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Paul on Humility: Some Inconvenient Lessons from Recent Scholarship

Theologians and ethicists, like pastors and parents, ought to strive to make concepts as simple as possible and implications as clear as possible. University of Münster New Testament professor Eve-Marie Becker warns us, however, not to put the Apostle Paul’s understanding of humility too quickly into a convenient moral box.

I’ve recently finished a slow read through her short book (150pp.) on Paul on Humility (Baylor/Mohr Siebeck, 2020). Becker labours to make clear that humility in Paul, especially as seen in the first dozen verses of Philippians 2, must not be narrowed and solidified into an ethical virtue—such as “I practice being small”—nor a particular moral implication—such as asceticism or martyrdom—as was too often done in the teaching of the early church.


Instead, Paul’s genius is to set out humility as a governing idea, a concept, a mind-set—what she technically calls a dianoetic virtue. Humility—literally, “low-mindedness”—is an attitude the individual Christian should deliberately adopt toward others in the Christian community. And it is an attitude defined not in the abstract but by way of Christ’s own example—and Paul’s.


What is at stake in this intense little discussion? Quite a lot, both theologically and practically. And also…inconveniently.


Becker sees Paul commending humility as the “mind of Christ,” as exemplified in Jesus' willing adoption of the role of servant/slave. Humility therefore is virtually equivalent to to zōē Christos—the very life of Christ.


This mind-set Paul himself also exemplifies. As he has already made clear in this epistle, he, too, is a slave on behalf of the Philippians and he, too, is willing to serve them to the utmost, in the very shadow of death.


Humility is not, again, a splendid virtue one ought to cultivate in oneself alongside excellencies such as courage, or patience, or even love. Humility here instead is a considered choice of position relative to the rest of the community. It is “an ethical attitude that must be conceptualized from the standpoint of the individual and related to the fellowship in a polity” (148).


The point of humility is not one’s own aretē, one’s own moral excellence. Humility is for the community, to benefit the Church by fostering like-mindedness, cohesion, and mutual service. “The goal . . . is communitarian and political rather than individual: the goal of humility . . . is the unity of the community” (148).


Becker draws on early twentieth-century exegete Ernest Lohmeyer and even more on theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to underline “lowly-mindedness” as “accepting responsibility for other human beings” and even “for entire communities or groups of communities” (Bonhoeffer, Ethics). Humility is “not . . . an ethical command or moral appeal but rather . . . an expression of a form of existence” (149) within and for the ekklēsia of God’s own people.  


This “continual mutual higher-regard” (148) aims at the welfare of the community, the establishment of justice, and the glory of God (so Phil. 2:11). We humble ourselves and prefer each other not to become somehow just “better people” in some abstract sense. We do so in order that the community will be better, so that koinōnia will be improved, and so that shalom will be realized.


Paul is teaching us an intensely practical concept. Take stock of yourselves, as Christ did; lower yourselves to the posture of service to others, as Christ did; and serve the community all you can, as Christ did.


Rather than simply affirming certain established—or eventual—modes of morality (such as “being not-proud” or seeking the life of a monk or martyr), Paul “opens up new paths of thought about communitarian life” (150). No wonder Becker points to Bonhoeffer as a reliable expositor of Paul's meaning, as one of Bonhoeffer’s key themes is following Jesus wherever Jesus may lead us, not simply reducing Jesus’ teaching to a code and then following that. (I muse upon Bonhoeffer at chapter-length here, if you’re interested.)


How, then, does this outlook, this deliberately adopted mind-set, make a difference? In so many ways as to be, as I suggested, truly inconvenient.


In this Christlike “mind,” I notice myself getting riled up in conversation and I then instead take myself in hand (with a prayer for help to the Spirit) to settle down and truly, patiently listen. Just that: honouring the other person enough to stifle my impulse to take control and to prefer instead that they continue. (Had to practice this with fair spouse just yesterday. Humility begins at home.)


In this emulation of Paul’s example, I refuse to envy someone shining in a spot in which I would prefer to be shining. Instead, I commend and pray for that brother or sister—to the blessing of the community, the furtherance of the gospel, and the increase of the glory of God.

In this attitude of the willing slave, I see an untidy kitchen and instead of cursing my housemates as irresponsible louts I just set to work on it. (I mention this as a strictly hypothetical situation.)


In this sharing of the outlook of Jesus, I tithe to my local church as generously as I can because I expect that someone in the community needs this money more than I do—and so ought to have it.

In this lowly-mindedness, I wait for a fellow churchmember to find his way toward a conclusion in a committee meeting rather than rushing him to it and embarrassing him in the process. (I might even find that he comes out differently than I thought he would—and with a better idea.)


In this servant posture, I gladly direct conversation to the encouragement and edification of others, rather than deftly keep drawing it back to me and my interests.


In this preference for others, I support styles of worship or mission that suit those others better than they do me. I want the community to thrive more than I want to do what I want.


Humility therefore isn’t best thought of as a particular ethical achievement. We can thus escape the old conundrum of it being a virtue one loses the instant one recognizes it in oneself. Humility instead is consistent “lowly-mindedness” (the literal translation of “humility” in Philippians 2), a willingly adopted outlook on the world and especially on one’s place in the Christian community that looks like Jesus serving the Church.

As such, and unlike humility-as-individual-virtue, we can stare at it in ourselves, consider how well we're doing in putting others' interests ahead of our own, and take deliberate steps to conform ourselves more fully to the examples of Jesus (and of Paul) in the life of our local church. With all humility, so to speak, I should frequently and soberly assess whether and how much I am truly seeking a lower place and elevating others.

Lowly-mindedness is the form of existence of the life of Christ, the very shape of the life of Paul. It’s just the correct and necessary way of being in the Church, if the Church is truly to be single-minded, loving, and effective in following our Lord. Without humility, the Church will be none of those things—and is today none of those things without it.


Humility isn’t an onerous code to follow, and then to check off in self-satisfaction at the end of a particularly glorious day of ethical heroism. Humility is just what Paul says it is, and just what Christ shows us: How can I lower myself and serve the community here and now?


That, my friends, will hurt.


That, my friends, is the only way to help.


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