TLDR: Philippians 4:2-9 is about conflict resolution in a Christ centered way rather than general ethical advice.
Note: I’m fairly sure I wrote a post about this a few years ago. I do not know where it went.
(4:2-3 GST) )I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.
(4:4-7 GST) Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say: rejoice! Let your reasonableness be made known to all people, the Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(4:8-9 GST) Finally, brothers, whatever is honest, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever causes affection, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy take account of these things; and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice and the God of peace will be with you.
Translated from Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Php 4:2–9.
The Dominant Interpretation of Philippians 4:2-9
The passage of Scripture above is often (in the majority of commentaries) interpreted as a paraenesis or a collection of general and miscellaneous ethical advice. There are good reasons for accepting this view. Several Biblical scholars accept this view (Bruce, Barth, Cohick, O’Brien, Fee, and Witherington) as does my pastor, whose judgment about such matters is very well reasoned. The take away of this perspective is essentially that Paul wants us to think about positively virtuous and God honoring things (which elsewhere he clearly does say to do). I totally agree with the ethical idea that comes from the majority interpretation. It is Pauline advice, it is reasonable advice, it is advice that accords with the sort of meditation that has been prescribed throughout the Christian tradition for centuries, and it seems to be advice that helps people who receive cognitive psychological therapy (thinking about different things to manage bad thought patterns). So don’t hear me being mean about people who see the passage in the more traditional way.
Instead, I simply think that there is a more compelling and rhetorically sensitive interpretation that makes the letter itself more cohesive. I’ve become convinced that Philippians 4:2-9 is an attempt on Paul’s part to resolve a conflict in the church at Philippi. The passage above is Paul’s application of generally wise advice on Christian living (4:4-9) to the specific issue at hand (4:2-3): a conflict between two notable members of the church leadership. It is notable that David Alan Black suggests a similar point of view for verses 4:2-7 in his book Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.
Why would I think such a thing?
In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul urges two women to start working together or at least to come to have “the same way of thinking” that Paul has urged elsewhere in the letter which is summed up in the humility of Jesus demonstrated in the gospel story (see especially 1:27-2:11). So, Paul rhetorically hooks this section directly to 1:27 and 2:1-5.
It may not matter, but Paul does use the present tense of the word translated above as “I am urging” which could mean one of two things:
- Paul is performing a speech-act (like saying, “I pronounce you husband and wife”) wherein Paul is urging, in that very sentence, for them to get along.
- An introduction to a new line of thought: “I am urging, in what follows, that you be of one mind.”
If we take 4:2-3 to be the end of Paul’s instruction about getting along (option 1), then the rest of the passage is simply general moral and spiritual advice. But if 4:2-3 is introducing what follows (option 2), then we have Paul’s vision of Christian conflict resolution. There are four main reasons for seeing 4:2-3 as an introduction to the material that follows all the way until verse 9.
- It allows this closing material to fit with the apparent thesis statement of the letter (1:27-30).
- It helps make sense of the fact that several of the things Paul says to “take account of” are characteristics of persons, not mere ideals to be comprehended.
- Paul’s instructions all result in something pertaining to peace.
- It is generally true that the New Testament Epistles are more concerned with group cohesiveness than individual spiritual disciplines (although group cohesion almost always relies upon the spiritual health of the members).
So the practical take away from this slightly shifted perspective is that Philippians 4:2-9 is first and foremost a rhetorically crafted set of instructions for having civil and charitable disagreements amongst God’s people and it is secondarily a set of instructions about joyful living.
Here is what the conflict-resolution interpretation of the Philippians 4:2-9 would look like:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: rejoice!
In order for these women to get along, Paul challenges them to rejoice in the Lord. The idea here is that when dealing with disagreement, if both of you think about the reasons that Jesus Christ has given you to rejoice, then this will set the tone for your own approach to the issue.
Let your reasonableness be made known to all people.
The idea here is that being open to reason and dealing with a conflict in a winsome and evidence based way not is not only the right thing to do, but it goes a long way in preserving the public image of the Christian church for its members as well as for its opponents. In other words, think about the issue enough to talk about it well, have a discussion and deal with it in a self-controlled and moderate manner. Paul will go on to tell them not to let the issue occupy their minds constantly as human beings are wont to do.
The Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
Conflict has a tendency to create anxiety or annoyance. So, remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ is near, Christians ought to pray when they have conflict rather than letting the distress of the difficult occupy and distract their minds until it foments into a terrible argument. Instead, it is better to pray and move on.
Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Paul then says that if these steps are followed on both sides, that the peace of God, which is impossible to grasp for outsiders, will protect their hearts and minds from needless divisions, grumbling, and conflict. Do note the focus on peace in relationship to the conflict mentioned above and that it comes up again at the end of verse 9.
This address is the biggest piece of evidence against the conflict resolution interpretation (that and the fact that as far as I can tell, no commentary agrees with me). But I think it is possible for his advice to Euodia and Syntyche, to include an address to the whole church. This makes sense when you consider that 4:2-7 are already in a letter which was to be read aloud to everybody.
whatever is honest
Assuming the conflict-resolution-interpretation, whatever is true would mean whatever integrity and fidelity is apparent in somebody’s life. This makes sense when one considers that αληθη can mean “honest, truthful, or right.”
whatever is noble
Here, then, Paul is challenging them to think about whatever it is in somebody that is noble of character. Presumably, the focus is on character traits which pertain to achieving honorable status in God’s kingdom and in society in general. There is also such a thing as ascribed honor, but σεμνος seems to me to be focused on character traits, not offices or birth.
whatever is just
Whatever this person does toward God and man that is right.
whatever is pure
The word pure carries weight of ancient rites of sacrifice and ceremonial washing that pertained to the difference between the realm of the gods and man. In the case of Christians this word was transformed into a word about the status of those who have been received into God’s family and into a word about morality rather than about ritual cleansing. So, think about that this person is cleansed by Christ and that this person refrains from this or that sin that they used to do.
whatever causes affection
Whatever causes you to have warm feelings toward somebody, think on these things. Think about their laugh, their kindness to others, a moment when they were pitiable before God and contrite about their sins, and so-on.
whatever is commendable
Here, the idea is concerning that which others speak highly of them about. What are they good at? What moral traits go before them? Do they dress well, manage their family well, are they eloquent, and so-on? Think about these things.
if there is any virtue
If anything in them lines up with the classical virtues: courage, prudence, justice, and self-control. Think about these things.
and if there is anything praiseworthy
Does this person have any trait that makes them a figure worthy of public appellation, not just private conversation? Are they a patron, a benefactor, a broker, of good blood? In the case of Christians, are they a member of a good nation or an important family (yes and yes)?
take account of these things;
Paul wants them to consider all of these factors in one another when they are having disagreements. The practical reason for this is obvious. It allows for rhetorical and dialectical charity in the leadership affairs of those who are “citizens of heaven” (3:20, cf. 1:27).
and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice
Here, Paul is using his gospel message (2:5-11) and his own example (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 and 2 Corinthians 11-13) to show them how to deal with conflict with those inside the group. Paul is reminding them to that only by putting these things into practice will they make progress, since Paul is a designated representative of the Jesus whom they mutually claim to be their Lord.
and the God of peace will be with you.
The take away here is that once these habits of thought are put into practice, then God’s presence will be manifest or made clear.
Aland, Kurt et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).
Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Liddell, Henry George et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).