Mission with the Mind of Christ

Is the book of Philippians a significant read for missiologists? Some Bible interpreters claim that the epistle is not much concerned with mission.1 But others say the “consciousness of mission . . . pervades Philippians.”2 I agree with the latter that Philippians is a treasure trove for missiologists. The church in Philippi faced familiar issues in mission: (1) cross-cultural questions facing a Gentile church planted by a Jewish-background believer from Tarsus in a Greek city colonized by Rome; (2) witness in a multifaith context where the worship of Thracian, Syrian, Greco-Latin, and Egyptian gods and goddesses existed side by side with Jewish and Christian communities;3 and (3) discussions about best practices in mission. One of the text-segments that has received the most scholarly attention is Philippians 2:1–11, with its call to have the mind of Christ. It yields enormous riches to those who engage in ministry with other cultures and faiths.

Sociocultural Considerations

“Incarnational mission”4 is perhaps the most elaborate missiological theory drawn from Philippians 2:1–11. Jesus’ incarnation, self-emptying, and self-enslaving have deeply influenced missiologists in their research on crossing cultural barriers with the gospel. Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers, for example, based their advice to missionaries on Philippians 2:6–7, saying, “We must love the people to whom we minister so much that we are willing to enter their culture as children, to learn how to speak as they speak, play as they play, eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep, study what they study.”5 Closely related to incarnational mission, Christian contextualization is another concept that missiologists have developed to ensure that “Jesus Christ, the Word, is authentically experienced in each and every human situation.”6 A. Scott Moreau defines it as “the process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content, and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other cultural backgrounds. The goal is to make the Christian faith as a whole—not only the message but also the means of living the faith out in the local setting—understandable.”7 This self-giving attitude and sensitivity toward other cultures adopted by countless missionaries seem even more important at times of cultural, ethnic, and religious conflicts.

Sometimes, however, missiologists face the danger of over-using theories and stretching them too far. Expressing concerns over certain forms of incarnational ministries, J. Todd Billings writes, “When the gospel is reduced to identifying with others, the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation becomes an afterthought.”8 Lamin Sanneh also underlines that a “context-sensitive approach should be responsive without being naive.”9 Both are right because every theory and concept we use in mission needs to be tested on an ongoing basis with biblical tools and with more recent theories from the variety of disciplines that enrich the field of missiology, which is by definition multidisciplinary. The biblical concept of incarnation and kenosis (self-emptying) will continue to attract missiologists as evidenced by a recent article by R. Daniel Shaw where he uses new analytical tools from cognitive studies to explore the incarnational model.10 And, concurrently, theologians of mission like Charles Van Engen will keep reminding us that theology of mission only emanates “in biblically informed and contextually appropriate missional action.”11

A plethora of other concepts regarding the social mandate of mission have been drawn from our passage. They include promoting social justice and bringing relief. Jonathan J. Bonk contends that “not personal ambition, but the needs of others, should be each Christian’s paramount concern (Phil 2:1–4).”12 Integral mission and holistic mission, which are contributions of Latin American missiologists to cross-cultural ministries, also combine the proclamation of the gospel with social action.13 On another continent, Kosuke Koyama expresses similar thoughts when he writes, “How do you come to the people ‘ill-clad, buffeted and homeless’ unless you share that form too?” (i.e. the form of a servant, Phil 2:7).14 And in this list one cannot forget the liberation theologians who draw heavily upon the concept of incarnation and kenosis. As Alan Neely reports, they ask “what the incarnation of Jesus implied in a world beset with injustice, hatred, poverty, exploitation, premature death, and hopelessness.”15 They advocate for the poor and the oppressed based on Philippians 2:5–7, “according to which Jesus renounced the glory that was his and spent his energy as a slave.”16 It is evident that Philippians 2:1–11 deeply relates to those who cross sociocultural barriers with the gospel. As Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen posits, trinitarian doctrine of the Philippian hymn can affect human society and “the way we treat people.” He writes, “Christ gave himself for us in self-sacrificial love—we, in turn, are to seek the interests of others (Phil 2:1–11).”17

