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A STEP TOWARD AN EVANGELICAL FRAMEWORK

FOR THINKING AND BEHAVING CHRISTIANLY

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A Paper
Presented to
Dr. Darrell L. Bock
Dallas Theological Seminary

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In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Course
RS102 Summary of Christian Doctrine

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by
Richard Bradley Morris
April 2014
File # 587

A STEP TOWARD AN EVANGELICAL FRAMEWORK


FOR THINKING AND BEHAVING CHRISTIANLY
Problem and Preview
American Evangelicals are known for cultural engagement. But lately they have been
clashing more often with the LGBT community. A number of these confrontations have taken
place just in the last three years: Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day in July 2012 which was called by
Mike Huckabee; the contested appearance of Louie Giglio at President Barack Obamas second
inauguration in January 2013; the ill-stated words of a Duck Dynasty cast member in
December 2013; even the World Vision flip-flop over hiring practices in March 2014. The
common thread to all of these incidents is the raging debate over sexual identity. American
Evangelicals are tasked more than ever to present the connection of their faith with real-world
problems and differences in opinion.
The purpose of this paper is to begin the process of assembling an evangelical
framework for thinking, behaving, and engaging the culture as Christians. The current state of
ethical reflection among American Evangelicals from the pulpit to the pew is enervate. We
believe this is due to two issues: (1) the way Evangelicals handle Scripture; and (2) an
unawareness of biblical and theological building blocksor elementswhich can shape
Christian reflection and behavior. Therefore, in the course of this paper we will reflect upon
some of the tendencies of Evangelicals with respect to Scripture. Then we will discuss some of
the ways Christians have understood normative ethics in the past. After this, we will consider a
small letter of Scripture to argue for three elements that are necessary within an evangelical
framework. Finally, we will test these elements against a true-to-life problem within a local
church in order to see how these elements might impact Christian reflection and action.
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2
Parameters
The intended audience for this paper is mixed. On the one hand, this paper will serve
Christians who feel intimated by the changing cultural milieu of the United States. On the other
hand, this paper will challenge other Christians to refine their approach to tough societal
problems. It is not the intention of this paper to change anyones stance on issues like
homosexuality or abortion; rather, the concern of this paper is to lay the groundwork toward a
comprehensive model for ethics within the in Christ community.
The ultimate goal of our task is happiness or human flourishing.1 Christians believe
that human beings can be truly happy only when they are living in right relationship with God
and neighbor (Matthew 22:3640). And at the same time, Christians believe that rightly ordered
relationships spring forth from a changed personal status granted on behalf of the person and the
accomplishment of Jesus Christ (e.g. Luke 7:3650); the world or a culture must embrace the
risen Savior for it to flourish. Consequently, it is wrong to suppose that the goal of Christian
ethics and cultural engagement is to win back a seat at the table of cultural influence or even to
have laws and rules within society which reflect the Christian communitys ethical standard
influence and new laws are secondary matters to happiness.
Finally, certain terms need definition before the paper ensues. Ethics generically
refers to moral codes, values, principles, or norms used in any particular society based on the
systematic reflection upon these codes, norms, values, and principles.2 Christian ethics more
specifically deals in these same categories but in relationship to the sacred text and sacred
traditions of the universal church: Christian ethics is methodological reflection on the values,
norms, virtues, and purposes of Christian life in ones contemporary context, drawing on

C. Ben Mitchell, Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Students Guide, Reclaiming the Christian
Intellectual Tradition, edited by David S. Dockery (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 58ff.
1

Jan van der Watt, Identity, Ethics, and Ethos in the New Testament (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2006), v.

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Scripture and the tradition of faith.3 Ethical reflection refers to the conscious and subconscious
process one uses to assess truth and valuei.e. the good. In other words, ethical reflection
refers to the massive subtext of human life. It includes how an individual perceives herself, how
a community perceives itself, how the individual and her community perceive the world, read the
Bible, and envision the outcome of obedience and cultural engagement. We can now turn to the
issue of Scripture with these definitions in hand.
Section One: The How of Scripture
Evangelicals are biblicists. The Bible will always be at the heart of an evangelical
framework for Christian ethics. Richard Hays, assuming an evangelical perspective, writes that
normative Christian ethics is fundamentally a hermeneutical enterprise: it must begin and end in
the interpretation and application of Scripture for the life of the community of faith.4 It is
beyond the scope of this paper to provide a defense for Scriptures key role in an evangelical
frameworkthe present concern regards how Scripture is used within an evangelical framework.
Five hermeneutical tendencies of Evangelicals are ill-suited for ethical reflection.
First, Evangelicals develop dichotomies which serve as hermeneutical aides (e.g.
narrative and discourse, the indicative and the imperative, etc.). On the one hand, these
dichotomies enable a reader or a congregation to cultivate a system for appreciating multiple
portions of the Bible. But on the other hand, these dichotomies are unhelpful within ethical
reflection since biblical documents as whole documents had a formative effect upon the
community of faith. If someone appealed to only the Ten Commandments for ethical direction
and ignored the historical events which took place just prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law

Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener, The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and
Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2010), 12.
4
Emphasis original, Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross,
New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 10.

