Research into Paul’s missionary objectives suggest that Paul did not expect nor explicitly commanded the early established churches to outwardly evangelize however, the results of his missionary works proclaim otherwise. Positing the viewpoint that “communication is the response you get”, this paper explores Paul’s missionary theology and examines in what ways Paul explicitly/implicitly suggested how the church should carry out its missionary work. This paper argues that Paul’s missionary demonstration, as outlined in seven undisputed Pauline epistles, established an active outward-directed evangelical template with the explicit notion that the early Pauline communities he established were to imitate his approach. Furthermore, this paper shows, by an exegesis of the Undisputed Pauline Epistles, that Paul’s message was understood, received and implemented by the early Pauline church. The evidence for this argument can be found in the historical growth of the Pauline communities. Furthermore, there is evidence found in the Deutero-Pauline Epistles and the Pastoral Epistles that the authors of these texts, who claimed to be Paul, understood Paul’s instructions and reiterated them, thus establishing a long tradition of centrifugal missionary efforts.
Why did the urban communities established by Paul grow in a centrifugal missionary pattern-mimicking Paul’s missionary approach? Did Paul specifically communicate to his established communities that they were expected to grow in numbers and establish new churches? Furthermore, did Paul strategically exploit socio-cultural factors to facilitate the growth of the gentile mission? To answer these questions, it is necessary to establish the socio-historical context of the first century Pauline Church by examining its taxonomy, structure, social stratification and size.
What does Paul mean by the term “church”? Paul most common use of the word “church” is to signify a local assembly of believers-“churches” signifies multiple congregations in a particular region (Plummer 2006:44). Paul’s use of church can be found throughout the Pauline texts: “and to the church in your (Philemon) house” (Phlm 1.2); “the church God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor 1.2); “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thess 1.1); “the churches of Galatia” (1 Cor. 16.1); “the churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house” (1 Cor. 16.19).
Early Pauline assemblies were modelled after two social institutions: voluntary associations and the urban “household” (the basic building block of Greco-Roman society) (McCready 1996: 62). To first century Greco-Roman outsiders, a Pauline assembly with its voluntary membership, regular social meetings, worship, sharing of a common meal (1 Cor. 11.17-34) and respect for patrons and sponsors (1 Cor. 16.15-18) would have been recognized as a voluntary association organized around the cult of a deity (McCready 1996: 62). The size of these Pauline assemblies, like most first century voluntary associations, ranged from 15 to 100 members, though most would have gathered less than 100 (McCready 1996: 25). Unless the early Pauline assembly had a benefactor whose financial means could procure a large meeting room, I posit that most Pauline churches were considerably smaller in size because they were organized around the “household” (Phlm 1.2, 1 Cor. 16.15, 19). Furthermore, the Pauline assemblies, like the majority of voluntary associations in the first century, were comprised of urban poor, slaves and freedmen. An analysis of the economic profile of a Pauline assembly indicates that their members were not from the elite class. The wealthiest members may have included individuals such as, Gaius (Rom. 16.23) and possibly Chloe, who may have had a lifestyle with moderate surplus resources (Friesen 2004:341). Paul indicates in Romans 16.23 that Gaius was “host to the whole church”, which might infer several “house-churches” in Corinth assembled at Gaius’ residence (Friesen 2004:356). The largest room in an atrium house might accommodate as many as 30 to 40 people (Schnabel 2008:303). Most of whom Paul mentions in his letters, would appear to live near the “stable near subsistence level” which included wage earners, large shop owners, freedpersons, merchants and traders. And, members such as Onesimus, some members in Corinth who had no food for the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11.22) and Paul were often living below the subsistence level to sustain life (Friesen 2004:341). Thus, based on the economic profile of the Pauline patrons, the early house-church unit was a small one house or apartment house room. Many of the house-churches were comprised solely of the members of the household, as mentioned in 1 Cor. 1.16, “I (Paul) did baptize the household of Stephanas” (Osiek 2002:99). A house-church might also include others, married and unmarried, free and slave and children from outside the basic household. Membership and attendance would have been limited by the size of the house-church, so when an assembly became too large, another house-cult group would be formed (Osiek 2002:100).
