Paul and the Gift: Part 5, A Radically New Foundation for Community

As I pointed out in my last post, according to John Barclay in his book Paul and the Gift Paul's great theme concerned the incongruity of grace, that God gave the Christ-gift to the unworthy.

And as I noted in my last post, this was a revolutionary idea. The incongruity of grace was Paul's great theological innovation.

In fact, Paul was so successful in preaching this message that he completely flipped the ancient understandings of grace and gift-giving. Nowadays we simply assume that grace--to be grace--has to be bestowed upon the unworthy. But this is the exact opposite of the ancient understanding!

But it's hard for us, thousands of years after Paul, to recover the shock of what he was saying.

But there's a deeper problem here. Although we've deeply appreciated the incongruity of grace, we fail to attend to the social and corporate implications of grace and have, instead, turned grace into a private, psychological experience.

For example, when you hear the message of incongruous grace preached from the pulpit the message tends to be about how you, as a sinner, are unworthy to have merited such a gift. The focus is upon your own personal unworthiness--your sin and guilt. In the hands of contemporary Christians the incongruity of grace is often used to shame us: You didn't deserve it, you were unworthy, but Christ died for you anyway.

We can appreciate why we've used the incongruity of grace in this way. Rhetorically and psychologically, the story about how God loved you in spite of your personal sin, guilt and unworthiness is a potent emotional tool for evangelistic efforts.

But as Barclay argues in Paul and the Gift, Paul's message about the incongruity of grace is less about psychology--stirring up feelings of guilt and gratitude in our hearts to prompt an altar call--than sociology. As we pointed out in the last post, Barclay wants us to appreciate how Paul's gospel of incongruous grace functioned in his mission to the Gentiles.

Specifically, God's incongruous grace justified Paul's mission to the Gentiles. Grace had been poured out upon the unworthy, upon the Gentiles as Gentiles. Further, Paul's message of incongruous grace was the supportive theology that allowed Jews and Gentiles to come together in table fellowship, the first, tentative social experiments on the road to becoming the church (see: Acts 11.19-26; Gal. 2.1-21).

But how, exactly, did the gospel of incongruous grace facilitate these social experiments? The answer to that is what I think is the most fascinating and important takeaway from Paul and the Gift.

According to Barclay, new and revolutionary communities were able to form as the fruit of Paul's gospel because the message of incongruous grace displaced social and cultural standards of value and worth, standards that had previously separated people. In the face of the cross all those standards of social evaluation, significance and worth had been "crucified" and thrown away. Freed by these systems of social and cultural worth, the Christian community was able to extend fellowship and love across social lines that had been taboo.

As Barclay writes (p. 394-395):
The cross shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly "natural" order of "the world"... the cross of Christ breaks believers' allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right...Paul parades the cross as the standard by which every norm is judged and every value relativized...

[As used by Paul in his argument in Galatians] The enormous creativity made possible by this vision of reality is immediately obvious: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but new creation."... Paul announces the irrelevance of taxonomic systems by which society had been divided in subtly hierarchical terms: old "antinomies" are here discounted in the wake of a new reality that has completely reordered the world..[I]n context the primary focus is the social novelty of communities that disregard former boundaries by discounting old systems of worth. The "new creation" is indifferent to traditional regulative norms and generates new patterns of social practice. 
We can clearly see the social effect of grace in Paul's famous declaration in Galatians 3.28:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
For Paul these distinctions remain. Paul is a Jew and he is a man. But what has been "crucified" in Christ, to quote Barclay (p. 397, emphasis his), is the "evaluative freight carried by these labels, the encoded distinctions of superiority and inferiority." Thus, continuing with Barclay, "baptized believers are enabled and required to view each other without regard to these classifications of worth."

The heart of Galatians 3.28 isn't an abstract call to "justice" or "equality" but the introduction of a whole new paradigm of social evaluation and honoring. Barclay writes (p. 397):
All forms of symbolic capital not derived from "belonging to Christ" now lose their ultimacy. Baptism "into Christ" provides a radically new foundation for communities freed from hierarchical systems of distinction, not because of some generalized commitment to "equality" but because of the unconditioned gift of Christ, which undercuts all other reckoning of worth.
In all this we can appreciate the sociological impact of Paul's gospel as he attempted to plant Christians communities that violated social taboos throughout the Greco-Roman world. Jews and gentiles, slaves and masters, men and women crossing taboo social boundaries and discarding hierarchical systems of social capital. All these systems of social valuation, distinction and worth were rendered null and void, crucified with Christ in baptism, so that a new creation, tangibly incarnated in the new social reality of the Christian church, could be realized and enjoyed. As Barclay summarizes toward the end of Paul and the Gift (p. 566, emphasis his):
Paul's notion of the incongruous Christ-gift was originally part of this missionary theology, developed for and from the Gentile mission at the pioneering stage of community formation. Since God's incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, by loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and uniting them in their common faith in Christ.
Now, to return to our reflections, what Barclay is describing isn't typically how God's incongruous grace is preached in our churches. In most churches the gospel of incongruous grace is not used to "dissolve former criteria of worth" to form "innovative groups of converts." In most churches incongruous grace--gifts given to the undeserving--tends to devolve into what many call "worm theology," a phrase taken from Isaac Watts' hymn Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed: "Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?"

In most churches to appreciate incongruous grace you must appreciate your lowly, worm-like status. And Christian preachers have been extraordinarily creative in communicating this message, with Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" being the classic prototype of this genre.

What has been lost, according to Barclay, and this is what I think is the most potent insight of Paul and the Gift, is the practical sociological thrust of grace, the formation of communities that throw away cultural and social systems of worth to realize "new creation" in their midst through surprising, boundary-crossing communities. As Barclay writes (p. 567):
Ancestry, education, and social power are subordinated to a common "calling" that disregards previous assumptions of worth (1 Cor. 1:26-31). Novel communities are encouraged to relativize the differences in culture, welcoming one another on the unconditional terms by which each was welcomed in Christ Jesus (Rom. 14-15).

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply