Did Paul have a pastoral strategy?

The apostle Paul is not generally viewed as a pastor. Teaching, fearless advocate for the faith, traveller, apologist, pioneering church planter, yes—but pastor? As we read Paul’s letters, in some part because of our cultural distance, it is easy not to sense that we are encountering Paul the pastor. But the latest Grove Biblical booklet contends that this is exactly what we find when we read what is perhaps Paul’s most important and best known letters after Romans—his first letter to the church in Corinth. Owned by God: Paul’s Pastoral Strategy in 1 Corinthians explores Paul’s pastoral strategy by offering a close reading of the opening verses of 1 Corinthians, and seeing how the terms and ideas here shape and inform Paul’s pastoral strategy throughout the letter in tackling the challenging issues he finds there. It is written by Mike Thompson, Associate Principal at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, where he has taught New Testament for many years. (Prior to that, Mike was at St John’s, Nottingham, where with Stephen Travis he was my first New Testament teacher.)

Mike begins with an imaginative reflection on the challenges Paul faced in writing his letter:

Imagine that you are a pastor of a congregation of less than a hundred adults; perhaps that is not so difficult to do! Beginning with a small core, you have laboured in a pioneer ministry for a year and a half, building up a fledgling church in a cosmopolitan centre. But while you are away, seconded to ministry in another place, you hear distressing news. Your original church is having serious problems and they need your help. They are dividing into factions over different Christian personalities. Some members are super-spiritual and arrogant. A few even go so far as to advo- cate ending marital relations; others are known to be using prostitutes, and one apparently influential member is committing incest with his stepmother…

Now if you were their pastor and circumstances dictated that you could only write to such a congregation, how would you start your letter? Where would you begin and what would be your strategy in responding? What would you say about your readers to help to move them forward?

Mike’s contention is that there are five major strategies that Paul adopts in addressing the situation, and all of them are articulated in Paul’s opening address to the Christians in Corinth at the beginning of his letter. The first is kinship language—the frequency with which Paul uses the language of ‘brothers’ (rightly translated in contemporary English versions as ‘brothers and sisters’) and he begins by applying it to his co-writer Sosthenes.

In Acts 18 we read of a Sosthenes who was a leader in the synagogue at Corinth. When Gallio dismissed the case brought by Jews in the city against Paul, the crowd beat this man (18.17). Perhaps he was sympathetic to Paul’s preaching and eventually became a Christian; 1 Cor 1.1 is the only other reference to a Sosthenes in Scripture. What is clear is that Paul expects the Corinthians to know the man he refers to as a brother in Christ. Paul uses ‘brother’ (adelphos) 39 times in the letter, almost a third of all of the instances in the Pauline corpus (133 times)! He likes to call his readers ‘brothers,’ and of course in the absence of evidence to the contrary we should normally understand the inclusion of women as ‘sisters’ when he speaks this way, as more modern translations indicate.

Paul uses this kinship language at the beginning of sections in the letter when he is introducing a new thought (so on divisions 1.10f; on his preaching 2.1; on divine discipline 10.1; on spiritual gifts 12.1; on resurrection 15.1). He also does it when concluding a subject (on remaining in the state in which they were called 7.24; on the Lord’s supper 11.33; on worship 14.39). He does it when making a point in correction (not many being wise or noble 1.26; inability to speak to them as spiritual people 3.1; not being puffed up 4.6; not being children in their thinking 14.26). He does it when distinguishing his hearers from non-Christians (regarding marriage 7.12, 14f) or urging them to consider right attitudes towards each other (discipline 5.11). He reminds them of their sibling relationship in the case of taking another Christian to court and even wronging them in the first place (6.5f, 8).

Paul uses ‘brother’ repeatedly in 1 Corinthians 8 to emphasize how unthinkable it should be to exercise personal liberty at the expense of another for whom Christ died (8.11f, 13 twice). Calling his hearers ‘brothers’ strengthened the bond of friendship and affection as well as kinship (15.31). It added great weight when he wanted to say something very important (15.50; 16.15). It was apparently Paul’s favourite, default way of referring to other Christians (15.12; 16.20).

That little word ‘brother,’ therefore, is something we should not pass over quickly. A strong sense of belonging to a healthy family is often missing in our modern world. Alienation, divorce, abuse, increased mobility and the lure of technology are only a few of the factors that can contribute to pull people apart. Instead of seeing ourselves as belonging to a positive network of permanent, giving relationships, we are being formed by our culture as isolated individuals seeking to get the most out of what we can. Adopting a biblical model of kinship language may seem quaint, but for Paul and other early Christians it was acknowledging something foundational in building up a living, thriving fellowship of faith.

The second feature that Mike identifies in Paul’s opening that he revisits as part of his pastoral strategy is the language of ownership by God.

