What IS “the form of a slave”?

“Taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7)

What a powerful statement! This is the description of Christ in the world, given to us in Paul’s letter to the young church at Philippi. The glory of God is laid to one side, and Jesus “taking the form of a slave” enters the world on our behalf. But what is “the form of a slave”? How can it be “taken up”?

It means serving and helping, without pay or reward.

Clearly, it also means the end of ownership, of private areas of authority and control. As Jesus said, quite candidly, “I have come not to be served but to serve.”

So if the church is the body of Christ in the world, is it then also to take “the form of a slave”?

And to whom is it enslaved? Is it enslaved to God, or to the people of the world? Well, both, of course. Jesus told us that “Love God and love your neighbour” encompasses the entire duty of man.

It reminds me of that provocative statement of Bonhoeffer’s, that “The Church is her true self only when she exists for humanity.”

The danger is that we stop reading there and nod wisely at Bonhoeffer’s wisdom, making the insight into a mere “thought-for-the-day ” that ultimately means very little more than “Be nice.”

But Bonhoeffer went on to make a number of practical suggestions about the form of this “slavery.”

“As a fresh start, the Church should give away all her endowments to the poor and needy. The clergy should live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. She must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men, but helping and serving them. She must tell men, whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.”

If, like me, you are the paid employee of a religious institution, then such statements are difficult to receive without a certain amount of defensive hand-wringing. They are uncomfortable.

But are they not true?

In our day, it may feel as if the “church” has circled the wagons and withdrawn into a protective, embattled siege-mentality with an ever-shrinking outer perimeter. In such a situation we become absorbed in problems of supply and survival.

If the church takes on “the form of a slave,” however, everything is set for change. There are no longer any lines drawn between “us” and “them” and no property or ideology to protect! There are only people left.

And once you have no rights at all, you are finally in a position to wash feet.

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