Conversation, Conduct or Citizenship (Philippians 1:27a)?
Jul 19, 2010 by Craig Blomberg | 0 Comments
“Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ...” (KJV)
“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ...” (NIV)
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ...” (RSV, ESV)
“Whatever happens, as citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (TNIV)
What’s in a word? In Elizabethan English, the word “conversation” could mean “conduct.” The Greek verb, politeuomai, in Philippians 1:27, has nothing whatsoever to do with speaking, per se, so the translators of the King James Version in 1611 were clearly talking about behavior when they penned, “only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” Anybody who insists on reading an unrevised KJV today is highly unlikely to catch this nuance, unless someone has specifically taught them this, or they are avid readers of Shakespeare!
The majority of modern translations thus use words having to do with behavior, conduct, or manner of living. The old RSV spoke of one’s “manner of life,” and the ESV, which is an updating of the RSV, saw no need to change it here. The NIV speaks explicitly about conduct. The HCSB and NRSV likewise read “live your life in a manner...” while the NET and NASB mirror the NIV and use “conduct yourselves.”
But NLT, like the TNIV printed above, speaks of living “as citizens of heaven.” Where does this come from? The noun that is cognate to (i.e., from the same root as) politeuomai is politeuma and means citizenship. In Philippians 3:20, Paul uses this noun to declare explicitly that “our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly await a Savior, Jesus Christ.” All of the versions I’ve mentioned so far use “citizenship” here except the RSV, which used “commonwealth” and the KJV which again used “conversation” in the old Elizabethan sense.
Is Paul already anticipating his discussion of 3:20 in 1:27? Is he investing a little extra meaning into the verb politeuomai in this earlier passage in Philippians than is usually implied by the term? The only other place the verb occurs in the New Testament is in Acts 23:1, in which Luke cites Paul affirming his good conduct throughout his life as a Christian. All the other occurrences in the Greek Bible (i.e., the Septuagint) come in the Apocrypha, once in the Additions to Esther and seven times in 2nd through 4th Maccabees, and never is the idea of citizenship present. Completely extra-biblical sources offer some support for the concept of citizenship, but it’s seldom the main point of the word.
What about “of heaven” in 1:27 in the NLT and TNIV? This expression corresponds to nothing in the Greek, even on the assumption that politeuomai does carry the sense of “live as citizens” here. But of course, Paul isn’t talking about following the laws of the Roman colony of Philippi, but of obeying God’s standards as revealed in the gospel, in God’s kingdom. And the affirmation that “our citizenship is in heaven” will explicitly appear in 3:20. So to clarify the distinction, translators who introduce citizenship into 1:27 have to go on and add something like “of heaven” to distinguish the two kinds of citizenship.
But then the danger is to view Paul’s command as ascetic, separatist or otherworldly: “live as though you were already in heaven and not on earth” or something like that, which is not Paul’s point at all! Quite the opposite, Paul was very much talking about how to live on this earth, just not saying to follow merely human or secular standards of ethics. So the translations that speak only of good conduct in Philippians 1:27 are both the safest and the least confusing. Better to save citizenship in heaven for chapter 3.
It’s also another good reminder that, if you can’t read the Greek or Hebrew, always consult two or three translations, not just one. There is no translation anywhere that has always made the best choices in every passage!