The Mission of the Church (Part II)
A paper delivered at the Day Conference, October 1999
By Edward Malcolm
3. Did Paul train converts differently to the way we do?
What did he teach his converts? It is clear, then, Paul did not set out merely to convert individuals, but to establish churches. Roland Allen points out, “The secret of success in this work lies in the beginning at the very beginning. It is the training of the first converts which sets the type for the future. If the first converts are taught to depend upon the missionary, if all work evangelistic, educational, social is concentrated in his hands, the infant community learns to rest passively upon the man from whom they receive their first insight into the Gospel. Their faith having no sphere for its growth and development lies dormant. A tradition very rapidly grows up that nothing can be done without the authority and guidance of the missionary, the people wait for him to move, and, the longer they do so, the more incapable they become of any independent action. Thus the leader is confirmed in the habit of gathering all authority into his own hands, and of despising the powers of his people, until he makes their inactivity an excuse for denying their capacity. The fatal mistake has been made of teaching the converts to rely upon the wrong source of strength. Instead of seeking it in the working of the Holy Spirit in themselves, they seek it in the missionary. They put him in the place of Christ, they depend upon him.”
This ruins the natural strength converts possess, forces any man with initiative to look outside the local church for opportunity, or suppress himself. Or put aside the spiritual desires implanted of God and go into secular employment because of a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with the subordinate position which is all that is open to him. It is of supreme importance that we discover, as far as we can, the method of training used by the Apostle.
First, are we establishing the C of E (C) or churches? For Paul this difficulty did not exist because he did not create it. “He set up no organisation intermediate between his preaching and the establishment of a fully organised indigenous church. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if at the end of his first missionary journey, St. Paul had hastened back to Antioch to entreat for the assistance of two or three presbyters to supervise the growth of the churches in South Galatia, pleading that unless he could secure this help he would be unable to enter the open door which he saw before him.” The fact is that after preaching in a place for five or six months he left a church still needing guidance, but capable of growth and expansion. The question is, how could he so train his converts as to be able to leave them after so short a time with any security that they would be able to stand and grow? If we did this we would be accused of mad desertion. Yet we would leave them with the whole Bible in the vernacular, unlike Paul’s converts, who also had little acquaintance with the background of the Old Testament. In addition we leave converts a vast treasure of theological literature, then non-existent.
Moreover his supervision was minimal. He visited after eighteen months or more for short periods as and when he could. His helpers were sent to visit, not stay, to educate ignorant congregations incapable of maintaining their own life about fundamental truths. He was careful not to lose touch with new converts; to give them sorely needed visits and instruction, which they received. No doubt he was in constant communication with them by one means or another. But he did not remain in one church to exercise personal government, employing catechists as a stepping-stone to appointing a full ministry.
So we must consider what St. Paul taught his converts. Besides the elements contained in his preaching, he left a tradition to which he constantly refers. Christian practice and doctrine is set forth in some detail. Holy Communion involved a careful statement of the institution and practices to be observed. The resurrection involved the risen Lord’s appearances. Hence we may infer that the preached doctrines were reinforced by teachings on the facts and life of Christ upon which the doctrine rested. We simply do not know if this tradition was written down at this time.
Further the Old Testament was transferred from the Jewish people to whom it was originally given, to another people and made their foundation stone. Churches even today regard this as an inconvenient textbook to put in new converts’ hands. How could the Apostle teach this book in six months to the slaves and labourers, even if they could read when they came to him? Yet it is plainly used as his textbook in teaching them. And they quickly caught his method of interpreting it, so when the churches met, anyone who had seen a passage pointing to Messiah, or encouraging the hope that was in them, shared it. It was the source of all early Christian literature. How much better Paul’s method was than sending an occasional preacher to conduct a service and preach to the new church. Some listen, or quickly get the habit of not listening, whilst local prophets are kept silent. Thus Paul elicited more and more capacities in church members, instead of settling a minister like Timothy upon them.
He emphasised the two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and it is taken for granted in the letters he wrote that all were familiar with these. Thus Paul must have left the new churches with a simple system of Gospel teaching, two sacraments, a tradition of the main facts of the death and resurrection, and the Old Testament. No service forms were left except the Lord’s Prayer. We are not even certain if they had a written Gospel or any form of Creed. Yet it is precisely the simplicity and brevity which constituted strength. “By teaching the simplest elements in the simplest form to many, and by giving them the means by which they could for themselves gain further knowledge, by leaving them to meditate upon these few fundamental truths, and to teach one another what they could discover, St. Paul insured that his converts should really master the most important things.” You watch the zeal of a new Christian who has spiritual insight into one simple and necessary truth. You will be astonished by his clarity. He has mastered one truth, whilst our Christians have a smattering of the knowledge of all the faith. Paul’s method was simplicity and brevity at the beginning.
