Review: Paul’s Idea of Community

paul's idea of community

Paul’s Idea of Community (3rd Edition), Robert J. Banks. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of how Paul understood the nature of community in the churches he planted, considered against the cultural backgrounds of first century AD Greco-Roman culture.

No writer of scripture has contributed more to our understanding of the nature of the church and the practices of Christian community than Paul. Yet we often read into Paul our own culture, resulting in our missing the cultural context in which Paul worked and how his writings addressed early believers in that culture. Robert J. Banks has devoted scholarly attention to this topic since the first edition of this volume in 1994. Now, he offers us an updated version of this work, drawing on the most recent research, reflected in an updated bibliography, and a additional appendix, offering a “narrative exegesis” of Paul in a fictional account of a visit to an early house church gathering.

He sets the early Christian movement in the context of other contemporary religions and emperor worship, as well as the social structures of the Roman world. He then discusses the distinctive character of Paul’s idea of Christian freedom–a freedom lived for others. In companion chapters, Banks describes the work setting in which house churches often existed, in a building with a shopfront where business was done, and gatherings in family quarters either in the back or in an “upper room,” and then the heavenly setting. He considers community in the context of the loving family household, calling attention to Paul’s use of family terminology, and the organic reality inherent in the use of “body” imagery.

The chapter on mutual learning and testing of faith was especially valuable, I thought, because of its focus of the knowledge element of faith. In a time focused on praxis, Banks reminds us how much the language of thinking and knowledge and testing is found in Paul’s writing. He shows how this informs faith, hope, and love, and distinguishes Paul’s use of “knowledge” from that of the mystery cults, stoics, cynics, and Judaism.

He considers the practical expressions of fellowship from baptism, to laying on hands, sharing of possessions and holy kisses, and especially the common meal, bringing people together from across the social classes of the day. He offers a trenchant analysis of Paul’s use of spiritual gift language and the configurations of their usage holding together the tension of grace and order. Diversity extends beyond gifts to gender, race, and class, and Banks shows the radical ways the early Christian movement overcame these distinctions in the practice of equality, albeit allowing for functional diversity. This equality eliminates distinctions between priests and laity, between officials and ordinary members, and between the holy and the common. Leadership is defined instead by function and not position. Banks argues here that the laying on of hands was not an “ordination” imparting a special grace but rather the recognition of congregational discernment in prayer and fellowship.

The last four chapters explore the relationship of “missioners” like Paul and his diverse companions to the church, a body sharing in partnership with that mission. He describes how Paul exercises his authority in relation to the other apostles and through both authoritative teaching and service. It is curious that Banks’ treatment of the Pastorals is relegated to an appendix, representing a deferral to scholarship that classifies these as “disputed.” He leaves the question for the reader to decide, noting both continuities and discontinuities and development from Paul’s thought.

Every chapter has been the subject of numerous books and monographs. What Banks accomplishes is to offer a comprehensive overview with both scholarly depth and the concision valuable for pastoral theologians who want to ground practice in solid biblical and sociocultural studies.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Paul’s Idea of Community

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2020 | Bob on Books

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