This is Part I of a review series I am doing on James W. Thompson’s new book The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (Baker, 2014).
Thompson is scholar-in-residence at the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. This is the third installment in a series of books on Paul, the first two of which are Pastoral Ministry according to Paul and Moral Formation according to Paul.
There are nine chapters in this 200+ page work, and most chapters associate Pauline texts with themes such as “Corporate Formation” or “Justification is about Unification.” His first chapter, the introduction, makes the case that, while many pastors and theologians recognize the church at large is in a state of crisis, the many proposed solutions are woefully inadequate and at least fail in the area of taking Paul’s theology seriously. Thompson urges that “the most basic questions are not being asked” (2) and that leaders today are simply not in tune with “the theological identity of the church” (2).
Thompson is an equal opportunity offender as he criticizes a number of new church movements
church as theater – too showy and passive; lacking real participation.
church as association – if it is just a club, it is consumer driven.
missional church – while this movement has been more intentional and academic than others, Thompson still finds it wanting. He argues that the nature of God cannot be reduced down to his mission (he might be right in his criticism here, but perhaps balance is not yet necessary). Thompson sees certain elements of church life missing from a missional model – sacraments? Polity? Thompson thinks missionals (I would include myself here) focus less on Christology and soteriology, and more on going out and serving the kingdom of God. I don’t think Thompson has read Scot McKnight (who is episcopal, by the way!) and he definitely needs to read McKnight’s new book The Kingdom Conspiracy. Anyway, I can’t question Thompson for not reading a book that came out after his! Still, while I don’t think Thompson has read broadly enough in the “missional church” arena, he is probably right that the missional-movement was fueled by a return to (1) the OT and (2) a focus on Jesus and the Gospels. So, Thompson offers a helpful voice urging pastors and churches to give Paul a more careful contribution (but I will quickly jump in a say Dean Flemming’s Recovering the Full Mission of God has given the missional movement a heavy [and healthy] dose of Paul).
emerging church – Thompson points to a problem in the EC’s ethos – transformative, yet immersed in culture. Thompson wonders, if it is so thoroughly immersed in “postmodern culture,” can it really be a “countercultural” movement? I don’t know enough about the EC to validate his critique, but he may be right.
Again, in all of this discussion and church strategy, Thompson wonders – where is Paul as
…the one who shaped communities more than anyone else we know. Paul offers the first written reflection on the nature of the church. Neither the attractional models of the church growth movement nor the missional or emerging church models incorporate Pauline theology at a substantial level into their understanding of the church. (16).
I hate to break the news to Thompson, but precious few churches think very deeply about ecclesiology at all, let alone making sure they hear Paul! Would that pastors and leaders take biblical theology seriously enough to learn how to do and be church! I think he is right, though, in general and I salute his passion for hearing Paul on the nature, identity, and mission of the church.
More to come as I journey through this book. You can read a long excerpt here.