At different stages in my life I've read Paul the Apostle differently.
Growing up, he was this authoritative source that we were expected to follow on how church was to be done...for the most part, anyways. There were some notable exceptions, of course, ranging from how to pray in mixed company (head coverings?) to the proper way to greet one another (holy kiss?). But, besides those verses, Paul was the "Church Order Guru" whose counsel was to be respected and trusted.
Then in college and graduate school, I began thinking of our famous apostle as "Paul the Theologian/Poet." He was certainly the go-to source for understanding key doctrines, but his was not a cold theology. His view of God was rich and warm - full of life and worship. His poetic imagination had been enlightened by Christ on the road to Damascus and now his great contribution to the Church was as the quintessential Doxological Theologian.
Then in my first few years of ministry, reading the works of Eugene Peterson and others, I began to look at Paul through the lens of 'Pastor.' I saw him following the example of Jesus the good shepherd (that's what pastor means - shepherd), caring for the flock entrusted to him. He sat in his jail cell, carefully choosing words to bless and encourage. He was preaching by means of a pen to the people of God.
But, more recently after years serving as a missionary here in northern Mozambique, I've begun to see him more as "Paul the Missionary."
Now, I know there are plenty of negative examples of people who've let their own life experiences morph the way they consider key Christian figures (see - Jesus Seminar). But, I've found this way of reading Paul to be helpful. So, to begin with by describing my glasses to you. Describe our work and experience here so you can see how that would shape my reading of Paul as a missionary. It is going to be tough to (briefly) describe our life in Mozambique, but I'll give it a shot.
We work with about 50 churches spread out all over the province of Cabo Delgado. Some of those churches have many people, but most of them have few. Some churches have good leadership while others don't. Some are in more urban environments, but most are in rural areas. Some in the church are literate, while most are not. Some experience hunger and malnutrition and others do not. Some of the people in the churches are easy for me to love, and some of them are not. These churches are shaped by different contexts - geographically, economically, and culturally. And great distances and bad roads mean that we see some churches more than others.
Like an orchard with trees spread all over the state. We are doing our best to run from place to place, watering and nourishing the churches as best we can.
And this experience has definitely shaped how I read the Apostle Paul.
Maybe this is where my bias is coming through, but it seems to me that while there may be good reason to think of Paul as pastor, preacher, or poet, the role he served most often during his letter-writing-years was that of seasoned apostle or missionary. He would take short breaks from planting churches and encouraging emerging leaders in person to wring out a letter from where he sat in jail or maybe as he bounced around on some ship.
So, from where I sit, in this season of ministry, when I think of Paul writing letters to those congregations spread out all over the ancient world, I imagine him feeling what I feel when I pause to consider the churches scattered over this part of Africa. I wonder if the way he felt about the churches in Corinth, Philippi or Colossae was similar to the way I feel about the churches in Chipembe, Milamba and Nekwaia.
And as I read him now, I see Paul doing things in those letters that resonate powerfully with my experience and push me in ways that I wouldn't have expected before beginning this life in Africa.
Love and Power: Reading Paul now I am impressed with his love for the churches. He has shown me the importance and the pain in giving my heart to the churches we're working with. In 2 Corinthians 11:28-29, he says, "Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?" Paul embraces the weight of this regional network of churches, but it is a heavy burden. Reading him now helps me learn to embrace both the burden and the blessing of this kind of ministry.
The apostle deeply loved the churches he worked with and that love led him to speak in power. From reading Paul I have become more willing to speak boldly about sin and the power of the Holy Spirit in transformation. While I often wonder if things will really change in people's lives, his confidence gives me added hope.
Paul's love for the churches not only led him to speak in power, but it also led him to pray powerfully for the churches. At the beginning of his letters to them, he prayed in ways that reveal a dependence on a God he looked to (and begged to) on behalf of the church. Paul leaned on the power of God and I have come to identify more with the desperation I sense in his prayers and counsel for the churches. I aspire to pray that way.
