Friday, November 10, 2006

Paul's Theology of Community

Paul has a very strong thematic emphasis on community. Paul’s letters were written to strengthen communities in fledgling churches. His writings and instructions are not simply about practicality and keeping people together. He develops his account as a fundamental theological theme of the Gospel. What is God doing during this period of history? God is at work through the Holy Spirit to create communities that prefigure and embody the reconciliation and healing of the world. This is classic already/not yet Pauline eschatology presented in the context of community. The fruit of God’s love is the formation of confessing, praying, worshipping communities (Rom. 15:13-17). We are one with Christ, no longer identified by distinctives (Gal. 3:28). We are one family (Gal. 2), joint co-heirs. Paul has relativized the distinctly Jewish marks of participation in the community, and replaced it with other marks – baptism, the Spirit, etc. Volf describes Paul’s vision of community as ‘particularist universalism’. The vision of community whose unity Paul passionately seeks is not pluralistic, but the particular community of the church, the community of faith. Paul’s ethic is particular to the community of faith. In Gal. 5:16-24, the offenses are against the unity of the community. The conformity to JC is in the context of community service and love.

This is also seen in 1 Cor. In 1:9, the call to fellowship becomes the ground for a plea to unity in 1:10 in light of existing quarrels. In 1:18-2:5, division is a sign of immaturity in the faith and an affront to the cross. The community being built is God’s building (3:9), so he is deeply concerned about contractors messing up the building. The glory of God now resides in the church, the new temple. Communal edification is the standard for judging spiritual gifts in ch. 12-14. Paul stresses the interdependent common life of the Body (12:4-7). The diversity of gifts is necessary for the common good of the church. All parts are necessary for a healthy organism (12:12ff). The regulation of worship is governed by its goodness in terms of common worship and edification of the church. If something is not building up the church and community, it should not be done (14:26). Paul’s placement of his discourse on love in ch. 13 is interesting. Love, rightly understood, should restrain behavior that threatens the unity of the community. It is particularly ecclesiastical; its placement is in a section on church division, not marriage in ch. 7. For Paul, love's primary focus is in the common life of the church.

The metaphor of living sacrifice describes the vocation of the community in Rom. 12:1. The community is called to present their bodies as a singular sacrifice. This is a collective expression of worship. This is not addressing private individuals, but corporate sacrifice. The NIV translation of bodies (plural) and living sacrifices (plural) is incorrect. In the Greek, 'living sacrifices' is in the grammatical singular, so that the correct translation is presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice. Many bodies; one sacrifice. Corporate, corporate, corporate. In 15:14-19, the offering is the obedience of the Gentiles, with Paul is the metaphorical priest. The community’s corporate obedience is in view. The community should be set free and transformed/renewed. Paul envisions God’s eschatological salvation in both individual and corporate terms. God is not just saving atomized individuals, but is also saving a people. Our identity is discovered within the Body of Christ. That’s why Paul cares so much when others don’t get his teachings, or are in the midst of problems and creating problems for others.

Offering our bodies as a living sacrifice forces us to care about the health of the whole community. That's right. That stranger sitting next to you in the pew is part of the same Body as you, and the communal sacrifice you offer together to God is impacted by the spiritual health of everyone involved in the collective sacrifice. This is why we care about purity in the church. This is why we have to bear with one another and love one another. It's not good enough to measure our fidelity to God solely on the basis of our individual walk. As part of an interdependent Body that makes a collective sacrifice to God, the degree to which this sacrifice is pleasing to God doesn't just depend on our own walk. I like the NIV, but its translation of Rom. 12:1 is so individualistic that the real meaning of the passage is almost entirely obscured. It makes us think that things like the spiritual disciplines and even church discipline are totally about individual improvement. Not so. The purity of the Body is enhanced when all of its members are practicing the disciplines. As the church becomes more holy, we will hasten the great Day of the Lord (2 Pet. 3:12). Eschatology is both individual and corporate. The importance of community cannot be overstated.


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