The early Pauline community grew by Paul converting modest householders. Scholars underscore the importance of the “household” as the building block of the early Pauline community arguing that Paul was building “a socio-religious entity that fostered a familial sense of oneness” (McCready 1996: 64). This hypothesis makes sense for number of reasons. First is the substantial number of NT references to the Pauline household. Second, there are numerous examples of voluntary associations formed in conjunction with households-the household structure was also an important factor in linking Jewish communities in the Diaspora (McCready 1996: 64). Furthermore, early synagogues were located in private residences, so Jews were acquainted with meeting in private homes (Schnabel 2008: 303). Third, the household functioned as a societal structure that fostered group cohesion, loyalty and exclusivity, making it easier to control and maintain theological integrity. Therefore, Paul strategically employed kin cues among nonkin members, such as brother, sister and father-“Timothy, our brother”, Apphia our sister”, “from God our Father” (Phlm 1.1-3)-to reinforce this familial sense of Pauline kinship. And lastly, converting the head of the household, as was the case with Stephanas, would lead to the conversion of the entire household (1 Cor. 1.16). This must certainly have been a part of Paul’s evangelical strategy, knowing that the subordinate members of the household-immediate family, slaves, former slaves now clients, employed labourers and possible tenants and business associates-would adopt the religion of the converted household master (Meeks 2003:30). Modern evidence shows that religious cults tend to attract young adults-primarily female with males as secondary converts (Hopkins 1998:205). Early Pauline communities must have shared a similar pattern of recruitment whereby young adults, motivated to leave perceived repressive familial norms, converted to the more egalitarian Pauline Christianity. This must have created problems for young married couples whereby one spouse converted but not the other. I posit that Paul encountered this problem in the Corinthian assembly. Paul instructs the spouse who has converted to Christianity not divorce their unbelieving partner, for they have already been made holy by their spouse’s conversion. Moreover, Paul, who is forever concerned with the salvation of many, acknowledges the converted spouse, stating they might have saved their unbelieving partner (Cor. 7.12-16). This strategy combined with Paul’s instruction to demonstrate attractive moral conduct must certainly have contributed to secondary conversions of unbelieving spouses.
The historical record shows dramatic centrifugal growth of Christianity radiating outwards from the Jerusalem. If the total membership in 40 CE was approximately 1000 Christians, by 300 CE Christians numbers were estimated at six million (Hopkins 1998:191). By 100 CE it has been posited that there were approximately 100 Christian communities-close-knit, mutually supportive and devoted house cult-groups scattered throughout the eastern and central Mediterranean basin (Hopkins 1998:202). The development of first century Christian ideology was under the direction of a few literate men, such as Paul, who helped to maintain the identity of these small Christian assemblies through letter writing. Due to the nature and function of the Greco-Roman household, Paul established a fertile foundation for his small group of educated devotees to nuture and inspire expansion of the gospel. These Pauline household cults, because of their size, could be maintained, expanded and duplicated with a reasonable degree of control. Paul’s written letters established a missiological template upon which these small Pauline assemblies could build a gospel tradition of devote faith combined with attractive moral practices. This proved to be a significant religious innovation as the Pauline assemblies expanded along social networks-the conversion of family, relatives, friends to Christianity (modern ecstatic cult group spread out in a similar manner) (Hopkins 1998:226). Paul certainly exploited this phenomena by reinforcing the familial Pauline assembly with kin cues (brothers and sisters, Father and Lord), attractive behavioural conduct and an explicit command to spead the gospel to save many others.
Now that we have an idea of the socio-historical context of the early Pauline assembly, I will show how and why certain texts in the Undisputed Epistles of Paul, the Deutero-Pauline Epistles and the Pastoral Epistles were received as explicit instructions for the early Pauline assemblies to duplicate Paul’s missionary efforts.
An exegesis of Pauline texts will illustrate Paul’s intention that early assemblies actively engage in missionary outreach. These passages can be divided into three categories of evidence: 1) Statements by Paul instructing the church to imitate his missionary model (Bowers 1991:90); 2) Accounts citing Paul’s expectations for numerical growth (Bowers 1991:91); and 3) texts mentioning Paul’s recognition of an assembly’s missionary outreach (Bowers 1991:93).
Pauline assemblies were expected to recruit new members and grow in numbers and Paul explicitly instructed his churches to do so. The historical evidence supports this thesis, since historically, that is what happened, making Christianity today the largest and most persuasive world religion. However, can we really determine by examining Paul’s occasional epistles that this is what he anticipated and expected? The first category of evidence to support the thesis that Paul did communicate to his assemblies that they were to evangelize in a centrifugal way can be found in various NT passages where Paul advocates that his churches “imitate his behaviour”.
Paul’s phrase, “imitate me”, on its own is ambiguous, but there ancient examples of teachers and leaders instructing others to imitate them. Only the context of the ancient instruction can illuminate the author’s intention. Thus, to understand what Paul meant by “imitate me” requires an examination of the context in which he presents it (Plummer 2006:81).
