I am taking a class in New Testament studies and today the students were asked to pick a topic derived from the apostle Paul's thirteen letters (to churches and individuals). I decided to write on "Paul's view of the church" (or, at least, my perception of Paul's view of the church--ha!). I wanted to share my response with you because I am convinced the church of today needs to rethink what it really means to be the church. I hope you find my nerdy musings interesting and maybe helpful! -Troy
The Apostle Paul's View of the Church
by Troy Cady
by Troy Cady
The word “church” predates Pauline usage but Paul creatively redefines it for followers of Jesus.[i] Simply speaking, it means “assembly.” In the history of Israel before the emergence of synagogues, it especially meant an assembly where all Israel gathered to hear and honor the Word of God being promulgated (as we see in the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai), and for special national festivals such as Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost).[ii] Matthew records Jesus using the word “church” and in one instance it carries the same sense of “assembly” but it also decentralizes the notion as it references synagogues, which are located in various places.[iii]
Paul’s use of the word “church” draws on this motif: it is a decentralized phenomenon (churches, plural) even as it is a cosmic, heavenly reality (church, singular).[iv] This latter sense carries with it the idea that all believers, everywhere, in every time are “assembled” before God, with Christ, our Head, as Lord and exemplar of the church’s pattern of living (a cruciform life with one another and for the world).
For example, in Romans 16 Paul refers to “all the churches [plural] of the Gentiles” (v. 3b) and to “the church that meets at [Priscilla and Aquila’s] house.” (v. 3a) But in Ephesians Paul uses the word church in a more cosmic sense. The church is his body, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1:22) and the church (everyone assembled before God, not just a particular church gathering) makes known “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” the “wisdom of God.” (3:10)[v]
Integral to Paul’s view of church is the coming together of both Jews and Gentiles. Biblical scholar Michael Gorman refers to Paul’s view of church as a “multicultural community.”[vi] This is a key element in Paul’s teaching because it is connected with the eschatological hopes of Israel; namely, when Messiah comes, both Jew and Gentile will be gathered together in his kingdom. Indeed, this is what God had in mind all along: that the Jews would be a light to the Gentiles and all nations would be gathered to the God of Israel. Paul believes that in Jesus this eschatological vision is inaugurated and is coming to fruition. It is happening now, but it is still growing and will reach its fulfillment in the future.
As the Gentiles are not heirs of the Mosaic Law, this begs the question as to how Jew and Gentile will come together in this new assembly. In a typical Jewish assembly (such as in synagogue), the people of God came together to pray, hear the Scripture and be taught what it meant. Gentile God-fearers could participate in this up to a point. If they wanted to be full participants, however, they needed to be circumcised and begin observing certain “boundary markers” that distinguished Jew from Gentile (such as adhering to dietary restrictions and laws of cleanliness). In Paul’s reinterpretation of church for the new community, Paul teaches that Gentiles do not need to observe these Jewish “boundary markers” to be full participants of the new assembly. Instead, the Law of God is written on our hearts by the Spirit, who indwells all those who believe in Jesus. The Spirit of Christ crucified constitutes the new Law by which the people “walk.”
Paul references the role of the Spirit in the church through comparing the church to the temple. To the Jews of Paul’s day, the temple was the locus of God’s presence, but Paul teaches that the new locus of God’s presence is in those who confess faith in Jesus. I Corinthians 3:16 highlights this and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians makes it clear that both Jew and Gentile (whom God has “made one” by destroying “the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”- 2:14) are being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (2:22)
This new temple indwelt by God’s Spirit serves as the center of life in Christ’s cosmic kingdom. Thus, the church consists of new citizens of a new kingdom being built by God, the kingdom of heaven. Paul’s view of church in that sense represents a kind of “historical chiasm” wherein the people of God:
a- assemble at the Temple in Israel, governed by God’s Law given through Moses
b- assemble in synagogues, governed by God’s Law given through Moses
b’- assemble in homes[vii], a household of faith governed by a New Law given by the Spirit
a’- assemble before God in heaven, new citizens of a new kingdom being built by the Spirit
The new kingdom takes its shape in cruciform love, according to Paul. The church is a sign and foretaste of the kingdom as God’s people embody the self-emptying humility of their Lord Jesus Christ.
