Wednesday 27 February 2008

Paul and Community

Paul and Community
A sampling of views and opinions on
Paul and His work as community Builder.

In pursuing my studies of Paul, and Pauline theology, I have come to appreciate and understand many themes and issues worthy of discussion and further inquiry. Yet the one that grabbed at my heart and mind to
me for further attention was that of 'Paul and community'. It is of particular concern for me, as the struggles around the meaning of 'community' and the process of building and maintaining 'community' within the Body of Christ are of as much import today as in Paul's day. Since many of his letters are addressed to congregations, nay I say communities he founded and helped shape, yet the same struggles and problems are evident in today's Church thus today's church communities. So I believe that Paul's endeavors to create community, and to sustain it after his leaving are worthy of consideration.

I owe much of my process along this path to Ben Witherington III, and his book The Paul Quest. Which spurred me in this direction. Witherington states in his book "Paul is a community-oriented person who values community preservation over personal privilege." Thus for Paul the community of believers was to come first and foremost. Witherington also states "he (Paul) gained his primary sense of identity not from his physical family but from his Christian family and his relationship with Christ." Thus we see a man who not only put community first, but also gained his own purpose and drive from that community and those relationships. But many questions beg to be asked:
  • Why this focus on community?
  • What sort of community?
  • How is community expressed?
  • How did Paul create community?
From these questions we have a springboard from which to approach the study of Paul and community. However I must state that this list is in no way comprehensive in regards to this topic, but they will lead us on a journey to deeper understanding, and even more questions for further perusal.

The question of why such a focus on community is a good place for us to start. From our previous study on Paul, we must ask why would a Jewish Pharisee begin
witnessing to Gentiles about a Jewish messiah. The answer is in Paul's experience on the Damascus road and the changes that lead to in his heart, mind and spirit. As can be seen from Paul's Superscripto from 2nd Corinthians 1:1 "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,…, to the church of God which is at Corinth." Paul sees himself as an apostle and as being called and sent by God. Again Paul Clearly outlines his self view in Galatians1:11-16 "For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, now was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother's womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles."

Here we see a man who used to live in one community, who is now reaching out beyond those boundaries to create a new community that crosses ethnocentric, and religious boundaries. Paul believed he had a call to preach, and his preaching was interwoven with community building. I would go so far as to state that for Paul you could not have Christ followers without having community. Robert Banks also echoes this idea in his book, Paul's idea of Community; he states, "To embrace the gospel, then, is to enter into community. A person cannot have one without the other." Yet this interlinking of the two was deliberate. Banks also states: "In the wake of Paul's travels throughout the Mediterranean, Christian communities sprang up, consolidated and began to multiply. This was the outcome of a deliberate policy on his part. He not only proclaimed the message about Christ and brought people into an intimate relationship with God, but he also explained the consequences of that message for the life of his converts and led them into a personal relationship with one another." Therefore Paul has no choice but to have a focus on community. For that community is interlinked and inseparable from the message of Salvation, which is through Jesus Christ. Now those communities were not perfect and they had problems, much like the Church and churches today still have problems and struggles. This could also then lead us to the question; why is there not clearer instructions on this concept of community in Paul's writings, but that will have to await further studies.

Now that we see that Paul's focus on community was a direct result of his understanding of his call, and the Gospel he preached we must now move onto the question of 'What sort of Community?'

The question of 'what sort' of community is much harder to answer than that of why the focus on community. From my course notes for RS209 May 13th 1998 there are 5 distinct advantages to house Churches, and thus early Christian communities:

1. Distinctively Christian Worship.

2. Some members had high social status (Providing the house).
3. Made intelligible the attention Paul makes to Families.
4. Training of early Christians.
5. At least one person in the community had to have a house in the town, thus there could be a safe environment for the Christians to meet in.

