Live as citizens?

In Philippians 1:27 Paul encourages the Philippian Christians concerning their conduct:

Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ so that – whether I come and see you or whether I remain absent – I should hear that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, by contending side by side for the faith of the gospel (NET Bible)

The word translated "conduct yourselves" in this verse from the NET Bible is the word πολιτεύομαι (politeuomai), and there is an interesting debate about its meaning. The question is whether it has a general meaning (like "conduct yourselves" in the NET Bible or "live your life" in the NRSV) or a more specific meaning (like "live as citizens" in the God's Word translation). Either is possible here. What's the difference, and how does one decide which Paul intended?

If the verb has a general meaning, it would be synonymous with the verb "walk" which Paul uses elsewhere to describe Christian conduct as a whole (for example, see  Rom 13:13; Eph 4:1; Col 1:10; 1 Thess 2:12; 4:12). If the verb has the more specific meaning, it would invoke the metaphor of citizenship to describe behavior. A decision about which meaning is in play can be made by looking at lexical and contextual evidence.

  1. The specific connotation of citizenship is a very common element of this word's meaning, as indicated by standard lexical tools.
  2. There is a strong element of mutual obligation and support in this section of the letter, which lends itself to the metaphor of citizenship.
  3. In Philippians 3:20 Paul clarifies this idea by stating it in a parallel way: "our citizenship is in heaven."
  4. The city of Philippi was an Roman colony. The more specific definition would really resonate with the political, cultural reality of these believers.
When all is said and done, we have to make this decision with reasonable judgment; we can't be 100% certain, but we can make an appropriate assessment based on the evidence. Here I favor the more specific meaning. Paul uses the metaphor of citizenship to drive home the important obligation the Philippian believers have to live in light of their connection to heaven. It has a stronger emotive force than a more general verb would, and Paul uses it appropriately with his audience given their unique situation as a Roman colony.