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5 Biblical Elements of a Missional Spirituality

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In a way that resembles Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul calls the Philippian church to a missional spirituality. In particular, he exhorts the church to pursue holiness that will foster mission advancement; to give generously for gospel partnership; to pray for missional purposes; to endure suffering faithfully as a gospel witness; and to live in missional unity.

In sum, Paul’s teaching to the Philippian church about missional spirituality is fleshed out in his teachings on the following themes:

  • missional holiness
  • missional giving
  • missional praying
  • missional suffering
  • missional unity

1. Missional Holiness

Paul’s reference to the Philippians as saints (Phil 1:1), his commendation for their partnership in the gospel (Phil 1:5), his recognition of their heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20), and his effusive language in describing them as “my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (Phil 4:1), all provide clear indication that he acknowledged them as Christian family members, citizens of the heavenly kingdom.

Their standing in the Lord, however, did not excuse them from pursuing holiness through obedience to God. Paul’s exhortation to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27) is thus followed by no fewer than eighteen commands relating to the Philippians’ progress in the faith.28 This expectation of believers’ pursuing holiness through obedience underscores the call for congregational spirituality.

Even Paul’s own spiritual progress was not merely a personal endeavor but rather the fulfilling of his duty as a disciple of the Lord in the service of the church. Alec Motyer rightly notes that Paul:

… has previously shown himself as a zealous individualist [in Phil 3:4‑6] all out for his own spiritual growth. The prize-winner dare not pause to help others over the hurdles. But see here another side of the apostle, when he weeps with care for people, and when he takes pains to lead the Philippians in the way of Christ. Individual care for one’s own spiritual progress must keep in touch with pastoral responsibility for the souls and welfare of others.

Paul is thus able to encourage the Philippians to undertake the same duty as disciples by using his life as a model: “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters” (Phil 3:17). Paul also encourages the Philippians to follow others in the congregation who exemplify the same spiritual traits: “Keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil 3:17).

Such congregational spirituality also includes a missional emphasis, as developed in Philippians 2:14‑16. In this passage Paul commands the church to stop complaining, because such negativity “affected the moral life of the church and its witness to the world.”30 He instead calls the church to live with character, to purity and blamelessness, which he prays for at the outset of the epistle (Phil 1:9‑11).

Paul then stresses the church’s “moral distinctiveness” as key to its ability to serve as lights shining in a dark world (Phil 2:15).31 Richard Melick points out, “By their lives, the Philippians were actually holding fast to the gospel. By so doing, their lives also became the measuring rod and illumination of the world around them.”

2. Missional Giving

One of the key gauges of spirituality throughout all Scripture is the relation between people and their possessions. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” noting that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:20, 21).

Disciples are told not to worry about the most basic needs in life lest it divert their attention from their primary focus, the kingdom of God (Mt 6:25‑33). Thomas Schreiner notes how excessive concern for personal security reflects a deficit of personal and corporate spirituality: “Worrying about wealth uncovers a lack of trust in God’s fatherly care, and even more fundamentally a desire to live for oneself rather than for the kingdom of God.”

Paul seems to have embodied the teachings of Jesus well in this matter, as stated in Philippians 4:11‑12: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Such sacrifices notwithstanding, Paul was blessed by the financial contributions of the Philippian church, using this instance to instruct them about missional giving. The church had supported Paul’s missionary labors with financial gifts on at least three occasions (Phil 4:15‑17).

Their initial gift made quite an impression on Paul, as they were apparently the only congregation contributing to his missional labors: “I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only” (Phil 4:15).

Paul notes that their giving is not merely a matter of parting with their own finances but also of becoming conformed to the image of Christ. In Phil 4:10 he describes their giving as a demonstration of their “concern” (phronein) for him, a word Paul uses throughout the epistle to “point out proper Christian attitudes in following the mind of Christ.”

Moreover, he notes their giving was a spiritual blessing far beyond material gifts. O’Brien notes, “Paul did not covet the Philippians’ gifts; instead, he had his heart set on the compound interest that kept accruing to their account (v. 17), that is, their ongoing spiritual progress and God’s blessing in their lives by which they would continually grow in the graces of Christ until the parousia.”

In all this, Paul is confident the Philippians will experience more than just his appreciation for their generosity: “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).

This statement underscores the uniquely Christian relationship Paul shared with the Philippians, as social conventions of the day would otherwise have placed Paul in their financial debt. In this case, however, Paul is not in debt because God is the one who repays, thus highlighting the fact that “Paul and the Philippians share a friendship founded, directed and sustained by Christ. Their giving and Paul’s receiving happens in and through Christ … Indeed, from this Christ-focused perspective it is not always clear who is giver and who is receiver.”

Christians who are in the habit of giving to the mission of God can therefore enjoy Christian partnership with the people of God and will, in due time, be rewarded by him.

3. Missional Praying

Missional spirituality is seen also in the congregational prayers of Paul and the Philippian church. Paul’s prayers are filled with gratitude for the Philippian church in light of their partnership in the gospel. He prays for them neither in passing nor out of mere duty, but “in all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy” (Phil 1:3‑5).