Yet even with this understanding of requirements and advantages of Christian Communities, there are many unanswered issues. Abraham Malherbe in his book, Social Aspects of Early Christians, states: "The current interest in the social aspects of early Christian communities has called for attention to be focused on the communities formed by Christians. Several difficulties, however, confront us in our attempts to describe their constitution from within." However Malherbe's recognition of the difficulties, and my own hesitation should not stop us from wrestling with this vital question. Paul himself has much to say on this topic. First Paul has a desires for there to be unity in the church is clearly seen in from Philippians 2:2 he states, "make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose". Paul also goes on to state that he is responsible to preach to many people groups for in Romans 1:14 he says: "I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and foolish." And in verse 16 "For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes - Jews first and also gentiles." Thus we see his belief that this community can encompass all people groups, Jews, Greeks and barbarians. Paul also clearly states that his teachings are for all churches he has been involved with, that Christian doctrine should be universal in application, in 1st Corinthians 4:17 outlines this: "For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church." Here we see a concern on Paul's part for those he has taught, that they continue to grow and learn and practice what he has taught them. Paul also has great concern that the communities continue to live the truth, for in Galatians 1:6,7 Paul clearly states there is but one Gospel, and is concerned that the church in Galatia is turning from it. "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ." So therefore from the above argument, if the gospel and community were interrelated realities, the perversion of the one would also be a perversion of the other. Thus if the Galatians turn from the true gospel, they also turn from true community.

Since from this small sampling we see that Paul had great concern for the Christian community, and for the individual churches within that larger community. Witherington states, "Paul clearly believed that "in-house" and "In community" Christianity could make a difference in the first Cent
ury world. … Living as a new community, a model of how the new creation changes things, Christians bore good witness to a new worldview." Therefore the community's lifestyle was not just for their own sake but also for the sake of witness. Wayne Meeks makes some very interesting observations; I would like to share two of them here: "And we see both family code and city code crossed by the claims of new loyalties; an empire on the one hand, on the other a new cult that uses at once language of city, family, and empire and challenges all three." And secondly, "They have detached themselves from those ties of place and of family which, in a rural culture, ordinarily determine a person's identity." Therefore we see that this new community challenged all contemporary cultural rules and settings. Thus Paul was not changing the social aspect of society, he was changing the family and community to a new one. It called for one to realign one's loyalties to a new setting, to a Christ Jesus, and through him to his body the church. "For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another." Here Paul clearly ties together the binding of Christians one to another through there unity. Which will lead us into our next question.

How is Christian community expressed? We see that the Christian Community is a body as cited in Romans above, therefore, Christians are parts of a body. The body of Christ, and that this body will have unity. That this community takes place on many levels: the individual house church, the city wide or regional church, and the corporate "C"hurch. Meeks describes it this way: "The church in each city thus typically consisted of a number of small cells meeting in various private houses. Where the Christians were lucky enough to have find a convert or sympathizer who could afford a more spacious house, all the cells in a city might come together on occasion for worship and instruction." Meeks in another work of his The First Urban Christians, states clearly that the individual churches knew they belonged to a larger reality. "The Local groups of Christians not only enjoyed a high level of cohesion and group identity, they were also made aware that they belonged to a larger movement." This is also seen when Paul is making collections for those in Jerusalem who are suffering. The different churches respond to funding the work of God.

However Witherington makes too very good points: "Literacy as a criterion for Christian leadership in the early church is a factor too seldom considered." And also, "but I support E. A. Judge's conclusions that early Christianity was led and largely supported by an elite minority who were of the higher social strata." Which when brought together indicates that for Witherington the early church leaders were very probably those who were learned and of some social standing. Thus the earliest Christians created the 'codex' system, for easier production and dissemination of there writings. Which when studied in conjunction with the questions of " what sort" of community, even more broadly spans the social strata. The early communities were also to be a people set apart, a people for God. In 1st Thessalonians 4:7,9,10 Paul's states: "For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. … Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for any one to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it towards all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more." Here we see Paul thanking a congregation for their concern for other believers, but still challenging them on to more.

Thus we see community expressed through love and good deeds. Through care and commitment, we also see it expressed through Paul's
continuing concern for the community even when he is not present in person. We see community or at least Christian community as one that attempts to break down the old allegiances, to family, city, state, and have a new commitment to other believers no matter there status, or origins. We see a community that was deliberately fostered and challenged to growth in love and good deeds.

