Was Paul a Really a Missionary?

My students are currently reading Eckhard Schnabel’s Paul the Missionary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008). I have assigned a final essay for the class which asks the students to describe Paul’s missionary methodology and draw out some implications for contemporary ministry.

Do You Know My Jesus?

Do You Know My Jesus?

The problem I want them to think about is two-fold.  First, can what does Paul does in Acts be fairly described as a “mission strategy”? For example, did he have something like a modern “mission statement” which guided all his choices?  If so, what was that “mission statement”?  Second, and more troubling for students, is that Pauline Mission Strategy something that can be used for doing mission today?  And even if it can be used for modern ministry, should it be used?   Paul’s mission was embedded in a culture and time far distant from our own, so perhaps we ought to find more relevant method that might work better in a modern context.

Part of the problem students have with this assignment is the word “mission.”   Mission, for most American Christians, implies a missionary going a very long way away to “save the heathen.”  Students typically describe Paul 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.

4 thoughts on “Was Paul a Really a Missionary?

  1. I have always been really careful when talking about missions while at Grace. The school is so foreign mission based that I do my best to keep my mouth shut. However, I do think that we as a school, and the GGF as a whole, put MUCH to strong an emphases on the “foreign” aspect of missions. It is clear that America is heading in a downward spiral, yet we still send our best people overseas to spread the gospel to people who are not Americans. I honestly believe that we need to focus on home, before there is no long a home to support the people focusing elsewhere. There IS a place for foreign missions, it just needs to be reduced a good amount.

    • This is not unique to your denominational experience, Chris. Most Christians associate Missionary with Foreign Missionary. I think that as you mature a bit (a nice way of saying, get older and more experienced) you will find that this has been the case for the last fifty or so years. So your observation is correct, just limited in scope. In addition, I can point to as many domestic mission works as foreign in that particular denomination, although the international work has been more successful. If you like, I could put you into contact with several prison mission works and at least several evangelists who work almost exclusively in North America.

  2. When I read Paul’s missionary journey’s in Acts, the only one that I see as being “cross cultural” or going outside of Paul’s usual path is his stop in Philippi. This is where we find no mention of Paul going to a synagogue to preach to the Jews first. I often view Paul as an evangelist, preaching the Gospel to a world and culture he knew, in a way that was relevant for them to accept.

    • Even there he went to the river where Jewish women met to pray. I think that Lystra or Athens might be construed as cross-cultural, one there was a language barrier, the other was thoroughly pagan. But neither is anything like the sense of a “cross cultural missionary” today.

      On the other hand, why would Paul have packed up and moved to Africa when no one in his own culture was a “Christian” yet?

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