“Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” Paul says in Philippians 1:27. Some translations even say “live your life” or “lead your life.” The conduct with which Paul is concerned, however, is not general behavior but specifically the manner in which the disciples conduct themselves as citizens of Philippi. The Greek word Paul uses here is politeuesthe (πολιτεύεσθε). It’s easy to see in the first five characters the similarity to our English word “politics.” In the context of Philippians Paul is using this word to refer to how the believers participate in the civic life of the city where they live (“city” in Greek is polis [πολις]). Paul will remind the Philippians later in the letter (3:20) that their citizenship (politeuma [πολίτευμα]) is not primarily located in the earthly polis they inhabit but in heaven. As a result, he expects them to conduct themselves—to politic themselves, in other words—as citizens of that heavenly city.
Paul spells out the shape of that politic in Philippians 2:6–8, which is part of a larger passage (vv. 6–11) that is often referred to as the Christ hymn. Paul introduces the hymn in verse 5 by writing to the believers, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” and then he explains what that mindset is:
who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
These verses demonstrate an obvious descent in Jesus’s status with each succeeding line. Jesus begins at the highest possible position (“in very nature God”) but does not regard that high position as something to be exploited for his own gain. Instead, Jesus empties himself of that power and becomes human—and not a powerful human, but a lowly one. Finally, when he becomes obedient to the point of death, he does not die a noble, respectable death. He is executed as a criminal in one of the most shameful ways possible in the ancient world—publicly crucified on a cross for everyone to see his defeat and humiliation.
But the Christ hymn doesn’t end there. Because of all this, Paul says, God “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (v. 9). God vindicates Jesus’s pattern of self-emptying by reversing it. As a result, Paul patterns his own ministry after this ethic of self-emptying, and he expects his churches to politic themselves in the same way (see 1 Cor 4:12–13; 2 Cor 4:8–12; 12:1–9).
The church is still called to a particular politic—one that has little to do with worldly political parties and much more to do with an ethic of giving away our own power and privilege.
Of course, any mention of the word “politics” in the American church can quickly cause division. Even so, however, the church is still called to a particular politic—one that has little to do with worldly political parties and much more to do with an ethic of giving away our own power and privilege. Although politics of this kind may certainly end up influencing how we vote in our civic elections, a politic of self-emptying is much more pervasive than mere support of a particular candidate or party. A politic of self-emptying asks us to look at the power dynamics that exist in our lives—individually, in the church, and in society at large—and ask ourselves where we have power and privilege that we can give away for the benefit of others in the same way that Christ emptied himself of power on our behalf—not just during campaign or election season, but every day.