Revisiting Philippians 2:22

by | 22 Mar, 2021

If we’re looking for biblical patterns of leadership development, let’s not neglect the Paul-Timothy example in Philippians 2. It can certainly be misused but, carefully handled and applied, it has the potential to be a hugely helpful text. 

Leadership development: the goal

I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 2:20)

Timothy is exceptional. Paul has ‘no one else like him’. It’s ok to say that. Yes, all believers are on exactly the same level in respect to justification and status, but there are differences in spiritual maturity and ministry ability. Timothy is Paul’s indispensable right hand, his co-worker, yoked together with him and massively valued.

Why? What is so exceptional about Timothy? What does Paul value so highly about him? Timothy loves the church. He has a ‘genuine concern for your welfare.’ He is a people person. He really wants to do you good. He exemplifies what Paul was speaking about earlier in the chapter – considering others more than self, not looking to your own interests but to the interests of others (Phil. 2:3-4). That is Christlikeness (Phil. 2:5-8). And it’s a participation in the intense love of Christ for his church (Phil. 1:8).

And what does it actually mean to do good to others? What is the welfare of the church in Philippi? Well, Paul has already defined that:

Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith (Phil. 1:25)

That is one of the most brilliant verses on the goal of gospel ministry anywhere in the Bible. It’s the sort of thing to write on the top of your preaching notes or engrave in your pulpit. Paul is saying to the Philippians that the only thing keeping him on earth is working for their greater joy in Christ. That is ‘your welfare’ and simultaneously ‘the interest of Christ’. This is what is for our good and His glory. This is what we’re aiming at in gospel ministry.

I can’t state strongly enough how vital it is that we see this goal in leadership development. Above all we want people who get this. We want people who love people and are desperately concerned to do them good by working alongside them for their progress and joy in Christ.

Leadership development: the method

But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (Phil. 2:22)

Notice here:

  • Proved himself – Paul has not been hasty in laying on hands. Timothy came with great references (Acts 16:2) but Paul didn’t just rely on that. He gave Timothy time to prove himself. That means not being premature in giving leadership but at the same time giving someone meaningful opportunities to serve and prove themselves in all sorts of circumstances and under all sorts of pressures.
  • Son with a father – This is where we need to be careful. We don’t want to overplay this. There is absolutely no suggestion here or anywhere in the NT that the dynamics of obedience, authority, discipline, dependence and responsibility that govern the relationship between a small child and a parent should map onto the relationship between a senior gospel worker and their mentee. That’s the road to abuse. The similarity here is specifically to their relationship as they are serving together. As a father and son in the ancient world would often work together, the son learning the trade of the father, so here with Paul and Timothy. But neither do we want to underplay this relational language. There is real warmth here (cf. 2 Tim. 1:2).
  • Served with me – They worked alongside each other. Timothy saw Paul teaching and counselling and loving and suffering. Paul gave Timothy opportunities to serve and he was there with him as Timothy served so he could give him feedback afterwards. That’s a real sacrifice of time: 1) delegation time, 2) time in the session watching Timothy, 3) time afterwards to give feedback. That’s a lot of time when Paul can’t do his own ministry stuff. That’s a real investment in leadership development.
  • In the gospel – Paul gave Timothy serious gospel ministry opportunities – preaching, teaching, counselling – not just opportunities to carry his bags.
  • Notice also that Paul is commending Timothy to the Philippians and he’s doing that once Timothy has proved himself. Two errors we can fall into: 1) commending people when they’re unproven, 2) never commending people at all. Some cultures and personalities are likely to go with one extreme or the other. If we commend those who are unproven then we may well live to regret it. It’s like hastily laying on hands. We’re setting before the church an example which may later turn out to be a bad example. We’re being superficial and naïve. On the other hand, if we never praise people before others then we are missing the opportunity to deeply encourage a brother. But more importantly, we are missing an opportunity to teach the church (and through a flesh and blood example) what godliness looks like – and specifically what Christian leadership should look like. Making the most of those kinds of opportunities is likely to lead to more people aspiring to be Timothys.

Leadership development: a first step

So what might be a first step in mentoring a potential Timothy? Well, I think the letter to the Philippians leads me to give this answer: work on spiritual formation first. By spiritual formation, I don’t mean some kind of floaty mystical thing or a pietistic devotional kind of religion. What I mean is that we want to help people to be the kind of people who:

  • are secure in sovereign grace (Phil. 1:6);
  • are increasingly abounding in love for other believers (Phil. 1:9);
  • are increasingly wise and discerning (Phil. 1:10);
  • have fruit in their lives that makes people glorify God (Phil. 1:11);
  • are concerned about the advance of the gospel (Phil. 1:12);
  • can say ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ (Phil. 1:21);
  • increasingly experience the joy of being united to Christ, loved by the Father, sharing in the Spirit (Phil. 1:25; 2:1);
  • look outward to others rather than being wrapped up in themselves (Phil. 2:4);
  • are seeking to hold out the word of life to those around them (Phil. 2:16);
  • no longer put their confidence in their goodness or achievements but consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ (Phil. 3:8);
  • understand that they are clothed in Christ’s righteousness and trust in that alone for acceptance (Phil. 3:9);
  • are pushing on to know Christ more, his resurrection power and sufferings (Phil. 3:10);
  • are eagerly awaiting Christ’s return and the resurrection life (Phil. 3:20-21);
  • are turning anxieties into prayer (Phil. 3:6);
  • are learning contentment (Phil. 4:12);
  • are worshipping God through giving to mission (Phil. 4:18).

You could call this discipleship. It’s the normal Christian life which is exceptional. It’s about the life of the Spirit, the life as a child of God, the life where Christ is everything.

My point is that we must be very careful not to skip over this stage of spiritual formation in a hurry to get to leadership development. First and foremost, Timothy needed to be all these things. He needed to remember the Scriptures his mother had taught him and to be ‘wise for salvation’. He needed to have this foundation of security in Christ, love for Jesus, love for other people. And then on that foundation he could learn to be a skilled, proven, gospel worker, teaching and preaching the Word, planting churches, shepherding, overseeing, trouble-shooting.

So what would be a good first step with someone you’d like to mentor towards leadership? Surely reading Philippians itself would be a brilliant thing to do? It’s no accident that Discipleship Explored follows Philippians. It’ll do anyone good and it could be a great first step for a potential Timothy. Read it first and foremost for their heart (and your own heart). Don’t rush to the ministry applications. Let them soak in the affection of Christ Jesus and wonder at his humility and get to the point where they say, ‘To live is Christ.’ And from that foundation you can then work together on how exactly to serve and lead others.

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