We’re getting to the end of a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).
1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.
2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.
3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another
This is the third and final post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.
In this post we’re focusing on a controversial issue that brings us right into contemporary debates about social justice and cultural transformation. A question raised by study of a Pauline theology of love is this:
Is there a place for loving ‘outsiders’ in a Pauline theology of love?
And linked to this we can add:
How ‘ambitious’ should Christians be about transforming the culture in which according to Christian principles?
Those who believe the church has a God-given mandate to shape society to Christian beliefs belong to a long history that can be traced back to Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313 when Christianity, for the first time, was officially treated benevolently by the Empire, paving the way for it later to become the state religion. It runs through Medieval Catholicism (Aquinas) and into the Reformation. The Reformers disagreed with medieval Catholicism about a lot of things, but the God-given centrality of the church in ordering society was not one of them.
We can call this the cultural transformers corner.
Yet there is a strange paradox to the cultural transformers’ position. Christians follow a Messiah crucified by the state. The first centuries of the church were forged in persecution and martyrdom. Deep down in its DNA, Christianity is a faith formed by suffering at the hands of those in power. And when the church has got into positions of power, let’s just say that it has not tended to end well.
There is still much theological reflecting to do on the relationships between Christianity and colonialism and imperialism – and how both were dependent on a theology of justified violence to advance Western ‘Christian’ values and interests.
All this to say that the cultural transformers’ position sits very uneasily beside the teaching of Jesus. But less recognised is that is also sits very uneasily beside the teaching of Paul. (You may like to read this related post on Paul and non-violence).
Paul and love of ‘Outsiders’
A beginning point: as we have seen in this series it is undeniable that Paul has an overwhelming focus on love within Christian communities.
Some scholars therefore argue that Paul effectively has NOTHING to say about love for outsiders. His focus is on the internal authenticity of the first Christian communities.
So when you read a text like Romans 12:9-21 it is speaking of love restricted within the community of believers. Yes non-believers are to be treated well but there is no command to love them. This is love as an ‘in-group’ ethic. It defines the community of faith and marks them out as distinct from the world.
The implication here is that there is no mandate in Paul for a theology of cultural transformation. Such thinking rests on an expansive understanding of the church’s mission to be an agent by which God transforms the world. Yet Paul has no such agenda. His focus is on the internal integrity of Christian communities that speak of a different story to that of the ‘present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4).
Other scholars do not want to go so far. Not commanding believers to love outsiders is not the same as telling them only to love fellow believers. There are Pauline texts that suggest loving outside the community of faith, and even love of enemies:
1 Corinthians 16:14 “Let all that you do be done in love.”
1 Thessalonians 3:12 “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”
Philippians 4:5 “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
Galatians 6:10 “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
Romans 12:14 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
Beyond specific texts, there is then Paul’s framing of the Christian life as the imitation of Jesus – which involves self-sacrificial love of the other, including enemies (Romans 5:8).
Other scholars discern in Paul a recognition of the common good. For example live peaceably with others and be known of good reputation (e.g., Phil 4:5 “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”)
However, it has to be said that such arguments are a long way short of any theological platform for ‘cultural transformation’. At best they are shaped by Paul’s primary concern for mission – how best to win outsiders for Christ.
So it can be argued – and I do – that Paul’s attitude to the state / wider society is certainly far more consistent with how anabaptists read the New Testament than how cultural transformers do.
In other words, yes, it is possible to argue that Paul was a proto-anabaptist.
His concern for a peaceable, loving, non-violent community willing to suffer for the cause of the gospel is consistent with the teaching of Jesus and is, I believe, hard to reconcile with a Christendom perspective of religiously sanctioned power and violence.
As I’ve said before, all this makes me a very bad Presbyterian!