New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 2:3-4, More Wonderful (And Problematic) Thoughts
Paul is proceeding from strength to strength, at least with his memorable selection of words, as he speeds towards the great example of Christ in 2:5-11. He is hoping that at least one of the five powerful nouns of v 1 resonates with his hearers: παράκλησις (literally an “intimate call” but something that is an encouragement, consolation, comfort); παραμύθιον (a synonym of the preceding; encouragement or consolation); κοινωνία πνεύματος (fellowship in/of the Spirit); σπλάγχνα (affection or compassion); οικτίρμοι (mercy or merciful concern). Of course, the intent is for the hearers or readers of the epistle to say, after hearing each word, “That is me!” or “I have that one!” Their merciful moral center will lead to levels of unanimity, single-mindedness and, to coin a word, joint-souledness (σύμψυχοι) for the sake of the Gospel.
Considering Others (2:3-4)
But now, just before launching into an exposition of the example of Christ, he urges his hearers not just to have certain virtues but to act in certain ways. Let’s give both verses and then translate (3-4):
μηδὲν κατ’ ἐριθείαν μηδὲ κατὰ κενοδοξίαν ἀλλὰ τῇ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ ἀλλήλους ἡγούμενοι ὑπερέχοντας ἑαυτῶν, μὴ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστος σκοποῦντες ἀλλὰ [καὶ] τὰ ἑτέρων ἕκαστοι.
“Not (acting) in a spirit of factionalism nor in a conceited search for glory, but in humility considering other folk surpassing themselves/oneselves; with each person not looking to their own affairs but [also] each person to the affairs of others.”
The translation is made a little rough because of the confusing introduction of plurals where you would expect singulars and vice-versa, as well as the uncertainty of whether to translate the “also” in the second part, but the sense is clear enough. Christian ethics not only involves living in unanimity with each other but in considering others as “surpassing” or “superior to” oneself. It is this aspiration which I think is, at the same time, laudatory and problematic.
Looking First At the Words
Paul’s five nouns in verse 1 are neatly complemented by three more here in verse 3. Whereas the virtues in verse 1 were things to be emulated and were what one might call “soft virtues,” the three special words in verse 3 present two things to be avoided and only one thing to imitate. First, nothing should be done κατ’ ἐριθείαν. If we only knew what that meant. . . Oh, every translation has to arrive at a meaning for ἐριθείαν, but here are some translations: “selfish-ambition; self-interest; strife; rivalry; faction; contention.” The “literal” translations give us “rivalry,” but the translations de jour want to take us in the direction of “ambition/selfish ambition.” I rendered an earlier appearance of ἐριθεία as “desiring a fight/seeking a feud,” and feel inclined to follow the “rivalry/fight” approach here. So, we do nothing out of a contentious spirit—which makes sense because of Paul’s earlier emphasis on unity.
Nor ought disciples to do things κατὰ κενοδοξίαν. This is much easier to render—literally an “empty glory” or “vainglory” or “conceitedness.” Empty arrogance/vain search for glory—all of these could capture part of the word. So, don’t fight; don’t seek the glory. That these are in the general ballpark is confirmed by the next noun that describes what one should have: ταπεινοφροσύνῃ, humbleness of mind. This is the only appearance of ταπεινοφροσύνη in Philippians, but it appears thrice in Colossians and a total of eight times in the NT.
An expression of one’s humble-mindedness is that you “value others above yourselves” or “think of others as better than yourselves” or “count others more significant than yourselves” (v 3). We see the consistency of meaning even though word choices in various translations are different. This is both a beautiful and damaging thought. The beauty of it is that it inculcates into the minds of believers a spirit of self-sacrifice and self-giving. One will not be able to understand, much less appropriate, Christ’s gift of self for us if we don’t practice it towards others.
But the problematic nature of it is also evident. A person who lacks confidence, or feels themselves something of a fraud or imposter (a very common experience in life), will, by considering others “better” than themselves, not exercise the necessary assertiveness in life to find, remain in and luxuriate in one’s special location and gifts in life. That is, my experience of living has convinced me that it is very difficult to find the place of one’s maximum effectiveness and satisfaction in life. One of people’s biggest regrets in life is that they haven’t acted intelligently or forthrightly to pursue their own interests, even when those interests beckoned insistently. One can “justify” ignoring the call in one’s own life because one just wants to “consider others better” or “more important” than oneself, but I think the words of Paul can have a deleterious effect on realizing of one’s own personal growth. That is a very 21st-century way of phrasing things, but most of us live in the 21st century.
Perhaps with this in mind, we ought to look at verse 4 as Paul’s gently backing down from the somewhat extreme statement of considering others better than oneself in verse 3. This verse suggests that one only ought not to look out for (the nice visual verb is σκοπέω, which can be rendered “scope out”) the interests of the self, but also for the interests of others. But that little word “also” (καὶ) suggests that one is to look out both for one’s own interests as well as those of others. This seems like a much more balanced and helpful approach to interests than to consider others “better” or “surpassing” oneself. Whereas the approach of considering others’ interests along with one’s own gives a kind of pleasant and affirmative feel to the Christian faith, an emphasis on considering others to be better is, I think, fraught with all kinds of psychological minefields for new and prospective believers.
As we now head into the Christ hymn we find Paul as we might that expected: eloquent, passionate, insightful beyond measure, optimistic, energetic but also prone to rhetorical excesses that, if taken at the value of the words themselves, are fraught with debilitating psychological and spiritual hurdles. In sum: how can Paul really affirm the preaching of those with whom he passionately disagrees? How can he decide to stay alive, when that isn’t in his power? How can we feel comfortable about the concept of unity if it means trying to be “of the same mind/soul with people” when we know that doesn’t really work? Should we really consider others better than ourselves or only coordinate with ourselves, as we look both to their interests and ours? Though many might consider these questions to be nit-picky or not even relevant to the letter, I see them as getting at the heart of the psychological structure of Phil 1:1-2:4.
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