Paul’s Idea of Community, by Robert Banks, has come up in a lot of recent discussions. His work is relied upon heavily by many in the house church / organic church movement. Since there seems to be so much interest, I thought I would post this book review to help folks understand the backdrop for the ongoing discussion of church.
Although published close to 18 years ago, Banks used the best scholarship of the time, both primary and secondary sources, to paint a picture of the New Testament church and how it lived out Paul’s ideal of community. The context for understanding the New Testament community is better understood when one sees Paul as a social thinker rather than a systematic theologian. This book is written so it is accessible to scholars, pastors, and laymen alike. Bank’s hope is to stimulate the thinking of the contemporary church and help people think through our common practice and theology of community.
Banks incorporates a text-critical approach in that he questions the authenticity and authorship of some of the writings attributed to Paul. Yet despite his concerns over Pauline authenticity, he nonetheless included the book of Ephesians in the discussion. As a concession to tradition, he also included the Pastoral Epistles in his review, but only as a separate section at the end of the book where the reader can decide if their message is compatible with the other writings of Paul.
The book seeks to understand the inner workings of the church and does not address the external responsibilities of the church to those outside the community of faith. Banks offers three primary conclusions. First, the salvific ideal of freedom combined with the practice of home gathering provides the basic framework for understanding Paul’s concept of community. Second, Banks asserts that the community’s praxis was familial, not formal, and his design for ministry was functional, not institutional. Finally, Paul saw the connection between communities as relational as opposed to denominational or legal.
Banks’ first guiding principle is that in order to understand the Pauline concept of community one must also understand the culture and ethos of his day. As Paul traveled throughout the Mediterranean, he was impacted by the cultural and legal institutions of his day. Consequently, his writings to the various churches can not be divorced from these external influences. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul demonstrations his policy of adaptation to culture when he asserts that he has become “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22). When he cannot incorporate an idea into his own (Acts 17:22-32), he will demonstrate why his view is superior (Col. 2:8-23). All ideas must give way to the Gospel (1 Cor. 10:14-22), but Paul is always willing to adopt and integrate cultural practices that do not violate the Gospel ethos (8:7-13; 10:23-30). Therefore, to understand Paul’s idea of community, one must understand his writings in their historical milieu.
The book’s second guiding principle for understanding Paul is that Paul’s primary approach is to connect the ideal of community to the message of freedom found in the Gospel. Each chapter of the book provides a look at the same basic theme of freedom from a different aspect of Christian community. The freedom which stands at the core of Paul’s theology applies first to the individual who is born a slave to sin, bound by the restrictions of the Mosaic Law, and hampered by supernatural powers outside their control. Thus freedom in Christ is the ability to transcend these restraining forces and enter into new community. Dependence upon Christ and the Spirit, leads to total interdependence and service to others from both a cosmic and eternal personal perspective.
Based on the two guiding principles outlined above, Banks makes three primary assertions; community is familial not formal, the ministry of community is functional not institutional, and the connection of one church to another is relational not denominational. In support of the first idea that community is familial in nature, Banks asserts that the term ekklesia used to describe the local gathering did not carry with it any religious or cultic meaning (28). Ekklesia is primarily used to describe a Divinely ordained local gathering, not a universal or corporate existence of the saints. The church gathered in local homes, and kept to small gatherings which promoted strong interpersonal relationships. And although some of Paul’s later writings seem to refer to a larger spiritual understanding of the term ekklesia, he never develops this concept further and so it would seem the primary meaning is still referring to the local gathering. There is nowhere in the writings of Paul a description of an organizational structure that bound the separate churches together. While he did encourage voluntary interaction and cooperation between the separate gatherings, focus seems to be one of convenience over organization (42).
The idea that ministry is functional as opposed to institutional is summarized well in the chapter on “Gifts and Ministry.” The call upon each individual Christian is to worship God by giving over the whole of ones life to service in all places and at all times. At all times the Christian is to reach out into the world with grace and compassion. But the distinguishing mission of the church gathered together is the growth and edification of its members (90). Thus the primary purpose for the gathering together of the church was to care for the genuine needs of each member. Paul’s understanding of the Christian gifts is a prime example of the church’s practical nature. The charismata are not temporal, but intended to provide ongoing insight and support to meet the growing and changing needs of the church (92). Ministry in the church, therefore, was not based on the establishment of programs, but upon the shifting needs of the people being met through the dynamic manifestation of the Spirit’s giftings.
