The Apostle Paul, Community Organizer?

A few weeks ago I wondered about the images we have of Paul the Apostle.  We can’t help but construct him in our imaginations and we do so in terms of modern jobs, careers, and ministry roles.  These images shape how we read his letters and regard his central concerns.

I’ve heard evangelists talk about Paul as the consummate evangelist—a rhetorically persuasive orator who spoke compellingly about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I’ve heard a neo-fundamentalist preacher talk about Paul’s stress on doctrinal precision.  Paul’s passion for truth made him a doctrinal watchdog, one who scrutinized the preaching and teaching of his fellow believers.  Because of his concern for orthodoxy, he confronted Peter in Antioch and was a theological champion in his constant debates with opponents.

I’ve just found it interesting that when pastors and preachers of various sorts talk about Paul, they end up speaking of him in autobiographical terms.  It just so happens that Paul always ends up being just like them!

I wrote about a few other misconceptions in my Christianity Today article, “The Paul We Think We Know.”

More recently, I heard a public figure referred to as a “community organizer.”  The image that immediately came to mind was of this person walking through neighborhoods, sleeves rolled up, getting to know people, trying to understand local problems, and working to resolve conflicts and solve problems.

I then thought, “my goodness, that’s Paul!”

I’m not entirely sure that this captures everything that he was about, but it does seem just as appropriate—if not more so—as other images.

Paul was certainly not an evangelist in the modern sense.  He wasn’t the powerful orator we imagine him to be (1 Cor. 2:1-8; 2 Cor 10:10).  And he wrote pastoral letters to churches, not theological treatises, so he wasn’t a professional theologian.

His main concern, however, was that churches grow and increasingly thrive as unified communities of self-sacrificial love.  It seems to me that beyond many of our modern conceptions, perhaps “community organizer” is far more fitting.

4 thoughts on “The Apostle Paul, Community Organizer?

  1. S Wu

    Just two hours ago I was talking with a friend about your post a few weeks ago about what images we have of Paul, and now I saw your new post!

    “Community organizer” (as you described it) sounds just right. I think in his letters we find plenty of materials that lead us to that conclusion. I was going to say that Paul was a pastor. But then today our images of a pastor (event coordinator, leader with a vision and purpose, etc) may well be very different from what Paul did as a shepherd of his “sheep”. I also think that the Book of Acts alerts us to the fact that Paul participated in the gathering of those communities because of God’s calling and vocation. I was going to say that Paul was a missionary. But again today our understanding of a “missionary” may well be different from the vocation of Paul.

    I tend to picture Paul as someone who is interested in the formation of life-giving world-changing Christ-communities who seek to embody Jesus’ cruciform life in anticipation of God’s final renewal of the entire cosmos.

    1. timgombis

      That’s just it, S. Many of our images of good words and roles (‘pastor’, ‘bishop’, etc.) are corrupted. That doesn’t mean we can’t use them, but in a sense I think it’s helpful to ‘try on’ various images and just see how they shed light on who Paul was and what he was all about.

  2. bobmacdonald

    I never finished Crossan’s book on the Historical Paul, but true to the mirror in the well phenomenon, my vote on who Paul is would be on the side of encouraging the obedience part of faith. I think Paul includes the intent of the Psalter in Romans. In that letter (3:13), he cites psalms from the beginning and the end and he is not so much ‘building community’ as he is ‘forming a people of mercy and loving-kindness in covenant’ through Christ Jesus, using Israel as the teaching point (‘written for our learning’) – just what the Psalms are about (Israel his parables – or dominions if you insist, Ps 114). Another strong theme throughout the NT and not foreign to Paul is purity / holiness, also evident in the Psalter (2 – Kiss with purity = holy kiss in Paul). Impurity cannot stand before the Holy One but the invitation to stand is nevertheless present – to all who fear (as Peter notes in the Acts).

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