Professor David F. Watson, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary, Dayton, OH
A key biblical passage for church renewal is Philippians 2:6-11. This is an ancient hymn that Christians sang together. Today we call it the “kenosis hymn,” after the Greek word that means “emptying.” It is one of the earliest examples of Christian worship that we have. We know of this hymn because Paul quotes it in response to arguments within the congregation in Philippi. He tells his congregation to have within them that same mind that is within Christ Jesus who,
having the form of God
did not regard being equal to God as something to be seized,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in the form of a person
he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death,
indeed, death on a cross.
Therefore God also exalted him supremely,
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee might bend,
in heaven and upon the earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the Glory of God the Father.
That is kenosis. It is God’s taking on of human weakness for our salvation. The hymn shows deliberate parallelism: “form of God” (morphē theou) stands in direct contrast to “form of a slave” (morphēn doulou). The Greek participle hyparchōn is the word that we translate as “having,” as in “having the form of God.” In its noun form, however, this word can mean “possessions” or “property.” It shows that the form of God by all rights belongs to Christ, but he did not assert his right of ownership or possession. Christ gives up what is rightly his, and what can be more precious, more valuable, than having the form of God? For Christ, we are—we are more precious to him than even the form of God, and therefore Christ emptied himself.
He did not, moreover, simply become a human, but took the form of a slave, the hymn says. Now this is a rather curious remark because none of our traditions about Jesus indicates that he was a slave. Indeed, he might well have been part of the retainer class, which was not the upper-most stratum of Israelite society, but stood rather above the common person. Perhaps the early Christians who composed this hymn knew of traditions that have come down to us in the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus says that the one who wishes to be first among his followers must be slave of all (10:44), or perhaps it is a reference to what was commonly called the “slave’s punishment,” crucifixion. Regardless, the term “slave” was as much a status designation as it was a functional designation. A slave stood at the bottom of the Greco-Roman status hierarchy, though there were ranks even among slaves. Jesus had as his rightful possession the highest form of the cosmic hierarchy, but took upon himself the lowest position among humans. This, says Paul, is the attitude, the disposition, that believers should cultivate. And this attitude, I believe, is at the heart of what it means for the Holy Spirit to renew the church. Kenosis offers us a model of Christian life in which we emulate Christ’s act of self-emptying for others. I believe, in fact, that it is the most crucial component of church renewal.
In this chapter of Philippians, Paul is dealing with conflict in Philippi. Then, as now, the church cannot get along. We don’t know exactly what the problem is, but Paul mentions “selfish ambition” and “conceit,” and he urges the Christians of Philippi to “regard others as better than yourselves” (2:3). He urges them, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:4). Note that this admonition is not simply to serve others or to be kind to others. It is to put the other first, not just in action, but in attitude. “Regard others as better than yourselves,” Paul says. “Do not look to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” So Paul is trying to create in these early followers of Jesus not just a way of acting, but a way of regarding other people.
There is a big difference between instructing people to behave in a certain way and instilling within them the virtues that will bring about these kinds of behavior. Telling people in the church, for example, “I want each of you to serve at the food pantry once a week” may or may not result in their doing so. But what if they really want to serve others, and that is their primary motivation? In that case, these Christians will bear fruit, spontaneously, perhaps in quite remarkable ways. And this is what Paul is after in this passage. He does not wish to give them a list of rules to follow, as if he were creating a new law. He wishes these Christians to have the “mind of Christ.”
Perhaps these Christians believed that, in their squabbling, they were dealing with issues that were of real importance for the church. Perhaps each arguing party believed that he or she was genuinely right, and that the other course of action would hurt the church. Perhaps, if we could look back historically, we would say that one party really was right, and that the other really was wrong. But Paul, at least in this case, doesn’t side with one party or another. Rather, he invites these early Christians to remember the core of their faith, that Christ did not try to grasp at power, but emptied himself of power; that Christ took the form of a slave, of a human, and thereby humbled himself. And it was not just any death he died, but death on a cross. The cross was generally considered the worst way to die. The so-called “slave’s punishment” was for people who aspired to prestige greater than the world would allow them. Christ, though, had the form of God. Rather than aspiring to greater station, Christ took on a lower station—a much lower station, dying even in the most disgraceful of ways. There is real irony here: Christ had true greatness and power but aspired to humility, and his death was one intended to humiliate those who had pretensions to greatness and power.
And this, says Paul, is what we should emulate. We should have within us the same mind that is in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself.
Clearly, then, Paul believes that the church’s in-fighting is harmful to the body of Christ, and that the way to fix this problem is through adopting the mind of Christ. Applied to our situation today, I would call this “kenotic renewal.”
Just as many believe that Jewish law radiates out from the Ten Commandments, I believe that Christian faith and life radiate from this kenosis event. There are different visions of Christ’s self-emptying, and sometimes the kenosis seems to be swallowed up by depictions of Christ’s glory, power, and honor. But behind all proper Christian proclamation is the notion that Christ, to whom belonged all glory, power, and honor, did not regard these as qualities to be grasped, but became a servant and died the death of a slave. And it is this Jesus Christ whom God raised from the dead, giving God’s stamp of approval upon the life and ministry of Jesus. God exalted the one who was crucified because he emptied himself.
I am not saying that this model of the Christian life supersedes all other models in all situations. There may be times when a kenotic model is not the best model for a person or group to use. For example, one could see historically oppressed people making central, say, the Exodus narrative, as a part of their self-understanding, and focusing on that narrative more than upon the event of Christ’s self-emptying because of the necessities of their present circumstances. A Christian approach to people in abusive relationships is not to tell them to humble themselves further, but to affirm their intrinsic value as children of God and help them get out of the abusive situation. But in such cases, the kenosis model is still applicable, not to the oppressed person, but to the oppressor. Having the “mind of Christ” is necessary for people who have the capacity and willingness to exploit, dominate, and subject. Christ could have done any of these things, but he did not. And that is why he was exalted by God the Father.
I believe that a kenotic model of the Christian life is quite foreign to many Christian communions. We can look, for example, at the marriage of Christianity and royal power that has given us a legacy of majestic cathedrals in Europe, cathedrals which are now beautiful empty buildings. We can look at the legacy of triumphal Protestantism in the early and mid-twentieth century United States, which, again, has left a legacy of impressive empty buildings. We can look at the cults of personality that emerge in some churches. There are in fact examples of Christian arrogance so extreme that one feels silly even mentioning them, such as pastors who wish to burn the sacred texts of other traditions, or the prosperity gospel that seems to have such incredible staying power.
What if we Christians, on a large scale, allowed our sacred texts to form us in a kenotic model of renewal? What if kenosis became our paradigm for church renewal? If kenosis was our model, would service come more naturally in our congregations? Would Christians find themselves viewed, as they often are, as hypocritical and judgmental? If our model was to serve, rather than to be served, how would the tenor of our meetings change? Do we not argue over worship because we like a certain style and don’t like some other? But what if what we liked was not the driving force within these arguments? What if the question was, “How do we put others first through our worship?” How would the tenor of our debates change around controversial issues? What if the question was not simply, “What does the Bible say?” but “How can we in authority in the church genuinely emulate Christ through our decision making?” Would we still threaten to divide our communions? How would people with disabilities find different attitudes among able-bodied Christians? I maintain that, in fact, our churches would grow, but not because we are after church growth. They would grow because our will would be more in tune with God’s will and the church would fulfill her intended purposes more fully.