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namely, Gods remembrance and deliverance of his peoplethen she would be ignoring events
which birthed a national identity, community principles, and a defined set of behaviors.
Second and closely related to the previous point, Evangelicals can be guilty of prooftexting. Proof-texting can take many forms. For example, a person standing outside an abortion
clinic could reference Molek, the detestable god of the Ammonites (cf. 1 Kings 11:7). On the
surface abortion seems to be the same as the ritualizing of child sacrifice and murder. But
Christian ethics moves beyond the surface of behaviors, and engages the worldviews which
informed the behavior. One cannot be content with isolated verses, whenonce they are
exploredreveal only a skin-deep correspondence between the biblical world and ones own.
Considering these previous two points, it is paramount that the Bible is read and used in a
holistic manner.
The third tendency of Evangelicals with reference to Scripture is to privatize the
reading of Scripture; personal devotions are prized. An individual usually secluded from others
reads the Bible alone, prays alone, and then listens alone for Godperhaps some Evangelicals
believe this is the meaning of sola scriptura. While there is much to be praised about this
particular form of personal piety, this is a setback and not an advantage in ethical reflection.
Bible reading should be communal and not merely individualistic. Ethical reflection and
application of Gods word must be done in the context of the Christian community. The
community in dialogue provides necessary traditions which serve as guardrails for the
individuals expression of faith.5
Fourth, there is a subculture within evangelicalism which searches for timeless
principles and timeless truths. The Bible does contain timeless truth and principles; this is not the
problem. The problem is when individuals make certain expressions or behaviors associated with
those principles timeless as well. For example, the Scripture exhorts women to dress modestly (1
5

This is not a flawless mechanism since a whole group is capable of erring. This point would suggest that
ethical conclusions made by a Christian community are always open to review in light of the communitys
development and scholarly advancement.

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Peter 3:17). Modest in the 1940s often meant a certain length of skirt in relationship to a
womans knees. The command of Peter has not gone away and it must still be applied. But to
import uncritically the conventions of the 1940s into todays culture would be ill-advised.
Therefore, more discretion should be applied in general when it comes to labeling expressions of
timeless truths as timeless.
Furthermore, the Christian communitys understanding of Scripture is ever deepening
and always dynamic based upon the illumination of the Holy Spirit. And the communitys
biblical understanding partially depends upon its experiences and upon its self-understanding
within the larger Christian movement. The paper recommends the free use of sources which
explicate the Scriptures and those which exegete the present world in order to aid reflection upon
the Word and the world. The paper also recommends that communities engage the cloud of
witnesses, Christian communities from the past, which have faithfully read and lived their faith
and their Bible in past contexts, but to then critically appropriate the past for the present.
The fifth tendency of Evangelicals in reference to Scripture is to ask the wrong
questions in their initial approach. Specifically, one of the worst questions asked is: what does
the Bible say about X? A Christian in a heterogeneous community knows how troublesome this
question is. To ask such a question naturally encourages a selective or topical reading of the
Bible. To ask such a question treats the Bible as something it is notnamely, a book of scattered
propositions. And to ask such a question implies that the Bible just speaks into the world without
any level of human interpretation.
Beyond what has been described already, Kyle Felder offers helpful guidelines for
ones use of Scripture.6 First, it is necessary to respect the historical and cultural contexts of
Scripture when they are knownScripture was written in a particular time, in a particular
culture, and to particular audience. Second, one must read minor themes and principles within

6
Kyle D. Felder, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox Press: 2006), 6062.

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the thrusts of the larger themes and principles in the Bible. Felder uses this point to briefly
suggest that ones reading of Scripture ought to be Christocentrici.e. focused on Christ.
Obviously an unresolved tension exists between the Felders two points. On the one hand, it is
necessary to respect the particular context for which a biblical document was intended. And on
the other hand, it is necessary to read the document in light of ones Christological
presuppositions (cf. Luke 24:27). Finally, Felder writes, Scripture is normative and primary, but
it is not our only source of guidance and wisdom.7 Felder recognizes the essential role that
tradition, experience, and reason play in ones moral development. In other words, while
Scripture is a primary feed for Christian ethics, there are secondary feeds as well.
In summation of this section, the Evangelical church should read Scripture
holistically and read it within community. Also, Evangelicals should avoid overly simplistic
hermeneutical aides and bad questions which cause the Scripture to be read in a way it was never
intended. And this must happen while being informed by the many ancient and contemporaneous
sources available to the community.
Section Two: Approaches to Ethics, Explicit and Implicit Lenses
The task of this section is to survey some of the ways ethics are approached within
Christianity. If we retain the definition developed by Nullens and Michenerthat Christian
ethics is methodological reflection on the values, norms, virtues, and purposes of Christian life in
ones contemporary context, drawing on Scripture and the tradition of faiththen ethics or the
study of ethics hardly has a traceable origin; ethics is part and parcel of the Christian experience.
And to summarize the field requires consideration of the different expressions of Christianity and
their independent development of ethical reflection over a period of well over 1,900 years. Thus,
we have chosen to paint in broad strokes even limiting our discussion to the last fifty years. Each
scholar in our survey represents a way ethics can be done, but the list is by no means exhaustive.

Felder, Exploring Christian Ethics, 62.

