Studying Scripture Outside the IFB

Wrestling with Scripture
What you do when you know your pastor isn’t getting it right…

Unapproved Bible Study

Over the years, Independent, Fundamental Baptists have denounced and forbidden many things. But Bible study is one activity you might think qualifies as a pre-approved activity needing no special pastoral approval. So long as your pastor [or some approved associate in ministry] leads the Bible study, it seems unlikely that IFBs would disapprove of it.

But then ‘so long as’ and ‘your’ pastor imply that for all IFBs claim to promote it, even Bible study may end up on the ‘do not’ list of censored activities. If such rules apply in your case, read no further. It’s highly unlikely your IFB pastor would approve of what’s about to happen.

We began our study last time with Step One: we gather and survey data.

Philippians 2:12 in Context

‘So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;’

Step Two: we look at the context of the text in question.

When believers at Philippi faced division [Phil 1:27], opposition [1:28] and conflict [1:30], Paul urged them to stand with one spirit and mind, striving together for the gospel [Phi 1:27]. In the midst of that depressing and draining situation, he points them in Phil 2:1 to–

  • the encouragement in Christ,
  • the consolation of love,
  • the fellowship of the Spirit,
  • affection and compassion

The practice of harmony [be one in mind, spirit, love, unity and purpose –2:2] mends division. Selfishness and conceit set aside, speaking humbly to opponents and estimating them highly [Phil 2:3] deescalates conflict significantly. So does investing in opponents’ interests [2:4].

As our pattern, Paul points to Jesus himself [2:5]. His ‘gentleness’ and ‘humility’ in the incarnation, and his obedience in suffering and death on the cross is our pattern for relating to others. We are to relate to and bear with opponents in imitation of how Christ bore our opposition to him.

Having humbled himself and borne with OUR opposition, Jesus was lifted up [2:9]. One day, he will be recognized universally [2:11]. It is in view of all these things that we ‘work out’ our salvation ‘in fear and trembling.’

Then the prohibitions resume. Paul forbids grumbling and disputing [2:14]. This echoes Phil 2:3. But there’s more. While stated antithetically, Phil 2:3 and Phil 2:14 stand in parallel construction.

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit’ [Phil 2:3].
Do all things without grumbling or disputing’ [Phil 2:14]

This is a clue to meaning. The parallelism shows that this whole passage functions as a single, literary unit. That’s is why it is so cohesive. That’s why Paul’s spiritual strategy is so keenly honed to their specific situation. That’s why Paul speaks to this conflict with uncanny accuracy. That’s why he gave us a very tightly woven reading with no missing or superfluous words. Every syllable is weighed and measured.

In Phil 2, ‘working out salvation’ means humility of mind, looking out for others’ interests, esteeming them above oneself and obeying all the things Paul has been discussing. And it is doing so in imitation of Christ.

The theme of ‘joy’ also runs throughout this passage. Paul speaks of their joy in their faith [1:25], asks them to make his joy full [2:2], shares his joy with them [2:17], and bids them share their joy with him [2:18]. This also implies the unity of the passage. And it expresses the relationship between Paul and the Philippians. Lastly, joy frames the spirit in which Paul hoped they would respond to the faith situation in their city.

General observations on Phil 2:12

  1. Whatever ‘fear and trembling’ means, the action required was present all along — you have always obeyed. The call is to ‘keep getting it right.’
  2. ‘[You] work out your salvation’ is followed by ‘God is at work in you both to will and to work…’ [2:13]. This sounds rather like the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ which God produces in us, and the Ep. 2:10 good works ordained for us.
  3. Jesus’ life is the paradigm for ours. This ‘gentleness’ is rugged stuff. It can mean bearing great weight and refusing to respond the way our flesh, culture and instincts tell us to respond. Gentleness is not weak.

We can now consider how best to read Phil 2:12.