The Status Ladder

Please watch this brief clip before reading the rest of the post. It’s Dr. Seuss, so it will be worth your time.


Seth Godin opened a recent blog post with this line: One of us is wrong, and its not me.

Isn’t this the way every single conflict begins?

One of us is in the way, one of us needs to step aside, and its not me.

James, the brother of Jesus, explains the source of conflict this way:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. James 4:1–2, NIV

Why do we fight? Because we are not getting what we want. Someone else always seems to be standing in our way.

This is one reason it’s so difficult to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel by standing together as one.

We all have our own interests, agendas and ambitions. Eventually we bump into each other heading in opposite directions. We face off. We stare each other down. We make a case for why the other person should step aside.

We trot out our status: Do you know who I am?

We cite our accomplishments: Do you know what I’ve done for this church, for this organization, for this company?

We argue for our own importance: Don’t you realize my project is more important than yours?

On its best days, church is a beautiful community in which we love each other and share fellowship in Christ. On its worst days, church can be a series of standoffs, during which we threaten to run over anyone who gets in our way.

There’s a bit of a standoff in developing in Philippi. Two women, Euodia and Synteche, are in the early stages of staring each other down (4:2). Others in the church may be taking sides.

Paul implores his friends to stand together as one (1:27-30), rather than facing off against each other. Then he tells them how to avoid the kind of conflict that can destroy a church, a team, a family, or a business.

Brace yourself, because Paul is about to give us the secret to getting along with each other. What you’re about to read is revolutionary.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:3–4, NIV

That’s his secret? Surely not. This is standard, Christian boilerplate, behavioral language. No revolution to see here.

Don’t write off his advice just yet. This is one of those times when familiarity with a passage or concept keeps us from seeing how radical Paul’s instructions would have sounded to his original audience.

We think of humility as the ultimate of Christian virtues, an ideal we aspire to, but the ancients scorned humility as a vice. They considered it a sign of weakness.

In the Greco-Roman world, it was the “hero” who was admired. A hero was someone who overcame obstacles and defeated his enemies on the way to greatness! He shaped the world around him into his image by sheer force of will. Heroes were lavished with status, honor and recognition.

The Romans based everything on status and honor. Society was a ladder. The goal was to climb to the top of it, by any means possible. It made for a brutal, competitive culture. Imagine living in a world where everyone around you is obsessed with status. (I know it’s difficult, but try.)

In Who is This Man?, John Ortberg summarizes the different ways in which those living in the Roman Empire displayed their status at different stations up and down the social ladder.

Caesar was at the top of the ladder. He was the ultimate hero, set apart from everyone else. He used his influence, among other things, to popularize a hideous haircut. Just below Caesar were the Senators. The Equestrians were below the Senators. They got their name from being able to afford horses for military affairs. Back then, people apparently considered your mode of transportation to be a status symbol. The Decurians took their place on the ladder just below the Equestrians. They held government and priestly offices.

These classes formed the top 2% of the Roman Empire. They flew first class. The other 98% were stuck back in coach. The cultural elite referred to them as “the rabble.” The rabble had its own status categories as well.

At the top of their section of the ladder were the Roman citizens. They enjoyed certain legal protections and rights. For example, a Roman citizen could never be crucified, but they could be decapitated or burned alive. All three forms of punishment were equally deadly, but options two and three were considered to be less shameful than crucifixion. Below the citizens were the Freedmen. They were ex-slaves. While they didn’t have the same rights as citizens, they enjoyed freedom not known to slaves. At the very bottom of the ladder, were the slaves. They had no rights, no freedom, no status whatsoever. Crucifixion was reserved for slaves. It was informally known as the “slave’s punishment.”

According to Ortberg, every aspect of Roman life, from clothing to occupation to seating at parties, was a means to communicate status. Freedmen wore a special cap to indicate they were no longer slaves. Male citizens wore togas. Senators decorated their toga with a purple stripe. Equestrians couldn’t wear the stripe, but they were allowed to stitch a logo of a mallet swinging rider on a horse on the front of their toga (Don’t fact check this). The most honorable occupation was to own vast tracts of land and have slaves work on it. The elite never did manual labor. At private parties, guests were seated according to their social status. Hosts would sometimes invite guests of inferior rank just to highlight their own status. If you were a guest of inferior rank, you might be served inferior food to reinforce your inferiority.

So when Paul says to his friends in Philippi, “in humility consider others better than yourselves.” He’s asking them to set aside everything they’ve been taught about how their society is ordered. He’s telling them to do the exact opposite of what has been ingrained in them regarding both public and private behavior.

Instead of facing off against each other and insisting you get your way, give up your status and treat others as if they’re more important than you are.

This is crazy talk. This is not the way their world worked. He’s inviting them to commit social suicide. He better have a pretty good rationale for asking them to behave in such a scandalous way.

And he does.

(To be continued)


  1. Larry Henderson says:

    Hummm….the mallet swinging equestrian logo? I think I have one of those heirlooms.

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