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Wayne Meeks: The Academic (or Clinical) Approach to Ethics
This first approach to Christian ethics is mostly concerned with the first century AD
and does not concern itself with present-day matters. In other words, the ethicist stands back as a
critical observer of early Christian practices and stops there.8
Wayne Meeks epitomizes this particular approach to ethics. Meeks writes in the
postscript of his work, The Origins of Christian Morality, as follows: The purpose of this
inquiry has been resolutely historical and descriptive. It will have succeeded to a large extent if it
has done no more than to make the ethos of the early Christians seem even more distant.9
Meeks himself has no obligation to provide his readers with a framework for seeing their own
world: This is one of the things historians do: it is a large part of our job to try to protect the
integrity of the past, and that often has the effect of emphasizing its strangeness.10 It is only
within the nine-page postscript that he addresses Christian moral discourse in the present day,
and even then he offers seven theses which probably raise more questions than they answer.11
The primary strength of this first approach is that it does the important spadework of
unearthing the ethical reflection of ancient Christian communities while simultaneously exposing
a traditions presuppositions about ancient communities. In other words, it is necessary to
observe the expression of Christian ethics in the past from the most critical position possible
since there is a tendency to read the past in a way that favors a tradition. Meeks and scholars like
him attempt to present the past in a way that the present-days distance and development from
these communities is recognized.

Hays, in Identity, Ethics, and Ethos in the New Testament, 6.

Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1993), 211.
10

Ibid.

11

Ibid., 211219.

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The primary weakness of this approach is that stops short of taking its findings and
applying those findings to contemporary moral problems; it fails to move from descriptive ethics
to normative ethics. It becomes the task of someone else in some other field to enter into the
messiness of normative and applied ethics. Therefore, the work of Meeks and scholars like him
is important but only a smaller fragment in the larger work of developing an evangelical
framework.
James Cone: The Experience-Driven Approach to Ethics
The second approach to Christian ethics utilizes the shared experiences of a cultural
subgroup (or minority) to be the primary interpretive lens for Scripture and ethical reflection.
Under this category would rightly fall the various theologies which have surfaced in recent
decadesFeminist theology, Black theology which is a form of Liberation theology to name a
couple. As a representative example we turn to James H. Cone.
For Cone, the shared experience of oppression that Blacks and other minority groups
have experienced at the hands of Whites inform his reading of Scripture and ethics. Blackness
for Cone supersedes a specific race and becomes a symbolic representation for oppression.12 It
would be a drastic misreading of Cone if one were to think each time Black or blackness are
used he intends Black men and women alone.
In Cones A Black Theology of Liberation, he laid out for the first time the
hermeneutical process for his form of theological reflection:
The definition of Christ as black is crucial for Christology if we truly believe in his
presence today. Taking our clue from the historical Jesus who is pictured in the New
Testament as the Oppressed One, what else, except blackness, could adequately tell us
the meaning of his presence todayChrist must be black with black people so they can
know that their liberation is his liberation.13

12

James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY:
Orbis Books, 2006), 7.
13

Ibid., 120.

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Beneath what some may call radical or extreme words are very practical questions: (1) to what
extent did Christ become one of us? And (2) where is God today? Cone throughout his works
reveals that in the Incarnation Christ truly takes on the expanse of the human experience. And
that Christ, if one were to find him on the streets today, would be strongly associated with the
destitute and disadvantaged within society. Thus Cone can say of Christ in God of the
Oppressed:
Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our
heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people
struggling for political freedom. Therefore, to know him is to encounter him in the
history of the weak and the helpless.14
It is important not to fixate on his vocabulary or his overstatements. Cone obviously raises a
tension which even the best scholars must take into consideration: experience shapes
understanding. What may be fundamentally missing in a Caucasian males reading of Scripture
and take on Jesus is an understanding of powerlessness, subjugation, and marginalization which
were so much a part of Jesuss life on earth.
Experiences are important and their influence upon ethical reflection is undeniable.
But experience in Cones approach stands above Christ and the Bible by imposing upon them a
metanarrative. The readers intentionally apply their experiences to shape their reading instead of
the Scripture forming the readers. One must be suspicious of imposing labels upon Christ rather
than allowing this unconfinable historical figure from defining himself through the Scriptures
and through ones experiences. In other words, Christology is iconoclastic; if Christ trespassed
the boundaries of his dissenters during his time on earth, then he will trespass his followers
boundaries today.

14

James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: Seabury Press, 1975), 32.

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John Howard Yoder: The Narrative Approach to Ethics
The third approach to ethics is where the events in the story of Christmore
specifically, his passionare used as a paradigm or model for ethical reflection. Nearly all
models for Christian ethics engage the story of Christ in some way (cf. Cone, above). What
makes this approach unique is its sustained conversation with and quest to embody the values
exposited by how Jesus lived, suffered, and died in the Gospels. A wonderful example of this
approach to ethics is John Howard Yoder:
Jesus interest was in people; the reason for his low esteem for the political order
was his high, loving esteem for concrete people as the object of his concern. Christ is
agape; self-giving, nonresistant love. At the cross this nonresistance, including the refusal
to use political means of self-defense, found its ultimate revelation in the uncomplaining
and forgiving death of the innocent at the hands of the guilty. This death reveals how God
deals with evil; here is the only valid starting point for Christian pacifism or
nonresistance. The cross is the extreme demonstration that agape seeks neither
effectiveness nor justice and is willing to suffer any loss or seeming defeat for the sake of
obedience.15
Yoder displays an intricately woven tapestry of themes which he understands to
emanate from the cross of Christ. First, agape (or love) derives its nuance or meaning from the
crossnamely, it is self-giving and nonresistant just as Christ gave himself and did not resort to
violence to prevent his arrest. Second, the cross becomes for Yoder a paradigm for the believers
own nonresistance, pacifism, and refusal to leverage her power against another. Third, the cross
unseats what humans deem effective and most beneficialthat is, the Christian is ultimately
concerned with faithfulness and obedience as Christ was (to the point of death). And thus the
Christian community does not bow to consequentialism or utilitarianism.16 In other words, the
Christian community is called to witness and not to efficacy.

