The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§24)

I remember sitting in Pastoral Theology classes back in Bible College. The professor would offer a case study of a situation that was far from black-and-white, and we naive students would offer a solid answer. I learned then that the application of principles is a complex art. Now that we’ve studied Paul’s ethical principles, it’s time to get to the case studies.

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Chapter 8: How Should Believers Live?

§ 24: Ethics in practice

Of the various ethical systems that have been tried, most have failed. For Paul, these systems don’t appreciate the reality of sin’s power or the eschatological tension. Paul’s ethics suggest ways to live in light of a future judgment and in the midst of the eschatological tension. Paul’s ethics are not individualistic. Indeed, they can only function within community, which is what church is. Most often, Paul dealt with small social groups that were drawn together from diverse backgrounds. These backgrounds led to many tensions and struggles. Two of Paul’s letters give us concrete ethical cases to study: Romans and (especially) 1 Corinthians.

The Roman Christians lived in a hostile world, and Paul’s ethical advice in Romans 12:9-13:14 reflects that reality. Rome was suspicious of clubs and social groups. The more a church became theologically independent of Judaism, the more politically tenuous its position became. In response to this, Paul didn’t tell the Christians to fight the system or to disappear in the woodwork. He urged them to maintain good relationships with the current system. Paul appealed to four principles when defining the Christian’s relationship to their hostile world:

  1. Love: Everything rests on this fundamental principle.
  2. Aglow With the Spirit and Serve the Lord: The excitement of Spirit-led life should meet the reality of concrete service.
  3. Traditional Jewish Wisdom: Romans 12:14-21 is a cluster of scriptural allusions where Paul appeals to tried and tested Jewish ethical wisdom.
  4. The Standards of the Land: Paul urged the Christians to follow the ethics of society where those ethics were admirable.

The early Roman church worked out these principles in two interesting ways:

  1. They made no neat distinction between fellow believer and neighbour. The principle of love overrides such differences.
  2. The believers were politically indifferent. They neither challenged nor vanished from the political landscape. In our world of political democracies where Christians can influence government, it’s difficult to conceive of the Roman Christian situation.

We’ve seen how Paul urged the Roman congregation to live in a hostile environment. Now we look at how to live within the Christian community when fundamental disagreements arise (Romans 14:1-15:6). The two related issues troubling the Roman church were the necessity to follow Jewish dietary restrictions and Sabbath laws. A little historical work shows us that a substantial Jewish population in Rome were expelled in 49 CE. The expelled Jews returned likely following the death of Claudius in 54CE. In the meantime, the leadership of the budding Christian movement was held by Gentiles who enjoyed their freedom. Returning Jews would have been appalled by their disregard to traditional Jewish boundary markers.

In discussing church disagreements, Paul sets up some principles. Faith is at issue here. Those with weak faith felt the need to cling to traditional laws. Those with strong faith reveled in their freedom. Paul went on to stress how each person was individually accountable to their Lord. Paul echoed Jesus’ teaching when he stressed that nothing is in itself unclean. Beyond all this, love needs to be the constant controlling principle of the believer’s life.

The conflict between the traditionalists and the free started with an unwillingness to accept or welcome each other in Christian fellowship. This was followed by outright judgment of the other’s position. Paul addressed both parties.

  1. To the traditionalists: God has accepted those whose practices you dislike. Worry about your own conscience. It’s natural for you to think that those who enjoy their freedom have actually left the faith—conduct is the litmus test of faith. In sum, the challenge to the weak was on the principle of faith alone.
  2. To the free: Don’t beat down the weak, but accept them without trying to settle arguments. Your freedom can seriously damage those with scruples. It’s better for you to willingly curtail your freedom than to destroy a traditionalist. In sum, the challenge to the free was on the principle of love.

As we move from Romans to Corinthians, it’s important to note the difference. Romans was written to a church that viewed itself as isolated from its hostile culture. The church in Corinth was more closely tied to its culture. Boundaries were fuzzy. The first issue Paul took up with the Corinthians is porneia (unlawful sexual intercourse) (1 Corinthians 5-6). Paul held firm to his traditional Jewish upbringing that uncontrolled desire can turn into destructive lust. The specific case was a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. That person was to be removed from Christian fellowship in order to save him. Other Corinthians apparently defended their former sexual ideals. Paul rejected this as a form of slavery as well as a usurper to the relationship the believer has with Christ through the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 7 has convinced many that Paul was an ascetic at heart with a negative view of marriage. This is not the case. Paul wished that people would be unmarried as he was because the present age is short. He was worried the marriage relationship would take the place of the believer’s relationship with God. On the other hand, it’s good to remember that Paul was responding to specific questions raised by the Corinthians in previous correspondence. He was not setting up a timeless theology of marriage. He spoke with pastoral care into a difficult situation, making sure to emphasize that these were his opinions, not commands. Paul viewed marriage as a genuine partnership where sexual relations were the norm. Whether married or not, the important thing was to keep the commandments of God.

Paul is often criticized for his acceptance of slavery. Three things must be noted:

  1. Slavery was not yet thought of as immoral or degrading—it took the slave trade to bring that realization home.
  2. Slavery was an established fact of life in the ancient world. The entire economic system depended on it.
  3. Although slavery was antithetical to Greek freedom, slaves were often educated and placed in positions of stewardship far greater than many free people.

Paul was not interested in changing the rules of the game here: he encouraged masters to treat slaves with more dignity because of their accountability to Christ. Believers—both slave and free—are enslaved to Christ.

1 Corinthians 8-10 deals with the issue of meat eating. On the surface, it’s the same argument as Romans 14:1-15:6. Look deeper and there are some fundamental differences:

  1. Romans was about unclean food, while Corinthians is about idol food.
  2. Roman tensions were internal, while Corinthian tensions involved community life.
  3. In Romans Paul used “faith”, while in Corinthians he used “conscience”.

Some have suggested that Paul’s attitude toward idol food is an abandonment of Israel’s hostility to idols. This isn’t the case, since Paul elsewhere is openly hostile towards idols. Paul urged the Corinthians not to eat meat sacrificed to idols if they were sure that that was the source. Christian liberty is affirmed, but the consequences of that liberty on others is paramount.

The final ethical case study is the collection Paul took up for the Jerusalem saints. This collection grew in importance through Paul’s ministry and became the closing subject of Romans (15:25-32). In the collection, many of Paul’s themes come together:

  1. The collection was an expression of grace.
  2. The collection emphasized the importance of Israel, stressing the importance of Jerusalemite saints.
  3. The collection was a practical outworking of fellowship.
  4. The collection was a way to express the grace you’ve received to others.

When Paul worked out his ethical principles in the local church, he was careful and pastoral. He balanced inward motivation with outward norms, and held a firm grasp on the eschatological tension. He encouraged believers to genuinely respect each other, regardless of their individual place on the spectrum of Christian liberty.

. . .

I was struck most of all by Paul’s unwillingness to battle his culture. Defeating Rome was no priority of his. He urged his people to live like Christians in the midst of whatever situation they were in. This make the application of his ethical principles somewhat flexible. I wonder what Paul’s attitude has to say about Western Christianity’s desire to battle our evil culture. Or, where does this leave Liberation theology?

< § 23: The Lord’s Supper

§ 25: Postlegomena to a theology of Paul >

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