It occurred to me the other day that we may have missed an important element underlying Paul’s theology. I doubt I’m the first to have noticed this, but I don’t think I’ve seen this hermeneutical thought anywhere else.
We know that Paul, in his epistles, is doing theology. Quite naturally, we read with a theological mindset. This is not a bad thing. But perhaps we should add that Paul was also thinking in national/ethnic terms.
For example, Paul plainly says in 1 Cor 7:39 that Christian widows must remarry only a fellow Christian —
(1 Cor. 7:39 ESV) 39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
— and there’s a passage in 2 Cor that likely makes the rule apply to all Christians —
(2 Cor. 6:14-18 ESV) 14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17 Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, 18 and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
Now, where would Paul come up with a rule that Christians may only marry other Christians? Well, it could just be pastoral experience, having learned that such marriages are difficult and even painful for the Christian spouse.
But in 2 Cor 16-18, Paul is quoting Lev 26:12 and Isa 52:11 and 2 Sam 7:14. Lev 26:12 is the conclusion of God’s promises if Israel would honor his covenant with Israel. Isa 52:11 is about the restoration of Jerusalem after the Exile —
(Isa. 52:7-11 ESV) 7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” 8 The voice of your watchmen– they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. 9 Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. 11 Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the LORD.
2 Sam 7:14 is part of God’s covenant with David for his heirs to sit on the throne of God’s Kingdom forever.
In short, these are all about the nation of Israel. And yet Paul applies them to Christians, and he concludes that Christians should not be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers.
The logic fits very well if we suppose that Paul thought of the church as a continuation of the nation of Israel — so that the Torah law against marrying outside of Israel became a prohibition on Christians marrying outside of the church.
(Deut. 7:3-6 ESV) 3 You shall not intermarry with them [the surrounding nations], giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire. 6 “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”
So that’s may not be exactly ground breaking. But if this part of Paul’s understanding of the church — that it’s a nation that continues (not supersedes) Israel, then consider these implications —
- Israelite towns were governed by older men called “elders,” with one set of elders per town. This was even true of Diaspora Jews who lived in Gentile cities. They still had “elders” over their community — often styled as elders of the local synagogue.
Each Jewish community had its council of elders, who had general administrative oversight and represented the community in relations with Roman authorities. Their primary duty was judicial. They were custodians of the Law and its traditional interpretations (see Mt 15:2) and were charged with both its enforcement and the punishment of offenders. The most important of these councils of elders was the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, a group of 71 men who acted as the final court for the entire nation.
Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1988, 679–680.
Stick with me …
- In 1 Cor 6, Paul declares that each church should decide disputes between its members, rather than going to the pagan courts. Just as Jewish town elders acted as judges, Paul expects members of the congregation (not necessarily elders) to resolve disputes. This grants what, for us Americans, is a governmental function to the church in resolving civil disputes.
(1 Cor. 6:3-6 ESV) 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?
This is very foreign to our church culture, but if we are a continuation of Israel — a nation living within many other nations, a Christian Diaspora — it makes perfect sense.
- In such a view, to hand someone over the Satan, that is, to disfellowship someone, would be the equivalent of banishing someone from a city-state as punishment. And we see this in the language of the Torah where many crimes are to be punished by “cutting off” the violator —
Lexicons suggest that the phrase means that one who violates these laws of cleanness will pay the extreme penalty. It seems difficult to prove this. It is safer to say that the phrase may have been used variously and often meant only some kind of excommunication from the people of the Lord.
R. Laird Harris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, 1990, 2, 558.
It was common in ancient times to punish some crimes by a temporary or permanent banishment from the city.
- More broadly, Peter refers to Christians in these terms —
(1 Pet. 2:9-12 NIV) 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
This is exactly the language Jews would have applied to themselves as scattered among Gentile cities across the Roman Empire. They were a distinct “people” (laos, routinely used in the Septuagint for Israel) and “nation” (ethnos), but a people in exile and thus “foreigners” in their nation of residence. The ESV better translates as “sojourners,” to tie the language to the Torah’s concerns for sojourner.
So it’s a theory. I’m wondering what other NT teachings fit in with the concept? What insights might this hermeneutic bring to other scriptural questions?