One of the unexpected joys of being a professor in one institution for so many years is having former students graduate and then come back to become colleagues. Not that I’ve ever been a terribly hierarchical or formal person to begin with; right from the start, I ask my students to call me by my first name, unless they hail from a culture in which they would get in serious trouble with their parents for doing so. But it’s especially gratifying to see how my students have grown into professionals with whom I can partner in the educational enterprise.
I’m reminded of this as I read Philippians. In some of his letters, Paul has to assert his pastoral authority. He might do it relatively gently, as when he claims the role of spiritual “father” to his readers. But in Philippians, Paul doesn’t write that way; he writes as one friend to another, as partners in the work in the gospel.
Both the form and the content of the letter show this. In form, the epistle is a “friendship letter” whose style people of that time and culture would have recognized. This was a world in which friendship wasn’t simply a matter of affection or affinity. It was a civic virtue: the good of the state rested on relationships of loyalty and commitment between its citizens.
If I were to put it into contemporary English, friendship letters typically began with the sentiment, “Long time, no see,” followed by “I’ve been thinking about you, and I trust you’ve been thinking about me.” And at some point might come the ask: “I’d really appreciate if you would do this or that.” We can see each of these elements in Paul’s letter.
Of course, Philippians is not merely one friend dropping a “Miss you” note to another. There is, as one would expect, plenty of pastoral and moral encouragement and instruction. But even that is built on the presumption of loyalty and commitment. The content of the letter, right down to its vocabulary, reinforces the theme of friendship and unity.
One striking example of this is the unusual number of words Paul uses that, in the Greek, begin with the prefix sun– (or syn-), which means “with” or “together.” Think, for example, of the English word “synergy.” It’s made up of two Greek roots (sun + ergos) that, when joined, literally mean “work together.” We might refer to people as our “co-workers” and use the term loosely to mean anyone who works for the same company. But when Paul uses the word sunergos (e.g., Phil 2:25; 4:3), the sense runs deeper: The work is hard, and we’re all in this together. So important is the “together” that Paul apparently makes up some words by sticking sun– at the beginning of them (we’ll see these later).
Paul seems to be concerned about two things. On the one hand, the church is facing some pressure from the outside. Philippi was proud of its status as a Roman colony, and part of that pride was demonstrated in the imperial cult: the worship of the emperor as a god. People who believed that there was only one God, one Lord — and the emperor wasn’t it! — were bound to run into trouble with neighbors who saw them as dangerously unpatriotic.
On the other hand, Paul’s greater concern was the pressure from within. From where he sat in prison, he had heard of tensions in the church, growing rifts between people he loved. Near the end of the letter, he asks two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, to reconcile. The name “Syntyche” (see the prefix again?), ironically, derives from a Greek word meaning “to meet together,” as when two friends happily run into each other by chance.
Apparently, she wasn’t living up to her name.
For the sake of the gospel and for the sake of their community, Paul wants these women and the rest of the church to cultivate their unity, to have the humility of Christ, to stop letting ambition prevent them from having each other’s back.
It’s a much needed word for our time, when the toxic mix of pandemic and politics has fed so much divisiveness even within families and churches. Paul doesn’t scold; he doesn’t thunder at the Philippians from on high. Rather, he writes as a friend appealing to their mutual loyalty, and in a way that says, We’re in this together.
And it’s on that basis that he urges them: Do yourselves and me a favor — stick together.