John Howard Yoder, Peace without Eschatology, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological
and Ecumenical (Grand Rapid: Eerdmans, 1994), 147.
15

16
Cf. John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: Notre Dame
Press, 1984), 99.

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Yoder, like all ethicists, is not without his influences. It is well known that Yoder
grew up and continued throughout his life to be a committed Mennonite. Ultimately, this
upbringing and commitment have largely shaped his reading of Christ and Christs church.
Yoders upbringing evidences in his ecclesiology and how he envisions the role of the church
within society: Gods will is not that the Church changes society as a whole, but that the Church
stands and remains within the margins of society as a prophetic conscience bearing in itself the
change it prays to see in the world at the coming of Jesus Christ.17
This particular approach to ethics is quite attractive. It cuts against the grain of
conservative evangelicalism by suggesting that the Christian movement is at its heart pacifistic
it is not uncommon for Christian ethicists to reach this conclusion. If there is a problem in
Yoders approach it is probably a hermeneutical one. But Yoder was so nuanced and aware of
contemporaneous scholarship the he to some degree anticipated hermeneutical setbacks.18 All in
all, the narrative approach for ethics is a viable option.
Richard Hays: The Imaginative Approach to Ethics
It was stated under Parameters that ethical reflection refers to the conscious and
subconscious process one uses to assess truth and value. With the imaginative approach to ethics,
the community of faith is invited by the biblical documents to see their world in radically new
ways formed by values within the Christian story.19 Much of the beauty of this approach is it
often elevates a debate from gridlocked positions. And this enables a community to see what
theyrightly or wronglyvalue from the perspective of Gods outworking of his gospel.
This particular approach belongs to Richard Hays and is exemplified in The Moral
Vision of the New Testament. Hays describes the fourfold task of New Testament ethics: (1)
17

Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 99.

18

Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament, 247.

19
Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 11. It is
wonderful to see Hayss approach work itself out in the context of a commentary.

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descriptivethe descriptive task is to read the whole NT canon carefully by giving consideration
to the Christians who wrote and first received these documents; (2) syntheticthis is where one
tries to find unifying threads between the various documents; (3) hermeneuticthis is the point
at which the text comes into contact with present-day readers; and (4) pragmaticthis is where
the present-day Christian community seeks to live out the ethical demands of their documents. 20
Hays does not have a layer-cake approach where each task builds successively upon
the other; instead, the different tasks overlap and one cannot establish a hierarchy between
them.21 The attractiveness of this approach is that these four tasks already happen within the
community of faith at a subconscious level. In other words, every Christian community
throughout the ages has sought with varying degrees of competency to understand the text, seek
its connection with other passages, apply it to their circumstances, and actually live it out. And
this happened whether or not the community explicitly stated its process. Another appealing
feature is that it treats the Christian community as a dynamic organism engaged in an ongoing
process of learning and living. Therefore, there is not an entrance or starting point in
Christian ethical reflection and neither is there an end to ethical reflection, even though there are
semi-distinguishable parts to it.
Hayss approach demands serious consideration. It is the first of its kind to move
from the descriptive to the pragmatic task in the same volume; however, problems do surface.
First, Hayss approach demonstrated in the pragmatic section still asks the question: what has the
Bible to say about this? As an example, Hays in his chapter on homosexuality first addresses the
handful of passages that directly discuss homosexual behavior.22 Hays certainly demonstrates
grace and professional nuancing in his treatment of the texts. Yet if one of the secondary tasks of

20

Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 37.

21

Ibid., 3.

22

Ibid., 381389.

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cultural engagement is to elevate the level of discussion within the church on contemporary
moral issues, then the discussion of the Scriptures must be elevated as well.
Specifically, one cannot be cornered in to always defending or explaining the prooftexts. When it comes to homosexuality, what if the church started with human wholeness through
the lens of an embodied Savior? Through this person one learns that gender is both by nature and
by human constructi.e. it is something given by God and something culture defines with
images of femininity and masculinity (cf. John 4:27). Beyond this, Jesus life reminds humans
that sexual activity is not essential for humans to be truly wholesex is optional in the human
experience. Finally, his mandate to his disciples for preaching the gospel reminds the church of
the importance of spiritual reproduction rather than what some mistake as just physical
reproduction in Genesis 1 (Matthew 28:1820).
The second problem with Hayss model are the synthetic images of community,
cross, and new creation. These synthetic images are designed to focus a communitys reading
of the New Testament and they are wholesome with respect to their summary of the Christian
story.23 But as it was suggested above, one ought to avoid even well-meaning hermeneutical
aides. Thus, one wonders whether these images oversimplify the biblical documents and the
communitys process of correlating them although they were formed from long reflection.24
Conclusions
The four approaches reveal two things in particular that are helpful in a quest for an
evangelical framework. First, a clinical approach can fail to make the ethics of the earliest
Christian communities in the New Testament relevant for today (Wayne Meeks), and an
experience-driven framework can fail to respect the authority of Scripture by subjecting it to
human experience (James Cone)these are two extremes to be avoided. Second, a framework

23

Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 195.

24

Ibid., 198ff.