Finally then we are lead to our query, how did Paul create community? Of the four questions being tackled in this essay, I believe this is the most difficult. For it requires the most conjecture. However that being stated it is inferred from Paul's words and actions that he did create community, and communities. This was done through a number of methods used either separately or in conjunction. The first is through personal presence and teaching. Paul spent time with these communities in person. He would teach, preach, admonish and challenge them to faith in Jesus Christ then though that to fellowship with one another. After he moved on to another town, he stayed in contact with the previous community(s), through letters, reports from co-workers, through prayer for them and an expectation of prayer and support from them. Paul deliberately found some with means (those with money) in each community who could then host the church and churches activities. But he also went out into the markets, streets and highways to preach and teach to anyone who would listen. He worked hard to cross cultural barriers, and social economic barriers; he would invite anybody into the kingdom, and expect the church to welcome all who came in the name of Christ Jesus. It reminds me of a story I heard a few years back, "This young man a university student became a Christian through outreach on campus. The following Sunday he heads to the nearest church. He comes in and is wearing torn jeans and a t-shirt, and sandals. He arrives a little late and the pews appear to be full. Walking down to the front he does not find a seat open, so he sits on the floor near the front of the church. Now by now people are whispering and coughing. Then an usher comes forward, an elderly man, wearing a 3-piece suit, walking with a cane. It is heard, said 'Bill will straighten him, out, he doesn't belong here, look no suit. …' And other such remarks. The old usher gets up front and rather than rebuking the young man, he slowly and gingerly lowers himself to the floor and sits beside the young man. At this point the pastor gets up, and says 'what I was about to say you would never remember, what we just witnessed you will never forget.'" That is the type of community Paul was working to build, one where love and care came first.

Thus I must state that even though I looked at four different questions, through this work I have found that the four are very closely interrelated. What answers one, can then be reapplied to the next, or to the previous. I think it important at this point to reiterate that Paul did have a focus on a ne
w community that was the family of God. That this focus leads to a clear understanding of community and roles and responsibilities within that community. Paul deliberately was an architect of building community and community that crossed all barriers, Jews, Greeks, and barbarians, poor and rich, slave and freeman, male and female. That was universal and strived to live the best of both Judaism and Roman culture. For Paul community was integral to being a Christ follower, just as it should be for us today.
(St Paul Preaching.)


  1. The Paul Quest, p.181
  2. The Paul Quest, P.18
  3. NASB, 2nd Cor 1:1, P. 827
  4. NRSV, Gal 1:11-16a
  5. Paul's Idea of Community, p.27
  6. Paul's Idea of Community, p.26
  7. Social Aspects of Early Christians, p.60
  8. NASB, Philippians 2:2, p.842
  9. NASB, Romans 1:14, p.807
  10. NLT, Romans 1:16, p. 961
  11. NRSV, 1 Cor 4:17, p.1667
  12. NKJV, Galatians 1:6,7 p. 1278
  13. The Paul Quest, p.201,202
  14. The Moral World of the First Christians, p. 23
  15. The Moral World of the First Christians, p. 104
  16. KJV, Romans 12:4,5
  17. The Moral World of the First Christians, p. 110
  18. The First Urban Christians, p.107
  19. The Paul Quest, P.92
  20. The Paul Quest, P.93
  21. NASB, 1st Thess 4:7,9,10 p. 847
  22. Source unknown a story I heard.


Meeks, Wayne
The Moral World of the first Christians,
SPCK, London: 1987

The First Urban Christians,
Yale University Press, Binghamton, N.Y.: 1983

Banks, Robert
Paul's Idea of Community,
Hendrickson, Peabody: 1998

Malherbe, Abraham J.
Social Aspects of Early Christianity,
Louisiana State University Press, Kingsport: 1977

Witherington III, Ben
The Paul Quest,
IVP, Downers Grove: 1998


New King James Version
(Possibility Thinkers Edition)
Thomas Nelson, New York: 1984

New Revised Standard Version
(HarperCollins Study Bible)
Harper Collins, San Francisco: 1997

New American Standard Bible
RBW Graphics, Canada: 1986

New Living Translation
(New Believers Bible)
Tyndale, Wheaton: 1996

King James Bible

(First Written for RS398 Selected Reading in Paul Winter 2001. Note The links go to specific reviews of those books.)

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