The Christian church is facing a crisis. It is losing face, hemorrhaging influence in the public sphere of Western civilization, churches are declining in membership, and increasing swaths of people are not longer interested in what Christianity has to offer. This apparent decline is not a new trend to be sure—and stems, at least in part, from the ecclesiastical shift which began during the Protestant Reformation—but it is no less concerning. In order to address these concerns, Christians of all denominations and contexts have been recasting the church in various molds: as a political action committee, a corporation, a theater, an association or country club, the emerging church, or as a missional organization, to name a few. According to The Church According to Paul, this last option, in which the Church is defined by its mission to express the gospel of Christ in the community of God throughout the world, best represents the view of the Christian Church presented by the Apostle Paul.
In The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (Baker Academic, 2014), James W. Thompson offers a serious look at the ecclesiology of the Apostle Paul. Despite Paul’s continued theological influence on Christianity—especially Protestant forms—he often gets overlooked in discussions of early Christian church order and practice. The purposes of Thompson’s book involve examining Paul’s ecclesiology within his wider theological context and offering a foundation from which contemporary churches may gain insights for ecclesiology today. Thompson does not naïvely claim that Paul’s theology can ahistorically transfer from the first century to the twenty-first, but rather casts this discussion as a foray into broad Pauline principles which may inform contemporary thought on ecclesiastical matters.
Thompson begins by considering Paul’s method of community formation as demonstrated in his first epistle, to the Thessalonians, where Paul posits that member participation builds true Christian communities. The duration of the book is thematic, turning next to consideration of how Pauline Christology defined Christian communities and their boundaries. The third chapter investigates the ecclesiastical influence of the sacraments, how Paul understands the Eucharist and baptism and presents them as visible manifestations of Christians’ identity in Christ and their eschatological hope in His return. Next, The Church According to Paul turns to the establishment of a community of memory and hope. Unfortunately for my reading, this fascinating chapter raised more questions than it answered, as Thompson casts the church as counterculture, but does not fully explicate the meaning of “counterculture” for churches today.
Chapter five engages Paul’s doctrine of justification and its communal influence on Christian unity. Thompson does a fine job in this chapter balancing his concerns for understanding Pauline ecclesiology with ongoing conversations about the theology of justification. Next is the distinction which Paul made between his apostolic mission and the vision for the churches he founded, which he called not to extensive missions work but to life as lights shining the gospel of Christ in their respective communities. After this, Thompson asks if the universal church appears in Paul’s undisputed letters, which he answers in the affirmative, arguing that Pauline ecclesiology has a place for both the local church and the universal body of believers.
Chapter eight of The Church According to Paul deals with Pauline legacy evident in the disputed epistles of Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals. While a insightful and interesting chapter, Thompson’s treatment in this chapter feels a little out of place. A firmer stance on the authorship and function of these letters would have been appreciated; the footnote explaining why Thompson takes the stance he does in this chapter does an acceptable job conveying his stance, but the chapter as a whole fails to explain its place in this book. Casting these letters as the linchpin for the “Church Universal” is fine, but more explanation on the Pauline character or connection with these books would have clarified its purpose.
The final two chapters return to the thematic consideration of the non-disputed letters of Paul, discussing Paul’s leadership structures, which affirm active participation and the absence of power positions, and synthesizing the major aspects of Pauline theology, respectively. The final chapter does an admirable job summing the conclusions and applications of the previous chapters and presenting central principles for inclusion in dialogue with contemporary conversations about the church and its mission. Thompson clearly set out to write this book for both Church and Academy, and in the final chapter this dual focus comes across more clearly and convincingly.
Throughout The Church According to Paul Thompson engages in well-intentioned and convincing exegesis, relying upon the full Pauline corpus for his considerations of the broad theological arguments of Paul. As Thompson rightly notes on numerous occasions, Paul never sits down and clearly explains his ecclesiology in his undisputed letters. This has generally proved a detriment for constructing Pauline ecclesiology in the past, but here Thompson does an excellent job of piecing together a program from Paul’s occasional writings. As a historical quibble, it would have been nice to see some additional connection of Pauline ecclesiology to other perspectives within the early Church. Thompson does a fine job connecting Paul’s thought to the context of Second Temple Judaism in a number of places, but this presentation is largely divorced from connections to non-Pauline New Testament literature. This is but a minor concern, however, and does not distract from the comprehensiveness, clarity, and usefulness of this volume, which covers a tremendous amount of ground in just under 300 pages.
Overall, The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ stands as a excellent work on the ecclesiology of the Apostle Paul, superbly combining concerns for both Church and Academy with detailed scholarship and applicable theological insight. This book is a must have for those working with Pauline theology. It also comes highly recommended for those interested in the New Testament more broadly, as well as for church leaders who are hoping to understand and outline a Biblically-based ecclesiology for today’s context. To conclude I quote Raymond Collins’ summation of The Church According to Paul as “a useful and quite valuable read for anyone interested in either the church or the Bible, perhaps even both.”I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.