Monday 8 February 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (43/50) – How RU CU L8R Love Paul: The Church Tackles Problems Within and Without

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-third of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.
Philippians 3:1

No Royal Mail, no telephones, no email, no text messaging. How were the apostles to communicate with the numerous churches that sprang up in the years after Jesus’ resurrection?

The New Testament letters are a priceless resource for us, 2000 years later, containing the bulk of the doctrinal and ethical teaching that have defined the Christian life and informed the church through the ages. But what were they to their original recipients? If not their lifeblood (that, surely, was the Spirit of Jesus himself), then their sustenance, their diet, their nutrition.

The letters give us astonishing insight into the life of these early churches, and a unique body of teaching. Writing to the Romans, Paul establishes the essential principle of justification by faith in Christ (3:21-5:1); to the Galatians, who were being pressed to observe the Jewish law in addition to their faith (2:11-3:25), he becomes passionate about it: ’Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’ (3:3); while James, recognising that some Christians were beginning to presume too much on their faith, argues that genuine faith has to express itself in action: ‘faith in itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead’ (2:17).

All the writers underpin their moral and ethical teaching with theological principles, though the letters differ in style, and in the situations that they address. While Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Colossians, for example, seek to correct false teaching from outside the church, others, particularly the Corinthian correspondence, highlight problems and dilemmas that were causing trouble within the church.

His approach to these particular issues establishes broader principles, from which we can extrapolate principles relevant to our own day. ‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?’ he demands, ‘Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!’ (1 Corinthians 6:15). Other examples include the Corinthians’ question about eating food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:4-13). Again, he tells the Corinthians, ‘You are the body of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and on this fact he builds his teaching about the church.

Above all else, however, the epistles interpret Christ, revealing him in his glory and his sacrificial love, and giving hope to his people in every age.

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. Reflect on the significance that the New Testament contains several letters addressed to the particular situations and needs of different churches. How might this help in our application of them to today?

2. How far are we willing to subject our own churches and denominations to the probing light of the epistles? Do we personally allow ourselves to be challenged, in our thinking and behaviour, by the great truths they expound?

3. Can we seek, in our generation, to revive or maintain the art of letter-writing, to bring truth, encouragement and hope to others? How might we do so?

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