With that as a basis, I hasten to note that Paul’s mission as an apostle was to “create a vast network”[viii] of churches formed by the Spirit of Christ crucified. In Pauline literature we often see Paul referring to this entire network as “the church” (singular). If Gorman is correct that Paul’s mission was to create a network of churches, we must ask the question: for whom does the church exist? God, itself, others or “all of the above”?
In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, R.Y.K. Fung asserts: “The image of the church as the body of Christ looks inward…and upward…but not outward.”[ix] While this may be strictly true as Paul writes letters to various churches to address matters of internal import, it ignores the apostolic basis of the church. Indeed, the notion of an “apostolic church” bears out the paradox of a church that exists for its own edification and for the glory of Christ while at the same time owing its existence to Paul’s obedience as an apostle to be a missionary to the Gentiles. The church is a community of “called out ones” (literally), but the church without the apostles (“sent ones”, literally) would not exist. A church that is apostolic is by definition a “called out community” of those who have been “sent out.” The church is sent. If she is not sent, she cannot exist.
For that reason, in contrast to Fung, I assert that Paul does view the church as an “outwardly-minded” assembly. The church does need to be concerned with how we live out our faith in the world, not just how we live when we are assembled in a particular place on a particular day with other believers. Indeed, the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas (notice: in Christian community) to establish more churches. In that regard, Paul, Barnabas (and others) embodied the church even as they started more churches. Without that outwardly-minded emphasis, there would be no church. Indeed, this outwardly-minded thrust is predicated on God the Father sending his Son to inaugurate his church of “sent ones.” This is the very point that scholars who promote a “missional” view of the church are trying to make and it has paradigm-shifting implications for churches (and the church) today who yet possess a mindset marked by Christendom. This missional sense of biblical teaching (including Paul’s teaching) sorely needs to be recovered. In that regard, Fung needs to revise his understanding of Paul, I feel.
It is true that when the church assembles (in someone’s home or in another place) it is for the building up of those who believe in Jesus—but it is not true that the church does not concern itself with the relationship between the church and the world. Indeed, in I Corinthians 14, as Paul is addressing dysfunction in the assembly in Corinth, he notes a sensitivity to unbelievers by pointing out that, it is better for the church (and the world) if an unbeliever can understand what is being said in the assembly. (I Cor. 14:24-25)
I propose that Paul views the church as both a witness to one another and to the world that Jesus is the Messiah—and we are to pattern our lives after Messiah’s life by the power of the Spirit in offering ourselves up as a cruciform people (for one another and for the sake of the world).
[i] Josephus and Philo use the word ekklesia in connection with assemblies (religious or political) prior to the time of Jesus and the apostolic era. See P.T. O’Brien. “Church” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 124.
[ii] Of significance here is the LXX usage of the word ekklesia in reference to Israel “assembled to hear the Word of God on Mt. Sinai, or later on Mt. Zion where all Israel was required to assemble three times a year.” Ibid., 124.
[iii] Matthew 18:17- “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Biblical scholars note that in this text Jesus is speaking of "church" in reference to the synagogue.
[iv] For instance, in Galatians Paul says that he used to “persecute the church of God.” We know that Paul is not just talking about one church in this instance because we know he traveled all over doing this. Acts tells us he went “from house to house,” dragging off men and women and putting them in prison. In this reference, Paul views the church (singular) as the network of churches (plural).
[v] In a synagogue setting, the “wisdom of God” was made known through reading Torah and the Prophets; then, a teacher would offer an interpretation for the congregation. Paul draws on this tradition and applies it on a cosmic scale. The heavenly church makes known the wisdom of God to heavenly powers. The prophetic and teaching gifts especially come to mind here.
[vi] Michael J. Gorman. Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 41.
[vii] Or, wherever, really. Anywhere the people of God can gather.
[viii] Ibid., 41.
[ix] R.Y.K. Fung. “Body of Christ” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 81.