Christ’s Model

Embedded in the text-segment we explore is what seems to be one of the oldest surviving Christological hymns (Phil 2:6–11).18 My goal here is not to discuss whether this “hymn” is pre-Pauline or not, or meant to be sung in the Philippi church, but what is relevant for this discussion is that this hymn provides a clear impulse for mission exemplified by Jesus Christ. Mission originates in the triune God. We are familiar with the statement peppering current missional writings: “Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.”19 Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human, took the form of a doulos (servant). His kenosis is God’s chosen way to reach out to the world. Paul offers to the Philippians a Christ hymn almost like a mnemonic tool that propels them into mission, a “theology-in-action,” as ethnomusicologist Roberta King defines it.20 Yes, hymns and confessions of faith are shaping mission! This is why the Lausanne Movement produced The Lausanne Covenant, followed by The Manila Manifesto and now The Cape Town Commitment.21 We cannot engage in mission without theologies that define mission, missional hermeneutics that identify best practices, and liturgies of mission that generate missionary worship.

This Christ hymn also sets the tone for Paul’s relation with other faith traditions. It reflects the DNA of Christian faith. There is something unique about the way God is revealed in Jesus’ kenosis. So many Muslims have told me how they are both attracted to and puzzled by this self-giving characteristic of God in the Bible. Terry Muck reports how Maseo Abe attempted to develop the concept of “humble holiness,” making parallels between the Buddhist no-self concept and the kenosis passage: “in the end however, the selfless teachings of the New Testament do not approach the radical nature of the no-self doctrine of Buddhism.”22 The Christ hymn should make us as confident as the Philippians, whom Paul encouraged to be bold in their witness and share the good news with all. Paul did not shy away from preaching the gospel; he even ended up in prison as a result. But as we engage in interfaith witness adopting different approaches,23 Philippians 2:1–11 also yields resources for attitudes that should undergird our witness to other faiths. Martha Frederiks’s reflection on “kenosis as a model for interreligious dialogue”24 is an example of how this passage can be applied. She writes, “kenosis as the act of self-emptying does not demand surrender of one’s own identity,”25 and adds, “the model of kenosis links up with a world-wide lived reality that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, African traditional believers etc. perceive each other first of all as fellow human beings, as neighbors, friends, colleagues or relatives with whom they share the same ups and downs of life.”26

Door of Hope, by D. Klitsie

The Christ hymn ends with the exaltation of Christ as Kyrios (Lord) (Phil 2:9–11). Coupled with Revelation 5:9 and 7:9, this concept of the universal Lordship of Christ has greatly motivated mission initiatives throughout history. The vision of people from every cultural and ethnic background confessing Christ and kneeling down in worship shaped missional concepts such as the “unreached people groups”27 or motivated the translation of the Scriptures into every language. Today, Jesus Christ ruling over the cosmos is also influencing new initiatives in mission related to environmental issues. As we wrestle with complex soteriological issues and notions of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism, we must keep in mind the vision of every knee bending and every tongue confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Mission Praxis

Philippians calls us to evaluate our attitudes and behaviors in mission as we follow in the footsteps of Christ. J. Verkuyl reminds us that “if study does not lead to participation, . . . missiology has lost her humble calling.”28 And Orlando Costas adds that missiology “is fundamentally a praxeological phenomenon. It is a critical reflection that takes place in the praxis of mission.”29 What does it mean to live in conformity with Christ? We know that the imitation of Christ has certain limits. There are aspects of Jesus’ self-giving and incarnation that are unique to him and cannot be imitated. Jesus said to Peter, “Where I go, you cannot follow me now” (John 13:36 RSV). Paul (Phil 2:17; 3:15–17; 4:9), Timothy (Phil 2:19–27), and Epaphroditus (Phil 2:19–30) did not shy away, however, from following Christ, with the awareness that the kenosis passage contains references to the death and resurrection of Christ that no human being can imitate.

