Transforming the World Series (5) Paul and Social Care

The is a re-post from a series I’ve kindly been invited to contribute over on Jesus Creed.

The next chapter of Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is by Jason Hood and is called ‘Theology in Action: Paul and Social Care’

Let me frame the issue in focus in these posts afresh; what does ‘gospel ministry’ look like? Is ‘spiritual work’ primarily preaching, evangelism and prayer for example? Or is practical concern for the poor (for example) just as much ‘gospel ministry’ as mission?

That guy Scot McKnight gets quoted in this chapter as well, saying that

‘It is hard to imagine … any project that occupied Paul’s attention more than this collection for the saints.’

The point being made is that his teaching on possessions and generosity take up more space in his letters than justification by faith but receive much less attention.

That’s interesting. And it’s that attention deficit that this chapter sets out to address. Some relevant texts include:

Galatians 2:1-10 where Paul and Barnabas are exhorted by the Jerusalem leaders to ‘remember the poor’.

And then three texts, all of which talk about other churches’ participation in the collection for God’s people and Paul’s active participation in it.

1 Corinthians 16:1-4: – instructions for a weekly collection according to income.

Romans 15:25-28, 30-31: talks of the ‘debt’ owed to Jews by Gentiles.

2 Corinthians 8-9: one of the longest discussions of a single topic in the Pauline corpus

A number of Paul’s practical and theological motivations behind the collection can be identified:

1. Assisting the poor is a powerful demonstration of the unity of the church. It creates and sustains koinōnia. The one new family of those ‘in Christ’ have a mutual obligation to care and look after one another across racial, economic, cultural and geographic boundaries.

2. It is an ethical response to salvation, summed up in 2 Cor 8:9: participating in the collection is following Christ’s example of a life lived for others in need.

3. The collection is for God’s praise and glory (2 Cor 9:1-15); it is a sign of grace individually and corporately.

4. Giving the poor for Paul was an integral part of ‘gospel ministry’ that even takes precedence over his desire to visit Rome and the beginning of evangelistic ministry in the West all the way to Spain (Rom 15).

From this Jason Hood argues for some contemporary applications – and it would be interesting to hear what you think of some of what he says here:

1. Quite simply, social concern and generosity is a sign that someone is following Jesus.

“For Paul, the standard of Christian giving and all of life is not an amount; it is a Person, the crucified Lord.” (136)

2. It is also a sign of the work of the Spirit of God in someone’s heart. As God has generously met spiritual needs and poured out his Spirit, so Paul is confident that the quantity of Christians’ giving will match the quality of their changed hearts .

3. Paul emphasised social concern within the church in a context where the first Christians were a tiny, marginalised and politically suspect minority. This is not to say he rejected the need to care for those outside the church (Gal. 6:10; Rom. 13:7), but it is to note the astonishingly successful ‘koinōnia -engineering exercise’ that Paul inspired.

Hood acknowledges here the difficulty in translating Paul to address contemporary social and political concerns. His questions and context are not the same as our questions and context. But this much is clear:

“Paul’s collection and the koinōnia undergirding it formed a powerful counter-imperial critique, not through overt denigration, still less through open hostility, but through quiet counter-example.” (141)

This sounds to me fairly close to an Anabaptist political vision, as opposed to the strongly politicised activism of the Christian Left or Christian Right. 

So Hood’s concluding words:

“In the collection we see the whole of Paul’s theology in action, and we learn that Christian social concern was neither optional nor secondary for the apostle and his churches.” (144)

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