The Corporate Character of Moral Formation

I’ve been enjoying James Thompson’s excellent book, Moral Transformation according to Paul.  He has a wonderful chapter on the communal character of the church’s moral transformation.

Paul shares with Aristotle and the Stoics a concern for behavior, but he speaks with a totally different vocabulary, which is nowhere more evident than in the terms with which he establishes the identity of his readers.  Unlike ancient moralists, Paul is concerned not with the virtue or happiness of the individual, but with the corporate identity of his communities as the basis for moral formation (p. 53).

He demonstrates from 1 and 2 Corinthians how Paul shapes the church’s self-conception by drawing upon Israel’s identity (“holy” and “elect”) and the community’s new constitution as the family of God.

His concluding paragraph:

Paul shapes the moral consciousness of his gentile converts by instructing them with the vocabulary of ancient Israel.  The corporate ethic of his communities is based on their identity as the elect and holy people who live out the consequences of their divine calling.  Inasmuch as these communities, unlike the Israelites, are not united by physical kinship, Paul provides an identity of fictive kinship by which they assume the roles of families.  These images indicate that the moral life cannot be lived in isolation, but only in the company of others who are called to be elect and holy members of the family.  These images also draw boundaries between the in-group and the outsiders that the community expresses by adopting a code of conduct that distinguishes them from others.  Insider language drawn from Israel’s Scripture characterizes the moral discourse of this in-group.  As in Israel, they respond to the holiness granted by God by being holy in their activities.  They respond to their relationship as a family by behaving as family members (p. 62).

8 thoughts on “The Corporate Character of Moral Formation

  1. Gary T. Meadors

    A classic text to support the corporate nature of spirituality is Gal 5:13-6:6, the well known “fruit of the Spirit.” Unfortunately, in American Christianity this list has been privatized into “MY” peace, joy, etc. But the context of Gal 5:13-6:6 is bounded by the balanced use of “law” (5:14, 6:2). In 5:14, the Torah to love your neighbor and in 6:2 the love that works in community to fulfill Christ’s law signals the context as community not individual. Consequently, we need to unpack the terms in the 2 lists (fruit of Spirit and works of flesh) as relational constructs. This is easy in the works of the flesh vice list, but the virtue list is often missed as corporate rather than personal. For example, “peace” should not be read as my personal peace with God but as my peace in the relationships I sustain with other believers (cf. Phil 4:1-7 as an illustration). The fruit of the Spirit list uses more abstract terms and they need to be unpacked as logical constructs that serve as a barometer of relationships in the church.

    Furthermore, it is interesting that when Paul uses the “great commandment” text, he leaves our “love God”! Why…IMHO it is because the context is about horizontal relationships and these are the only evidence that any eventual claim to love God has validity.

    Another value in seeing how this classic text on spirituality works is that it helps to move the current discussion on “who is a spiritual person” from esoteric pietism into concrete actions. Is this not how the OT covenant love concept works? Let’s get back to the Bible….

    1. timgombis

      Well-put, Gary, I absolutely agree. So many of Paul’s texts on spirituality have been hijacked and put to use to describe something that Paul would hardly recognize.

      Someone needs to write a book on Pauline spirituality . . .

    1. timgombis

      Cheers, Dan — excellent post, too! Thompson’s book provides a robust exegetical basis for much of what you capture so well.

      Another line from Thompson that echoes your point: “Holiness was not an individual virtue, but the common identity of the people” (p. 55).

  2. S Wu

    Good points. I think the Pauline view on “life in the Spirit” is about communal living, especially in Romans and Galatians. “Peace” in Gal 5 may well be understood in terms of the OT notion of Shalom, if we recall Ezekiel’s covenant of shalom and how the Spirit is understand as the eschatological Spirit anticipated by the prophets.

    By the way, Rodney Reeves has written a book called Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ. I haven’t read it though.

    I must admit that I like Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence, and and Michael Gorman’s Cruciformity. The former is of course a classic on the Holy Spirit in Paul, written by a respected Pauline scholar with a Pentecostal background. The latter has a subtitle “Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross”.

    1. timgombis

      I completely agree, S. Reading Paul through an OT lens is the first step to dismantling the Western, individualized shackles that bind our conception of Paul’s spirituality, domesticating and perverting his texts.

      I thought of Reeves and Gorman when I wrote that comment . . . just a little nod to Gary’s book, that touches on aspects of Paul’s spirituality related to this topic.

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