How should we read Paul, ya’ll?
Why reading the Bible like a Southerner makes sense of confusing passages.
I know what you’re thinking: What a provocative headline! Surely you’re not serious! Or more likely, What in the world are you talking about?
Well, dear reader, stay tuned and hear me out.
Not only do today’s Christians often read their Bible’s in a narcissistic way, they also tend to have a low view of the visible church. But, I hope that this brief essay can help mend some of those errors. I suppose the best way to explain myself is to jump right in with a scriptural example.
“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Let me be honest with you. There was a time when that verse really frightened me. What’s Paul talking about? What does “work out” mean? How hard do I need to work? What if I don’t “work out” my salvation with enough fear and enough trembling? Maybe I’m not saved by grace alone. What if I’m saved by grace plus the correct amount of “working”?
We tend to take this passage to be a challenge to have a longer quiet time or a call to something akin to more spiritual hustling. But, that understanding only works if we rip the verse from both its context and audience. The truth is Paul isn’t writing to an individual, he’s writing to a congregation. In fact, that’s how he begins his letter to the Philippians (and the Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Romans). So, he’s not talking to a “you” he’s talking to a “ya’ll”.
“Ya’ll” the southern vernacular slang contraction for “you all” is technically bad english. But, it is actually good greek. And it is surprisingly the perfect second person plural pronoun for addressing a group or congregation. And, when you substitute in “ya’ll” in the place of “you” or your” you’ll read the the epistles in a way that makes it both easier to understand Paul and helps you see the centrality of Christian community. After all, other than the pastoral epistles of first and second Timothy and Titus, the rest of the New Testament is written not to individuals but to congregations.
So, with all of that preface out of the way, let’s re-read that Philippians 2 verse with a more faithful understanding of Paul’s audience and intent.
“work out yall’s own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in ya’ll, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” -Philippians 2:12-13
We know that in the Philippian church the issue that Paul is addressing is disunity among the saints. Just a few verses earlier he’s made it clear that his joy is incomplete because of the rivalry he’s heard of in their congregation:
“complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
So, he’s calling a group of believers to not be divided.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Clearly the church is riddled with selfish ambition and rivalry. And, Paul is exhorting them to look to Christ’s humility as their example.
As kids,when my sister and I would frequently fuss and fight. My parents would often seek to end our squabbles by telling us to “work it out.”. And, likewise, Paul is reminding this congregation not only of their new identity in Christ, he’s reminding them that Christ modeled humility and selflessness. Paul is saying, “work out the implications of your new identity in Christ.” The body of Christ is no place for rivalry, ambition, arrogance, and division.
Inserting a “ya’ll” helps us understand Paul better. It helps this verse make sense. It is a necessary check on our tendency to have a high view of ourselves and a low view of the church.