Paul’s Ministry of Mutuality

Romans contains quite a long letter opening.  The opening consists of 1:1-15, since Paul transitions abruptly into what appears to be the first major section of his letter in 1:16.  It’s tempting to regard a letter opening as relatively less important than the letter itself, and this is especially the case with Romans.  Some feel that this is just the fluffy stuff at the beginning—let’s move on and get to the meat, the theology of the letter!  That’s a poor reading strategy, however, and misses quite a lot.

Paul writes to a church he has never visited, so his pastoral approach is diplomatic.  He rhetorically establishes a relationship of mutuality with the Roman Christians.  He is not an imperious apostle talking down to them, issuing commands and edicts.

His carefully crafted rhetoric sets him alongside them, putting him in a position to bless them and be blessed by them.  He creates this mutuality in at least two ways.

First, Paul and the Romans share in the call of God.  Paul is not an apostle because of his credentials or his giftedness or because of anything else special about him.  He was “called” (v. 1), just as those in Rome were “called to be saints” (v. 7).

Second, Paul expresses his longing to come to Rome to bless and be blessed.

I really want to see you to pass along some spiritual gift to you so that you can be strengthened. What I mean is that we can mutually encourage each other while I am with you. We can be encouraged by the faithfulness we find in each other, both your faithfulness and mine (Rom. 1:11-12, CEB).

This is not a one-way relationship with Paul the instructor and the Romans the clueless ones in need of being set right.  This is not a lopsided power arrangement.  Paul’s ministry posture is one of mutuality.

This is Trinitarian-shaped ministry, the sort of relational dynamic that flows from the gospel that aims to restore what was corrupted at the Fall.

Human relationships were designed to imitate the perichoretic dynamics within the Godhead—Father, Son, and Spirit forming an eternal community of mutual delight.  Humans were created for this very same mutuality—to be known and to know, to delight in others and be delighted in by others.

God’s original design for humanity shapes Paul’s approach to ministry.  He encounters the Romans as a servant (v. 1), as one who longs to bless and be blessed.

This is, of course, the very same mutuality that Paul wants to see effected in the Roman fellowships.  He wants to see rival groups in Rome come to regard each other genuinely as siblings in God’s new family in Christ.

The implications for how we conduct our relationships and carry out our ministries are endless.

6 thoughts on “Paul’s Ministry of Mutuality

  1. scottemery

    Great post. The more I reflect on the perichoretic nature of God, the more I realize the need for rooting ourselves in mutuality. In my opinion, we (the conservative evangelical world I come out of) have forgotten this. We love to discuss all things missional, but overlook the posture and means of mission: incarnational community.

    1. timgombis

      Exactly, Scott, and it works on so many levels. Relationships of mutuality within Christian communities and relationships of mutuality on the part of communities with other communities. Evangelicals have historically been used to “top-down” relational postures that don’t bear good fruit.

  2. pltk

    I love the idea of humans being designed to partake of the perichoretic nature of God. It is a joyous thing to partake in moments that come close to this and support this receiving and giving, this knowing and being known.

    1. timgombis

      We were created to partake of relationality within God and also to imitate that sort of relationality with others. It’s supposed to work on several levels. Our experience and our tendencies toward (self)destruction and self-protection often work in the opposite direction, unfortunately.

  3. Pingback: Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans | Imagine with Scripture

  4. Pingback: Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans | Imagine with Scripture

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