Wednesday, July 23, 2014

M.Th Thesis–Paul’s Missionary Expectation of His Churches

(Just for those who are interested. Below is the summary and conclusion of my M.Th Thesis submitted to TTC in 2012. Not really interesting, I think, because the interesting part is in the exegetical section in chapter two and three which would be too long to post here. Would love to share them someday in my sermons.)

The debate about Paul’s missionary expectation of his churches has been started by a seemingly paradoxical fact that we find in Paul’s letters. On the one hand Paul was undoubtedly a missionary. On the other hand, surprisingly, though Paul is outspoken about his missionary efforts, it seems that we can hardly find evidence which speaks of his directly commanding his churches to be actively involved in missionary efforts.

Chapter one began our study by investigating previous scholarly work on the topic. We have started by drawing a broad picture of the current state of the debate. In order to simplify this otherwise complicated topic, we broadly categorized scholarly views into two opposing positions, prior to discussing some notable works in both positions: (i) those who think that Paul did not expect his churches to be actively involved in missionary activity, i.e. the negative position; and (ii) those who think that Paul did expect his churches to be actively involved in missionary activity, i.e. the positive position.

We have found consensus among scholars from both positions that Paul would have expected his churches to be involved in some kind of missionary activities. The difference between them is whether Paul expected them only to be “passive” or he also wanted them to be “active” by committing themselves to proactively looking for opportunities and ways to do mission for the progress of the gospel.

Scholars in the negative position have argued that there is no evidence in Paul’s letters to prove that Paul did expect his churches to do mission works actively. Instead, they argue that active mission work is only for a special group of people, i.e. Paul and his co-workers or the evangelist specialists, while the Christians in general are only expected to support those missionaries by prayer, financial support, living an attractive life-style, and to be ready to answer when they were asked. In short they are to engage in passive missionary activities. Taking the same path, scholars in the positive position have tried to look for evidences in Paul’s letters. Thus, in many instances, the same passages are sourced and interpreted in two different directions by scholars in opposing positions. Our question is: “Could it be that by pursuing textual evidence exclusively in Paul’s letters, we have been focusing too narrowly and thus losing the bigger picture in the process?”

To be sure, scholars from both positions have tried to consider the bigger picture in their respective proposal. Scholars in the negative position have tried to relate Paul to his Jewish background, the Old Testament concept of mission (Bowers) and the supposedly Jewish practice arising from it (Bowers, and later developed more fully by Dickson). Dickson assumes that since there was a two-fold mission expression in ancient Judaism, i.e. those who do the “active” and “passive” part, Paul must have followed it closely in his own approach. But this approach is untenable since we could not even prove whether pre-Christian Judaism was a missionary religion, let alone demonstrate Christian mission indebtedness to Judaism.

Scholars in the positive position have also considered the bigger picture by trying to find the theological basis of Paul’s missionary expectation in his letters. But Paul’s letters are occasional letters, which were written to address specific situations. Therefore, an exclusive attention to Paul's letters may have disconnected Paul from his own background, and thus leaving us with an incomplete picture of factors affecting Paul’s concept of mission.

Our thesis is simple. Paul’s Jewish background, his adherence to the Old Testament, and his Christianity, should not be dismissed as factors affecting his concept of mission. Thus, in chapter two, we propose to put more weight on the Great Commission as the theological basis of Paul’s missionary expectations of his churches. The Great Commission tradition is rooted in the Old Testament hope, and known by the early church. The echoes of the Great Commission tradition in Paul’s letters support the argument that Paul would have known about and be familiar with the Great Commission tradition.

The second question we have dealt with in chapter two is whether the Great Commission, as understood by Paul and the early church, was directed only to a special group of believers, i.e. the first disciples, or to the church as a whole. It is interesting to find in Acts that the ordinary believers pray and speak the word to unbelievers, Jews and Gentiles alike, which may reflect their understanding of mission. These observations have led us to question whether Paul, who started his mission later, when compared to the early church in Acts and wrote his letters even later, would have expected his churches to do differently. We arrived at a negative answer. The passages in 1 Corinthians, particularly 9:24 and 10:32-11:1, tell us that Paul exhorts the Church at Corinth, i.e. ordinary believers, to run and win the race, which is to proclaim the gospel, so as to win others.

In chapter three we have taken the enquiry further by asking in what ways Paul expected his churches to be actively engage in mission. Several mission activities as documented in Paul’s letters were discussed (financial support in 1 Corinthians 9:1-18 and Philippians 4:10-20; prayer in Romans 15:30-32 and 2 Corinthians 1:11; worship as mission activities in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25; several circumstances in daily life as chances to witnessing in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 and Philippians 4:5; and to speak the Word in Philippians 1:14). Those different mission activities exemplify Paul’s conception of mission. Paul does not have a concept of dividing mission activities as “active” and “passive”, or assigns them to different groups of believers, i.e. the evangelists and the ordinary believers. Rather, we find Paul’s image of the church as “the body of Christ” explains the diversities in the church. The “unity” of the body means that anything that the members have come from the same God. But the “diversities” means that each member should engage himself/herself in different activities, according to what God has freely given him/her.

One particular passage, 1 Corinthian 1:11-17, serves as an example on how Paul himself reflects his ministry as part of the diversity in the church. Though baptizing is part of the command to make disciples in the Great Commission and Paul is certainly not against baptism, he claims that his ministry focuses on proclaiming the gospel instead of baptism. Therefore, though mission is an obligation for the whole body, its members would and should engage in different activities to fulfill it.

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