By doing this he ran grave risks, as the Judaistic controversy in Galatia, the moral and eucharistic scandals in Corinth witness. The Galatians were lightly armed against the Judaisers, yet St. Paul knew that circumcisers existed and were out for mischief. Does he repent of his dealings with the Galatians? Or express regrets at leaving them in haste and vulnerably untaught? He expresses horror at the Corinthian excesses amongst the converts. But when you read the instructions on Communion that he sent them by letter, he says it is what he taught them at the first. He was a great teacher, therefore the more necessary for him not to stay long. His quick departure gave scope to local talent. The churches had to depend upon their own resources.
The effect was that his converts became missionaries. There are no exhortations to missionary zeal in Paul’s epistles. Rather, From you sounded out the word of the Lord. Roland Allen quotes Dr. Friedlander, “While the Jews regarded the conversion of unbelievers as, at the most, a meritorious work, for the Christians the spread of the doctrine of salvation was the highest and most sacred duty.” This is not surprising when you consider they received the Spirit of Jesus, who came into the world to bring back lost souls to the Father. The reason for our failure is largely due to the fact that we quench that Spirit.
We must then consider what training for Baptism St. Paul gave Candidates. For baptism, as with the Philippian jailer, once Paul was satisfied that a spiritual change had happened, that there was some sign of repentance, some profession of faith, that sufficed. Whole households were baptised. But it does not follow that the great body of believers were baptised without careful instruction. Neither was baptism administered with thoughtless generality, or leaving the baptised to make their own way in Christ. Far less with long courses of instruction beforehand. The requirements were repentance and faith. The question is still, who decides if the candidate is honest in his confession? In some cases, Paul himself decided, but in Corinth he only baptised a few. The inference seems to be that he took the first decisions, but then practised the principle of mutual responsibility. Others might make mistakes, but a little mutual responsibility was worth a great deal of verbal teaching.
The same was applied to the admission of elders, both deacons and presbyters. Paul appointed elders (Acts 14:23), but emphasises ‘good report’, which must mean others’ opinions were valued and they took responsibility with him. Nor is there evidence that the congregations appointed elders by election alone. They had some say, but the appointment was by Paul or his representative, and very soon this was concentrated in the hands of a single local bishop. Further, they were appointed to the assembly to which they belonged, which maintained very close bonds between them and those to whom they ministered. What a difference it makes if the congregation feels a responsibility to those set over them, and those set over them feel a responsibility to the flock. Elders appointed were not young, but selected for integrity, sober, grave, of reputation. Yet nothing is said of a cleansed heart or an unfeigned faith. This is because we cannot judge other men’s spiritual state. Rather their inward state is judged by whether the man is moral and holds to the faithful word as he has been taught. Paul simply refused to set up a test of the candidate’s spiritual state before God. Note Paul did not go on returning again and again to ordain elders.
When St. Paul ordained younger men Timothy took them away with him to act as his assistants and ministers, that they might receive deeper training than they could at home. Thoroughness marked it all. There is little proof they were highly educated, knowing Hebrew or a foreign language, or even all the facts of Christ’s life or of Greek philosophy. Rather they had a limited general education and some acquaintance with the Greek Old Testament, together with basic doctrine and knowledge of how to administer the sacraments.
Finally St. Paul was not content with ordaining one elder to each church. He ordained several, thus not leaving all authority concentrated in the hands of one man. It ensured regular sacraments, and the church was not left weak because all its sustenance was drawn from a single individual. Responsibility was divided, many helped, all grew, one generation was able to pass on to the next naturally, and young men with gifts could exercise them. To select on grounds of educational qualifications in the first place is to silence the divinely gifted natural preacher and also the older men, its natural leaders.
4. Paul’s method of dealing with organised churches.
Authority. Churches established with elders, a ministry of both settled pastors and itinerant prophets, were no longer dependent upon the Apostle. He might go away or die, but they grew in grace and numbers, lights in the surrounding darkness of heathenism, gradually overcoming. In Galatia the churches were established in the faith and increased in number daily (Acts 16:5). Yet they were not independent of him, and on occasions he did not hesitate to assert his authority over those churches which he had founded. He claimed to have received this authority directly from the Lord (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10). He could write, So ordain I in all the churches, or If I come again I will not spare. These all occur in the Epistle to the Corinthians, in the face of the outrageous conduct of one individual. Yet he repudiates the very idea that he has ‘lordship over their faith’ (2 Cor. 1:24). He only exercises his God-given authority in extreme necessity. He prefers to plead rather than enforce obedience to rules. It is important we examine these carefully, says Allen, “because they give us a most valuable insight into the method of the Apostle and greatly help us to understand the secret of his success”. The areas he exercised his authority over are: purity, litigation, and the eating of meats offered to idols.