Paul’s first description of his hearers in 1 Corinthians is ‘the church of God.’ He only adds ‘of God’ (tou theou) to ‘church’ nine times in all of his letters, but five of the occurrences are here in 1 Corinthians (1.2; 10.32; 11.16, 22 and 15.9). The only time he uses the phrase in a salutation is to the Corinthian congregation (here and in 2 Cor 1.1). They are God’s church, although they are not acting like it. They belong to God, and Paul will go on to develop that theme repeatedly in different ways in the letter.

The possessive genitive ‘of God’ speaks directly to the danger that the Corinthians were in from forming factions to which they claimed to belong: ‘I am of Paul,’ ‘I am of Apollos,’ and ‘I am of Cephas’ (1.12; cf 3.4). They appear to have been concerned about who baptized them and were seeking to improve their status by identifying with the one they considered the wisest and most impressive leader (1.13–17). This theme of belonging in the sense of ownership continues in various forms through the letter (as we shall see), but most notably reappears in 6.19. There, in the context of discussion of the right use of their bodies, Paul explicitly adds, ‘you are not your own,’ citing the reason ‘for you were bought with a price’ (6.20). Addressing the temptation to try to change one’s condition to gain status he repeats the words again in 7.23: ‘you were bought with a price,’ reminding both slaves and free that they belong ultimately to Christ the Lord in whose service they find greatest freedom (7.22).

Individually and corporately, Christians need a frequent reminder that we are not autonomous, independent or isolated. We are people who are not our own. We belong to someone else; someone far more powerful, trustworthy and capable of guiding and delivering us from whatever lack we may face.

The third and fourth features of Paul’s strategy is to assert that those he is writing to are ‘saints’, that is, ‘holy ones’, and that they have been ‘called’ by God into relationship with him.

One of Paul’s favourite description for Christians was ‘saints,’ ‘holy ones’ (see 1 Cor 6.1f; 14.33; 16.1, 15 and every undisputed Pauline letter except Galatians). They are set apart for God as his own and so belong to him. But only in 1 Corinthians do we get a double affrmation of the holiness of the readers in the salutation (‘sanctified,’ ‘saints’), and yet their behaviour reflected anything but holiness! Rather than with imperatives to be holy or to act holy, Paul begins with the indicative, the indisputable fact of their holiness. Their status as holy began when they became Christians.

A third feature of the salutation, already noted, is the readers’ calling. They are ‘called to be saints’ (1.2). ‘Calling’ language is not unusual in Paul, but it is more common in 1 Corinthians than in any other letter (the verb kaleo, the adjective kletos and the noun klesis together appear 17 times!). Concluding his initial thanksgiving, Paul reminds his hearers in 1.9 that they were called by God into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ. That reflects Paul’s tendency to use ‘calling’ language with reference to people becoming Christians. Our modern tendency is to understand calling in individualistic terms and referring to particular roles in employment, but for Paul, calling signals a transfer into a new community and a new identity.

The last of the five major themes in Paul’s pastoral strategy is identifying the Christians in Corinth with Christians elsewhere by using the language of being ‘together with all the churches’.

A fourth programmatic feature in v 2 of the salutation is less tied to specific vocabulary but is summed up in the words ‘together with all’ (sun pasin) who call upon the name of the Lord. A recurring thought that appears in various forms in the letter is that the hearers are not alone as individuals or as a church, but are a part of a larger communion of churches that belong to Christ. This is reiterated by the words ‘in every place’ in v 2, to make it clear that the Corinthian church, in the words of Anthony Thiselton, is ‘not a self-sufficient community; they are not the only pebble on the beach.’

Thus far we have highlighted five features (four of them unique) in the salutation of 1 Corinthians, and all of them are positive. Because they have become Christians, the Corinthians are members of a family; they belong to God as part of his church. They have been set apart as his holy people, belonging to him. They have been called by God to belong to him. And they are part of a larger association that includes all of the churches in every place who acknowledge Christ to be their Lord.

Mike then goes on to look at three further pastoral themes in the letter, and sets out Paul’s pastoral strategy in a summary of the letter overall. This is a brilliant short study: it is insightful and accessible; it demonstrates the power of a close reading of the text; it shows the practical relevance to contemporary questions of Paul’s approach. It would make a good introduction to 1 Corinthians in the context of a local church—and the chapters could easily form a short sermon series of five (or eight, including the three further themes) titles as a way of exploring the message of 1 Corinthians in a creative and fruitful way.

The booklet is available from the Grove website for £3.95, post-free in the UK or as a PDF. Add it to your library today!

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2 thoughts on “Did Paul have a pastoral strategy?”

  1. Very good article.

    The identification with a person (Mike Thompson refers us to “‘I am of Paul,’ ‘I am of Apollos,’ and ‘I am of Cephas’”) goes wider than just this letter as many of the early questions amongst Christians seemed to be linked to those who knew one of the apostles, followed by those who knew someone who had known an apostle … and so on.

  2. One thing I did notice was that many of the questions about which St Paul speaks directly are exactly the subjects that some in the Church want to completely reinterpret.


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