To catch how radical his vision really was, we need to enter into a different worldview and a different mindset — we need to go back, and behind where we usually go, to the world of Paul to see what he was actually trying to accomplish. As James Thompson, in The Church according to Paul, puts it, it was unprecedented — there was no map for Paul to follow, no instructions came in the box, he was on his own — and off he went:
Paul’s task is unprecedented in antiquity. The creation of a corporate identity for converts whose only common interest was the conviction that Jesus suffered, died, and was raised from the dead (cf. 1 Thess. 4:14) separated the believers from the communities from which they had come—the family, the clan, the tribe, the civic assembly (ekklesia)—and brought them together with those whom they did not choose. This new community came together in a house church, which played a major role in shaping its identity as a household. In his catechetical instruction to new converts, Paul established the corporate identity of his converts (27).
Thompson is right: we need to begin, if we want to understand Paul and the church, with this corporate identity. “I” becomes “We” in the hands of Paul. Many people like this idea today until the “I” is no longer like their “I” and means including some in the “We” who are totally different. Liberals and conservatives, conservatives and liberals all in a “We” that outdoes the comfortable “I.”
To be church, folks, means to let “my” identity be reformed into a “we” identity in which those in the “we” are not chosen by “me” but by God and brought into fellowship with my “me” to form not a club of similars but a fellowship of differents.
How often, do you think, is the criticism of the church today a criticism of differents in fellowship that are not enough like the club of similars?
Paul’s converts at Thessalonica needed, then, to be re-socialized into a new identity if they were to form a group formation identity shaped around Christ. The terms Paul used included these, and notice the major terms Paul uses for the people of God at Thessalonica. What happens to “me” and “we” when we let these terms reshape ourselves?1. Church (ekklesia)
2. The believers
3. The elect
4. The calling
5. The holy ones
6. Children of light
7. Family of God
These terms in 1 Thessalonians then open a window to see Paul’s vision for the church:
First, “Paul knows nothing of the individual Christian, for people respond to the gospel by living in communities” (48).
Second, “Like all communities, the church is united by a shared narrative. A faithful community acknowledges that its confession of Jesus Christ is part of a long narrative of Israel’s story and recognizes its indebtedness to Israel. It retells Israel’s story, speaks the dialect that it has learned from Israel’s Scripture, and makes moral choices based on that narrative. Indeed, the end of the narrative (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11) determines the common life of the community in the present” (48-49).
Third, “A church that participates in the ancient narrative of Israel will resist becoming a consumer commodity that exists to meet popular demand. As a participant in Israel’s story, the church experiences exile and restoration, disappointment and hope” (49).
Fourth, “Commitment to the Christian confession creates boundaries between the church and the dominant culture. A community defined by its belief that Jesus rose from the dead and will return (1 Thess. 4:13-18) is a community of hope, in contrast to the majority culture (cf. 4:13). … Thus the community’s cohesion is evident in its moral behavior. It rejects the majority culture’s view of sexuality and lives in holiness. It practices self-giving on behalf of both believers and nonbelievers. The members participate in building up the community” (49).
Fifth “We know nothing about Paul’s expectations for the growth of these communities. Paul’s catechesis is aimed at ensuring that the members live “worthily of God” by accepting the behavioral norms that define this community” (49).
Finally, “The faithfulness of the community requires the cohesion and solidarity of members who did not choose each other. The church is not only the place where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered, but it is also a holy people who live in continuity with ancient Israel. It is also a family in which the members encourage one another, support the weakest among them, and continue to recall the confession that brought them into existence. Life in this community requires the intimacy of brotherhood and mutual support among people who were formerly isolated from each other by the barriers of social class and ethnicity. Thus both the “church of the Thessalonians” and the church at any other location is God’s creation, a community unlike other communities” (50).