We are considering N. T. Wright’s newly released Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God) — a massive and masterful consideration of Paul’s theology.
Let’s start with the title: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. For those familiar with Wright — or for that matter, Paul — we have to recognize the importance in Paul’s thought of God’s faithfulness.
In particular, Paul repeatedly speaks in terms of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham — and so Paul sees the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants.
(Rom 3:2-4 NET) 2 Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 Absolutely not! Let God be proven true, and every human being shown up as a liar, just as it is written: “so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged.”
That’s very different lens through which to do theology. I mean, we tend to want to start with salvation (soteriology), or especially among Churches of Christ, how to do church, that is, how to conduct the assembly and organize the local congregation (ecclesiology), or among Calvinists, the sovereignty of God.
Wright, as we’ll see, favors starting with God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. That faithfulness will, of course, tell us about our salvation, but not necessarily as the centerpiece of God’s mission. I mean, in much teaching — among Churches of Christ and many other denominations — Christianity and the gospel are so equated with salvation that we have little to say to a convert after baptism other than instructions on how to worship and appoint church leaders.
But if we see God as honoring his covenant promises in granting salvation and establishing he church, we’ll better understand the nature of the local church as not merely the product of a new laws replacing the Mosaic laws. Rather, the congregation, the assembly, and its leadership should all be understood in light of God’s covenant promises — a very different perspective than traditional Church of Christ thought.
Just so, it’s certainly true that God is sovereign, but sovereign to what end? As the ultimate creator, sustainer, and ruler of the universe, for what purpose does God exercise his sovereignty?
Thus, before we even crack the spine of the book to read the Preface (which you should not skip), we know that Wright will be pointing us toward
a new an old approach deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures, dealing with questions far removed from the 16th Century Reformation debates and further removed from the 19th century controversies that came to define the Churches of Christ as a distinct denomination.
Philemon as guide
Wright begins his book by exegeting Philemon. That’s right — Paul’s shortest preserved letter and seemingly his least theological writing.
Philemon was a Christian and owner of a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus appears to have run away, after stealing something from his master. As a runaway slave, Onesimus could have been crucified on the word of Philemon.
Somehow, Onesimus found himself in the company of Paul’s circle in Ephesus and was converted to Christianity by Paul. Paul found Onesimus a great help, but had to recognize the realities of the situation.
That is, Paul had to return Onesimus to Philemon (it was the law). Moreover, Onesimus had a duty to return to Philemon and to repay what was stolen. Christians do not steal, and certainly do not steal from fellow Christians. Onesimus had to make this right.
However, a return to Philemon risked punishment — a beating, death, or even crucifixion. Roman law treated slaves much better than American slaves were treated in the 19th Century, but Roman law was also very insistent that slaves not run away.
And so we have a legal/economic system that treats Onesimus as property and encourages severe punishment for running away and for stealing. And we have the church, an alternative society that sees things very differently. After all, Philemon and Onesimus are now brothers in Christ within a Kingdom in which there is “neither slave nor free.”
Wright first considers a letter from Pliny the Younger (wh0 lived shortly after the time of Paul) dealing with a remarkably similar situation. Indeed, the similarities are remarkable, as Pliny asks his correspondent — a social inferior — to show mercy to his freedman (former slave).
Wright notes a critical difference.
(Phm 1:6 ESV) and I pray that the sharing [koinonia] of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.
Philemon’s faith is to lead toward a sharing/partnership/community, referred to in Greek as the koinonia. The Greek word takes on a range of flavors, but in context, it’s unmistakable that Paul is reminding Philemon that he and Onesimus have been called into a common fellowship, a singular community, a Kingdom in which both serve the same King.
Paul also says,
(Phm 1:17 ESV) 17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
“Receive” is the same word found in —
(Rom 14:1-3 ESV) As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
(Rom 15:7 ESV) 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
“Receive” translates proslambano, which we considered a few years ago in a similar context. In Pauline usage, the reference to “welcome” or “receive” likely means “welcome into your home gatherings where you eat together as fellow Christians.” Paul is urging more than mere recognition that Onesimus has been saved; he must be included within the table fellowship of the church — a fellowship in which master/slave relationships do not matter.
In Pliny’s letter, a social superior prevails on an inferior to be merciful to his own inferior freedman because the freedman had repented. In Paul’s letter, a rabbi in prison for his beliefs prevails on a brother in Christ — a social superior under Roman culture — to treat a runaway slave as a peer because they’re brothers in Christ.
(Phm 1:15-16 ESV) 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother — especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
In short, implicit in Philemon, but driving every word, is an understanding of a unity and breaking down of social and ethnic barriers through Christ.
Paul would not assume that Philemon and Onesimus would work through the challenges of being brothers in Christ while master and slave by attending separate congregations or being part of different small groups.
Rather, Philemon must welcome his runaway slave as a full brother in Christ, and share table fellowship with him, showing to all present that Philemon considers Onesimus a peer and a brother.
And the fact that Onesimus is a brother in Christ, highly valued by Paul as support for his apostolic ministry, and a great help to him in his imprisonment, requires that Philemon respond to Paul’s requests and Onesimus’s apology in a way that would seem very strange to the world. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Philemon doing anything other than freeing Philemon so that he can serve Paul.
Pliny urges his correspondent to forgive and to restore normal relationships as defined by Roman law and culture. Paul urges Philemon to forgive and to establish an entirely new relationship as defined by the cross of Jesus.