Whatever Happened to the Apostle Paul?
An exposition of Paul’s teaching and practice of giving.
What would the Apostle Paul say and do if he showed up at your church, joined your missions committee, became a member of your mission agency or brought the redemptive message of Christ to your town? The answer can be found in the pages of the New Testament.
No doubt he would preach the death, burial, resurrection, appearing and imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ. He would go to any length to make sure people understood that apart from personal faith in Christ in this life there is no hope of being reconciled to God for eternity.1 As he himself said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved,” for “there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” in order that we may not have to “pay the penalty of eternal destruction” (NASB, Acts 16:31; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; 2 Thes. 1:9).
Beyond correct theology, Paul would also be deeply concerned about proper missionary strategy. He would emphasize that we must be governed by the principles demonstrated in his own ministry which lead to the development of healthy indigenous churches. Thankfully, these principles are summarized in his farewell address to the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20:17-35). After three years of ministry among them he testified that: 1) he coveted no one’s treasure (v. 33); 2) he provided for his own needs and those of his teammates (v. 34); and 3) “in everything” he showed them how they should work hard and provide for the needs of the weak among them (v. 35). Paul’s own testimony points out something that is often overlooked: when there were needs in the fellowship, he expected those in the church to work hard to meet the needs of their fellow-believers, as he did, without looking elsewhere for assistance. Hence, Paul undeniably strove for the local sustainability of the churches he planted.2
We have just as much to learn from Paul’s missionary
Christopher R. Little works for World Mission Associates. Along with his wife and three children, he served for eight years with Africa Inland Mission in Mozambique. He is currently living in La Crescenta, California while doing graduate work at Fuller Theological Seminary.
practice as from his theology. Well-respected missionary statesmen and missiologists have long known this. For example, Robert Speer noted: “The first missionary marked out for all time the lines and principles of successful missionary work.”3 Roland Allen wrote: “Since the Apostle, no other has discovered or practiced methods for the propagation of the Gospel better than his.”4 And Donald McGavran concluded: “If the church is to grow faster, individual churchmen, church boards, missionary societies, local churches, and assemblies must consciously align their practice with the ‘Pauline mission’ pattern of missionary action.”5
Besides these wise human assessments, there are at least three Biblical reasons why we need to adhere to Paul’s missionary strategy. First, Paul was a “wise master builder” of churches (1 Cor. 3:10). When Paul began his ministry there were no churches in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia, and in little over a decade he spoke of his work in these provinces as finished so that he could press on to new regions (Rom. 15:19-20). Truly, he was “the most effective cross-cultural missionary the church has ever seen.”6
While some may believe Paul’s methods to be outdated, the similarities between his world and ours are astounding. The ease of travel, migration of people, existence of pluralism widespread economic disparity, etc. all add up to the conclusion that “we are back for the first time in something like the earliest centuries of Christianity.”7 E. M. Blaiklock, professor of classics at Auckland University in New Zealand, even stated, “Of all the intervening centuries, [ours] is most like the first.”8 We cannot ignore this scenario and assume we know better than Paul did. The truth is that “the Apostle’s methods succeeded exactly where ours have failed.”9 He was able to initiate and preserve locally sustainable, culturally sensitive expressions of Christianity where, in the majority of cases, we have not.10
Second, Paul places his conduct on the same level as his doctrine. Among other things, he tells Timothy to follow his “teaching” and “conduct” (2 Tim. 3:10). The Greek word for “teaching” is didaskalía and refers to “the historical revelation of God as attested by Scripture.”11 It is the same word found in the well-known verse later in the chapter: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16). The Greek word for “conduct” is agogé, meaning “manner of life,” and indicates “the orientation of the writer, which is to be appropriated no less than [didaskalía] by his reader.”12 According to Willis De Boer, “the reference to conduct here [has] in mind particularly Paul’s missionary methods, the practical matters in his ministerial work, his way of preaching, organizing his communities, and such matters.”13 Fundamentally, this signifies that Paul’s conduct as a missionary is a means of instruction on equal footing with his teaching.
Consequently, Paul would have resisted any attempt to drive a wedge between his teaching and his missionary practices—to accept his doctrine but not his methods. He felt both were avenues by which Timothy and others (including ourselves) could learn and implement the proper ways in which to spread the Gospel and plant the church. The messenger was the message, conveyed through both his words and his life.
Third, Paul commands his churches to imitate him (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 1 Thes. 1:6; 2:14). There are also many other passages where Paul refers to his life as an example and model to be emulated (Gal. 4:12; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 1 Tim. 1:16; 2 Thes. 3:7-9). In turn, the impact of his life led to others being effective in the spread of the Gospel and living a godly life (1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thes. 1:7; 1 Tim. 4:12; Tit. 2:7). Paul offered “himself as a paradigm” for the entire Christian life.14 As such, his life represents a normative standard for the Church throughout the centuries (cf., Heb. 13:7). Joseph Grassi comments that since Paul’s “own life is the direct link with Christ, he can present himself as a concrete example of Christian tradition that is to be handed on to others. This is his apostolic authority. … [It] is an authentic embodiment of the Gospel in his own life to such a degree that it can be a living Christian tradition that will be handed on to others” (cf., 2 Tim. 2:2).15
How do we apply this? Are we to imitate Paul in things like going to synagogues to evangelize and adopting Jewish purification rites (Acts 13:14; 21:26)? Whenever we attempt to glean from Paul, we must discern the motives which drove his ministry. Paul had a receptive audience in the God-fearing Gentiles he encountered in the synagogues. In like manner, we should go to religious institutions like mosques and temples to communicate divine revelation as long as people will listen. Moreover, Paul’s modus operandi was always: “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Hence, we need to contextualize ourselves, as Paul did, in order not to cause offense but to win as many as possible to Christ.
