It’s no secret that N. T. Wright has a new book out—Paul and the Faithfulness of God. It’s the latest installment in his larger project called “Christian Origins and the Question of God.”
In a discussion of his book in Baltimore last week, Wright said that central to Paul’s gospel is the unity and holiness of the people of God in Christ. I think this is exactly right. Across Paul’s letters, Christ’s Lordship and the work of God in Christ by the Spirit are vindicated and embodied in the unity of God’s holy people.
If the church breaks up into factions or becomes a worldly people (these two are nearly synonymous for Paul), then God’s victory in Christ is diminished.
Wright begins his project with a (very long) discussion of Philemon and he does so because Paul’s central appeal that Philemon “welcome” Onesimus is the same basic point in Romans (see chapters 14-15), and the same exhortation in Galatians and the Corinthian letters.
Here is how Wright relates this common theme:
Whatever precise reconstruction we offer of the situation Paul envisages in Rome, the point is clear: at the heart of his work is the yearning and striving for messianic unity across traditional boundaries, whether it be the unity of Jew and Gentile in the Messiah (the main point of Galatians), the unity of the church under the lordship of the Messiah in a pagan and imperial context (part of the main point of Philippians, coming to memorable expression in 2.1–4), or, as here in Philemon, the unity of master and slave, expressing again what it means to be en Christō. ‘So, if you reckon me a koinōnos, a partner, proslabou auton, welcome him as you would welcome me.’ Or, as he puts it in Galatians, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no “male and female”; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.’ That unity, as we shall argue in Part II of the present book, was for Paul the central symbol of the Christian worldview. And, as we shall argue in Part III, it could only be attained, and indeed maintained, through freshly worked theology, rooted in Jesus the Messiah and activated through the spirit (pp. 11-12).