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Friday, November 21, 2014

"The Church According to Paul" (James W. Thompson)

TITLE: The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ
AUTHOR: James W. Thompson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (304 pages).

There are many books about Church growth, and how to have a great Church ministry. Whether it is emergent Church, or the Progressive movements, missional or the latest trends in doing Church, it is easy to overplay the word 'relevance' into our Ecclesiology. What about being relevant first to the original intention of Church? What about asking the fundamental questions like:
  • What is Paul's perspective of Church?
  • What is his original intent?
  • What is the original vision of Church?
  • Can we re-discover the Church according to Paul?
James W Thompson believes so. In fact, he feels that the most basic questions about Church are often not asked. Beginning with a rather depressing observation about the state of the Church, with dwindling memberships in the West and vacant Church buildings in Europe, it is common for people to say that the Church today is in crisis. The fastest growing group are those who are not affiliated to any Church. On top of that, modern perceptions of Church are increasingly negative and the word "church" is often treated pejoratively. Thompson gives us some possible explanations like secularism, individualism, capitalism, and especially the politicization of the Church. Instead of the Church as a community like people of God, he laments how the Church has become more like social clubs, entertainment centers, corporations, theaters, associations, and so on. He even criticizes the emergent church model that becomes so open that it lacks a doctrinal foundation; and the missional church movement that are so focused on the doing that it risks losing its own identity and message of the Church. His big idea is that the Church according to Paul is two-fold. a) Absence of politicization and power; b) Church as a community where everyone participates. Thompson is convinced that Paul's model of Church in the first century can be implemented in our era. In other words, the first century Church may be different in form, it is however similar in essence of identity in Christ being formed in community. The main sources Thompson draw from are the Old and New Testament Scriptures. This is supplemented by the Apocryphal works, the Pseudepigrapha, some later Greek and Latin works from Aristotle to Josephus, from Plato to Philo. As usual, there are lots of inputs from modern scholars too. Throughout the book, there is a strong and consistent emphasis on the Church as a people of God; the community of believers; communion of saints; the work of the Holy Spirit; all of which point to Thompson's conviction that the Church identity is corporate, not individual.

Unlike some other scholars, Thompson kicks off the ecclesiological framework by using 1 Thessalonians, in which the Church is a community of saints in God through Jesus Christ. The believers are called the 'ekklesia,' the called out people, the elect, the holy ones, the chosen people. Thompson asserts that Paul "knows nothing of the individual Christian." People do not choose each other. God chose them and living together is a working out of their calling. The identity as CHRISTian is core. This is further elaborated in Philippians where Paul exhorts us toward having the mind of Christ; and in Galatians where the conditions for membership into the Church is confession in Christ. Using 1 Corinthians, we are reminded of the Church as a body of Christ, and how the people of God becomes the new humanity in Christ. Even the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are to be seen in conjunction with corporate worship. On spiritual formation, Thompson shows us from Romans and 2 Corinthians that "spiritual formation is corporate formation." Saints remember together that they were sinners saved by grace, transformed in Christ, and be counter-cultural in the world. The purpose of justification in Christ according to Galatians is to be a united body, and the author links Justification with Ecclesiology saying that unity is not uniformity but common identity. From the pastoral epistles, we learn the basis of the house Church movement. Historically, it may have seemed that the second century institutionalized Church may be a result of 1 Timothy and Titus. That is not so because the pastoral epistles talk less about structure but about the preservation of the apostolic faith. The nature of leadership is also counter cultural, where Paul shows us biblical leadership in servanthood, in giving, in sacrificial living, and not on human strengths and skills.

On the missional movement and social action, we are reminded that mission is not about the Church sending people into the world to increase her numbers, but to participate in the missio Dei, In other words, it is less about the doing of mission work, but the being and the behaving of the missio Dei, of God's heart for the world. Don't just love the Church or the people of God. Love the people God loves. Thompson flips the paradigm of Megachurches too, that the true "MegaChurch" is not one big Church name based on locality but one cosmic and universal Church based on identity.

On and on, Thompson pleads for the modern Church to be united not based on Church structures, missional strategies, cultural fads, individual preferences, or human instituted differences, but to be centrally focused on our identity as Christ-followers. We are to see the universal Church as the local Church. One way to do so is to see one another first and foremost as beloved of God. Everything else is secondary. This means that we learn not to see the Early Church as then and faraway, but up-close and personal. I appreciate Thompson's five emphases about what Church is according to Paul. Firstly, as an "heir of Israel," the Church is connected to the first people of God called to serve God. This continuity shows us that the Church is large not only in terms of numbers in modern times, but throughout historical and past eras. Secondly, as a people in Christ, we have a lot more in common and there is no need for us to be distracted by differences. It would be tragic if we major on things that do not matter and fail to gather together on things that truly matter. Thirdly, the Church is united as a counter-cultural entity. We live out as a new creation, a people called to the true to God. In fact, just by being true to God is already a counter-cultural behaviour toward the world. We do not have to invent new ways to be counter-cultural. Just being transformed into the image of Christ will already be an automatic counter-cultural act. Fourth, with the Church as being both universal as well as local, we see the Church as a network of common concerns. This can facilitate working together. This can build bridges of understanding. Finally, the "missio Dei" is not the working of mission per se, but the transformation of neighbourhoods as the Church is transformed into the image of God, to be concerned and to care for the very people and creation that God loved. I like to see this in terms of a parallel to God sending Jesus to the world, by saying that for God so loved the world, that in Jesus, He sent the Church to touch the world, that all may know of Jesus and to believe that God loved them and had sent Jesus to die for them.

Do not expect to see new Church strategies or modern systems of doing Church in this book. Be prepared to let our modern paradigms be countered by the biblical models of Church according to Paul. In fact, Thompson's book is a reminder to us that the way forward to the future is a history lesson from the past. In this case, it is from the Pauline letters and vision of the Church.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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