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should seek to faithfully and imaginatively appropriate the life of Jesus and the values that
emanate from Jesus life and the redemption story as a whole (John Howard Yoder and Richard
Hays).
Section Three: Elements for an Evangelical Framework
As it was stated in the preview, the purpose of this paper is to begin the process of
assembling an evangelical framework for thinking, behaving, and engaging the culture as
Christians. We have chosen to begin our assembly in Pauls letter to the Philippians since it is
short and one of Pauls most well-known letters.25
Upon hours of reflecting upon this letter and sharing our thoughts within a Christian
community, there were three primary categories from which Paul encouraged the Philippians to
think and behave like Christians: (1) union with Christ; (2) community imitation; and (3) gospel
discernment. Paul desired for the Philippians to conduct their ethical reflection from these
subjects. Thus, these ought to be essential elements within an evangelical framework. But these
are not the summation of an evangelical framework; they are a starting place and need
refinement by examination of other New Testament passages. Beyond this, the other ways NT
authors encourage ethical reflection ought to be added to this these three item. We will take each
one in turn.

25
It is also a good letter to begin with because it does not contain a sustained argumenti.e. the letter
does not have one overarching purpose. We identify at least six purposes. First, Paul wrote to express his
appreciation for Epaphroditus and to honor this man before the Philippians even though his return home seemed
premature (2:2530). Second, Paul wrote to express his thankfulness for the Philippians gift and his genuine
affection for this entire congregation (4:1020). Third, Paul wrote to announce Timothys and his own travel plans
to Philippi (2:1924). Fourth, Paul wrote to update the congregation about his current circumstances and the status
of gospel ministry (1:1226; 2:24). Fifth, Paul wrote to exhort and encourage the Philippians to joy and unity in
sight of the communitys internal disagreement(s) and external civic pressure (1:2730; 2:24, 16, 18, 3:1; 4:12, 4).
And sixth, Paul wrote to forewarn the community about false teachersa Judaizing sect of Christianitywho could
arrive at their port at any time.

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Union with Christ
The primary category Paul used to stimulate the Philippians ethical reflection was
their union with Christ. The communitys entire subtext was to be shaped by the reality that they
have been inseparably joined to Jesus. The phrase in Christ takes center stage early on and one
can find it ten times throughout Philippians.26 It is used without explanation as if the readers
would naturally know or have a basic understanding of how it applies to the various contexts
which Paul used it in.
Whatever the exact nuances in each instancesince it can have all the nuances of the
preposition27most scholars recognize that it broadly refers to believers personal and corporate
union to Jesus Christ.28 It is Pauls theological shorthand for the whole Christian experience.29
Christians are intimately joined to this historical person and mystically placed within his
corporate body of believers. In Christ, or from this union with Christ personally and corporately,
Christians derive their identity, ethics, and all of life.
Perhaps the fullest explication of this union comes in Romans 6. By the time the
reader reaches Rom 6:8, she has the full picture: believers were crucified with Christ (v. 6);
believers died with him (v. 8); believers were buried with him (v. 4); believers have been fused
to the likeness of his death and resurrection (v. 5); and believers will live with him (v. 8). Paul
joined believers to every juncture of the Lords passion and resurrection. Therefore, believers are
strongly associated with, stuck to, robustly identified with, joined to, and fused with the work of
Jesus Christthe historical has become personal in some unfathomable and mysterious way.

26

Philippians 1:1, 13, 26; 2:1, 5; 3:3, 14; 4:7, 19, 21.

27

See Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Survey
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).
28

David Chapman, Philippians: Rejoicing and Thanksgiving (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications

Ltd., 2012), 35.


29
See Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 2012), 12324 and Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ, 198199.

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What is true of Jesusnamely, that he died with reference to sin in order to live
eternally for the Fatheris true of believers now because the Father has joined them to his Son.
And this is a fact.30 From within Romans, union with Christ raises ethical questions: Shall we
remain in Sins power so that grace may abound? and We died with reference to sin, how will
we still live in it? And this is true in Philippians as well.
A full explication, like the one in Romans, is absent in Philippians. Perhaps the
passage which may hint toward Pauls developed theology of union best is Phil 2:511. We
favor Moiss Silvas reading above any current translation of v. 5: Be so disposed toward one
another as is proper for those who are united to Christ.31 This reading is preferred for two
reasons: (1) it takes in Christ in its usual Pauline sensei.e. as theologically nuanced; and (2)
the syntactical problems caused by seeing an ellipsis in this verse are overcome.32
The Christ Hymn, therefore, does not introduce an exemplar to be imitated
imitation is external and less than organic union; instead, Paul seems to poetically rehearse the
Christian story in order to remind the Philippians of their participation in the life of the
humiliated and exalted Jesus. To paraphrase: Remember the humility of Christ in his
Incarnation, the obedience of Christ in his crucifixion, and the honor he received in his
resurrection and exaltation. This story is yours and you participate in it. In light of your union to
the suffering and exalted Messiah, what should be your self-understanding and how should you
treat one another in community?
To summarize, Silvas understanding of 2:5 moves the community from the realm of
ethics of imitationbe like Jesusto ethics of unionwho one is and what one is to do in light

30

Victor Paul Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),

173.
31

Moiss Silva, Philippians, 2nd edition, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 2005), 97.
32

Ibid.