Did Paul’s requests of “imitation” include an outward evangelical program of action? In his letter, 1 Cor. 4.16, Paul says, “I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me”. The context of this passage-Paul has just finished admonishing the Corinthians for their arrogant behaviour and instructs them to have humility-to imitate his gospel lifestyle-the ways of Jesus, who like Paul, has endured suffering, mocking and persecution. Paul sends Timothy to instruct the Corinthians in Paul’s way of life of cleaving to the gospel and holding the gospel out to others despite opposition (Plummer 2006:85). Paul reiterates his command to imitate his gospel way of life in 1 Cor. 11.1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”. Some scholars posit the passage of 1 Cor. 10.31-11.1 is not an instruction to outwardly evangelize, but a direction for the Corinthians to demonstrate conduct (refusing to eat meat sacrificed to idols) that would passively not thwart unbelievers from joining. The message is to imitate Paul. The overt Pauline mission is not explicitly stated, but implies a program of attraction rather than promotion (Bowers 1991:94). Other scholars argue that a much broader context is being expressed. Paul accepts the argument from the strong Corinthians that eating meat sacrificed to idols has no spiritual consequence, but Paul posits the example of self-denial for the good of others must take priority, for the spiritual salvation of the weaker Corinthians is the prize (Plummer 2006:87). Does Paul instruct with a broader church in mind? Does his specific advice extend to larger issues at hand? The phrase, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do “everything” for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10.31). Paul is signifies that “whatever you do” has implications beyond the current “eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols” situation. Furthermore, Paul issues the command, “Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10.32). Paul clearly states that the Corinthians need to see the bigger picture-that their behaviour has repercussions not only for those in the Church but also for those outside the church. Paul wants the Corinthians to follow his lead, to please all (Jews, Greeks, the weak)-not seeking any selfish advantage but in order to save many others (1 Cor. 10.33). Paul’s phrase “in order to save many others” and concluding with “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11.1), is an open command by Paul for the Corinthian congregation to engage in an active missionary role. As Christ was the model of self-sacrifice for the salvation for all, so Paul too, claims the principle of self-denial, giving all for the salvation of the gentiles and encourages the Corinthians to do the same (Plummer 2006:89-90).
An examination of two imitator passages found in Thessalonians illustrates Paul’s happiness that his gospel had been implemented and Pauline numbers were growing: 6 “And you became imitators of us and the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Archia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Archaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. (Thess. 1.6-8) and “…God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea…” (Thess. 2:13-14). Scholars such as Bowers argue these passages do not suggest an evangelistic message, but rather a description of the founding of the Thessalonian church, which serves as a source of inspiration for other Pauline assemblies (Bower 1991:99). However, Plummer argues the contrary, citing, “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (Thess.1.3) recognizes the Thessalonians’ evangelical work. Furthermore, this acknowledgment of the Thessalonian’s works are made more explicit by Paul’s dynamic use of the phrase, “the word of the Lord (the gospel) has sounded forth” (Thess. 1.8), signifying the gospel as “an active force radiating out from the church” (Plummer 2006.62). Plummer argues that this passage works as an explanation of how the church of Thessalonica, by virtue of their demonstration to others, works as a launching point for the gospel. Paul recognized the Thessalonian assembly as having completed their imitation of his apostolic mission because the gospel was now advancing to Macedonia and Achaia through the Thessalonian church (Plummer 2006:62).
Paul wanted and expected his assemblies to grow in numbers; this is underscored in Paul’s epsitle to the Philippians: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have set in us” (Phil. 3.17). An examination of the context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is best revealed in Philippians 1.12-18, where Paul speaks specifically about his imprisonment for spreading the word has helped brothers and sisters to be confident and dare to preach the gospel. Is Paul’s purpose for sharing this example a command to the Philippians to do likewise? To understand Paul’s purpose, the phrase “…because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1.5), illustrates how Paul sees his relationship with the Philippians-as partners, actively advancing the gospel (Plummer 2006:74). Paul further elaborates on this mission, “It is by your holding “fast” (forth) to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Phil. 2.16). Some scholars say the correct translation is “hold forth” meaning that the gospel be carried to non-believers, while others claim, “hold fast” as perseverance and faithfulness (Plummer 2006:74). The broader context of Phil. 2.14-16, suggests the passage is hortative, the Philippians, as “children of God” are to bring light (gospel) to a “crooked and perverse generation” (those outside the assembly). Thus, Paul’s phrasing is an explicit image of evangelistic action and instruction for the church to evangelize (Plummer 2006:77).
