and government seem to turn ever more against us.
This in no way means abandoning our struggle for justice for all, especially the most vulnerable, like the unborn and the solitary elderly, for to do so would be to forsake love of neighbor. Nor does it mean abandoning our fight to preserve the Church’s liberty, for to do so would be to compromise our ability to love our neighbors. (Paul appealed to Caesar, after all.) But it does mean, I think, adopting the stance of the ancient anonymous author of the famous Letter to Diognetus, read so fruitfully alongside Philippians:
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country, or by speech, or by dress . . . while they dwell in Greek or barbarian cities according as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the land in clothing and food, and other matters of daily life, yet the condition of citizenship which they exhibit is wonderful, and admittedly strange. They live in countries of their own, but simply as sojourners. They share the life of citizens, they endure the lot of foreigners. Every foreign land is to them a fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign land. They marry like the rest of the world. They breed children, but they do not discard their children as some do. They offer a common table, but not a common bed. They exist in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They spend their existence upon earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and in their own lives they surpass the laws. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and they are condemned. They are put to death, and they gain new life. They are poor, and make many rich. They lack everything, and in everything they abound. They are dishonoured, and their dishonour becomes their glory. They are reviled, and are justified. They are abused, and they bless. They are insulted, and repay insult with honour. They do good, and are punished as evildoers; and in their punishment they rejoice as gaining new life therein. The Jews war against them as aliens, and the Greeks persecute them; and they that hate them can state no grounds for their enmity . . . In a word, what the soul is in the body Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and Christians through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not of the body. Christians dwell in the world, but they are not of the world.
Leroy Huizenga is Chair of the Department of Theology and Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. This essay is based on a talk given at a recent meeting of the Christian Leadership Center’s Convocation on Christian Unity.
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