The Politics of Paul, Pt. 4

I’ve claimed thus far that Paul’s gospel is political, and I’ve already given some hints about the basic shape of his outlook. But what are the more specific political contours of his thought? Just how does this work out when we turn to the sorts of things he actually wrote to churches?

First, as I’ve already mentioned, the heart of Paul’s gospel is the announcement of a new ruler—Jesus Christ as cosmic Lord. This is, of course, a political title. Jesus is not only the Messiah of Israel, but Lord over all things, highly exalted over all powers and authorities (Eph. 1:20-22). Jesus Christ is the political ruler of a newly gathered people—the new creation polis of God.

Second, Paul’s gospel is the announcement of the arrival of the long-awaited Kingdom of God, a new and life-giving, reality-altering, community-transforming realm into which God is drawing people by his Spirit. This political reality is the emergence of a God-empowered, Spirit-animated realm that manifests the reign of the Lord Jesus through a radically new social order—the polis of Jesus.

Writing to the Colossians, Paul says that God “has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” He calls on this same imagery in Gal. 1:3-5:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore (vv. 3-5).

At salvation, God snatches people out of enslavement within the oppressive matrix of the present evil age, brings them into the life-giving Kingdom and sets them under the gracious reign of his Son, Jesus Christ. We now participate in the reality of the being-restored creation by the power of the Spirit. This is the fundamental reality about which Paul speaks—a new political reality with renewed political practices. Paul says to the Galatians that no longer does ethnic identity determine personal value (Gal. 3:28). He condemns those who compel or coerce non-Jews to become Jews. According to his gospel, Jews and gentiles must accept and love one another because they together inhabit a new political reality and have been united by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul went on at least three missions to establish Kingdom communities throughout the world, revisiting them, sending ministry partners to them, praying for them, and writing them letters to see that they would flourish and grow.Paul the Apostle

Third, the church as a body politic takes its orientation from Israel as a political entity. The church is not Israel, nor is it a nation like other nations, determined by one ethnicity and situated on a distinct patch of land. But Israel’s identity and mission shape the church’s identity and mission. This is signaled by Paul’s language for the church, which he borrows from Scripture’s language about Israel.

Paul calls the church “holy ones” in several places, and uses “holiness” language quite often to speak of his churches’ identity with reference to God. This does not merely point to a moral purity before God (though it may include this). It points to Israel’s politically-oriented vocation. God called them as a radically different sort of people who were to embody a radically different domestic set of social practices, and a completely unique set of relationships with the surrounding nations. When Paul uses “holiness” language for the church, he’s getting at how the polis of Jesus is supposed to be this sort of people among the various peoples of the world.

In several of his letters, Paul refers to readers as “chosen,” or “elect.” He’s not developing a doctrine of predestination in these places, but again, referring to Israel’s election. God chose Abraham and Israel, not because he loved them more than the nations, but precisely because he loved the nations. His chosen ones are those who are special recipients of God’s love so that they can be agents of that love to others. When Paul uses election language of the church, he’s thinking of the identity of Israel as agents of God’s pursuit of the nations and of the missional character of Israel. This vision of a political unit that embodies God’s relentless love for the nations shapes how Paul conceives of the church.

Finally, Paul begins nearly every letter with a greeting of “grace and peace.” Peace, of course, is one way of translating the Hebrew term shalom. Beyond merely indicating the mental or spiritual state of his readers, Paul wishes for them an experience of the political order of universal flourishing that was to characterize God’s world from the beginning.

Much more could be said about this, but this is just to say that the political identity and political mission of Israel determines how Paul conceives of the church.

For tomorrow, some of the concrete ways that Paul’s churches enacted Paul’s political vision.


One response to “The Politics of Paul, Pt. 4

  • Matthew Perri

    You are writing much about “Paul’s Gospel”, “Paul’s churches”, “Paul’s political vision,” ‘Paul’s letters”, “Paul’s teaching” “Paul’s language.”

    In your post above, I did a quick “word count.”
    You referred to Paul 30 times
    (Paul’s name, or pronouns referring to Paul – he, his)
    You referred to Jesus 9 times.

    Are you saying that Paul is 3 times more important than Jesus?

    Many self-professed “Bible-believing Evangelicals” won’t listen to the words of Jesus, because they are brainwashed through reciting their “mantra” – “all scripture is God-breathed.”

    This “Evangelical Mantra” has been accepted by the collective subconscious mind of “The Evangelical Church” without thought, question, reflection, or even 2 witnesses from the Scripture itself. It’s based on a misinterpretation, out of context, of one verse in one letter written by one man, Paul the Pharisee, who was unfamiliar with the personal ministry and teaching of Jesus.

    But, “Once an idea has been accepted by your subconscious, it remains there and it governs your behavior until it is replaced or changed.” [ as a pastor named Bishop Dale C. Bronner observed in one of his sermons]

    (Definition from the American Heritage Dictionary.) Mantra (noun) (Hinduism.) A sacred formula believed to embody the divinity invoked and to possess magical power, used in prayer and incantation.

