The Politics of Emboldening Witness—Philippians 1:1-18a (John Allen)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

Within many criminal justice systems, deterrence is a significant element of the rationale of imprisonment. However, Paul’s letter to the Philippians reveals the emboldening power of imprisonment for faithful witness. The example set by courageous leaders who will risk imprisonment for the sake of truth and justice continues to have great power, even within our contemporary situation.

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.

15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. 16 These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defence of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. 18 What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.


We are fascinated by writings from prison. Major social prophets of the 20th century, Bonhoeffer, King, Mandela, and Ghandi all wrote some of their best known works while imprisoned. Writings by people who are in jail have greater credibility and weight and the author’s circumstance lends gravity and urgency to the words. Paul’s letter to the Philippians was also written from prison. He takes time at the beginning of the letter to reflect on his imprisonment and what it means in the context of his mission to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the salutation of his letter to the Philippians Paul offers reassurance that his imprisonment is not so much impeding his witness of the gospel as advancing it. Not only because of his opportunity to teach his guards about Jesus, but also because his imprisonment has given his sisters and brothers the confidence to “speak the word of God with greater boldness and less fear.” How can that be? Should Paul’s imprisonment not shake their confidence? From Paul’s time until now systems of criminal justice have been rooted, at least in part, in the theory of deterrence. If someone’s behavior leads to their imprisonment, the hope is that it will make otherslessconfident and bold in those behaviors.

Still Paul insists that his being in prison will only embolden Jesus’ followers in their cause. Folded in with anecdotal evidence from other familiar social movements, it would seem he is correct. An imprisoned leader with a strong voice can lend credibility, urgency, and potency to movements for social change. I suspect this is partly because so many yearn for a different world but feel trapped in the world as it is. For many, especially in marginalized groups, they cannot struggle for justice ceaselessly and survive, and survival is rightly a higher value.

But we are well instructed, from time to time, by brave leaders who step out and face consequences for their convictions. They show us that it is possible to forsake stability for the cause of justice and their witness emboldens us all.

A group of United Church of Christ pastors in North Carolina are publicly declaring that they are willing to face jail time in order to carry out their ministry. North Carolina law holds that performing a marriage ceremony for a couple without a marriage license is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which could carry the penalty of jail time. It is currently impossible for a same-gendered couple to secure a marriage license in North Carolina. This means that in order to “minister impartially to the needs of all,” as all United Church of Christ clergy vowed to do at their ordination, it may be necessary to commit a crime in North Carolina. There are places, even in our own country, where one can be sent to jail for the sake of the gospel.

While none of these leaders is likely to be prosecuted, their witness lends credibility to the gospel because of their willingness to face consequences. So, should the state of North Carolina begin arresting pastors for performing weddings for same-gender couples, what happens will only “help the spread of the gospel,” and perhaps others of us may “dare to speak the word of God with greater boldness and less fear.”

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