Mission in the Early Church

Schnabel describes mission in the early church as consisting of three elements (Paul the Missionary, 28-9) .  First, the missionary communicates the good news of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior.  Second, the missionary communicates a new way of life to those who respond to the good news.  This necessarily means that social and cultural patterns must change in the light of the Gospel. Third, the missionary tries to integrate these new believers into a new community.  The new believers are a new family (brothers and sisters) or a new community (a citizenship in heaven).

By in large, I agree with this general outline of method.  It is not difficult to demonstrate that Paul’s message centered on Jesus as the Messiah and that his death provided some kid of solution to the problem of sin.  What is more, Paul is clear in his letters that when one is “in Christ” everything has changed.  The believer is a new creation and therefore has a new relationship with God. The believer has a new family, which means there are new family obligations which bear on social connections.  The new believer’s relationship with God has social and ethical ramifications which go beyond the  typical confines of “religion” in the ancient world.

These elements of mission also explain many of the problems Paul faces in fulfilling his calling.  How does a person “live out” this new relationship with Christ?  How do Gentiles relate to the God of the Hebrew Bible? If Gentiles are in Christ, how ought the relate to the pagan world?  Two examples come to mind.  On the one hand, should the Gentile believer in Christ accept the Jewish law as normative for their worship and practice?  On the other hand, can someone who is “in Christ” attend a birthday celebration at a pagan temple without actually worshiping any god?  In the first case, the Gentile is radically changing his pattern of life which would create a social break with his culture.  In the second case, he is making a minor adjustment in order to remain socially accepted.  These are not straw-men, since there are clear cases of both things happening in the New Testament.

I assume Paul would be someplace between these two extremes, based on a reading of Galatians and 1 Corinthians. What is remarkable to me is that Paul would never compromise on any of these points, but he was flexible enough to present the gospel in a new context without compromise.  The Gospel is always centered on Jesus Christ and his work on the cross, yet there are times when Paul enters a synagogue and tries to convince Jews from the Hebrew Bible that this is true, and other times when he sits with pagans and attempts to show that even their own philosophy points to the God of the Bible.  In both cases the Cross is central, despite the fact that Paul knows that a Theology of the Cross is going to offend both groups.

This tenacious hold on the core of the gospel ought to be a “missions strategy” in any century.

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