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of ones union to the Suffering Servant and Exalted Lord (Phil 2:611). In other words, the
apostle commanded the Philippians not to be like Jesus, but to live up to their union to Jesus.
In the few paragraphs following 2:11 (2:1230), Paul provided several new
commands and two examples in Timothy and Epaphroditus. In our estimation, these are not to be
seen as commands in addition to the command in 1:27 to live as citizens ruled by the gospel, but
these are to be seen as fleshing out that singular command. Phil 2:1230 ultimately answers this
question: what does gospel living look like? And the commands and the examples of Timothy
and Epaphroditus provide the answer. Gospel living is: communal (your pl. salvation);
obedient; serious (fear and trembling); God empowered; non-argumentative; evangelistic
(holding out the message); joyous to the end; sincere; valuing others; valuing what Christ
values; genuine; self-sacrificing; and respectful. This list is certainly not exhaustive.
In our estimation, this aspect of Christian ethical reflection is underdeveloped in
evangelicalism. Sermons, sage advice, books and tweets call for people to be like Jesus without
building the paradigm within their minds of their union with Jesus. In other words, they are
calling for specific behavior which can only be developed and empowered through recognition
of the indwelling of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
But how might this influence the churchs ethical reflection in its daily experience? It
primarily causes the Christian community to view itself and the whole world from the
perspective of in Christ or out of Christ. In other words, every person in the world either
falls within one of those two groupings. Christians can find their identity in things other than
Jesus Christ (the possibilities are endless). But when an individual, let alone a community,
develops a self-understanding of in Christ, it liberates her to love, serve, and evangelize even
those outside Christ in the hopes they can come in and find true happiness.

18
Community Imitation
The second category Paul used to stimulate the Philippians ethical reflection was
community imitation. And this too must be part of an ethical framework for Evangelicals. Ethics
within this category are influenced by role models or exemplary characters within the Christian
community. Paul repeatedly employed his own example throughout the letterhe said that civil
persecution the Philippians experienced was like his own (1:30), and for much of chapter three
Paul used his own example to teach the Philippians where to place value within their Christian
experience. We will turn our attention to the third chapter.
Paul let the rhetoric fly in 3:111, really in this whole chapter. The language is clearly
polemical. Paul was working to get the Philippians on his side in the face of an impending threat.
Contextually, it does not seem that the Judaizers had come through Philippis seaport yet.
According to Ben Witherington, there are a number of reasons the Philippians would have been
attracted to the Judaizing message Paul railed against: (1) religion was strongly tied to the civic
arena in the Greco-Roman culture, and because the Philippians embraced Christianity they may
have felt ostracized; (2) Judaism had a status in the Roman Empire which Christianity did not yet
have and, as a result, Judaism may have felt like a more legitimate faith; (3) Judaism came with
all the religious pompTemple, sacrifices, and festivalswhich were similar to the Philippians
pagan background; and (4) the Judaizers would have downplayed the cross which may have
been more palatable for Roman citizens (the members of the congregation may or may not have
been Roman citizens).33
To combat the pull from their faith to a more Jewish faith, Paul used his own life to
show the Philippians that their faith was legitimate without the added accoutrements. His
reassessment and reevaluation of his Jewish pedigree after Christ had come into the picture

33
Ben Witherington III, Pauls Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 196197.

19
should be enough to convince these Christians that Jesus plus nothing equals everything.34 For
Paul, the only asset on the balance sheet was Christ and acquaintanceship with Christ.
Everything else fell under liabilities.
In 3:124:1, Paul continued to use his life for the instruction of the Philippians. He
reminded them of the ongoing tension between Christian growth and Christian perfectionthe
already and the not yet. And he set down his life and the life of his associates as a pattern to be
followed; for if they do not walk as he and his associates walked, then they may be in danger of
following the pattern of those whose hostility was directed toward the cross and whose end was
certain doom. The explicit command for imitation comes in 3:17, Become fellow imitators of
me, brothers and sisters, and watch closely those who walk in this manner, just as you have us as
an example.
Paul ended the polemic with a rapturous image of what citizens of heaven look
forward to. The word commonwealth would have conjured up all kinds of emotions, images,
and historical realities. Philippi was a Roman colony.35 And its citizens lived every day, although
several hundred miles from Rome, under Roman law and civil practices. In 3:20, Paul told these
citizens (and maybe some non-citizens) that heaven had a higher claim on them than Rome.
Heaven is their constituting force governing and regulating them.36 And like a city on tiptoes

Cousar, 7273: What has occurred is a transformation in the way value is assigned, what matters
and what does not matterHe views his pedigree and religious accomplishments in a new light. He has experienced
a transformation.
34

35

See G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 2. The history of Philippi can influence ones exegesis of the letter. The primary historical
facts concern Octavians great military victories near this localeonce over Brutus in 42 bce and once over Mark
Antony in 31 bce. Both battles result in the relocation of military veterans to the Philippi. After Octavians second
victory, Philippi was officially named a Roman colony which entitled its citizens to: (1) be exempt from taxation;
(2) buy and sell property; and (3) be ruled directly under Roman law. Details like these enrich Pauls imagery of
conducting oneself as a citizen under the gospel in 1:27. These details also concretize the reality that the Christian
congregation is an earthy colony of a heaven-based commonwealth in 3:20.
36

Witherington, 216.

