The early Church is a foreign country, they do things differently there

 In one of my churches we’re running a Bible Study group that is looking at some of the New Testament with a view specifically to getting a sense of the nature of the earliest Church, what its life was like and how it grew. We’er beginning with Paul’s letters (Philemon first and now 1 Corinthians) and will probably move on to Acts.

The first thing that is striking us is how different the understanding of what the Church is that we’re encountering from many of our contemporary assumptions. In our discussion something that came out especially strongly was Paul’s strong sense that Christians should treat one another differently from the way they treat outsiders.

It is clear that the Christian community regarded itself as separated from the world, a people apart with special obligations to one another. Family language is prominent (in Philemon there is a bewildering interplay of the language of parenthood (Paul as father) and fraternity (Paul as brother). Christians bond in Christ makes them foreign to the pagan society in which they live.

This sits somewhat uneasily with the universalist ethic that is generally understood as applying today (even before we get into debates about universalism in regard to salvation), The suggestion that our moral obligations to non-Christians are less than those to our fellow believers sounds peculiar and even offensive to the contemporary ear but is inescapably there in the New Testament texts.

Similarly there is an oddness about attitudes to authority in Paul when viewed from the present. He habitually claims the right to speak and to decide because of who and what he is. “I am Paul, the apostle” he writes. His direct encounter with the risen Christ confers a special status on him. Others are obliged to listen when he speaks. This kind of claim is not entirely foreign to the present day, at least in the charismatic churches, but to most of us in the URC it seems strange.

All this was brought home to me again when I tried to read 1 Corinthians in The Message, which by rendering it into contemporary idiomatic speech (albeit a North American variant of this which grated on my inner ear) made me realise how strong a sense I had of the huge cultural and historical distance between our world and that of Paul.

So what should we (Christians) do about all this? The Church we discern in the New Testament is a very different entity set in a very different context. The urban world of the Hellenistic cities in the early Roman Empire is not very like that of 21st century Britain. The small and more or less independent new house churches of the Pauline mission are not very like many of the congregations of the United Reformed Church. So how should we relate ourselves to Paul’s writings, quite singularly concerned with the life and witness of these long ago communities?

I think I’ve encountered a range of (actual) answers to this question, lived out rather than stated in the churches I’ve been involved with:

  • most often I’ve seen the question effectively ignored – where Paul’s letters are read and preached on at all it is as theological rather than practical texts – the difference between his Church and ours is rendered unproblematic by being sidestepped completely
  • I am also aware of, although I have little personal experience of, the approach that takes the Pauline Church as a timeless model and seeks to create a contemporary Church that would be recognisable to the original recipients of 1 Corinthians
  • some seek to re-interpret the early Church to extract from its life a timeless essence of which the particular forms are a culturally specific expression – I’m thinking of Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan’s anti-Imperialist Paul which sees in Paul’s apocalyptic separatism a rejection of earthly power that legitimates an anti-establishment radical Christian politics in the present (I think Stanley Hauerwas is doing something similar)
  • others again set Jesus against Paul and denounce Paul’s attitudes to a whole range of things (effectively de-canonising the Pauline epistles)

I’m not terribly happy with any of these approaches. When I said at my ordination service that I believe the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the supreme authority for the faith and conduct of all God’s people I meant what I said. What this affirmation does not express though is how that authority makes itself felt, how it works itself out,

It means that de-canonising the epistles is simply not an option for me. Neither, though, does it make any sense to me to pluck these documents from their context and imagine that the Church, after 2000 years of its own development and that of the society within which it is set could return to the forms it then had.

Uncomfortably this might seem to put me closest to Borg and his friends but  I actually think they’re as much guilty of de-historicising the text as their apparent polar opposites in the conservative camp who would attempt, for example, to put women back into a subordinate position in the Church.

What I think we really need to do is build the historical bridge that would link us properly to the New Testament texts and the New Testament Church by understanding how it became us. We need to see ourselves properly as part of the same Church as Paul and Philemon, with the same status as the latter and the same strange and ambiguous relationship to the former, as both sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. Paul’s authority over us is the same, really, as his authority over Philemon and, like that authority, rests on our being one body in Christ.

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