Scripture: Philippians & Military Communities

In Philippians 2:1-13, Paul exhorts the Christians of Philippi to be of one mind and one love. “Be uniform in your loving and thinking,” we might paraphrase. This kind of language would appeal to Christians in this place because very many of them were either veterans themselves or children of military veterans.

The town of Philippi is where Julius Caesar’s avengers, Mark Antony and Octavian, eventually chased at least two of the former Roman Senators that assassinated him, Marcus Junius (“you too?”) Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. In October of 42 BC, the battle of Philippi raged between a number of Roman legions loyal to one side or the other. The victory went to the avengers, and the assassins and their troops were annihilated. It was customary at the time for entire legions to be raised and retire together and if their service was especially noteworthy, they were given plots of land and some money, the equivalent of modern veterans benefits. Octavian became Caesar and retired most of the 28th Legion there in Philippi not long after the battle. Twelve years later, he retired more veterans, this time from his secret service unit, the Praetorian Guard.

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is usually dated in the late 50s AD, less than 100 years after Octavian’s personal security detachment were retired there. Roman citizens were at the top of the social hierarchy in the provinces, so it is very reasonable to assume the land stayed in their family, and may have even been inhabited by the very next generation of those who had known the Roman military establishment so well. In fact, the town was ruled by two military commanders called duumviri appointed by those in the imperial capitol, and was known informally as a “miniature Rome.” Any church that grew out of there after Christ’s life (which ended only a generation after those soldiers were given land) would have identified very strongly with the military culture and customs of the time.

Paul is writing to a military town, and he knows it.

This community would have known what it meant to be of one mind, one love, and even one allegiance (which would have been to the commander/s in chief). Thanks to Roman roads across the empire,┬áthe Roman military was very mobile. Soldiers in most any unit would have been familiar with tactics used in provinces known to be rather hostile, like Judea, where it was standard operating procedure to be dominating and in charge. When Paul admonished the descendants of this community to consider not being the top dogs, but to rather “consider others better than yourselves,” it might not have been the easiest pill to swallow. To a community accustomed to godlike status, to forcibly bending the insubordinate indigenous knee, Paul’s letter insisting that “every knee should bend”… and “every tongue confess that Octavian Jesus Christ is Lord” probably carried a little sting.

To us today, Paul’s address must not be read as being to just another house church on the outskirts of the empire. Paul is not writing to to some relatively homogenous group that happens to be a bit more northern than the rest. Paul is writing to a military town, and he knows it. He uses language soldiers are intimately familiar with; obedience all the way to death, belligerent conceit, fear and trembling… It is not the only place that soldiers have a part in the story of our faith (Peter famously needs the centurion Cornelius to decipher a dream God gives him in Acts 10), and it will not be the last.

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