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Philippians 4:13 checkbook cover. Image courtesy of Karen Mancinelli.

Assembling New Possibilities from the Christ Collectives in Philippi

It is important to notice the ways in which economic language seeps into theology and to be attentive to the ways in which interpretations of scripture can either reinscribe exploitative harm or help imagine alternative possibilities for human flourishing.

Theology and economics overlap in interesting ways in Christianity—from Shane Claiborne’s Simple Way, a neo-monastic group that pools its resources, to the theology of prosperity gospel preachers such as Creflo Dollar. Christians use the Bible in diverse ways to think about economics and theology as intertwined. They read and interpret biblical texts to consider God’s role in both the structural and personal financial systems of God’s followers, and they use the Bible to regulate right practices and beliefs around money, giving, savings, banking, wealth, and even investments. It is important to notice the ways in which economic language seeps into theology and to be attentive to the ways in which interpretations of scripture can either reinscribe exploitative harm or help imagine alternative possibilities for human flourishing. The earliest followers of Christ, too, sometimes did harm and sometimes imagined alternative possibilities for human flourishing. Evidence for both harm and hope are collected in the texts Christians today read in the New Testament. 

I have been thinking a lot about Philippians because my first book focuses on theological and economic logics in the Letter to the Philippians. At the beginning of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Paul offers gratitude for the Philippians: “I thank my God every time I remember you because of your sharing (koinōnia) in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Phil 1:3-5)

Koinōnia, a term often translated as “sharing” or “fellowship,” has financial connotations; it is largely deployed in contracts. I have been reading texts that scholars do not often consider when reading scripture, looking at leases and sale agreements, including a lot of camel sales. There are a surprising number of camel sales in antiquity. Koinōnia-cognates, to quote a recent book by Julien Ogereau, “essentially expressed the idea of partnership, be it economic, political, marital, or otherwise” (216). By thinking about the term as one in which parties share risk and reward, it becomes clearer that a “koinōnia in the gospel” may have been heard and received as a collective venture. 

If people were going to rent some land together to grow crops, they would draw up a koinōnia. They would split the costs for rent and seeds, they would share the labor of tilling the soil and planting, and, at the right time, they would share the reward of the harvest together. There is shared risk and shared reward in farming. The crop might fail, insects might come, the rains might never fall. By working in a koinōnia, those risks and losses are spread out so as not to hurt as much, and the rewards of a plentiful harvest are also shared. 

This is precisely the imagery we find in Philippians 1:3-11. With the term koinōnia, Paul describes a collective gospel in which both liability and potential reward are shared. The Philippians have participated and mutually invested in the gospel from the first day until now. In Philippians 1:6, Paul writes I have confidence in this, that the one who began a good work in you will complete it by the day of Jesus Christ.” Two other participants in the venture of the gospel are introduced to the collective: “the one who began a good work,” presumably God, and Jesus Christ. There are divine-human entanglements in this collective. 

These entanglements may seem surprising to us, but are actually quite normal in the ancient world. Many texts and objects from the ancient world demonstrate that divine and human beings regularly transacted with each other in intertwined theological and economic logics which I call “theo-economics.”[I] Divine and semi-divine beings were understood as having vibrant materialitywithin the economic sphere, and that the gods were understood as economic actors, with whom humans could transact. 

When I use the term theo-economics to describe an ancient context in which divine and human beings regularly transact with each other, I am attempting to capture a complexity about the ancient world that has been difficult for contemporary scholarly disciplines to describe. Bruno Latour, in We Have Never Been Modern, shares the experience of studying “strange situations that the intellectual culture in which we live does not know how to categorize” (3). Translating an ancient context into an academic conversation which often siloes the study of the economy from the study of religion requires a word that can retie two areas, theology and economy, which are often treated separately in the contemporary academy. 

As Latour ends his book with the image of the Parliament of Things, he acknowledges that “there are times when new words are needed to convene a new assembly” (145). Exploring entangled networks of theology and economics requires assembling together perhaps disparate pieces of evidence, of thinking about camel contracts and coins alongside scripture. I am using theo-economics as a methodological intervention that keeps to the fore the transactional entanglements of humans and divines and the possibility of divines as economically actant when reading early Christian texts. 

At a time before we had the word Christian, the words we used to describe these earliest communities in Christ were in flux. Some called themselves an assembly, ekklēsia, modeling themselves after democratic bodies, including the Athenian assembly. But the Philippians called themselves a koinōnia, a collective community, and they understood God as part of that collective. I wonder, sometimes, what it would look like if these collective moments of shared risk, shared reward, and collective farming, were the texts and images that contemporary Christians turned to most frequently to describe themselves?

At this moment when democracy unravels (or has it always been unravelling?) at the seams, I wonder more often. After all, the ancient Athenian democracy was open only to free male citizens. At a time of global pandemic where conversations about whose lives have value, once whispered among the 1%, are now openly discussed on national television, this free market capitalist economy’s inversion of providing the least compensation to those at highest risk is exposed. What would it look like today if koinōnia, if mutual community investment, if collectives had become the more prominent way in which life together in Christian community was understood? What it would look like if more communities organized in the way the early Philippian Christ followers did, in koinōnia? The concurrent calls for economic transformation alongside recent Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the globe, from redirecting funds from police departments towards community investment, to crowdsourced fundraising for bail funds, to local collectives redirecting donors to support other local organizations once they have received in abundance, demonstrate the power of collective action and community investment. 

Alternative presents and futures come with their own challenges and risks. But this language of koinōnia comes not from some upper middle-class church with a large endowment. Rather, the Philippian communities were the likely the poorest of the communities in Christ to which Paul wrote. Paul uses the Philippians to shame the Corinthians for not giving enough in 2 Corinthians 8, writing, “In the midst of a very severe trial, [the Philippians’] overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” Most telling, when Paul is in jail (Philippians is a prison letter), who does he turn to for help? Not the community with the most resources, but the community that understands itself as mutually invested in the work. He turns to folks he knows will show up and share, even if they do not have a lot. Too often scholars, including biblical scholars, have treated the poor as an object of study, only worth studying for their lack of resources. Poor folks have vibrant theologies that are not only about their poverty. And we have the Philippian Christ collectives (and not a heroized Paul) to thank for this vibrant model of koinōnia, of mutually shared risk and reward for the sake of the gospel— a project in which God is entangled. I wonder, to echo Latour again, if new words are needed to assemble new possibilities? 

[i]David Wilhite coined this term in a chapter on Tertullian’s interpretation of Paul in Ad uxorem in Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception, 222–24.Wilhite calls for a resistance against “modernist dichotomies…between religion and economics,” in order to “read Tertullian as very much concerned with both economic issues and religious ones –the line between the two often being imperceptible” (224). I agree with Wilhite but also mean something slightly different in my use of the theo-economics. 

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Assembling New Possibilities from the Christ Collectives in Philippi

It is important to notice the ways in which economic language seeps into theology and to be attentive to the ways in which interpretations of scripture can either reinscribe exploitative harm or help imagine alternative possibilities for human flourishing.

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