Paul’s message of an active outward evangelistic missionary program has been adopted by his successors in the Deutero-Pauline Epistles. In Ephesians, the author, using military imagery, asserts a battle between good and evil that can be won by the Ephesus church by adopting an evangelistic role. The key line is, “shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel” (Eph. 6.15). Descriptive of the evangelistic task of preaching the gospel, this directive is reinforced further by the author’s vivid imagery of brandishing “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6.17). Plummer argues that this phrase is consistent with Paul’s frequent use of “the word of God” as a dynamic force that advances. Thus, it translates as a call to cleave to and announce the gospel-“the word of God”-and advance into victorious action of salvation (Plummer 2006:80).
Another passage that underpins Paul’s call for the assembly to evangelize and grow in numbers lies in the epistle to the Colossians: “5 Conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders, making the most of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Col. 4.5-6). Bowers argues that this passage directs the local church to demonstrate a centripetal mission of attraction-inward and stationary rather than an outwardly mobile act of solicitation (Bowers 1991: 101). However, I argue that Paul’s overall strategic goal was the outward growth of all his assemblies by proclaiming the gospel to everyone regardless of the approach-whether from envy, rivalry, goodwill, love, selfish ambition, or out of insincerity, it did not matter, “just that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice (Phil. 1.15-18). What is this, but a call to passionate and active evangelizing?
As the Pauline churches matured, so did the churches concern for the opinion of outsiders regarding the growing church. The Pastoral epistles exemplify this matter of Paul’s command for public piety. Historical records show that voluntary associations often struggled with members exhibiting disruptive and disorderly behaviour. Voluntary associations enacted legislation to limit offensive behaviour with fines and corporal punishment to enforce (Ascough 2000:320). Was Paul’s concern to peacefully co-exist with outsiders simply an attempt to avoid Roman suspicions that the Pauline assemblies were an unauthorized sect-facing possible persecution as an unhealthy cult or perceived as a revolutionary group meeting pretending to be a social club (Cotter 1996:80)–or did Paul also have ulterior evangelistic motives for his local assemblies? An exegesis of Titus 2.1-11 presents a strong argument that the maturing Pauline assemblies adopted a missological perspective (Plummer 2006:98). The clearest evidence of a mission oriented motive is expressed by the author of Titus at the end of the passage; “9 Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, 10 not pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament (attractive) to the doctrine of God our Saviour” (Titus 2.9-11). Scholars disagree about the verb “ornament”; positing that it could also translate as “to honour” or “to make attractive” and suggest the semantic ranges of the verb could be interpreted either way (Plummer 2006:99). However, Plummer argues that the most often used context of the phrase implies, “adorning in an attractive fashion”, thus garnering the attention or approval of others (Plummer 2006:100). Thus, the passage presents a missiological reading that slaves need to behave appropriately to make the Christian gospel attractive to their masters (Plummer 2006:101). Furthermore, if one reads Titus 2.1-11 with this missiological perspective in mind, then the entire passage reads as a recruitment strategy not only for the entire household, but in fact “salvation to all” (Titus 2.11). The author of Titus clearly understands Paul’s motive to engage all segments of the Pauline assembly in brotherly and sisterly love, but also, the author realizes that Christian behaviour will either attract or repel the gospel and for Paul (whom the author is representing), spreading the good news to all is paramount.
Did Paul expect his churches to outwardly spread the gospel? I have revealed by establishing the socio-historical context of the Pauline assembly, that Paul’s approach of converting the householder with the gospel first, was a key overall strategy for converting entire households. Knowing this, Paul intuited converted householders would be passionate about sharing gospel of salvation with other householders in anticipation that they too would become converts. The historical evidence shows the outward evangelism of the Thessalonian church (Thess. 1.6-8). Furthermore, I have highlighted key passages that illustrate Paul’s order for the church to evangelize (Phil. 2.16, 1.12-18) and Paul’s call to imitate him (1 Cor. 4.16, 11.1). In addition, I have also shown passages in Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral epistles, although passive, clearly show Paul’s command to evangelize (Eph. 6.15-17, Col. 4.5-6, and Titus 2.1-11). Thus, if “communication is the response you get”, I conclude that Paul expected his founding assemblies to duplicate his missionary efforts because the historical evidence shows that is exactly what the Christian church did-it grew rapidly from Paul’s conversion at Damascus to more than six million Christians by the third century to more than three billion Christians today in an ever growing outward expansion of Christian churches everywhere-converting all so that many find salvation in Jesus Christ.
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Cameron Freeman, Student of Social-Cultural Anthropology and ReligionsCameron is currently enrolled at the University of Toronto where he studies Social-Cultural Anthropology and Religions.