What Spiritual Nutrients are in the Tops and Tails of Paul’s Letters?

Do you have any broader comments on the personal greetings and instructions at the end of Paul’s letters and their significance? Of course each one is unique, but I wondered if there’s anything we can draw more generally from their presence and recurring patterns.

I reference an essay from Richard Bauckham’s The Gospel for All Christians in this episode.

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I think there definitely are lessons that we can learn.

Perhaps the first and most important thing is the connection between Paul’s teaching and a theologically informed practice. When Paul writes at the end of his letters about gathering a gift for the saints in Jerusalem, for instance in Romans when he’s on his way to Jerusalem to bring a gift that he has collected for them, there is a connection to his theology. That practice is informed by his conviction that the Gentile church owes a debt of love and gratitude to the Jerusalem church, and to the Judean church more generally.

Reading that helps us to understand that his teaching about Jews and Gentiles in the book of Romans is not just abstract theologizing but is something that is informing a very practical mission. The practice of collecting this gift for the church in Jerusalem is the means by which he is expressing the unity of the church in the gospel, a unity that is theologically grounded in all the teaching that he has in Romans and then practically expressed and forged through such practices as gathering gifts from Gentile churches for Jewish churches in need. The theological teaching that he has, then, is not detached from a very concrete, practical approach to creating the united church that he speaks about theologically within his letters.

It is easy to think about Paul’s theology as this very abstract, theoretical thing when we detach it from the practical mission work that he’s engaged in in the final chapters of his epistles, which reveal that often he’s teaching these things to spur people on to a practical end, gathering a gift for the saints in Jerusalem or preparing for a mission to Spain. These theological teachings are the groundwork for practical mission.

And if we detach those two things, as we’re often tempted to do when we top and tail the epistles as if they were vegetables to be placed in a stew and you don’t want the tops or the bottoms, then we’re missing a lot of the force of Paul’s teaching, which is always practically-driven.

Another thing that we can see is the shape of the churches in the early church. These churches are part of a network of churches. When you read the end of Paul’s letters, you see that these churches are so deeply connected with each other. Paul has not been to Rome, but he already knows many, many people there, because the church is this tightly-connected body of different communities.

Michael B. Thompson, in an article called “The Holy Internet,” in The Gospel for All Christians, edited by Richard Bauckham, talks about the way the church is bound up in these large networks where people are constantly moving to and fro on business trips, mission trips, whatever it is. There is a lot of travel within the ancient world. The Roman roads, the Roman empire, and the security that that provided form, all allowed for a lot of movement.

And the communication that exists also bolsters its mission, because it is a mission of witness. When you consider just how closely connected these churches are, it helps you to understand the strength of the apostolic witness and mission, because no person in any church would be more than two steps removed from one of the original witnesses of the resurrected Christ. It helps you to understand why these communities were not very detached communities that grew up in their own corners. Rather, it was a highly-integrated Christian movement, with people moving to and fro all the time.

When you consider that, it also helps you think a bit more about questions of ecclesiology. Very often when we think of the Church, we think about the local church and lose sight of this large integrated network beyond that, the outward-looking face as it relates to its neighbors, as it related to other churches in its region, and then as it relates to other churches beyond.

It can also help us to stop thinking of the epistles as texts. The epistles are not just texts. They are material objects. They were letters, written to specific recipients.

And again, this is connected to Paul’s theology. When Paul writes a letter to a specific church, he does not intend that that letter would remain with that church alone. Rather, he expects that that letter will be passed on to other churches, along with ministers of that church.

So one church will send Phoebe, and Phoebe will bear the letter to Rome and deliver that to the various churches in Rome and maybe perform the letter before them. Then Paul will send a letter by someone else, maybe a minister that he is going to send to work in a group of churches, Timothy or Epaphroditus or some other character that has been commissioned with the task of bearing this letter, but is also bringing news of the wider movement within the city from which they’ve been sent, being an expression of the love of the church that has sent the minister with the letter, and helping to build a movement that’s connected—that is not just lots of isolated churches.

But the letter-writing and the letter-sending with ministers encourages lots of movement between these churches. These churches are not isolated, then, nor are they unknown to each other. Rather, they are sending ministers to each other and sharing the good gifts that God has given to them.

They are also sharing their own example. When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he is writing to the Corinthians about all their problems, about all their gifts, about all the ways God has blessed them as a particular church, and he is writing to them expecting that they will share that letter with others.

All the dirty laundry that is brought out in that letter is something that other churches are expected to read. The churches in Galatia, the churches in Rome, the churches in all these various parts of the world are going to be reading the letter that has been sent to the Corinthians and they will see all the problems that they have with the misuse of spiritual gifts, with sexual immorality in their congregation, and how Paul teaches them to deal with all these issues.

