TC Verbum No 7 Jan 2007

By Dr. Robert L.Plummer

Verbum: Welcome to Verbum—a page of thoughtful comment and insight giving perspectives and overviews of topical issues. It appears in both our print and electronic editions. Reproduction and wider circulation is encouraged. Please acknowledge as “Verbum: WEA Theological News Jan 2007”

The Church and its Mission, according to the Apostle Paul

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.

Popular missiological literature often reduces the church’s missionary motivation to one major factor—the Great Commission, for example. While this sustained focus on one concept can have pedagogical value, it runs the danger of flattening the rich diversity of reflection found within Scripture. Thus, although scholars have commonly assumed that Paul’s personal evangelistic fervor was transferred to his churches, little has been done to articulate an actual Pauline theology of the church’s mission. Indeed, it should be noted that Paul rarely, if ever, commands the recipients of his letters to evangelize.

In assessing this lack of explicit missions imperatives in the Pauline letters, recent studies have reached highly divergent conclusions on Paul’s expectations of his churches involvement in the missionary task. To oversimplify the debate, on one side are those scholars who assert that Paul failed to envision an active, outward-directed missionary task inherited by local Christian communities (W. P. Bowers, S. Chambers, J. P. Dickson, T. L. Donaldson). On the other side are those scholars who find the debatable Pauline imperatives and other incidental evidence sufficient to demonstrate that Paul did envision an active missionary role for his congregations that in some way mirrored his own (P. T. O’Brien, I. H. Marshall, R. L. Plummer, E. J. Schnabel, J. P. Ware).

As one of the writers supporting apostle-church missions continuity, I must thank the writers on the other side for directing our attention back to the biblical text. They have demonstrated that simplistic appeals to the Great Commission or Paul’s expectation of the Holy Spirit’s work do not provide a convincing Pauline basis for church missionary involvement. And, while it is true that there is a surprising dearth of explicit Pauline imperatives to evangelize, there is not a complete absence—at least on my reading. In his recently published revision of his dissertation, J. P. Ware has made a cogent case that one should understand Philippians 2:16 (‘hold forth the word of life’) as a climactic appeal for the Philippians gospel proclamation in a letter that regularly highlights their partnership in the gospel’s advance. Also, when read within the context of 1 Corinthians, Paul’s commands to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16; 11:1), appear to have evangelistic implications (see my article in JETS, June 2001). Furthermore, Paul’s command to have ‘feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace’ (Eph 6:15), with its clear allusion to Isaiah 52:7, is best understood as a command to preparedness for gospel proclamation. Finally, while not explicitly imperatival, Paul approvingly speaks of gospel proclamation by both ordinary Roman Christians (Phil 1:14) and Thessalonian believers (1 Thess 1:8).

This list of debated references to congregational evangelism, nevertheless, fails to provide a convincing over-arching Pauline theology of congregational evangelism. Such a theological supra-structure, however, is found in Paul’s understanding of the gospel as God’s dynamic word. Paul makes numerous explicit references to the gospel as a powerful entity from God that accomplishes the divine purpose. Thus the gospel, whether present in apostle (Rom 15:18–19; 1 Cor 14:36; Col 1:57; 1 Thess 1:5; 2 Tim 2:89) or congregation (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 15:12; 16:15; Col 3:16–17; 1 Thess 1:8; 2:13–16; 2 Thess 3:1), will continue its triumphant advance. This often overlooked theme highlights both the sovereignty of God and the power of the gospel, while providing continuity with Old Testament references to the effective ‘word of the Lord’ (e.g., Isaiah 55:10–11; Jer 20:7–9; 23:29).

As we seek to be biblically-faithful missionary Christians in our day, we must allow Paul’s understanding of mission and the church to fill out our own evangelistic reflection and practice. If the gospel truly is God’s powerful and effective word of salvation, how important it is for us, like Paul, to declare it confidently and clearly—trusting that God’s gospel will bear fruit in all the world (Col 1:6). Furthermore, as we allow Paul’s reflections to shape our own, we will see each local church as rightful inheritors of the missionary task. Indeed, as entities created and governed by the dynamic gospel, local churches can be nothing other than missionary by their very nature.

Further Reading:

  • Plummer, Robert L. Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? Paternoster Biblical Monographs (2006). ISBN: 1-84227-333-7.