20
expecting the arrival of a royal visit from the Emperor, so Christians are eagerly awaiting the
return of their Savior from heaven.37
The visions of rapture return to reality when Paul confronted a feud between two
women in the Philippian congregation in 4:27. The command is no different than the one
implied at the beginning of chapter two: the women are to think the same thing. The
expression to think the same thing is a Pauline expression for community harmony, unity, and
peace (Phil 4:2; 2 Cor 13.11; Rom 15:6). Paul is certainly not asking everyone in the community
to hold the same opinion. Paul introduced the principle of faith in Rom 14:23i.e. whatever is
not from faith is sin. Therefore, the command to these two women, whose argument is lost to
history, was to develop a sense of mutuality and self-deference with each other.
Beyond his own example, Paul held up Timothy and Epaphroditus as exemplary
models. There is one important caveat that must be made on this point: Christian examples are
people who embody the Christian gospel in some tangible way. Put differently: role models in
the Christian community are not people who seem to do the right thing most of the time or who
are admirable for some reason other than the gospel. Paul can be imitated because of his
relentless pursuit of conformity to Jesus Christ (3:1011). Timothy can be imitated because he
values the things Christ Jesus valuedi.e. the people of God (2:2021). Epaphroditus can be
imitated because he gambled his life away in service of the Philippians, and this sounds a whole
lot like Christs death in 2:8 (see 2:30). And everyone else deserving imitation are individuals
who are friends of the cross of Christ (2:1718).
Once again we are faced with how this might impact Christian ethical reflection
today. This category for ethical reflection and its caveat call into question certain individuals
whom the church might hold up as examples. If the theologians who are touted and the pastors
who are parroted do not demonstrate the gospel in some tangible waythey ought to be

37

Witherington, 218.

21
abandoned. Sound bites and sloganeering are unhelpful in the task of thinking and behaving like
Christians. The church needs men and women who undergird their sound bites with gospel
living. Paul explicated gospel living throughout much of the letter (see Union with Christ). If a
person is characterized by joy, self-deference, obedience, etc. they are models worthy of
imitation.
Discerning Virtue through Gospel Values
Union with Christ enables the Christian community to think and behave in terms of
its identity, relationship, and connection with Jesus Christ. Community imitation enables the
Christian community to think and behave in terms of Christian exemplars that embody the gospel
in life and to then attempt to think and behave like these exemplars. The third and last category
that Paul develops in Philippians for ethical reflection could be called hedged virtue. And it
must be wisely appropriated into an evangelical framework. It is about learning to discern the
culture and ethos of the culture one lives in.
In Philippians 1:911, Paul provided insight into all that he wants for the
congregation. His prayer could be paraphrased as follows: I pray that your love for God and one
another would keep growing, but in the context of moral discernment, so that you can figure out
what really matters in life. This will result in your complete purity at Christs return. And so,
your good conduct that is informed by your loving-discernment and made possible through Jesus
Christ will bring the Father glory and praise38 While moral discernment is introduced at this
point in the letter, it comes to its fullest expression in chapter four.
In Philippians 4:8, Paul wrote: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true,
whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is
commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things (NET). Many
commentators make the effort to explain each adjective and noun in the list. But the point is not

38

This paraphrase was developed for a Philippians class which I taught in Fall 2013.

22
really the words but how Pauline lists work. This list is probably nothing more than popular
ethics, common moral codes, or the social conventions of the day.39 The sum of the six
adjectives and the two nouns could generically be called the good. Put differently, there are
few cultures and civilizations which would disagree with the six adjectives and two nouns in this
list (let alone a Hellenist Jewish culture or Greco-Roman society).
For that very reason, 4:9 is absolutely required for Christian ethics. It forms a hedge
around what Christians acquire and do from their surroundings. The gospel message which the
Philippians had learned, received (the language of tradition), heard, and seen with reference to
Paul was to be put into practice. In other words, the teaching of Paul and the example of Paul
limit what the Philippians were to adopt from the surrounding culture. This is a category of
ethical reflection that calls for tremendous discernment. Essentially, it says to live a conventional
life within your culture but within the limitations of the gospeladopt societal standards when
they agree with gospel living. All in all, this particular category encourages Christians to be less
worried about forming timeless rules or patterns of behavior, and to develop moral discernment.
Paul assumed the Philippians understood the gospel. How modern evangelicals
understand the gospel is severely threatened by Pauls letters. The gospel is not only a message
for unbelievers, and it is not merely a message about the atonement Christ has accomplished on
behalf of humans. The gospel is lived (Phil 1:27). The gospel has an ethical mandate for the
believing community; it demands something from people in relationship to God and people.
What is the gospel? Our working definition might be something like this: The gospel
is chiefly the good news that God has graciously remembered the human race. And this is
evidenced by the Father sending his Son, Jesus, who was prophesied about in the Old Testament
and who was experienced by witnesses. He lived a perfect life, died unjustly, rose victoriously,

See Pauline Catechesis and the Lists of Vices and Virtues, in James W. Thompson, Moral
Formation According to Paul: the Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,
2011), 87109.
39

23
ascended into heaven, and will one day return for Creations complete restoration (or salvation).
Through this person and his work, God (a) graciously accepts sinners by declaring them
righteous on the basis of faith in his Son and not on the basis of their works; (b) rights human
injustice toward humans by the power of the Holy Spiriti.e. within his community and by the
witness of his community; (c) keeps his promises to Israel found in the Old Testamente.g.
Messiah, Spirit, and Kingdoms coming; and (d) rights the whole of the fallen created order by
liberating it from its bondage to sin, death, and the power of darkness. A church that does not
know the gospel loses all grounds for discernment.
Paul assumed virtue in his own culture. Paul believed the culture surrounding the
people of God evidenced in some way the good even though the culture did not embrace the
Savior. Paul also assumed that the church was not against culture; nowhere in the letter does Paul
assume an aggressive stance toward the morality of those outside of the Christian community
even in the face of persecution.
Philippians 4:89 has long been understood as key for Christian moralitythey used
to greet DTS students going on to the internet. Many a young person has heard these words
uttered in the context of a sermon against the use of pornography. Yet it is evident that they tell
us so much more! Scholars recognize that Paul borrowed words from Greek philosophy to set a
moral direction, even a trajectory, for the Philippians. Fees says it best:
If our interpretation is correct, three things happen simultaneously in these concluding
and summarizing exhortations: (a) that they embrace what is good wherever they find it,
including the culture with which they are most intimately familiar; (b) but that they do so
in a discriminating way, (c) the key to which is the gospel Paul had long ago shared with
them and lived before themabout a crucified Messiah, whose death on a cross served
both to redeem them and to reveal the character of God into which they are continually
being transformed.40

40
Gordon D. Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New
Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 421.