Fornication. The impurity and the easy-going attitude towards it of surrounding society greatly troubled the Jewish party within the Church. They argued that if the Law of Moses were not enforced, morals in the church would soon be dragged down. Events soon proved them right. Paul had only just ceased preaching in Thessalonica, and had been in constant communication with the church there, when he wrote his first epistle. Already adultery and fornication had to be given first place in the exhortations. In Corinth within two and a half years of leaving he writes to those who excelled in the gifts, yet it is obvious fornication was a common offence.
He does not appeal to the Law or to the Jerusalem decrees, or suggest rules excluding this offence be drawn up. He does not even threaten punishment. He exhorts and beseeches the Lord’s people to whom the Holy Spirit has been given to surrender themselves to the guidance of that Holy Spirit who has been given to them that they may be holy in body and soul. He says uncleanness necessarily offends against the Holy Spirit and incurs the wrath of God. See the same in 1 Thess. 4:1-8. Exhortations come late in the Epistle, but these take the most important place amongst them. Precisely the same language is used in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians 5:11. Like his Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, he inculcated principles and left his followers to apply them. Not leaving vague principles, but unmistakably accurately explaining them in his teaching. Again and again he expresses his firm conviction that the church knows the will of God and will surrender itself to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. His Gospel was not a Gospel of law, but of spirit.
It may be argued the Corinthians had a proud spirit and would not have tolerated autocratic interference from anyone, so Paul was forced to adopt pleading. No, for if it had been inculcated into them from the moment of conversion that they must obey church rules, they would never have thought any other way. It would have been the first duty of every convert. The reason Paul did not adopt this approach was that it was precisely what Paul did not believe, and therefore could not teach.
Litigation could have been dealt with by decreeing no convert should do it. Instead Paul argues it is unworthy of men who are to judge the world and angels, to drag their brethren before a heathen judge. It involves the whole church, and it would be better to suffer wrong than thus to publish the immorality of the church. Such do not inherit the kingdom of God. Is that the language of a legislator?
Eating things offered to idols is outlawed in the Jerusalem decrees. Corinthians not only ate but also attended feasts at idol temples, which often had associations with impurity. Why then not quote the decree as final? Instead he appeals to the highest Christian virtue in his readers. He contrasts knowledge with charity; that acts based on knowledge injure and mislead the weak, so are sinful. To appeal to law is to leave the people unconvinced and uneducated and teaches them the habit of unreasoning obedience, and they become those who delight in the minutia of laws. Thus their consciences remain sluggish, and instead of looking to the Holy Spirit they look to clergy as guides. Paul’s method would have left strife and division, but he reckons that better than sullen or unintelligent obedience to a rule, and an outward dead-calm peace.
Tertullian in his work de Idolatria shows that there was scarcely a trade or a business which Christians could engage in without being mixed up in idolatry of some sort. Slaves had no choice but attend idol feasts. Now suppose Paul had laid it down as a rule that no Christian could enter an idol temple. No convert could have continued in his or her trade as members of a heathen guild or society. Most of his converts who were artisans would have suffered great loss. They would then have been drawn back into the gulf of heathenism from which they had escaped. Physical separation from surrounding society is not to be encouraged, even though that gives immunity from certain temptations. For then their religion does not appear to belong to the people and the church does not grow.
Marriage and Divorce. Some might say on this Paul does lay down the law, that in 1 Corinthians 7 he writes with a tone of authority. Yet is that not written in answer to a plea for guidance? And is not Paul very careful to distinguish between the commands of the Lord and his own counsel? And is not the treatment inconclusive and incomplete? For instance he lays it down that widows may marry again but in the Lord, yet does not deal with this in the marriage of virgins. Even where he lays down a law by Christ’s authority (7:10), yet he issues instructions for a person acting contrary to that law he has just asserted (7:11). It seems he expresses what is desirable rather than legislates for the Church. That he is clear-cut but reasons his arguments as supporting his expression of opinion. This bears out all we have seen.
