The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§21)

Now we come to that area of theology that is so abused in the modern church: authority! (Can I hear a, “touch not God’s anointed”?) In all seriousness, I’ve never spent any significant time thinking about issues of apostolic authority. This should be interesting.

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Chapter 7: The Church

§ 21: Ministry and authority

Having just described the body of Christ as a charismatic community, we now need to relate charismatic freedom to more formal church structure. For most of church history the early churches were understood as essentially democratic organizations which supported the functions of apostles, prophets, and teachers—but not the offices. This view was challenged at the beginning of the 20th century by Harnack who saw a tension in the early church between Spirit and office. Käsemann tried to transcend this tension by viewing Spirit and office in dialectical relationship. While this seems like a very Protestant discussion, Küng post Vatican II understood the charismatic structure of the church as fundamental. The Pentecostal and charismatic movements of the 20th century also stress Spirit over office. Sociological studies of the Corinthian church have re-raised this question. It provides us with an opportunity to examine how Paul’s theology worked in real life.

We will start with the category of apostolic authority, specifically, Paul’s own. Upon careful examination of this theme in Galatians, Corinthians, and Philemon, we can see five elements of his apostolic authority:

  1. The gospel is primary. Apostles only exercise authority under the authority of the gospel. Paul was able to challenge Peter in scathing terms when he felt that Peter’s authority challenged the truth of the gospel.
  2. Authority does not equal authoritarianism. We see in Corinthians Paul’s desire to use his authority to encourage greater responsibility within the congregation. Paul spoke of the commands of the Lord and distinguished them from his own commands. This style of authority is plain in Philemon where Paul allowed Philemon to save face and do the Christian thing with Onesimus.
  3. Paul accommodated his apostolic authority to the situation at hand. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is the clearest passage on this. We see this with respect to the offering he wanted to take to Jerusalem. He claimed it was his right as the Corinthian’s apostle to make financial claims, but he chose to allow gospel freedom to reign instead.
  4. Apostolic authority is not universal. Paul was careful not to claim apostolic authority over churches founded by other apostles. He would not build on another apostle’s foundation (Romans 15:20).
  5. The final mark of apostolic authority is suffering. Apostles are not marked by their power or rhetorical eloquence, but a weakness demonstrated in sharing the sufferings of Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

There were other ministries besides the apostolic. Most frequently mentioned were prophets and teachers. It is safe to assume that there were a group of recognized prophets in Paul’s churches. Their authority came from Spirit-inspiration (not their “office”). It was important that they prophecy only in proportion to their faith (Romans 12:6) and understand that their words would be evaluated by the others (1 Corinthians 14:29). While some people were recognized as regular prophesiers, anyone could prophecy. Teachers are an essential compliment to prophets. They were responsible to pass on the traditions of the church, scripture, and Jesus. The absence of Paul’s writing to other church leaders is surprising, especially in a church with problems like the Corinthian congregation. You would expect Paul to upbraid the leaders for the chaos in the congregation. Instead, he wrote a letter to the whole church. Regular leadership roles like elder and deacon are not addressed substantially until the Pastorals. It is still worth questioning today whether the leadership roles evident in the Pastorals are sufficient to allow the freedom of charismatic authority.

One modern question on the issue of ministry and authority is the role of women. Two things are clear in Paul’s churches. First, women participated and led in many areas: deacon, prophesiers, apostles, etc. Indeed, in Romans 16, four women and no men were listed as “hard working” in the church. The second is the uneasiness Paul had with some aspects of women’s ministry. The major passages about this are 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:33b-36, and the later 1 Timothy 2:12-14. The obvious question raised by these verses is, “How can a woman be silent in church and still pray and prophecy?” Both are attested in Paul. Perhaps this reflects a tension in Paul’s own theology. In the end, while Galatians 3:28 may seem like a sweeping statement, it’s more qualified in Paul’s practice. Social realities do play a role when theology is made practical.

The whole congregation had a role in ministry. Every person was responsible for common life and worship. Indeed, Paul addressed all but one of his letters (Philippians) to the congregation as a whole. The whole community is taught by God and participates in the same Spirit. Any super-spiritual elitism was to be quashed (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). It was the role of the whole church to recognize and encourage manifest charismatic authority. This was the important role of “Amen” which has now become little more than a formal aspect of liturgy (or, I would add, throw-away enthusiastic punctuation).

The whole congregation was also called to “test the Spirits”. In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul developed three tests to discern whether a prophecy or teaching was from God:

  1. The test of the gospel. If the words lined up with the gospel, they were good. If not, they were to be discarded. The formula of “Jesus is Lord” is a way of describing this test.
  2. The test of love. Any charism not motivated by love was worthless.
  3. The test of community benefit. This is mentioned seven times in 1 Corinthians 14! The diverse charisms are only meaningful if they contribute to the health of the community.

Paul’s theology of ministry and authority was practical, formed and informed by social realities and hostile environments. There is no uncrossable divide between the Spirit-led Charismatic leadership of Paul’s earlier letters and the growing institutionalization evident in the Pastorals. We must always look to Paul’s Charismatic ideals in any understanding of church leadership today.

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This chapter was immensely helpful. Speaking from a church tradition that wrestles with issues of role v. office, seeing Paul’s understanding of prophets and teachers all drawn into one place is important. It’s also helpful to see how mutually interactive prophecy was. Those who prophecy were not an elite class, but people who brought their inspiration forward for the evaluation and benefit of the congregation.

The whole dialectic between charismatic and official church leadership was also fascinating. I wonder which side of the divide most Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada churches dwell on?

< § 20: The body of Christ

§ 22: The Lord’s Supper >

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