If Acts is the third act of the salvation play, then in the letters of Paul, we have a good set of director’s notes. Paul recognizes that he is not the author of the story. Yet, he understands his job to be continually helping believers to understand how they play their role. Through the letters of Paul, we gain understanding of the early church’s involvement in the mission of God. This study will not be exhaustive. However, looking particularly at two of the “undisputed letters” of Paul, Romans and 1 Corinthians, provides us a sound basis for understanding Paul’s missiological perspective (Barram 54).
Before looking specifically at the content of the letters, we will look at the life of Paul as we know it through Luke’s record in Acts and through his letters. First, tracking the missionary travels of Paul provides a testimony to the wideness of God’s grace. Luke, in fact, ends abruptly without giving us an idea of how far the gospel would stretch through Paul’s faithfulness. Paul envisioned his duty “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16). While the grounding for this vision is unclear, Paul believes that his role is to perform the priestly duty of mediating between God and the Gentiles. In doing so, Paul takes the role of Israel and, perhaps, encourages other believers to do the same (The Mission of God 525).
Paul’s fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ also shapes his mission. He will not allow an unnecessary hindrance to the gospel. Paul’s practice of tent making rather than accepting money from every church evidenced his fidelity to the gospel. Instead of entering into relationships built on market reciprocity, Paul made tents and sold them in the market (Malina 95). Paul spells out the phenomenon to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 9). Paul states that he does not want to compromise his motivation for spreading the gospel by entering into a patron-client relationship. He wants to ensure that the gospel is “free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18). Joel N. Lohr ties this to Christology as well. He argues that 1 Cor. 9 can be linked with Paul’s statement, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Lohr compares Paul’s humility of performing a simple task and struggling to survive with the incarnation of Jesus (187).
Paul’s correspondences contain a wide variety of issues. However, as we look particularly at Romans, the content can be categorized in two ways. The letter to the church in Rome is the fullest theological treatise that we have from Paul. Aimed as a defense of the gospel and a fuller explanation for theological questions, the first 11 chapters lay out the fullness of the righteousness of God and the accomplishments of God through Christ. These are the apologetic chapters. A switch occurs in chapter 12, however. The verb tenses move from indicative to imperative (Hill 250). Rather than instructing the Roman church about the role of Christ in human history, Paul begins to instruct the Romans on the role of Christ in their lives.
To say that there were significant problems in the early church would be an understatement. However, some areas appear to have been more problematic than others. The church in Corinth was a problem child. The church experienced division over leadership (1:10-17; 3:1-2), had difficulty during the central act of worship (11:2-14:40), and behaved no differently than the surrounding culture (5:1-20). While Paul’s response to these issues were based in righteousness and justice, it appears that the mission of God was more than a secondary consideration. The gospel was to be spread by the faithful witness of believers. When the actions and attitudes of the believers were not faithful, the mission was at risk. Darrell Guder suggests that Paul’s ethics are often mission focused. “The love that the Christian community practices toward each other enables the demonstration and explication of that love as good news to their neighbors, those next to them, those to whom they are sent” (“Lecture 1” 10).