He also loved the people he was discipling and empowered and challenged them to use their gifts. He didn't just love the church in the abstract. He empowered the people he worked with, sending Timothy and Titus, for example, to very different places. Paul loved and prayed for those friends and had expectations that each of them would use their mix of gifts to serve the church in powerful ways.
Problem Solving: Paul wrote to specific churches about specific issues and treated them differently. He crafted his letters using the rhetorical conventions of the day, doing his best to convince them to live lives in tune with the spirit of Jesus. His counsel to them reflected not only his own situation, but also what they were ready to hear.
Take Paul's discussion of slavery, for example (adapting Witherington).
1. This is what you say the first time addressing an issue. In Colossians 3-4, there is slavery in the Christians' houses and Paul starts where they are, not with where he would like them to be. He begins to inject salt and light and yeast into a broken situation.
2. Then we have a second level, where he pushes the church in Ephesus in uncomfortable directions (chapters 5-6). He tells them that we must all submit to each other and that masters need to remember that they have a Master as well.
3. In Galatians 3:28 he pushes for the ideal - there is no slave or free, but all are one in Christ.
4. Then in a letter to a friend, Philemon, we see his application of the principle at level three in a specific situation. He respectfully requests (ok, he also does some arm-twisting!) the release of that slave.
If we follow the trajectory of Paul's counsel regarding slavery we see him move from gently challenging the societal norms...to pushing believers towards mutual submission...to the ideal for human equality... and finally the manumission of a slave.
Instead of writing to the church and dealing with them in the exact same way or even the whole problem all at once, Paul trusted the Holy Spirit to know HOW to deal with WHAT WHEN.
Paul addressed the real while still pointing to the ideal.
He has shown me that patience is the key for being good at long-term-Kingdom-oriented-problem-solving.
Innovation in Ministry: Oftentimes, when considering Paul, the expectation is that we should not seek to do what he did, instead we just need to do what he said. There is a scene from the Pixar film Ratatouille that comes to mind. One of the chefs is explaining their role to a newly promoted cook. When the newbie questions the viability of a certain dish, she tells him her opinion of it related to the restaurant's founding chef, "It was Gustaf's job to innovate. And it is our job to follow the recipe."
So many Christian leaders and missionaries are afraid of innovation. They think, it was Jesus and Paul's job to innovate and our job to follow the recipe. Or depending on one's religious heritage we say it was Augustine or Luther or Calvin or Stone or Campbell's job to innovate and our job to follow the recipe. Now, while much good can certainly come from following the recipe, doing anything new well usually includes some level of innovation. I think that in reading Paul, his ways of innovation should inform ours. We can innovate well because we have the Holy Spirit, too, especially if we are soaking ourselves in the Word and living and working in Community.
When I look at the stories in Acts, it seems that the Holy Spirit is the one leading the charge for innovation for the sake of the mission of Kingdom expansion. While we should certainly minister and counsel in ways that are faithful to scripture, maybe faithfulness means less about being consistent with culturally shaped details of practice and more about innovating in ways that are in tune with the work that has been done before us.
I can imagine a master composer, like Mozart or Beethoven, being pleased when someone plays his music well. But, I see him taking further delight in listening to fellow composers whose compositions are inspired by and incorporating his earlier masterwork in new and exciting ways. That's the way that I would like Paul to connect with our ministry here among the Makua-Metto.
Well, thanks for indulging my ramblings and unfinished thinking. I hope they are taken in the right spirit.
In summary, we should say that really Paul is all of the above - Paul was a Church-Planting Guru/Theologian/Poet/Pastor/Missionary. And including that role of missionary can round out that picture and help us be better interpreters of his gifts (his letters) to followers of Jesus for two-thousand years. By incorporating that perspective of Paul as regional church-planting missionary, we will increase our ability to carefully unwrap those treasures and discern what God's Spirit is continuing to say to His Church today.
May our reading of Paul's letters help us to hear God and learn to live and minister like Christ today.
Grace and Peace,