Moreover, he prays specifically for their spirituality, namely that their “love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best” (Phil 1:9‑10). Paul thus reminds the Philippians that they are being prayed for and are encouraged to grow as disciples in answer to his prayers; yet he also recognizes that he is in need of their prayers as well.

The Philippian Christians most certainly prayed that Paul would be delivered from prison, and he seems to address this matter when he states his confidence that “through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance” (Phil 1:19).

However, the scholarly consensus is that Paul took heart in the Philippians’ praying for something much more significant than his physical deliverance, namely, his ability to persevere in the faith during such a trying time. This judgment is based on understanding the term sōtēria in its full eschatological context, not simply as a reference to deliverance from present trouble.

Thus Paul not only asks for their prayers, but also trusts that his divinely appointed future somehow rests in their prayerful hands. Frank Thielman provides a helpful observation in this regard: “Although it grates against Western notions of the autonomy of the individual, Paul did not conceive of sanctification and ultimate salvation as solely private enterprises. Individual Christians need the prayerful intercession of their brothers and sisters for their spiritual well-being so that they ‘may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ’ (1:10).”

Thus, such congregational and missional prayer is critical to Paul’s own spirituality and to gospel advancement.

4. Missional Suffering

The book of Philippians also points to the sober reality of missional suffering. Paul refers to the theme often, even mentioning his own imprisonment four times in the first chapter (Phil 1:7, 13, 14, 17). Paul himself is in prison because of his commitment to the mission, and he is grateful that the Philippians have stood by him (Phil 1:7).

Many did not, as Paul relates how he suffered persecution from fellow evangelists: “The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains” (Phil 1:17).

While the exact nature of their attempt to rub salt in Paul’s prison wounds is contextually vague, the very fact that gospel evangelists would leverage Paul’s situation to their own advantage is disturbing. Kent Hughes states the feeling of indignation well: “The sheer cussedness of this is astonishing.”

Paul’s reaction, however, sidesteps the personal affront altogether and instead focuses attention on the ground gained through the spread of the gospel: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Phil 1:18).

This is not a noble attempt at positive thinking, nor making the best of a bad situation. Paul’s use of the term rejoice resembles that of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:11‑12) and thus demonstrates that Paul “can and does submit his own personal interests to those of the wider horizon of the gospel.”

Likewise, Paul’s frequent usage of the terms rejoice and joy in the letter shows that joy is not only a dominant theme in his life, but also an attitude that should characterize Christians—in all situations, even missional suffering.

Thus Paul can hedge between the choice of living or dying. Knowing as he does that Christ will be honored either way, and admitting that being in the presence of Christ is far better (Phil 1:20‑21), he ultimately prefers to live “for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me” (Phil 1:25‑26). Paul endures suffering for the sake of the gospel and the sake of God’s people, thereby adding to their joy in the Lord.

By putting the interests of the Philippians above his own, Paul can easily transition to asking members of the Philippian church to do the same. Indeed, his clarion call for the church to live worthy of the gospel urges them to stand firm in unity, strive together side by side, and not be frightened by their opponents (Phil 1:27‑28). The conflict was real and nerve-racking, but Paul reminds the church that “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil 1:29).

Paul embodied missional suffering, and it was necessary for the Philippian church to embody it as well.

5. Missional Unity

An often forgotten but major aspect of missional spirituality is church unity. Church unity is important for many reasons, but one key reason is that unity affects the church’s mission.

Paul integrates the missional nature of church unity into the whole of the letter, often linking it to other missional matters. For example, missional unity is linked to missional giving, which displays and extends missional unity and partnership (Phil 1:3‑8; 4:10‑20).

Missional unity is similarly linked to missional praying, which also displays and extends the unity and partnership (Phil 1:3‑11, 19‑26). Missional unity is likewise linked to missional holiness, as the unity and holiness foster both the shining as lights in the world and the commitment to the word of life (Phil 2:1‑16).

Missional unity is particularly stressed in Paul’s charge to live worthy of the gospel (Phil 1:27‑30). He urges the Philippians to stand firm “in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27). His concern for unity is highlighted against the backdrop of potential divisions, including a conflict between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2).

Paul’s solution is to call the Philippians to look not “to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil 2:4). The call to displace one’s sense of being in the right for the sake of unity is counterintuitive to the ways of the world, but kingdom disciples have an example in the King himself, who being in very nature God … humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil 2:6, 8)

Thielman correctly avers that Jesus’ “equality with God led him to view his status not as a matter of privilege but as a matter of unselfish giving.” This act of selfless service was the ultimate act of humility and became Paul’s model of humility in the service of congregational unity as he called the Philippians to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil 2:3).

Although humility is not often on display in heated church disputes, kingdom citizens are called at every stage of life to embrace the beatitudes and corresponding reversal of human values that Jesus expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Disciples thus avoid disunity in the church when they depend on God, live meek lives, and seek to be peacemakers; consequently, the church does not negate its witness to the world by internal divisions becoming public scandals.

Paul therefore reminds the church of the importance of unity in its mission: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky” (Phil 2:14‑15).

Taken from Spirituality for the Sent edited by Nathan A. Finn and Keith S. Whitfield. Copyright (c) 2017 by Nathan A. Finn and Keith S. Whitfield. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

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