Mission Monday: Paul the Missionary
I’ve begun a new series on Mondays that focuses on the church’s mission. First, we looked at Andreas Köstenberger and Peter O’Brien’s Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, which provides a summary of the Bible’s teaching on mission from a salvation-historical viewpoint. Last week, we tackled Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God, an ambitious project with an expansive missiological vision intended to transform one’s hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures.
Today, we’re looking at a book with a more narrowly conceived purpose than the previous two. Eckhard Schnabel’s purpose is not to survey the entire Bible; nor is it to provide a new hermeneutic for reading Scripture. Paul the Missionary zeroes in on Paul as a model missionary.
“I write about Paul with a view to challenge pastors and missionaries, students and practitioners to read Paul again, more closely than before, and to evaluate the goals and the methods of their pastoral and missionary ministry in the light of the missionary work of the apostle” (14).
Schnabel’s goal is to interpret the New Testament accounts of Paul’s missionary work as well as his letters in order to understand Paul’s goals and methods.
Unlike the previous two books (Salvation to the Ends of the Earth and The Mission of God), Paul the Missionary begins with a broad definition of mission that could be applied to more than one faith group. Schnabel defines “mission” or “missions” as a faith community’s work “to win other people to the content of faith and the way of life of whose truth and necessity the members of that community are convinced” (22). Christian missionaries are marked by their intentionality and geographical movement in verbally proclaiming the gospel.
Schnabel helpfully places Paul within the context of the other apostles and their mission work. A missionary’s task is to communicate the gospel to those who have not heard or accepted it, communicate “a new way of life” that replaces the old behavioral patterns of the converts, and then integrate converts into the church.
“Thus, missionaries establish contact with non-Christians, they proclaim the news of Jesus the Messiah and Savior (proclamation, preaching, teaching, instruction), they lead people to faith in Jesus Christ (conversion, baptism), and they integrate the new believers into the local community of the followers of Jesus (Lord’s Supper, transformation of social and moral behavior, charity)” (29).
Paul as Missionary Theologian
The early Christians fulfilled their mission by verbally proclaiming the gospel from region to region. This explains why Paul was open to traveling anywhere that people expressed a willingness to listen to his message. His desire to reach all with the gospel led him to transcend ethnic or class barriers.
As the self-professed “apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul lobbied for full Gentile inclusion in the people of God. He would not allow Gentiles to be treated as second-class Christians, for such a distinction ultimately contradicted the gospel message of Christ’s death on the cross.
In Paul’s letters, we catch a glimpse of a missionary theologian who sought to build up the churches that he established even as he continued to maintain his missionary ministry to those who had not yet heard the good news.
Working within the framework of the Old Testament’s history of mission, Paul understood that he must preach to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles (140). He also understood his specific role as a “pioneer missionary” responsible for laying the foundation for new churches (152).
What was the content of Paul’s gospel? The message centered on “Jesus as the Messiah of the Jewish people and the Kyrios of the world” (183).
This gospel permeated the life and work of Paul, not merely as the content of his message, but also the shaper of his mission.
“Missionary work and theological reflection about the gospel depend on one another” (140).
“The crucified and risen Jesus Christ is the content of missionary preaching and thus the foundation, the criterion and the measure of church planting and church growth” (151).
Schnabel carefully notes some of the assumptions behind Paul’s preaching ministry.
- The apostle’s message is proclaimed with the Old Testament story as its backdrop, a story that centers on the one true God who calls unbelievers to cast aside their idols and worship him.
- Because Paul occasionally mentioned the kingdom of God without explanation in his letters, Schnabel also assumes this concept was one of his foundational teachings.
- Likewise, Paul’s letters presuppose his readers’ knowledge of who Jesus was, which indicates that Paul preached about the historical life of Jesus and the theological significance of his death and resurrection by which we are rescued from God’s future judgment.
- Paul’s gospel included a call to respond to this message. He urged unbelievers to repent by turning away from their idolatry and putting their faith in the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
Though Paul’s message always centered on Jesus, his presentation likely changed depending upon his audience. When preaching to Jews, Paul focused on the messianic identity of Jesus and sought to prove from the Scriptures that God has granted forgiveness because of Jesus’ death.