And what the Corinthian church does is send on one of their ministers with that letter and they would be sharing some of the gifts of ministry that God has given to them. They would be forging a bond with the various other churches that they have sent that letter to. But they would also be sharing their own example, their own example for good or ill.

They have certain lessons that they need to learn, and those lessons are not just lessons that the Corinthians need to learn. They are lessons for churches in other parts of the world, too. The Galatian churches need to learn these lessons. So they can take the Corinthians’ example and learn from that.

When we think about Paul’s theology again, we should not see it to be detached from his practice. Paul as a letter-writer is connected to Paul the missionary who is trying to bind together this early network of churches. In the same way, Paul the theologian about God’s work in this culmination of all these promises and this bringing-in of the Gentiles into the commonwealth of God’s people is not detached from Paul as the guy who is gathering together a gift for the Jerusalem church from the Gentile Christians. These things are all connected.

In the same way, Paul’s teaching about the members of the body and their respective gifts and the way that God gives through specific members of the body to the whole body and how the gift of one member of the body is a re-presentation of the one gift of the Spirit to the whole body is the same principle that drives Paul’s letter-writing.

So he writes to the Corinthians so that the Corinthians can give their particular experience, their particular gifts, their particular example as a witness and as a gift to the rest of the churches, and through that to form a body of various churches that are connected at a level that is beyond just the local level.

You don’t just have a network of churches in Corinth itself—a network of house churches and groups of Christians meeting together in private locations. Rather, you have this broader network of churches across the Roman empire who are in communication with each other and giving their example to each other, expressing their love for each other in material support and sending missionaries and gifted members to various parts of the world.

So there is a sense in which we can learn an ecclesiology from these texts, a way of seeing the message bound up in practical action and also bound up in the organization of the body of Christians. This is not just a network of people rooted in a certain locality, but they are in contact with other Christians throughout the world, and other Christians are rejoicing when the Thessalonian church, for instance, is thriving. Other churches hear that news and praise God for what he is doing in that place.

There is a way in which we all rejoice as one member of the body prospers, and all mourn and weep and suffer when a member of the body is suffering. And that applies not just as individuals within a specific body of Christians, but as churches that are part of a worldwide or empire-wide communion. This is again something that we see in the conclusion of Paul’s letters.

We also have a window into a movement with lots of different social networks, different types of contacts. There are people who have status within the society, influence, business people moving from city to city, people who have a particular family that hosts the church, patrons of the church, people who have positions within ruling houses, people who are gifted men and women within the church. We have a sense that this is not just a movement of the apostles; there are people working on the ground, gifted people—both men and women—working in domestic settings, working in public, and in other sorts of positions and offices and contexts.

This is not just a movement that is defined by the twelve apostles and characters like Paul, who are moving from place to place. There are people rooted in specific locations, and God has chosen to record their names in Scripture too.

The ends of books also include benedictions and blessings and doxologies that we will often repeat at the end of our services. We have that at the end of Romans, a great doxology, praising God for all that he has done, praising God for his character and for the truths that have been revealed.

In light of these considerations, I think there is a great deal that we can gain from these endings. We learn to think about these books as more than just texts, recognizing the importance of the material form in which Paul gives his teaching, namely, as letters that are sent from church to church, by messengers. That particular practice, that particular form of medium is one that is chosen, in part, because it served the purpose of forming a body of churches that are connected together.

This is not just an abstract collection of theologizing texts in ivory towers, where people pore over ideas. These are urgent letters, written on specific occasions, and presenting specific churches as examples for the churches. Paul speaks of his own example being given to the Corinthians, so that as he follows Christ other people will be benefited by his example. Likewise, in both negative and positive senses, we have the examples of the Corinthian church, the Galatian church, the Ephesian church, and so on. As each of these groups learned their lessons, others can learn lessons through them.

This, then, is one of the many things that we can learn from the end of those epistles. I would also recommend that we consider the implicit ecclesiology that this might encourage us to, of churches that relate in formal—or at least very strong informal—bonds to other churches beyond them.

As churches, we need to have a sense of belonging to a wider movement than just our locality. And that is one of the ways in which, for instance, certain forms of polity that have an episcopal structure or some sort of Presbyterian structure intend the structure to connect churches to churches beyond just the immediate locality. There is an outward-looking emphasis to their ecclesiology, so that they are not just focusing upon the local congregation.

Within other church traditions there are different means of doing this. Baptist churches often have various confederations or some sort of fellowship that they are bound up in, either in a regional location or more broadly throughout the world.

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