Paul - Lesson 5

The Apostle Paul

Lesson 5 – Problems of Early Christianity

By Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

 Scope:  Paul wrote letters to communities and individuals when he could not visit them personally or communicate through a delegate.  Because his letters respond to specific situations, they are irreplaceable sources of knowledge concerning the problems experienced among the first urban Christians.  Many of these problems arose from the gap between the powerful religious experiences that brought such communities into existence and the ongoing social structures in which they lived.  At the ideal level, Christians considered themselves to have overcome differences between Jew and gentile, male and female, slave and free.  In reality, they struggled with greater or lesser success to realize this ideal in a stratified social order.  Another set of problems arose from the failure of God’s kingdom to be fully realized.  Were they in the end-times or not?  This lesson provides an overview of the issues that will be dealt with in the respective letters.

I.               Because Paul wrote to his communities or delegates in response to problems, they are a wonderful source of information about real-life Christian communities of the first generation.

a.     Paul’s letters were read out loud in the assembly; we can imagine the power of his letters being much more forceful when read aloud than when read silently.

b.     The problems faced by Paul’s communities tended to involve cognitive dissonance – the situation created when reality does not match up with expectations.

c.     Paul’s communities were freshly minted and did not have the sort of built-in stability that comes with a kinship system or legitimated institutions of society.  When they experienced dissonance in their convictions and reality, it was much more threatening to their identity.

II.             Paul’s readers have quite different conceptions of where they are in God’s plan for history.

a.         Paul and his readers share an apocalyptic framework that sees  history as moving toward a climax, which will be God’s visible victory in the world.

b.     They share, as well, the experience of strong transforming power through the resurrection of Jesus.

c.     But what is the connection between experience and expectation?  The question is posed because of other experiences in the churches.

                                      i.     If they are a part of a new creation, why do the powers of the world still dominate?

                                    ii.     If they have conquered death, why do members of the community die?

d.     Different conclusions are possible from such dissonance.

                                      i.     Christ’s resurrection applied only to him, and God’s victory is still future.

                                    ii.     Christ’s resurrection inaugurates the end-time, but the victory is spiritual.

                                   iii.     Christ’s resurrection inaugurates God’s victory that depends on personal transformation to be complete.

III.            Paul’s readers struggle with identity boundaries, especially when, as the “saints,” they        are meant to be distinct both from pagans and from Jews.

a.     The ideal is expressed by the baptismal formula Paul cites in Galatians 3:28:  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  In the Christian ekklesia (assembly = church), differences that distinguish race, gender, and class in the world are meant to be leveled.

b.     The reality is that the church struggles to realize this egalitarian ideal as it engages the resistance of cultural realities.

c.     Is there really to be no difference between Jew and Greek? The issue here is both theoretical and practical.

                                      i.     Theoretically, the issue addresses the relationship of the experience of Christ to Torah.  Is the Law of Moses an absolute norm for all, or has it been nullified?  Either choice has serious implications.

                                    ii.     Practically, the issue of Jew/gentile matters for practical life together, especially in the realm of dietary and sexual practice.  Do we need uniform rules?

d.     Is there really no difference between male and female?  Culturally inscribed gender differences are notoriously difficult to erase.    

                                      i.     Where the Holy Spirit moved women in the service of the ekklesia, Pauline Christians tended to ignore gender.

                                    ii.     But when the activities of the church intersected the patriarchal structures of the Hellenistic oikos (household), both Paul and his readers tended to get nervous and repressive.

e.     In the stratified Roman Empire, in which slavery was a fiercely defended “fact of nature,” can the ekklesia really eliminate the differences between slave and free?

                                      i.     The problem is complicated, because the community contains members of both classes and because Jesus is identified early in the tradition as a “servant/slave of God.”

                                    ii.     Is the egalitarianism of the ekklesia to be one of attitude only, or is it to be expressed in structural reform?

f.      A polarity not found in Galatians 3:28, but also experienced as a tension, can be expressed as “neither rich nor poor.”

                                      i.     Once more, the presence of the truly poor and the moderately wealthy in Pauline churches complicates the issue.  

                                    ii.     How is a community to resolve an ideology that scorns wealth (“blessed are you poor”) yet needs the support of its wealthier members?

IV.           Paul responds to these issues in certain characteristic ways.

a.     He is much more concerned about the stability and health of the community than about theoretical correctness; he privileges the communal over the individual.

b.     He respects a plurality of perception and practice without prescribing a universal norm, except when a fundamental principle is involved.

c.     He calls for boundaries that are moral, rather than spatial or ritual.

d.     The measure for moral behavior is what Paul calls “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16).  He wants members of this community to act in accordance with a new kind of consciousness, which is that found in Jesus Christ.

e.     Getting from “Christ’s mind” to practical decision making requires thinking.

Essential Reading:

I Corinthians 6-11, Letter to Philemon.

Supplementary Reading:

G. Thiessen, “Social Integration and Sacramental Activity: An Analysis of I Corinthians 11:17-34,” in Social Setting, pp. 145-174. 

Questions to Consider:

  1. How do different interpretations of the “end-time” continue to divide Christians today and lead to different stances toward social involvement?
  2. What does the gap between powerful religious experience and consistent norms for behavior suggest about the nature of early Christianity?

Next Week:

First and Second Thessalonians.  Read them before class.