Paul’s Missionary Goals
What did Paul intend to accomplish through his preaching and missionary work? Schnabel looks at the pattern of Paul’s missionary journeys and concludes that Paul’s desire was to preach to Jews and Gentiles living in cities between Jerusalem, Illyricum, and Spain so that local communities of new converts would be established in these regions.
Conversion was not the only goal of Paul’s work. He clearly saw the establishment of churches as part of his missionary calling – communities where people would worship together in light of Christ’s salvation and learn together the whole counsel of God.
Schnabel also believes that Paul’s intent was for these small communities to have a missionary mindset of their own in order for individual members to share their faith with others.
Evaluating Paul the Missionary
The strength of Schnabel’s book is that he successfully distills the heartbeat of Paul’s mission work along with the theological content of his gospel proclamation. By narrowing his focus to one individual, Schnabel provides a strong biblical foundation for his own suggestions regarding missionary practice.
Without taking away from this book’s many strengths, I would like to point out a few weaknesses in Schnabel’s approach.
Lack of Kingdom
First, by focusing only on the accounts of Paul’s mission work in Acts and his letters, Schnabel sometimes separates Paul’s message from its foundational context. Nowhere is this more evident than in Schnabel’s lack of treatment of the “kingdom of God.” Schnabel recognizes that Paul used the phrase, and he admits Paul’s use indicates the concept was part of his teaching. But because “the kingdom” rarely appears in Paul’s writing, Schnabel concludes that it is not a “central category for his theology as we encounter it in his letters” (81).
Schnabel is right if he is defining “central category” in terms of “explicit topic for discussion,” but surely there is evidence that the kingdom is a “central category” in terms of foundational teaching. (We could say something similar regarding Paul’s treatment of monotheism. It may not often be explicitly discussed, but it is certainly assumed and built upon, even if not explored and defended at every turn. One would hardly say monotheism is not a “central category” for Paul’s theology.)
Furthermore, though it is true the phrase “kingdom of God” is scarcely used in Paul’s writings, the royal titles of “Christ” and “Lord” are combined with Jesus in numerous instances. One wonders how the kingdom of God is not worthy of exploration when Jesus is declared “king” over and over again in Paul’s preaching and his letters.
Resistance to Focusing on Strategies
Another weakness in Schnabel’s work is his distaste for any contemporary mission activity that focuses on “strategies” and “methods.” The explicit disavowal of contemporary strategies does not show up until the end of the book, but throughout Schnabel’s study of Paul, he reminds us often that Paul did not follow “a defined and regular plan” (37). Likewise, his missionary travels were not according to a “grand strategy” (224), even if he focused on cities so he could seek out Jews.
While Schnabel is right to remind us that “effectiveness in missionary work and in pastoral ministry does not depend on people or programs” but is the “result of God’s activity” (151), it is also true that God chooses to work through people and programs. It is undeniable that Paul’s method of preaching to Jews first and then Gentiles (not to mention his utilization of any and all venues where people would welcome his message) was a strategy that God used mightily.
Schnabel’s disregard of “strategies” and “methods” leads him to contradict himself at times. We are told that Paul did not pursue or focus on a particular ethnic group, and yet we are also told that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and that he began first with the Jews.
Finally, Schnabel is right to remind us that the Spirit of God is responsible for drawing people to salvation, but at times he appears to pit the Spirit’s work against the fruitfulness of “effective missionary methods” (358). The Spirit should always get the credit, but we should not downplay the specific methods employed as the means through which the Spirit worked.
So, while on the one hand, we must heartily affirm with Schnabel that “the search for a method that will guarantee success in our attempt to convince listeners of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ is misguided” (401), we must also not despise the careful use of different tools and methods that the Spirit may use as the means to reach people.
Schnabel’s view of short-term mission trips is likewise pessimistic, pointing out the dangers (which are real) while glossing over the potential benefits. The result of Schnabel’s multiple cautions is that the reader could be less inclined to engage in cross-cultural missions and strategies.
In conclusion, Schnabel’s work is careful and thorough. He provides us with a terrific overview of Paul’s mission work and teaching. But readers should understand that some of Schnabel’s biases lead him to draw unwarranted implications.