Philippians also addresses the quality of relations in mission. It is an interaction between church planter (Paul), co-workers (Timothy, Epaphroditus), fellow missionaries (with, at times, controversial mission strategies, Phil 1:15–17), and church members, who are called to have the same mind that was in Christ. G. Walter Hansen calls the epistle a “letter of friendship.” He lists ten friendship motives found in the book: “affection, partnership (koinōnia), unity of soul and spirit, like-mindedness, yokefellow, giving and receiving, common struggles and joy, absence/presence, virtue friendship and moral paradigm.”30 As I discovered this list, I started dreaming of global and local relations in mission displaying these characteristics. We all know the challenges of global and local mission partnerships and how much effort is needed to strengthen and sustain them.31 Is it too much to ask that the concept of friendship be not only used in “friendship-evangelism,” but also to define the relationships between those who engage in mission?

A study of Philippians cannot ignore the notion of suffering for the sake of the gospel. Following Christ does not mean that we will never suffer, and we can certainly not hide this when we invite people to follow Jesus Christ (1 Pet 2:21). It is no accident that most dictionaries of mission have entries on “suffering” and “persecution.” Paul deeply wrestled with this question as do many missionaries who serve in contexts where following Christ can mean imprisonment or death. Even today, many students who attend Fuller come from local and global origins where resistance to the gospel is strong. Suffering for the sake of the gospel is not something new, but how do we understand it? The problem that many have with the kenosis passage is that it has sometimes led missionaries to be passive in the face of suffering, violence, and victimization. I believe that the study of suffering cannot be disconnected from other themes that occur in this book, such as joy,32 exaltation, honor pertaining to self-giving practice, etc. Scott W. Sunquist draws from Philippians 2 to show how the “kenotic identity of Jesus Christ”33 calls for a cruciform Christian journey. But he explains, “The cruciform life is not an end in itself. . . . Love is the motive, kenosis is the means, and transformation is the goal.”34

Finally, this passage deals with the question of whether mission should be done from the vantage point of strength or weakness, a matter fraught with debate. We know that the lack of humility has sometimes led to arrogance and expansionism in global mission. Thus, the question of power is of great concern to missiologists, who adopted theories such as “servant leadership” or “the upside-down kingdom.”35 Referring to the kenotic example of Christ, Barth “argued that Jesus transformed worldly notions of power through his example of leader (power) through the self-emptying love of a servant to others.”36 In African theologies, J. Levison and P. Pope-Levison explain, “Jesus is lord (or chief) because he humbled himself completely in service to the human community and to God, in both life and death (Phil 2:5–8).”37 Thus it is not strange to relate mission with the notion of humility. Kosuke Koyama called the cross of Christ “the utter periphery,” and invited Christians to go like Paul to the periphery “in imitatio Christi.”38 The periphery, he adds, is “without honour and prestige,”39 but, “in the utter periphery where Jesus Christ is, a new possibility for all creation is created,”40 because this is where “Jesus Christ established his authority” (Phil 2:8–9).41


There is enough evidence in this article to support my earlier statement that Philippians has a lot to offer to mission. The scope of this article does not allow me to investigate in detail the theories and concepts here that beg for further elaboration and discussion in the missiological arena. Missiological interpretations of Philippians 2:1–11 should be challenged, we should collect more stories illustrating how believers have the mind of Christ in mission: This is not just an academic exercise. What better place than Fuller to practice having the mind of Christ in mission and to continue this conversation in partnership-friendship with the local and global church?

