N.T. Wright’s Paper delivered at the 2017 Theological Educator’s Consultation was on “Learning from Paul Together: How New Insights into Paul’s Teaching can Help Move us Forward in Mission,” available to read here.
One would not know, from many Pauline interpreters, that the unity of the church was one of Paul’s overriding passions. The famous doctrine of justification, used in the sixteenth century and later as a means of dividing the church, was itself actually designed to affirm the unity of all believers across lines of ethnic and other divisions. That is clear particularly from its first exposition in Galatians 2, where Paul confronts Peter because Peter has given in to pressure from hard-line Jewish Christians and has separated himself from table-fellowship with Gentile Christians. Paul’s response, in a brief articulation of justification, is that all who share Messiah-faith belong at the same table. All alike have died with the Messiah and have come through to new life in him, and that new shared life is the one and only source and marker of their identity: ‘I through the Law died to the Law that I might live to God; I am crucified with the Messiah, nevertheless I live, yet not I but the Messiah lives in me’. Plenty of detailed questions remain, of course, but the thrust of the passage is clear: what matters is that we belong together, we eat together, we pray together, we believe together. Again, it often goes unnoticed that whereas even the vital doctrine of justification is stated only in three of the letters, and there quite briefly, every letter, including Philemon, insists on the unity of the church and is working hard to achieve it through what Paul names ‘the ministry of reconciliation’. Whether it’s Jewish and Gentile in Galatians and Romans, rich and poor in Corinth, competing factions in Philippians, different ethnic groups in Colossians, a master and a slave in Philemon – at every point we find Paul standing in the middle and saying ‘But we must do this together.’ So here we are: mission, teaching and togetherness.