Was Paul a Cross-cultural Missionary?

This question came up in a recent batch of student papers on Eckhard Schnabel’s Paul the Missionary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008). The assigned essay was to describe Paul’s missionary methodology and draw out some implications for contemporary ministry. The question betrays a little bit of prejudice, or maybe “old-school” thinking about missionaries which gauges the commitment of a missionary based on how far the travel to be missionaries. At a fairly young age I recall thinking that missionaries went to Africa or China, and that people who called themselves missionaries and went to “only” Mexico or stayed in America were somehow “non-missionaries.”

This sort of confusion was evident in many of the papers I read for this assignment. Paul was described as a sort of Hudson Taylor meets Jim Elliot with a dash of Indiana Jones adventurer tossed in for spice, heading off to the Black Hole of Calcutta to be tortured regularly for preaching the gospel. I honestly do not think being beaten and ship-wrecked was a part of Paul’s ministry strategy. Certainly those were things he endured for the Gospel, but I am not convinced he tried to get beaten as often as possible in order to be a successful missionary!


Schnabel said that “Paul understood both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. He was at least bilingual, probably trilingual. He was evidently able to function comfortably, without consciously ‘crossing over’ into one or the other culture, both in Jewish and in Greco-Roman culture.” (Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 329). This is a bit of a surprise to most readers, since we tend to think of Paul crossing all kinds of social and cultural barriers to present the gospel to the Greek and Roman world. But as it turns out, Paul went to places where he would be most effective, where he spoke the language, where he could earn a decent living, where he would be sure to meet people with whom he was already familiar.

Paul most certainly did not cross into another culture in the sense that missionaries do today. If he had, he would have went to north into Germany and preached to the barbarian hordes. In fact, why did Paul not go east? My guess is that God lead him west since that is where he would encounter the least cultural differences. Hellenism was less pervasive the further east one traveled. If he had moved east as far as Babylon, he would have found the remnants of an empire which was reverting back to its original culture. In fact, if I am allowed to speculate just a bit, if Paul had gone to the east or the border regions to the north, he would not have been successful at all that the church as we know it today would look a great deal different.

By going to the West, Paul could settle down in Corinth and Ephesus and reach people with whom he had the most in common – Hellenistic Jews who were already reading the Scripture. He would have met Gentiles frustrated with the “theology” and ethics of the Greco-Roman world and were already dabbling in the mystery cults. In short, people whom God had already prepared for Paul’s arrival as the “light to the Gentiles.”

If this is on track, how do we apply Paul’s missionary strategy? I am not against a foreign mission program, but perhaps we ought to revisit the idea of reaching one’s culture first.

5 thoughts on “Was Paul a Cross-cultural Missionary?

  1. Very interesting commentary. Here’s my problem with reaching our own culture first. Paul said that he makes it his ambition to preach the gospel, “not where Christ has already been named” (Rom 15:20).
    So if that was Paul’s ambition, I would think that should be the ambition of our missionary activity (not that that is all we do, but that should be where the majority of our focus goes).

  2. I realized that I was leaving out the Romans 15:20 reference to Paul’s desire. But even then, if he went to Spain, he still was within the confines of his own culture. Believe me, I am fully on-board with *foreign* missions and do not think that it is wrong to send people into radically different cultures. But I am not sure the ministry of Paul is the “model” for that sort of thing.

    This is all a part of my ongoing “how do we apply Acts” rumblings, possibly the “ends of the earth” is not meant in quite the same way we would use it today, Paul ends up in Rome, which from a first century perspective, might be considered the center of the world!

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. The ministy of Paul was one of reaching unreached people groups by establishing churches where there were no churches. You don’t have to go cross-cultural to fulfill the task, but with the current state of our world (majority of UPGs in the 10/40 window), that will be the likely outcome. The fact that Paul and the apostles were establishing the first church, means that any activity would’ve been “pioneer” activity, cross-cultural or not. The “ends of the earth” question, to me, is, “Where are there unreached people groups and no established churches?”

    Thanks for the interaction. These are good questions to consider.

  4. Thanks Philip. I just bumped into your post…10 yrs after you posted it. 🙂 . I’ve been thinking about this in relationship to Paul’s statements in 1 Cor. 7 “not I, but the Lord” and “I, not the Lord” So, if Paul found places where Jesus did not have something to say because it was outside of Jesus’ earthly context what might be parallels for us in our cross-cultural contexts? NT Wright talks about this in his Everyone commentary on 1 Cor. He says, “At this point Paul has felt able to introduce an important modification into the teaching of Jesus. He has done so, however, not by treating Jesus’ words as mere good advice, but by applying them in detail to a new situation Jesus never faced. We who live in many different situations never envisaged by either Jesus or Paul need wisdom, humility and faithfulness to apply their teaching afresh in our own day. And we certainly need those same qualities when thinking through what the church’s marriage discipline should be in a culture that seems increasingly at odds with the gospel.” I find that helpful. Anyway, thanks for your post!

    • Thanks for resurrecting this old post…ten years is an eon in Internet Time.

      I wonder about Paul’s qualifications in 1 Corinthians 7 too, it is clear (to me) he is saying “this comes from me, not the Lord,” as if he is expressing his opinion even if that differs a bit from Jesus. You (or NT Wright) are probably correct Paul would encounter more divorce and remarriage among formerly pagan Corinthians than Jesus would in Jewish Galilee. So perhaps he was offering his opinion on whether Christians should divorce unbelieving spouses (or not) in a way that Jesus never needed to.

      Where I step back a bit is when Christianity encounters a practice like multiple wives, or violence towards wives as a common cultural practice. I am aware of a fellowship of pastors in Africa who had long discussions about how often they could beat their wives or under what circumstances it would be OK to beat your wife. My response would be “never!”, but in their culture physiical violence toward wives was normal. I cannot imagine Paul ever saying there was a situation where beating your wife was culturally permissible.

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