    When cult members repeat their mantra, it makes them deaf to the voice of God, unable to hear God. Instead, it puts their focus on their one “special man” above all others – his personality, words and teachings, character, life example, feelings, experience, intentions, mind, will, emotions, etc. Their cult leader is their hero – he is always right, could never be wrong about anything specific, and he must be obeyed in all things and never questioned. He will give himself a special title, write at least one special book, and claim special authority, with no need for a second witness to back him up.
    Here are 3 examples.

    .1) Fuhrer. The title of Adolf Hitler as the leader of the German Nazis, author of “Mein Kamph”. Mantra: “Heil Hitler.”

    .2) The self-appointed Prophet Muhammad, author of The Koran. Mantra: …..”and Muhammad is his prophet.”

    .3) Paul the Pharisee, the self-appointed Apostle to the Gentiles, whose 13 letters comprise one third of what, today, we call the “New Testament.” (The first, original “New Testament” was composed by the second century heretic Marcion, and he coined the term “New Testament.” His new “book” contained nothing except 10 of Paul’s letters and an abbreviated Gospel of Luke. There were no other “New Testament” books, and the Hebrew Scriptures were the “Old Testament” which was irrelevant, according to the heretic Marcion.) Mantra: “All Scripture is God-breathed….”

    I got my Masters Degree at Dallas Theological Seminary. I was attracted to the school because they put Paul’s mantra of “All Scripture is God-breathed” above everything else, and I wanted to heed Paul’s command and “Preach the Word” like Paul….

    This mantra is a misinterpretation out of context of 2 Timothy 3:16. It ignores the previous verse, 2 Timothy 3:15, which clearly indicates that Paul was NOT referring to his own letters when he wrote the words “All Scripture.”

    Paul was probably making reference to some of the Hebrew Scriptures, quite likely including the Law and the Prophets. We cannot be completely certain exactly which “Scriptures” Paul meant in “All Scripture”, and what Paul meant by “God-breathed.” Why can’t we be certain?

    Because we must establish a matter by the testimony of two or three witnesses, especially something as important as “What is the Word of God.” No one else in the pages of the Bible besides Paul ever said anything like “All Scripture is God-breathed”. And Paul only said it here, one time, in the middle of a personal letter.

    The Apostle Peter made reference to “Prophecy of Scripture,” not “All Scripture,” and no it’s not the same thing at all. Jesus never said anything like that. And no one, not even Paul, ever said that all Scripture was equal.

    I remember the general approach to the Bible at Dallas being that “every word in the 66 Books is the Word of God”….. and we should interpret it based on “the intended meaning of the author in the historical grammatical context.”

    That is the basic idea of the heavy-duty seminary language we were being trained in. It sounds so right, so intelligent, so professional, so “godly”….. but it is fundamentally flawed.

    When we look at Paul’s teachings and testimony about himself, (in his letters that make up 1/3 of the New Testament,) we should NOT immediately ask ourselves; “what did Paul say, what did Paul mean, and how does this apply to my life?” The fundamental question is NOT “what was in the mind of Paul?”

    Before any of that, the FIRST question to ask is; “does Paul agree with Jesus, who came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets?”

    Paul contradicted himself, and his teachings and testimony about himself don’t harmonize with the teachings of Jesus (or with Luke’s record of his life.) Let’s not waste our time with endless debates about “what Paul really meant” with his wacky teachings about “baptizing the dead” or “there is neither male nor female.” Paul was wrong. Jesus reminds us from The Law “at the beginning, the Creator made them male and female.” [Matthew 19:4, Genesis 1:27]

    As to the question of “whether the Bible is ALL truly Gods WORDS”…

    The underlying unspoken assumption is that “The Bible” (66 Books) was given to us by God as “one book” and it’s all “equal” in level of authority, priority, and importance. This comes from unconsciously believing Paul’s mantra, the “Evangelical Mantra”, that “All Scripture is God-breathed”, and falsely assuming Paul was referring to every word in the 66 Books of the Bible. Yet even here, not even Paul, not even once, ever said that “All Scripture is EQUAL” in authority, priority, and importance.

    No one in the pages of the Bible ever said or wrote that “all Scripture,” or “the Bible,” is “all truly God’s words”. Jesus never said anything like that, and Jesus did not see it that way. Jesus did not see even the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the “Old Testament”, as a whole unit or book that was all equal or “all truly God’s words.” Jesus spoke of The Law, or The Law and the Prophets, holding these 2 sections of the Old Testament above the third, least important sections the “Writings.” And Jesus held the Psalms, the first book of the “Writings” section, above the other books in the “Writings” section in importance, since some parts of some Psalms are prophetic.

    Obviously, the New Testament Scriptures were not written when Jesus was walking the earth. But if we want to get closest to The Source, Jesus himself, it makes sense that we should look first to the eyewitness testimony of two of His appointed Apostles who walked with Him faithfully for over 3 years, Matthew & John. (Also to other eyewitness testimony, recorded by Mark and Luke.) This is more accurate, important, and authoritative than personal letters written by Paul the Pharisee, who never knew Jesus personally, had no part in His ministry, and had no eyewitness testimony.

    We should follow the Jesus of the Gospel writers. We should not follow the “jesus” of Paul the Pharisee or Muhammad or any other man, who had their own ideas of who “jesus” was and what He did.

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