Paul’s Pattern: Local resources or outside support?
If Paul were among us today, he would encourage us to serve within the local context by using local resources to meet the local needs of churches, because that is exactly what he did. There is no record in the New Testament of Paul raising and transferring finances from one church in order to subsidize the ministries of other churches. Today many are ignoring this fact (see “What is Driving Partnership,” p. 26). Those who believe in supporting local ministries with foreign funds base their position on at least four accounts in the New Testament.
First, 3 John 5-8 shows how local churches often assisted those who were not a part of their own fellowship, but this is simply a case of showing hospitality to traveling evangelists in the first century. Paul expected the Roman church to do so for him during his journey on the way to Spain (Rom. 15:24). We should likewise demonstrate hospitality when fellow believers from anywhere in the world visit our churches (Heb. 13:2).
Second, Paul “partnered” with the Philippian church which sent support to him while he served in other churches and this ought to serve as a prototype for us today.16 This notion is based upon Philippians 1:4-5: “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now” (NIV; see also, 2:1; 4:14-15). The Greek word for “partnership” is the well-known word koinonia which is normally translated “fellowship.” Commentators are divided on how best to translate this term in Philippians. Whatever the case, we know that Paul based his reputation on providing for himself through his tent-making vocation in order to preach the Gospel without charge in an effort to not hinder the advance of the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:12, 15-18).17 When he received assistance from the Philippian church it got him into trouble with the Corinthians because they thought he lived by a double standard (2 Cor. 11:7-9; 12:13). Evidently, he was “not particularly enthusiastic about the gift”18 since it “caused him problems. It violated his principle of paying his own way by working with his hands. … Consequently he swings suddenly from praising the Philippians [in 4:10] to informing them that he did not need their gift [in 4:11ff], that he had learned self-sufficiency.”19 Hence, to use Paul’s relationship with the Philippian church as a basis for promoting financial partnerships among the global church today is to misconstrue how he actually viewed it.
Third, the Antiochene church took up an offering for the Jerusalem church during a famine (Acts 11:27-30). This was clearly an act of Christian compassion which needs to be followed today. When Christian communities suffer an overwhelming disaster that depletes their local resources, then their brethren around the world, not just from the West, should be ready to offer help. Experience has taught us that all assistance must be temporary and empowering in order to avoid unhealthy dependency.
The last example comes from Paul’s collection project among the Gentile churches for the Jerusalem church (1 Cor. 16:1-4).20 Various reasons have been offered for why Paul undertook this project. Many assume that Paul was driven by a humanitarian concern for the Jerusalem church. But this does not fit the evidence since Paul would have been working counterproductively as he took contributions from the Philippian church which at the time was experiencing “deep poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2). This view also wrongly assumes that the designation for the Jerusalem church as “poor” must be limited to socioeconomic categories (Rom. 15:26; Gal. 2:10). Rather, the designation “poor” in the teachings of the early church carried the connotation of “humble” or “pious poor” (cf., Mt. 5:3; Lk. 6:20).21 Thus, another motive for the collection must be sought. Others conclude that Paul’s purpose for the collection was to demonstrate unity between the Jewish and Gentile branches of the first-century church (Rom. 15:27). Although this is indeed true, it does not go far enough in accounting for all the Biblical data. The ultimate reason for the collection project rests upon the fact that Paul was constrained by prophecies which spoke of the nations coming to Israel to worship its King (cf., Is. 60:4-14; 66:19-24; Ps. 72:8-11). As a result of seeing believing Gentiles coming to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4 with 21:15-19), Paul hoped that Israel would be provoked to jealousy so that it might repent and accept Jesus as its Messiah (cf., Rom. 10:1; 11:11-24). Accordingly, Paul’s priestly gift is the Gentiles themselves (Rom. 15:16) to verify that the God of Israel had also become the God of the Gentiles and that there is now only one people of God comprised of all nations (Gal. 3:28-29; Eph. 3:4-6). As such, Paul’s collection project is hardly normative for mission today, unless one wants to take up an offering for the church in Jerusalem in hopes of converting Israel.
In conclusion, one must be very careful when using Paul as a paradigm for mission. However, all those willing to steadfastly search for him, seriously listen to him, conscientiously learn from him and wholeheartedly follow him by implementing his sound missionary principles will find a proven guide in establishing locally sustainable expressions of Christianity around the world for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).