Discipline. He is unhesitating in the need for this in flagrant cases, and calls upon the conscience of the whole Church. Silence is a denial of the Church’s claim to be moral. Great crimes shock the whole congregation so none dares move. Not so little crimes, which get severely dealt with. Thus in Corinth he says the church has a duty to perform and he waits to see if they will perform it. In this case all excommunicate by a majority, the offender accepts the discipline, repents and is restored. All this is far from modern methods. A man may laugh at a bishop’s excommunication. After all, his conscience is by then deadened. But he cannot when the whole congregation, his neighbours, excommunicate him. Society around also knows the Church of God has expressed its disapproval. Paul stays away from Corinth until the church has realised and executed its duty, thus clearing itself of complicity in the offence. It is the body and its members, something Westerners find hard to grasp. Eastern life is more corporate. Paul as a last resort threatens to intervene, but only after he had tried by every method to make intervention unnecessary. “Thus he succeeds by failure where we often fail by succeeding.”
Unity. Paul set out not to teach a solitary religion of individualists, but to bring into being a Church and those who were in fellowship with that body. This is not the unity of convenience of those living in the same area, believing the same doctrine, who thought it would be convenient to form a society for mutual assistance. Rather by baptism they were members of one another, and to Christians everywhere by the communion of one Spirit, common rites and a common baptism. All suffered dangers and hardships and hopes together.
So also were the churches. They were not independent of their common founder, the great Apostle, nor of one another. Thus he constantly refers to the churches in any province as one. For the collection for Jerusalem, each province appointed its officer to act on behalf of the province. In this they recognised the Body existed before they came into it, but now they were each a part of that Body of Christ. This fact Paul uses especially over women speaking in the church or covering their heads (1 Cor. 14:36; 11:16). For Paul the Church was prior to the churches, and the Church established the churches.
They were established on the great trade routes and were in communication, travelling prophets spent their lives going from church to church. Visitors came frequently, hospitality was offered and accepted and it would seem they sent letters of commendation (2 Cor. 3:1). But their real unity lay in their spiritual unity, all being part of that one visible Body, so liable to attack from its enemies. Apostolic authority was recognised by all. And that included churches of which Paul was not the founder. Thus Paul takes it as foundational that unity exists. The need is not to get united, but to keep united. Allen says, “There was no such thing as spiritual unity expressed in outward separation… Outward opposition is a certain sign that spiritual unity does not exist. Spiritual unity in proportion to its perfection and fullness necessarily issues in common, united, harmonious expression, whether of word or act;”
Thus to mar the unity were sin; separation and schism express self-assertion. This is a sin against the Holy Ghost, involving the dividing of Christ. Unity might be broken, for the Jews in Jerusalem carefully maintained Jewish tradition, whilst the four provinces were almost entirely ignorant of that tradition. Take a Macedonian coming up to Jerusalem, where circumcision, the Jewish Sabbath, ritual slaughter and everyday life reflected the Law. Further many Jewish Christians barely tolerated the Gentile convert as a sort of proselyte. Going to church he found Jewish prayers, all modelled on Jewish patterns. The only real point in common was devotion to Jesus of Nazareth. Now reverse that for a Jewish Christian to arrive in Corinth. He would have been horrified and thought he was witnessing unbridled licence, with toleration of idol feasts and a strange Greek system of thought. He would have welcomed the party of Jews who were Christians who said the only answer was to enforce the Mosaic Law on the entire Church. To omit anything would simply be the thin end of the wedge. And even amongst the Greeks there was little real unity of thought, even on the resurrection which some held to be purely spiritual.
Unity might be maintained in one of two ways. Either to say that the mother church at Jerusalem was the pattern and all were to conform, or to say the very imperfect churches of the four provinces were part of the eternal Church, still incomplete, and both they and the Jerusalem Church was part of that Church of God, so each might have customs suited to their own needs, both Jerusalem and the Gentiles.
That is what Paul did.
1) He refused to allow the universal application of particular precedents. Jewish customs were not to be imposed on the Four Provinces.
2) He refused to have a central directive body set up, even though there had been precedent in the Jerusalem Council.
3) He refused to establish rules for orthodoxy. Plenty have always wanted them, to define what a church may or may not do, to see what can be done without ceasing to be a part of the catholic Church. None can be found in Paul’s writings.
4) He refused to allow the universal application of precedents. Each case is tried on its merits.
Thus he did not try for uniformity of practice, but a spiritual unity, expressed in outward unity. He maintained this by:
1) Taking it for granted as a fact of Christian experience, that all suffer or rejoice together, welcome each other into their homes.
2) Himself trying to maintain that unity, especially with Jerusalem.
3) Encouraging mutual acts of help to one another.
4) Encouraging constant communication between the various churches.