1. James P. Ware noticed that “the letter has received very little attention in treatments of early Christian mission, and interpreters have not traditionally identified mission as a major concern of the epistle.” Paul and the Mission of the Church: Philippians in Ancient Jewish Context (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), Kindle edition, location 2079.
2. Ibid., location 3115.
3. Ralph P. Martin, Carmen Christi: Philippians 2:5–11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).
4. Alan Neely, “Incarnational Mission,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau, with Harold Netland and Charles Van Engen, associate eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 474–75.
5. Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 24–25.
6. Dean Gilliland, “Contextualization,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau, with Harold Netland and Charles Van Engen, associate eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 225.
7. Scott Moreau, “Contextualization: From an Adapted Message to an Adapted Life,” in The Changing Face of World Missions, ed. Michael Pocock, Gailyn Van Rheenen, and Douglas McConnell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 323.
8. Todd Billings, “The Problem with Incarnational Ministry,” Christianity Today, July/August 2012, 60. See also Harriet Hill, “Lifting the Fog on Incarnational Ministry,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 29 (1993): 262–69.
9. Lamin O. Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 5.
10. Daniel Shaw, “Beyond Contextualization: Toward a Twenty-First-Century Model for Enabling Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34, no 4 (2010): 208–15.
11. Charles E. Van Engen, “What Is Theology of Mission,” Teología y cultura 1 (August 2004): 47.
12. Jonathan J. Bonk, “Money, Wealth,” in Global Dictionary of Theology, ed. William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, with Juan Francisco Martínez and Simon Chan, associate eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 580.
13. See Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003); and C. René Padilla, Mission Between the Times: Essays on the Kingdom, 2nd rev. ed. (Carlisle, Cambria: Langham Monographs, 2010).
14. Kosuke Koyama, “Jesus Christ Who Has Gone to the Utter Periphery,” The Ecumenical Review 43, no. 1 (1991): 105.
15. Neely, “Incarnational Mission,” 475.
16. Levison and P. Pope-Levison, “The New Contextual Christologies: Liberation and Inculturation,” in Global Dictionary of Theology, ed. William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, with Juan Francisco Martínez and Simon Chan, associate eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 180.
17. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Trinity, Triune God,” in Global Dictionary of Theology, ed. William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, with Juan Francisco Martínez and Simon Chan, associate eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 173.
18. See Martin, Carmen Christi.
19. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 390.
20. Roberta R. King, “Music,” in Global Dictionary of Theology, ed. William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, with Juan Francisco Martínez and Simon Chan, associate eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 588.
21. For more detail, see www.lausanne.org/en/documents/all.html.
22. Terry C. Muck, “Buddhism,” in Global Dictionary of Theology, ed. William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, with Juan Francisco Martínez and Simon Chan, associate eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 124.
23. See Martin Accad, “Christian Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach,” in Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry, ed. Evelyne A. Reisacher, with Joseph L. Cumming, Dean S. Gilliland, and Charles E. Van Engen, associate eds. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012).
24. Martha Th. Frederiks, “Kenosis as a Model for Interreligious Dialogue,” Missiology: An International Review 33, no. 2 (2005): 211–22.
25. Ibid., 216.
26. Ibid., 217.
27. Samuel Wilson, “Peoples, People Groups,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau, with Harold Netland and Charles Van Engen, associate eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 744–46.
28. Verkuyl, Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 6.
29. Orlando Costas, Theology of the Crossroads in Contemporary Latin America: Missiology in Mainline Protestantism, 1969–1974 (Amsterdam: Rodopi 1976), 8.
30. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 8–11.
31. See Phill Butler, Well Connected: Releasing Power, Restoring Hope through Kingdom Partnerships (Colorado Springs, CO: Authentic, 2006).
32. See the discussion on “Asherism” in Ellen T. Charry’s God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
33. Scott W. Sunquist, “Missio Dei: Christian History Envisioned as Cruciform Apostolicity,” Missiology: An International Review 37, no. 1 (2009): 39. See also his forthcoming book Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).
34. Ibid., 39.
35. Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, 5th updated ed. (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011).
36. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Christology,” in Global Dictionary of Theology, ed. William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, with Juan Francisco Martínez and Simon Chan, associate eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 173.
37. Levison and Pope-Levinson, “New Contextual Christologies,” 183.
38. Koyama, “Jesus Christ,” 102.
39. Ibid.
40. Ibid.
41. Ibid., 103.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2013, “Have This Mind Among You: Philippians 2:1–11.”