The third and final assertion is that each local church is connected to the other by a common relationship and mission rather than a structured organization. Each local church maintained a connection with Paul, but still demonstrated a unique mission (159). Each church established it own people to fulfill the mission of evangelism and development, but they cooperated with other churches when there was a mutual interest or need (163 cf). Each church then decided how they would coordinate and cooperate with other churches to fulfill their mission, but there was no effort to mandate or coordinate this effort from a larger denomination or organization.
Overall, I agree with the general thrust of the book. Banks is right in asserting that Paul’s theology is better understood in its historical context for without this context so much of the meaning behind his practical instruction is lost. Banks’ ideal of church as familial, functional, and relational are three very good insights into what makes the local gathering of the Body of utmost value to God’s Kingdom. Within this large framework, there are some details of this book that are less then compelling.
One of the early problems is Banks’ conclusions about Paul’s unique usage of the term ekklesia. Assumptions and logical assertions are made in an effort to enforce his conclusion that the term ekklesia only applied to Christians who gathered in a local home (pp. 32-34). I find his reasoning in these areas speculative at best. If there was a significant Divine ideal that the term church only applies to small groups that met in homes, or that meetings outside of homes did not constitute ekklesia, then it seems that this would have been stated outright by Paul in his always practical instructions.
The logic at times seems inconsistent and convenient. As stated above, Banks is willing to develop whole concepts based on certain assumptions, but he seems willing to discount other meanings for ekklesia, like church as a heavenly community, based on the fact that Paul does not develop the idea (39). Yet if Banks’ original assertion is true, that Paul’s theology is practical and not systematic, then the fact that he does not fully develop the spiritual concept of ekklesia cannot be a basis to discount its validity as part of the Pauline doctrine.
One specific example of the speculative reasoning employed by Banks is his assertion that Paul’s use of the term ekklesia was a later development (45-46). The impression left to the reader is that this later meaning was somehow a compromise or distraction from the early and primary meaning used by Paul (193). This assertion fails to convince on two counts. First, since biblical revelation is demonstrably progressive, it makes little sense to assume that Paul’s concept of ekklesia could not progress to a fuller and larger understanding over time. Second, there is no biblical reason to assume that a later concept is in any way inferior to an earlier concept. Paul obviously incorporated the spiritual ideal of ekklesia into his teaching because he felt it had instrumental value to the functioning of church, so there is no need to see it as deleterious to the concept of church as a local gathering. Finally, if we take as valid Bank’s method of studying Paul in historical context, then to try and understand Paul’s use of the term ekklesia independent of the other New Testament writers who were inspired by the same Spirit and lived in the same age is somewhat counterintuitive. While Paul does have some unique elements in his use of the term ekklesia, to treat his theology as completely independent from the fuller revelation can lead to some interpretative problems. That being said, there are some very important observations made by Banks regarding which elements make the community life of church unique and which ones cannot be compromised.
One of the most important metaphors for ekklesia used by Paul, and emphasized by Banks (47), is the metaphor of family. Our ability to address God as “Abba” and live and function as His adopted sons (Gal. 4:4-5) is the foundation that unites the members of the community and binds them together as family. The implications for the way we experience modern church are manifold. If we are truly members of one common family, then we must find ways to work for the common good (Gal. 6:10). If the church were to truly live out this family relationship, it would, first and foremost, radically shift the way we structure our leadership. It would demand that we rethink the model of pastor as CEO who heads the church as the sole leader.
Second, to grasp the vision of church as family, means that we must rethink the way we view the role of paid and “lay” ministers. It would not eliminate the role for paid leaders, but we would cease to make any social distinction between those who are staff and those who minister without financial compensation.
Finally, a biblical understanding of Paul’s vision for church to live as a family would impact the way we view both the new Christian and the non-Christian. A family is always looking to grow in numbers because this keeps the family strong and ensures its survival. So too, the church must seek out the lost, not simply because they need salvation from sin, but because we too need to them enter into our family and help our family grow stronger. Those new to the family would be seen not as a liability, but as a weaker sibling that needs our love and wisdom to help them grow into fully functioning household contributors.