24
Paul wanted them to pursue the good wherever it may be found but with gospel and tradition
providing necessary discernment.
This essential element for an evangelical framework seems tougher to apply today.
The church has lost touch with the gospel by reducing it to the atonement and/or sin management
when God clearly has a grander agenda through Christ. The disunity that the church has over
several social issues may in fact be due to a misunderstanding of the gospel about Christ.
Second, few American Evangelicals can see the good of American culture and society. And
third, conservative Evangelicals tend to see themselves in a war, a fight, or on the defensive
against culture, particular groups, or progressive trends. Therefore, Pauls basic assumptions for
conducting ethics according to this model are mostly lost on a modern audience. We can only
encourage that these concepts be rebuilt within the psyche of Evangelicals.
Testing Our Elements
The purely theoretical must now become practical. We will test the three elements we
have drawn from Philippians and apply it to a situation which could easily take place within the
next decade in American churches. But the true test of these starting elements must come within
the context of real life. The case study is as follows:
Ken and Roger were married ten years ago in Washington DC. Lifes circumstances have
brought them to our community. They are a monogamous gay couple who have sex
regularly. Five years ago they had a child through a surrogate not knowing whose seed
produced their son. The boy is now five years old and sees Ken and Roger as his two
dads. This family began coming to our welcoming church eight weeks ago. Because of
the loving fellowship and powerful expository preaching both men are drawn by the
Spirit to come to Christ. They both feel convicted about their lifestyle and they come to
us asking for guidance about what to do next.41

41

This situation was created and vetted within Christian community.

25
How Union with Christ Speaks to Ken and Roger
The conviction both Ken and Roger feel is certainly the result of their union with
Christ. Their lives are evidence that union has ethical implications; we can confidently and
positively share this reality with them. Beyond this, we can encourage them that in Christ there
is no condemnation for their past no matter how deep and dark it may seem to them now. We can
also challenge them to discontinue their physical relationship (and eventually separate) since
both mens identity is in Christ and not their marriage, son, or sexual intimacy. But we recognize
that it takes a lifetime for the Holy Spirit to work the reality of this union down from ones head
to ones heart.
How Community Imitation Speaks to Ken and Roger
Ken and Roger may be the first in our Christian community who are openly
struggling with what it means to be united with Christ and have a homosexual orientation, but
they are certainly not the first in the universal church. We would encourage Ken and Roger to
both be plugged in to church small groups and accountability groups and walk beside other
authentic believers. We would also encourage them to read the literature of people who have and
are walking out this struggle. For example, Wesley Hills book, Washed and Waiting:
Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, is a remarkable resource.42 From the
vantage point of a gay Christian, Hill tells personal stories about all the ways that Gods grace
has meet him in his struggle and vulnerability with others. Hill also reflects on what Scripture
teachesnamely, that people are suspended presently between their brokenness and
eschatological restoration; and faithfulness is required in the gap. It seems, therefore, that people
like Hill who embody such an understanding of the redemption story ought to be imitated by Ken
and Roger.

42
Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

26
How Gospel Discernment Speaks to Ken and Roger
Gospel discernment is uniquely positioned to help with the messiness of this
particular situation. The fact is that real lives and real stories will be impacted by the decisions
the local church makes around Ken and Roger. Thus, it requires sensitivity and an ability to
understand the gospel and understand the situation the community is in. Specifically, gospel
discernment should enable a community to decide what to do with Ken and Rogers son.
Perhaps a family within the church will choose to adopt the child and enable both Ken and Roger
to play a significant role in his life (and transparently sharing their sinful past with the boy when
the community deems it appropriate). It may also happen that the community chooses that it is
best to determine who the biological father is and allow him full custody, but to augment the
childs development through the communitys fellowship. In this outcome, the child will see that
he has several brothers, sisters, mother figures, and even father figures. All in all, the gospel
equips the community to seek the good and happiness in this particular situation.
Conclusion
The purpose of this paper was to begin the process of assembling an evangelical
framework for thinking, behaving, and engaging the culture as Christians. In the course of this
paper we reflected upon some of the tendencies of Evangelicals with respect to Scripture. Then
we discussed some of the ways Christians have understood normative ethics in the past looking
to Wayne Meeks, James Cone, John Howard Yoder, and Richard Hays. After this, we considered
Pauls letter to the Philippians to argue for three elements that are necessary within an
evangelical frameworknamely, union with Christ, community imitation, and gospel
discernment. We then tried to apply these elements to a true-to-life contemporary social problem
to see how this might impact Christian reflection and action. All in all, our prayer is that this
paper will generate more robust Christian ethical reflection within Evangelicalism and that this
will be one step toward an evangelical framework for ethics.

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